by EMILY GURNON
ONE RECENT SATURDAY, I TOOK MY DAUGHTER TO a couple of garage sales to look for a used stroller. We left a note for my husband and son: "Went to buy stuff. Lots of stuff. Clear a space."
It was something of a running joke between us, since more "stuff" is the last thing we need, and clearing space anywhere seems about as realistic as biking to Mars.
The problem has been a nearly constant preoccupation of mine ever since our family bought a house this spring with less space than the one we'd been renting.
In my own defense -- and that of my husband -- we are probably no worse than most Americans in our struggle with material possessions. We don't consider ourselves materialistic, and we live within our means. But we love to read, so we have lots of books and magazines. We research topics we are interested in, so we have files of papers, notes and articles. We were middle-aged when we married, so we combined two sets of furniture and dishes. And we have young kids -- which, as anyone with kids knows, increases your "stuff" quotient exponentially.
Of course, I recognize that we live in the most affluent, consumer-driven society in the world. Having too much is a problem unique to the privileged. There are people for whom my possessions would be a godsend. And there are more important things to be obsessed about: our gluttonous consumption of non-renewable energy sources, to name one.
More is less
Having counted my blessings, however, I can't escape the reality that, at age 43, my modest abundance has become oppressive.
According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average size of a new single-family American home in 2002 was 2,320 square feet -- up from 900 square feet in 1949. In the same period, our average family size has shrunk from 4.2 people to 2.6. We've become used to having more and more space.
Maybe we Americans have sought more space because we have so much more stuff. The volume and variety of consumer goods available in our country today is staggering, and Americans have responded with their pocketbooks. Meanwhile, the savings rate in the United States dropped from 5 percent in the early `90s to less than 0 percent by the end of that decade, writes Vicki Robin in the revised version of her book, Your Money or Your Life.
While we stoke the fire of consumerism, leaders such as President George Bush and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown call for more -- in the name of patriotism. (The city of San Francisco ran a billboard campaign after the Sept. 11 attacks that encouraged spending with one simple image: an American flag with shopping bag handles on it.)
And what do we do when we buy more stuff than we have space to put it? We simply buy more space. The self-storage industry has exploded; the number of facilities has risen from about 8,000 in the mid-1980s to 35,000 in 2002, according to The Self Storage Almanac, published by MiniCo. Publishing of Phoenix. Nationwide, 75 percent of self-storage customers are residential.
We had our own storage space in the Bay Area, when we lived in a one-bedroom apartment there. I cringe to think of all those $120-a-month payments and the better uses for which they could have been spent.
Fortunately, we have all of our possessions in one place now. Our house in Eureka, built in 1942, measures a little more than 1,000 square feet, with three small bedrooms, one bathroom and a one-car detached garage. The old rental house had a bigger garage, an extra closet and one additional bathroom. But the home I grew up in was not much larger than this one, and there were seven of us living there for a time. I shared a bedroom with my two sisters. I never remember thinking that it was cramped.
I still believe I have enough space. It's my stuff that's the problem: I have more things than room to fit them in.
This creates secondary problems: I can't find my black T-shirt because my closet is crammed full of clothes. My books sit on stacks on the floor of the study, or in boxes in the garage, because there is not enough bookshelf space. (To be precise, there are bookshelves -- in the garage -- but there isn't enough wall space for them in the house.) Last week, I bought a new pair of pliers because I couldn't find the ones I know we have... somewhere.
And then there's the clutter. I wear the same two pairs of earrings over and over because the top of my dresser is a morass of assorted junk, leaving no room to take out the boxes of jewelry I packed away for the move. Every surface of the house, it seems, is covered with things: newspapers, mail, coins, photos, magazines, rubber bands, pens, receipts, unfinished notes, phone messages, toys, pieces of broken toys. Children's artwork that arrives home every day they're at school (and how can I resent this?).
The problem, says professional organizer Claire Josefine of Eureka, is not that I have too much, but that I don't have things "systematized."
"From what I see," she said on a recent visit to my house, "you don't know where to put things." I need to get creative with my space, she insists. Think vertical; get taller bookshelves, put pockets up on the walls, build shelves above the bathroom towel bars.
She's right about not having a designated place for everything. If I have to take time to think, now where should I put this?, it just sits there. And it gets me down.
Mary Nesset, a marriage and family counselor in Eureka, said that clutter can not only be a symptom of depression, but can contribute to it. "If you feel chaotic inside and everything on the outside is in chaos, too, then there's the sense that you're really out of control," she said. At that point, "the clutter looks monumental, so it's kind of a vicious circle."
In preparation for our move to the new house, we packed up things we didn't need right away. The pile of boxes labeled "kitchen" grew to 15, including some that we hadn't opened since the previous move, three years ago. We brought them to the new garage, where they sat unopened for three months. We didn't give them a second thought.
When we did start to open them, there were some happy reunions with things we hadn't seen for those years -- the brilliantly colored glass plates my artist friend Susan made, the funky champagne flutes my dad bought for our wedding.
