Physical things aren’t just clutter that we have to try and keep from overwhelming us. We also own things that we cherish, things that we would never give away. These things stand out even more when we get rid of the things that are just taking up space.
Going through my last ten percent, I began thinking about what kind of things are important to people and why. On my desk is a small dragon, a piece of petrified wood, probably from China. He was in my parents’ home when I was growing up and he seemed ancient even then. He has always represented protection to me. As long as this dragon is around, he’ll keep everyone safe. Magical thinking? Of course, but they’ll have to pry him from my cold, dead fingers to get him away.
What do you have that you feel that way about? Photos, I would guess. When I give decluttering workshops and ask people what they’d save in case of fire, photographs are always at the top of the list. It’s that’s a given. But I’d like to know what else you feel that way about, and why. It’s an interesting thing to think about, and you might surprise yourself.
Rather than send it to the Comments Section, just send me an email at email@example.com. On Wednesday I’ll post a list of the people’s most treasured items on the blog.
Friends or class members sometimes tell me that when they are sorting items they say, “Judi would tell me to get rid of this!” so they do. When I used to go to people’s houses to help them downsize, often they would stay up until 3:00 a.m. the night before, tossing things out in anticipation--rather like cleaning before the cleaning lady comes. I used to joke that all I had to do was threaten to show up.
And I’m looking to someone else for inspiration, for suggestions on how to blow through the last ten percent. My goal is to reach the level of simplicity where my home will be exactly the way I want, but still take care of itself.
In her book Sister Jose Hobday says it took two years for her to “hit her stride” and actually get things to a place she was satisfied with. I’m not starting from scratch, of course. My clothes are pared down, for instance, although not like the handful of items she owns. But my kitchen cabinets feel like rush hour in Times Square. They’re neatly organized, but don’t exactly feel spacious. A fondue set; really? And when was the last time I made muffins?
Then there are other things. That small blue pottery casserole reminds me of 30+ years ago when we were camping through Europe, arrived in Alsace-Lorraine, and could not make ourselves understood. We could not understand anything they were trying to tell us. We wanted to go into a cave for winetasting but couldn’t decipher the rules. Finally we did anyway, and it was fine.
There’s something to be said for having a reminder that you were once young and knew hardly anything, but were anxious to learn. Somehow we managed to buy a dark blue dish with yellow flowers. When I look at it I remember how helpless I felt. I guess I’ll keep it for now.
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In Simple Living, Sister Jose Hobday, the Franciscan nun I mentioned before, defines her philosophy of simplicity. She doesn’t see simplicity as self-deprivation or “elegant frugality” or following stringent rules. “It’s about the freedom to choose space rather than clutter, to choose open and generous living rather than a secure and sheltered way. It’s about choosing time for people and ideas and self-growth, rather than for maintenance and guarding and possessing and cleaning.”
And who doesn’t want that?
I’ve never been attracted to the kind of simple living that advocates one glass, fork and plate per person or tells you how to cure your own deer meat or make dresses from old bedspreads. I like art, unusual objects, gracious living and entertaining too much. That said, I’m no longer willing to spend time maintaining and cleaning this environment. When I was in my twenties, every day I could put off doing housework and work on a creative project instead, was a day well spent. Yes, it was a mess. And having a toddler didn’t help.
But I can’t live that way now either. What I need is an environment that takes care of itself. I think I can only do that through this definition of simple living, by only having what I need and what still resonates with me. I once saw a photograph of Oprah’s closet in which there were hundreds of turtlenecks in every shade neatly stacked in cubicles. It was awesome.
By contrast, Sister Jose Hobday traveled around the world with only two dresses. “I really love those two dresses. They’re flowered, and I consider that I’m wearing my own garden!” She did have pants, a shirt, and a sweater for the trip itself so that if the flight attendant spilled something on her, it wouldn’t matter.
