Post written by Monica Gaylor.
I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestioned ability of a man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.
Henry David Thoreau
I loved my parents, but as the years went by I grew to hate their house. It was too full of clutter and useless stuff that they were saving under the “need it someday” scenario. My parents having been raised by parents who had lived though the Great Depression were only doing what they were taught. Save, save, save. But, America and Americans had changed. People were buying and spending more and saving less money. In the 80’s, consumerism was good.
My parent’s house was very big. And, as the years went by more stuff accumulated. The two-car garage that originally held two cars, eventually went down to one and then none. It was cluttered inside also by too much unorganized stuff that was never put away. Even though you could freely walk around, exercise, do whatever it was you wanted to do (kid play stuff) it was stressful. Using a surface meant cleaning it off and finding a new space for the unorganized clutter. True it was easily over come – but a hassle. In order to make the house relatively functional, the two-car garage held everything being saved for the “need it someday” scenario, and as time went by so did the backyard patio and a shed built on the side of the house.
I found living in a house with too much stuff to be annoying and aesthetically unpleasing to all of the senses. One couldn’t relax fully. One couldn’t clean thoroughly. Things would get lost or forgotten about. All in all, it was stressful. It was a low-level stress that never went away, like a skeleton in the closet.
I learned a valuable lesson when my mother died. All her stuff that she was so proud of, that was valuable to her, and that she cared about meant nothing to others and essentially had no value. I had three garage sales and made quite a bit of money each time. It was hard work and my father let me keep the money. But, it is ironic and sad that the most value I got out of her stuff was the wonderful feeling of such a heavy burden being lifted. And, it wasn’t even my stuff! I remember thinking while people were picking through various items and negotiating to pay cents on the dollar for my mother’s beloved items that it was all so absurd. Why own it and why become attached to it?
I was 25 then and vowed I would be very zen-like about my life. I would own very little – always. (Ok – feel free to laugh hysterically here.) I got rid of most of my possessions and traveled extensively through the world with just a backpack. It was wonderful. And then – the credit card bill came for said travel. I had to get a job and an apartment. Once I had the apartment people kept bringing me stuff that I “needed,” even though I kept telling them I didn’t want to own stuff. I was ignored because after all it was the early 90’s and consumerism was still good. I can only assume my zen / minimalist attitude was chalked up to crazy artist “talk.”
I have to say I did pretty darn good between 25 and 30. I accumulated very little and stuck to my zen-like philosophy about life. My bible and manifesto at the time was Living the Simple Life by Elaine St. James. I still own this book and read it from time to time. Ironically, at 22 I had graduated from college with a valuable degree in Business Economics. (Laugh here.) Business school preached capitalism, free markets, deregulation, consumerism, Reaganomics, stock options, etc. It never jived for me and I couldn’t work in that environment. It didn’t seem ethical. However, in the last few years I feel rather vindicated.
Those five years (25 – 30) were filled with paying off my credit card debt, art school, teacher school, and several part time jobs. The credit card debt was my most valuable lesson. Once I paid that off, I vowed I would forever in the future never have credit card debt again. (No laughing here.) And I haven’t. Since then I have paid my credit card bill in full every month even if I have to pull the money out of savings. And you know the savings rule: Once it goes in, it doesn’t come out.
At 30, I got my dream job. I was to be a teacher on a remote reservation. It was a professional job that was ethical and respectable. Ok, really it was a compromise. I had a lot of time off and health insurance. I could be an artist and travel in the off time, and finally I could not be denied health insurance due to pre-existing conditions.
Between 30 and 40 I accumulated while still maintaining that I was being simplistic about my accumulation. I really did not go crazy or anything. I just bought normal setting-up household items. A couch, a chair, coffee table, etc. On the reservation I began accumulating things to do because there was nothing to do in the middle of nowhere. I bought books, tapes, videos, painting supplies, etc. But, I rarely purged. I have to say though; I did get a lot of painting done on the reservation.
I couldn’t take the remoteness anymore and moved into a city. Remembering the lessons of my parents, I bought a tiny little house (co-op 800 sq. ft. – this is very small in my state) with the rule being that everything I owned had to fit neatly into the space. I could have nothing in storage.