But there was also that sinking feeling: the point where you're sitting on your kitchen floor, surrounded by crumpled up newspaper, and looking up at the crammed cupboards. And the boxes are not yet empty.
It's gotten to the point where I look around my house, constantly thinking, what else can I throw away or pass on to someone else? A few weeks ago, a small coffee cup fell on the floor, shattering to pieces. I secretly rejoiced. One less cup! I thought.
My college friend Anne was married for four suffocating years to a man who had filled his house to the brim with antique furniture, art deco ceramics and his prized collection of little metal buildings. Hundreds of them. She moved in, trying to find a physical and spiritual space for herself. It never did feel like home.
Mutual friends would ask her what she collected. "Empty spaces," she'd say.
Like Anne, I'm thinking of starting an empty space collection. Corners with nothing in them, a clear expanse of this beautiful hardwood floor, clean surfaces. Space is becoming something I covet, because I equate it with serenity, peace and a clear head. It comes down to choices. Now, when I think about buying something, I think, "I can have this thing. Or I can have the space."
I aspire to be more like my friend Kathleen, a well-dressed San Francisco reporter who lives in an amazingly uncluttered one-bedroom apartment.
"Kathleen," I said, when I called her at work this week, "how many skirts do you have?"
"How many blouses?"
"For work? Let's see, six."
"I'm kind of low in the sweater department right now. One."
Now, here I am thinking, if anyone calls me and asks me what's in my closet right now, there's no way in a million years I can tell them off the top of my head. I'll go count: 21 blouses, 22 sweaters, five pairs of good pants, five turtlenecks, assorted vests, jackets and T-shirts. And that's not counting whatever has managed to fill up my dresser. This is after I've donated piles of things to our preschool's rummage sale.
The last time I (temporarily) had as little as Kathleen was 10 years ago, when, just out of journalism school, I accepted a three-month internship at the Chicago Tribune. I brought as much as I could carry on the plane, and shipped my computer. I rented a studio apartment on the 14th floor of an old high-rise, the kind with a metal accordion gate in the elevator that you have to pull back to get in and out. My place looked like a very small hotel room: It had a foldout bed, one counter for the kitchen, a dorm-size refrigerator, a desk, one chair, a closet and a bathroom. I had a half-dozen books, a handful of clothes, a pair of shoes and a pair of winter boots.
And I loved that room. I loved the simplicity of it and the fact that I spent virtually no time "straightening up." That I could look around and not be accosted by piles of junk.
If it's trash,
Harriet Schechter, author of Let Go of Clutter, takes a somewhat different approach to the whole dreck issue, arguing that "organizing can actually obstruct the letting go process by giving you a way to put off getting rid of stuff as you endlessly putter with your clutter," and "providing you with a good excuse to buy more stuff (disguised as `organizing supplies')."
So why do we have such a hard time freeing ourselves from our stuff?
Part of it, Schechter writes, is the emotional baggage attached to our possessions. I cringe to think of some of the boxes out in my garage. At least one of them contains books that I bought in grad school and never read. Opening the box is like delving into that guilt all over again. Then there are the gifts: the things we feel sentimental about (or worse, that we think we should feel sentimental about, but don't) -- wouldn't it be an insult to the giver for us to send these away? It's even worse with those things left to us from a person who is now dead. But what am I going to do with my father's beautiful old London Fog coat, probably the most expensive coat he ever owned? It will never fit my slim husband.
"Clutter clearing can bring up a lot of `stuff' to be faced and dealt with, and intuitively everybody knows it," writes Karen Kingston in her book, Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui. But facing your fears and letting go of things "brings you greater clarity about your life purpose," she writes.
I'm not sure I buy all of the feng shui ideas. I nearly tossed aside her book when Kingston described how she is able to do "energy readings" with her hands, feeling an "unpleasant, sticky" sensation when she comes across clutter. OK, though I've lived in California for 25 years, I'm still a Midwesterner, fundamentally suspicious of new-agey philosophies. But I can relate to the idea of freeing up my energy by getting rid of all this visual noise that surrounds me.
Give it up
As I was writing this piece, Journal arts editor Bob Doran tossed a CD on my desk. It's Eric Bibb's new disc, Natural Light, and the first cut is titled, coincidentally, "Too Much Stuff."
It's a great song, and it reminds me -- as have conversations with many friends on this topic -- that I'm not the only one dealing with it.
If for no other reason, I should pare down my possessions for my kids, reminds Josefine, the professional organizer. Having too much adds to their personal chaos and teaches them to fall into the same traps. Indeed, one of the very first pieces of paper our son brought home from kindergarten this year was a note that advised, "Please help your child learn to be organized by having a consistent place to put his or her things at the end of each day."
Oh boy, I thought, the poor little guy is doomed.
I want to give my kids the tools to be organized, to know the true meaning of things, to get "stuff" out of the way of our lives. On a more global level, I also want them to appreciate what we have and to be good stewards of the world's resources.
So I think I'll celebrate my next birthday the same way one 40-year-old New York woman did, according to a Wall Street Journal story. Having convinced herself that she had what she needed, and could buy what she wanted, she invited friends to come to her house and take something away.
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.