I came across a book called The 100 Thing Challenge by Don Bruno and downloaded it--even while wondering what I could learn from a 38-year-old man and outdoor enthusiast in California. But I figured if a 76-year-old nun living in New Mexico could inspire me to simplify my life, Bruno could teach me something.
The gist of Don Bruno’s story is that he pared down his belongings to under 100 items and lived that way for a year. With some caveats. His books were counted as one thing, his “library,” but clothing items like jackets or slacks were listed individually. Furniture, such as the bed he shared with his wife, everything in the kitchen, the TV his family watched and so on, were exempt since they weren’t his personal items. At least 25% of what he retained was sports equipment for camping, surfing, fishing, and so on.
More than simplifying his life, Bruno’s goal was to stop himself from heading to the mall to buy stuff. He wanted to get over the idea that a new possession could make his life happier. During the year he succeeded in suppressing his consumer gene.
It was an interesting experiment and he feels it made a permanent difference. But I don’t think it’s where most of us are at. I stopped in at an antiques show in Port Jefferson village on Saturday and didn’t see anything I had to have, though there were some things I own or used to own. There was nothing I saw that promised to make my home or my life more interesting--especially not at the prices they were hoping get!
I don’t think I’m unique. A lot of people I know tell me they hate shopping and I believe them. And yet . . And yet. I bet every one of us has way more than 100 things. While we were sleeping, stuff crept in on little cat’s feet, books gave birth to other books, gifts were left on our door step. We adopted family members’ belongings when they passed away. We accumulated plate by plate and sweater by sweater, without giving the same amount away.
So what would be a good challenge for people like us? It seems to me that Don Bruno spent a lot of time cataloging everything he owned, deciding what he could most live without, and then selling it or giving it away. Most of us don’t have that much time or inclination.
But I’d like to find a challenge that would inspire everybody. I’m sure you have some great ideas.
April is the season when writers, agents and editors get together in London or Los Angeles or New York and talk about the world of magazines and books. I spent Wednesday at the Mystery Writers of America Symposium, and yesterday at the ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) Members Day. These groups are the ones who would most like books and publishing to stay the way they have always been, but who admit that they won’t.
Once the genie’s uncorked, iceboxes, LP records, and travel agents have already faded into the world of Endangered Species. In my lifetime I’ve gone from my family’s manual typewriter to a nifty electric Olympia to clunky Apple computers in the eighties. I ditched my desktop computer and accoutrements for a MacBook Pro laptop, and recently took on an iPad. Before I die, I expect I’ll be writing on something the size of a lipstick tube.
What’s pushed us past the point of no return in books isn’t TV or amazon.com or ebooks or the Internet; it’s social media, Facebook, Twitter, texting, and the like. We’ve changed the way we communicate with each other and what we talk about. As soon as we pass a station, it gets shuttered and the track behind us torn up. We can only keep through moving ahead.
If you’re retired or otherwise uninvolved, you can always dig in and refuse to move on. The only tweets you’ll have to pay attention to are the ones from your backyard. The rest of us have to change or die.
What does this mean for the future of stuff? I predict that it will gradually become obsolete, that people of the future will have less need to surround themselves with physical stuff.
If you’ll excuse me, I have to go read Twitter for Dummies.
Growing up, the refrain was always, “Just do your best.” It sounded as if the outcome didn’t matter, as long as you put your heart into what you did. But that wasn’t true. The subtext was that if you did your best you would come out on top. If you didn’t get an A or place first, or get publicly commended for doing a great job, it meant you weren’t trying hard enough. You weren’t doing your best.
I was thinking about that because this past week has been devoted to working in the garden and starting on my final novel revision, as well as the usual obligations, and some lunches and dinner with friends. Meanwhile, I still haven’t unpacked my suitcase from the trip to Italy (I’m pulling things out of it on an as-needed basis). My kitchen looks like I just cooked dinner for twenty people. And I haven’t finished reading the second half of The Last Report on Miracles at Little No Horse for my “History Through Literature” class this morning.
Obviously I’m not doing my best. But I may be doing the best I’m capable of. When I thought about writing this blog, I had this vision of everyone else who reads it being raised to do their best too, with the same feelings of ineffectiveness when they fell short. You work hard, you think about the most ethical way to live, you do everything as well as you can. So in the end run you’re hardly a failure if you haven’t cleaned out your garage or own too many knickknacks.
Sometimes you can keep all the balls in the air and think that you’ve finally found the secret of life. Other times you’re running around trying to put out fires that keep popping up. When that happens, you have to remind yourself of how extraordinary you are.
We’ll go back to talking about scaling things down or living a simpler life later in the week.
But for today, give yourself a break.
I’m expecting that my lifelong love affair with books won’t end anytime soon. And why should it? Books stimulate you, teach you, and take you to new worlds; they make you laugh and cry. And they never leave the toilet seat up.
But I’m beginning to feel that I don’t have to physically own so many. Reading books on the iPad on the trip to Italy was game-changing. I never had to try and remember what book I was reading and find it, or try to figure out what page I was on when I did. Everything was right there as soon as I rolled back the cover. The iPad was small and almost weightless, easy to hold and read from.
One reason I held off getting a Kindle was the idea of having to buy every book I wanted to read, since I read a lot. But even that has changed. I can take out e-books from the New York Public Library system for 14 or 21 days, 12 books at a time. If you live on Long Island, you have equal borrowing rights. And the system has millions! I did buy two new novels from amazon for the trip since I wanted to read them right away, but downloaded the rest from my home library and the NYC library.