Around 40 my life began to unravel. It was not working on so many levels. I was overworked. Underpaid. Overcommitted to various committees. Personal relationships fell apart and descended into chaos, harassment, libel and slander. (For the record, I was not the harasser, etc.) I personally believe that part of the unraveling of my life was my inability to organize my commitments, my house, my stuff, etc., or to even keep my house clean. It seemed there was just too much to do. Keep in mind, I was single and I had lived by my rule that everything must fit neatly into the space. (Ok – skeleton in closet – I did have a couple things in the co-operative storage room.)
I had seen on TV an author (Peter Walsh) of a book (Its All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff) was cleaning the clutter out of some normal looking couples house. Although my house was nowhere near the mess of their house, I was feeling the same symptoms as they were describing. The next day at work, I went to the online library catalog to sign up to check out this book. Ironically, I use the library because I do not usually purchase books – sticking with my simplicity philosophy.
There was a waiting list but the book finally came. It happened to arrive at an extremely busy time in my life. I thoroughly read some parts, other parts I skimmed. I liked the book. Somehow when I wasn’t looking, I had accumulated too much. I wanted to do the stuff he proposed in the book, but I was not at a point where I could take the time or had the emotional energy to make the commitment. I knew the problem, but couldn’t enact the cure. Yet.
I went about my very busy, chaotic, harassment filled life. And then, tragedy struck, I felt a lump in my breast. My mother died of breast cancer so this was particularly terrifying for me. I am fast approaching the age when she was diagnosed. Several weeks of total fear and waiting gave way to a clean bill of health. And with that came a very big abundance of energy.
It is funny how certain life experiences put everything in perspective. It was the day of my biopsy when I made the decision to get the crap out of my life. And, it was the very next day when I dived in and took a huge chunk out of my living room. I also went back to the library to check out the book again. It has been two years and I have gone through every room and gotten rid of at least half of the stuff in each room.
Even in the dining area of my house, where there were only 4 chairs and a table, I got rid of stuff. The dining table was too big, seriously huge. I looked around to purchase a smaller one, but they were either too pricey or I didn’t like them. So I took my free, hand-me down dining table and redesigned into a much smaller version of itself. (I have skills. I am a sculptor.) It is awesome, and fits in the space much better.
As stuff left the house and I dealt with the emotional issues regarding that stuff, I began to have mental clarity regarding other areas of my life. I resigned my position on the homeowners’ board, which was the heart of all the harassment in my life. (Do I hear laughing?) I started pulling back in my professional commitments. Fate and a bad economy gave me fewer classes to teach the following school year, further easing my schedule.
I have to wonder at myself that even with simplicity as my life’s philosophy, I let my life get out control and my possessions grow into too much stuff all while maintaining habits of not purchasing and not over extending ones resources. When you relax just a little, don’t keep up with the purging, and don’t pay attention to your choices for a few years, life turns into what you never intended.
As the two year mark for de-cluttering my house rolled past, I decided to renew this resolution for another year (or a life time). There are still things I want to organize better, get rid of, etc. But, now comes the fine-tuning, the possessions that are equal to emotional land mines, the serious lifestyle changes, and the career change. I want to live my life by my own lights and live it out loud.
I have been greatly inspired by all the de-cluttering and minimalist blogs out there. They have inspired me anew and kept me on track for two years.
The relief I feel at having put my house back in order is immeasurable. It is organized, tidy, and so much easier to keep clean. But, it must be a constant vigil and I still want to take it to the next level. I feel one must continually examine ones life in order to keep the chaotic outer forces at bay.
What is the next level?
1. I will continue to wheedle down my possessions even further and finish all the design and remodel projects underway. (Note: In the last four months I have made huge strides on this goal.) Basically, I want my house to be market ready, clean and tidy at all times. – This one is almost ready to be gone from the list.
2. I will maintain a healthier lifestyle than I have in the past. (That would be couch potato and junk food eater.)
3. Create and recreate. (Get back to painting and writing and child-like wonder.)
4. Create my dream life. Do art. Write. Get paid to do these things. Work from home, or possibly anywhere in the world. (Note: I do not plan on selling my house. I own it outright and I like a home base. It’s small and cheap and easier to keep. A blog on this will be forthcoming. However, the goal of keeping my house in market-ready condition stems from the belief that – I own my possessions, they don’t own me. I wouldn’t want to give up any wonderful opportunities because I couldn’t move on at a moments notice. I will open the door when opportunity knocks!)