Monday, September 14, 2009

on the unimportance of stuff.

I’m sure most of you have been asked the following question at some point or another: “if your house was burning down and you could only grab one thing before you left, what would it be?” Most people, most normal people I assume, would be able to answer this question with some level of clarity and speed. “I’d grab my _______” or “my _____, no question!” The logical, life-is-more-important-than-things side of me answers that question quickly, too. “Nothing! Get the H outta there before you die from smoke inhalation!” But if you know me at all, you know I am largely ruled by Nostalgia, and I therefore have another “side” that would like to voice its opinion.

Ahemahemahem.

The truth is, that as I sit here and envision myself in the middle of a burning room, trying to choose what to take with me as I jump out my bedroom window (and hopefully make it down without breaking both my legs), I’m stuck. I’m not actually doing anything in the picture; not unless you count my pained expression and frantic, worried looks around the room as “doing something”.

…maybe I should take my childhood bear. He’s been a constant companion since I learned to walk; he’s been with me through everything, why should I leave him now? I could never let him burn. Oh, but what about my box of writing, or my old journals, or my laptop? The combined total of written, sporadic, inspired thought in these mediums is quite vast and definitely irreplaceable. I’ve been writing since I was little; it’s shaped me, it’s become a part of who I am and how I journey. Could I really let the pages curl away in smoke and flame? And what about my mother’s artwork? Also completely irreplaceable and one-of-a-kind and beautiful. Each time she puts a brush to canvas it’s like a part of my heart gets splashed on there with the paint. It would kill me to know these were lost.

The point is, I could never choose between these things. If I tried to choose, or tried to get everything of nostalgic value out the window, it would likely make it out alive long before I did.


You’ll notice that I only mentioned three things in the what I would save list….okay so they aren’t necessarily individual items, they’re actually “Topics of things you’d find in Ashley’s Room”…give me a little credit. That took a lot of work! Truthfully, not everything I own is held in such high regard. In fact, I have a lot of STUFF that isn’t really that important to me at all. So why do I have it? In this post I want to explore this idea a bit further. We could call it, “The Mystery of the Stuff and Where it Comes From”. Here are a few things you need to know before we continue:

1) I admit that I am, by nature, a keeper. I keep things that mean something to me. Cards, letters, books, items of clothing, trinkets, etc. If you ever write me an honest, funny, or charming little note I will probably still have it 20 years from now. I will keep it in one of my letter boxes. Especially if you put stickers on it or draw me a picture (kidding, mostly).

2) I am, by nature, an item-purger. I loooove to get rid of things, to clean, organize, systematize and give away. Nothing feels better than the filling up of a bag and the getting rid of those unnecessary pounds of STUFF.

3) In relation to point 1 and 2, you can guess that there’s a bit of a cycle when it comes to my room/belongings. I always have a give-away pile on the go, and am constantly re-evaluating what I own to see what can go and what can stay.

I’ve always had a weird love for organizing, but it was my friend Christina that really kicked me in my nostalgic-gonads. Her life was so…simple. When she packed up to move it was so…simple. Her space was always clean and organized because there was a place for everything. She kept what she needed and she kept what was of the utmost importance to her; anything else fell by the wayside into a giveaway box or the hands of someone else. Yet, as simplified as her belongings were, she was constantly re-evaluating what she owned, what should be kept and what should go. And inasmuch as I had spent my entire adult life (literally, all encompassing) getting rid of things, organizing boxes, and learning not to live under the heavy hand of Nostalgia, there was something about her approach to “things” that really made me wonder. And so I started to go through my “STUFF” with a fine-toothed comb. Why am I keeping this? What does it mean? The end result: I have given away more stuff in the past 3 years than most of the world comes to own in a life time. That’s right: a life time.