This has changed how I feel about the books I own, making me see them as something to be read and passed on, as well. Classics, paperbacks, books that I’ll never read again, books I got as gifts because I thought I’d want to read them. Books that I don’t feel an emotional attachment to, or that aren’t collectible first editions. Illustrated books I won’t refer to for inspiration and information.
I made a quick pass-through of the bookcase in the sunroom that covers one wall and took two cartons to the MADD book bin yesterday. I never touch Tom’s books, of course. But maybe I’ll buy him an iPad one .
Back from Italy and a marvelous trip! Unlike last year, there were no lost passports, no Emergency Room visits, no stolen wallets, just a delightful group of 35 teenagers, six teacher-chaperones and several parents. Nothing but gondola rides, the beauty of Florence, and many gelato stops until the morning we were scheduled to fly home. We left the lodge in the Alps--a wonderful place with a crackling fire and glasses of wine (for the adults) after a chilly, rainy day--at 5:00 a.m. for a 10:15 flight from Milan.
Marco, our intrepid bus driver, had learned about a shortcut, which was fine until the first hairpin switchback, a turn which a tour bus could only dream of making. I was sitting in front and had a good view of the little guardrail meant for cars and the abyss below it, while Marco burned out the clutch trying to maneuver away from the edge.
Did I mention that it was 25 degrees out at 6:00 a.m. with a coating of snow on the ground? Or that since Tom was the group leader, I knew we were the ones who had to go down with the ship? But the Swiss police were wonderful, they kept everyone safe, and invited me to sit in the squad car to keep warm (See photo).
Long story short: the tour company found enough minivans to come up the mountain and rescue us. We made the original flight to Newark, thanks to the company warning the airline that we would be arriving in “bits and pieces,” and the airline holding the plane until we did.
There's a thin line between a story to regale people with and disaster, but we managed to land on the right side this time. I made it back to remind everyone to pack light. You never know what you might have to carry down a Swiss mountainside.
Why is this woman smiling?
A lot of people were relieved by the idea that streamlining your stuff by a few things at a time was as valid as a dramatic sweep. Here are some of their discards:
Well, I read your blog and then decided to go through a box of books I had packed up to bring upstate. Mainly because I had no room for them here.
I realized that many of these books I will never read or refer to again. Several were gifts from my sister Eileen who may enjoy them herself or want to "re-gift" them, so I made a pile for "return to Eileen".
Several are novels I will never read again (not written by a close personal friend) so I made a pile for the "friends of the library" which Phil will take with him to work today.
A few are reference books on gardening so those I will keep. There are even a couple I've been meaning to read and still haven't gotten to, so they will remain here.
Phil is inspired to do the same and make some room on his bookshelves for me! Linda L.
I always say to myself, "If I moved would I take it?" I have moved many times. I remember the moving man saying to me as I stood frozen over an article during the move to Germany, "They have garbage there, too". It helped me move on with my life. Donna L.
I've been forced into going through things this week . Adorable espresso cups -- except that I don't have an espresso maker. The cups may (?) actually go out tomorrow. Anne H.
I have been trying to remember all of the ideas you described and have been steadily working away in the background. Must admit that I was more than a little dismayed at the slow progress I seemed to be making.
And then today you provided the answer I needed: "Little Things Mean a Lot". At the moment I am working on organizing and shrinking my supply of slide paraphernalia, projectors, slide trays, lighted sorting tray, preview box, and so on. Sunday was the day I had chosen to do this - whatever made me think that this could be tackled in a single afternoon? So, your blog today gave me the pat on the back I needed for discarding at least three boxes of slides, emptying and sorting 6 carousels, and finding out how to get what I wish to keep onto DVDs. Karin S.
An older friend (yes, there are people even older than me) called to find out if I could help her declutter to get her house ready to go on the market. Fast. Since I’m going away later this week, we decided she she should contact someone else, a woman who had been recommended by her real estate agent. Talking to her brought up several ways to scale down, even if you aren’t going anywhere.
1. Pretend that you are moving in three months to somewhere smaller, but that you’re excited about--Paris or Central Park West or San Francisco. Naturally you want to bring only things worthy of your new life. So look around you and see what you are holding onto that may not qualify.
2. Ask yourself, “When I unpack and see this, will it make me happy?” This is an excellent question whether you’re moving or not. It helps make decisions about things you might be holding onto through inertia or “just in case.”
3. Don’t underestimate the value of getting rid of the smallest thing, one piece of paper, one book, an audiotape, a mismatched fork, a single mug. I’m not going to bore anyone with cliches about grains of sand or acorns and mighty oaks or what the longest journey begins with. But suppose you have a box of memorabilia. When you go through it, maybe a quarter of what’s there doesn’t resonate anymore--like baby shower cards from people whose name you don’t recognize or articles that seemed so significant at the time, but have lost air.
When you’re done discarding them, it may look like you still have the pile of memorabilia or books on the shelves etc. But you don’t. You’ve gotten some psychic deadwood out of your life and you’ve created one less item for whoever ultimately goes through your stuff to have to make a decision about.
Yes, I know that if you threw away or gave away just one thing a day, at the end of a year you’d have 365 items fewer. But I’m not suggesting that. People like us don’t like to be regimented. If we were that methodical, we wouldn’t have gotten into this mess in the first place! My feeling is that anything repetitive becomes onerous and then resented, before the 28 days it takes to become an automatic habit. When you don't keep up with it, it runs the risk of being seen as one more failure .
But do what works for you. Just ask yourself if you’d be happy to see a particular item in your next life. And remember, it never has to be an all-or-nothing thing.