At the first class meeting of “The Psychology of Stuff” last fall, I asked everyone to pick out one thing they wanted to get rid by the next class. Most unusual was “the extra furnace in my basement.” Funniest: “anything with shoulder pads.” I also liked, “my aunt’s painting that I just hate.” There was paper clutter, of course, and a failed craft project. If you picked one thing, what would it be? And will it be gone by next Monday?
The point was that these things seemed easy to let go. The last 10 percent isn’t. As far as losing weight, for instance, new studies have shown that your body may actually be fighting you at that point. In creative projects, it can take a leap of wild imagination to get from “perfectly good” to awesome.
What’s left at the end of a decluttering project, the last 10 percent, is usually the stickiest items. The things we have conflicted feelings about or don’t know what to do with. It’s easier to give away clothes that will never again fit or toss duplicate photos, than to decide what to do with family heirlooms or collectibles that might have some value. Or household goods that are still useful, which we can imagine using to furnish a vacation home--someday. Such things have been left till the end because they require more decision and thought.
Another idea occurred to me about why the last ten percent is so hard. When it’s a self-improvement project, reaching our final goal means change. And change can be scary. It means having to redefine ourselves and find a new goal. We’re not the same person we were even at 90 percent; slipping back didn’t feel like such a big deal. Now we have more to lose.
But once we recognize this, it’s easier to remind ourselves that change is good. Change is what we’re working to achieve and can take us to places we never dreamed possible.
It’s still work, of course.
Today has been designated the Bluest Monday of the year. But thanks to Robin Culbertson for pointing out that there are ways to counteract it. Just go to www.houzz.com/ideabooks/1197756utm_source=Houzz&utm_campaign=updates&utm_medium=email&utm_content=gallery5&d=0&w=678136
As far as today’s Endangered Species, I understand there’s a movement afoot to break the tyranny of having to wear matching socks. If you agree with that, then wear the strays in good health!
I’ve been reading an interesting little book, Simple Living, by Sister Jose Hobday. She lived in the Southwest and as a Franciscan nun took a vow of poverty, but part of her mission was to help other people scale down too. She firmly believed that having fewer things was the best way to freedom and joy. I’ll be writing more about her philosophy and how she worked this out in her own life--books were her weakness--in the future.
Of course, reading the book made me rethink my own last ten percent. Just when I thought I had heard all the reasons for holding onto stuff--”I might need it sometime,” “It was a gift,” “I paid good money for this!”--I found two rather odd excuses for holding onto some of my own.
For instance: When we were cleaning out my parents’, mother-in-law’s and Tom’s uncle’s houses, I enjoyed coming across quirky things that turned out to be interesting or valuable. It was like a little treasure hunt. I realized I’d been thinking that Andy and Robin (or Andrew and Emily) might like that experience too. But then I thought more about it. Are they even interested in odd stuff left behind? They might be more relieved to have a streamlined house and a few things that are obviously valuable. And money, too.
Second, I found I had been stockpiling things like books that I was once attracted to, especially a collection of children’s books, that might be worth something more in the future. But I couldn’t remember the last time I had even looked at the shelves of them. So I’m keeping the ones from my childhood that still resonate, but it’s time to sort through the others and find them a new home.
Today’s Endangered Species is weird food gifts. I managed to say a grateful goodbye to the marinated plums, but I still have the pear liqueur. The trouble is, we don’t really drink liqueurs. But if you’d like to stop by, I’d be happy to share a glass!
They say the last 10% is the toughest: to shed if weight or stuff, or to finish if anything else Despite having written two books on how to manage stuff, given workshops and taught, and worked in people's homes, I'm still learning! I'll be writing about my adventures with the last and hardest 10%.
For entertainment value, every day or two I'll post a new "Endangered Species." Endangered Species are not rare animals, but the things which cling to us like frightened toddlers. We know we'd be better off discarding them, but we can't quite let go.
When I run out of things I'll be asking you for suggestions. For fun! And prizes!
The old family typewriter, still perfectly good, although its ribbon is worn through and no longer made. But it should be saved in case the computer printer breaks down or the country us no longer able to produce electricity.