More than anything though, I’ve had to ask myself the following question: WHERE THE CRAP DOES IT ALL COME FROM!? How is it possible that I am constantly purging through a closet that is seemingly always busting at the seams? How is it possible that I have so many random pieces of kitsch, so many pieces of paper that feign importance? The fact of the matter is, I am a product of my culture by and large, as much as I don’t like to admit it. We earn enough money so we can “live” – we earn as much as we do so we can buy things. We’ve all got our weak spots when it comes to what we buy. Some have an addiction to buying expensive electronics or other gadgets, for some people it’s shoes, still others love a top-of-the-line kitchen. Some people don’t care what it is, as long as it’s on sale. If we were honest with ourselves, we’d realize that much of the STUFF that we buy is unnecessary for life. Our money could be better spent elsewhere.

My own “shopping” weak spot is clothing. Wearing some new-to-me item is such a good feeling. Like a mini fresh start. I don’t shop a lot; the majority of my income is tied up before the paycheck even gets to me. Admittedly, however, I still do buy things on occasion. Weird and alarming, that “on occasion” is enough to cause such large ripples in the tide pools of ownership. I actually hate the mall (blech) and spend most of my shopping time in a sweet thrift store I’ve found; I rarely leave this place empty handed. But despite my thrifting habits and my overflowing closet, I feel like I’m making strides, at least. Here are a few tested and tried theories that have helped me slow the turnover rate in my wardrobe and curb my need to spend on impulse.

For one, I try not to thrift/shop with other people. I know, I know. Anti social. But when it comes down to it, the clothes I own that have the shortest turnover rate (from purchase to pile) are the ones I’ve purchased with the encouragement of others (“oh that looks GREAT!”). It took some serious evaluating, but in testing the theory out this summer I’ve found it to be true: It’s better for me to shop alone. Maybe for you, you need to shop with a buddy – someone who will tell you what looks good and what doesn’t; someone who will remind you that you already have six pairs of jeans. Maybe. But for me it’s just the opposite.

In addition, I’m proud to say that I’ve stopped shopping on impulse. It was a painfully hard habit to break, but I did it (and I’m still alive!). Here’s a little tip I discovered that changed my life (hah): let yourself pick up the item. There’s something about the weight of its existence that brings our weird habits into the light of day. Typically, when we know we want something on impulse, we resist the temptation to throw it in our basket – we leave it on the shelf. We then walk around the store and get everything else we need, all the while thinking about that perfect set of bowls over in the housewares section (on sale!). Then, right before we leave, we give in. We go and get the item, we make it through the cash counter without a hitch – the item is ours! And then, on the way out to the car, the weight of it starts to hit us. They’re heavy; they’re a tangible, real item. And I’m not entirely sure I need a new set of bowls, pretty as they are. Won’t there be others, later? …By putting the items in your basket right away, this thought process starts a LOT sooner, and with a little self discipline you’ll soon find yourself able to (gasp) put the item back onto the shelf and leave the store without it.

My final encouragement is to go through your bedroom and PURGE. Watch shows like Clean Sweep on TLC for inspiration (or a show called HOARDERS…but only if you’re in the mood to be seriously disturbed). Organize your belongings into KEEP, GIVE AWAY and TOSS piles (Clean Sweep has a “sell” pile instead of a “give away” pile – I’ll let you decide how badly you want to have a garage sale). The point is that you create a simple system that forces you to be cut and dry with what you own. You may need a buddy for this. (I volunteer my brutally honest opinion for what’s in your closet and my love for organizing others for the rest of your stuff). Next, choose an organization (thrift stores, youth centers, women’s shelters, kids clubs usually all take donations of clothing and household items) and give them your purged items.

There’s something psychologically freeing about getting rid of the tangible things we’ve been holding on to, especially when they carry no meaning. Physical space means mental and emotional space; once you’ve begun to experience tangible simplification you’ll find it easer to wrap your head around the things of life. No better time to clear the space around you than now, as we head into another dreary, greyed out winter. Let me know how it goes!

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