You would be surprised what you can discover if you have ever ended up housebound for any reason, for any extended length of time, with only your books and laptop for company. Or also yarn and needles, if you are a knitter like me.
I’d compare the feeling to being a reader living in a tiny European town a hundred years ago, and only travelling the world through the works of Jules Verne because, well, you use the options available to you at the time. I ended up going down the Youtube rabbithole on my laptop a lot of the time, where, between true crime, and what happens if you cut a giant rubber band ball in half, I discovered Ted Talks, and came across a lecture called Getting Rid of 1000 Things. This seemed like a fantastic idea. Our flat was a distaster, I was stuck looking at it all day every day, and I had zero idea where to start to fix it.
I was already pretty sure that my habit of filling up rooms with every neat thing that crossed my path was the result of the random purges I grew up with, where every keepsake I might have collected as a child, was summarily dispensed with by my parents, without notice: sentimental, heirloom, or not. Add that to chronic overtiredness from mental illness and poor health. My limited amounts of daily energy meant that groceries were being purchased, but not put away, dinner was being eaten, but dishes were staying unwashed. We’d arrive home, but the suitcase never made it farther than the front hall, and only got unpacked when I started to miss the items that were still in it.
I’d discovered this link between being tired all the time and items not being put away, when once, several years ago, a magically tidier house coincided perfectly with the start of me taking medication for sleeping. I was putting things where they belonged without even thinking about it, because it didn’t take any extra special effort. The result of all this: a desperately untidy house, that was chock full of things. I needed less things to have to put away.
Time for something new. Challenge accepted. Get rid of one-thousand things! But where to start? I needed everything in my flat.
I started easy. I went around our place and found anything and everything that didn’t belong to me. Baby yarn that I had promised to a friend, items that I had borrowed from friends for our wedding (three years ago). Items lent to me. Everything went in plastic grocery bags and got hung on the front doorknob based on who it belonged to. And because I always clean the house from the front door in, that stuff got returned to its owners really quickly, because there was no way I wanted it hanging there for very long. I even returned items in the post. With extra thank-you items included. When I had a whole lot of things to return to one person or household, I added items that I thought they might like. (I mean, it would have been really funny to add a couple really random items to each bag, but with my sense of humour, you learn to exercise just a teen-sy bit of restraint. Here and there.)
The next bit was a little harder. I’m definitely guilty of the mentality that “everything can be sold for something,” but I earnestly tried to replace that with “I value the expediency of just giving things away, and the free space I get back faster, a lot more.” I put things that I could deal with parting with for free, on the curb below my bedroom window. And then I creeped all the people who stopped to take them. I’d still love to know why a sixty-year-old man wanted a reproduction oil painting in a faux brass oval frame. I don’t think he was going to turn it into a serving tray or put a wedding photo in it, like I had planned to, before it lived in my apartment for three years.
Then there were things that I just couldn’t justify giving away for free. No matter how much I told myself I should. So I figured out how to get my friends to take things away for me. I held a ‘front hall garage sale’. Everything that needed to be gone, went in the front hall. (Everything I have ever gotten rid of has gone to the front hall first, because the closer to the door it is, the faster it might walk out of the house.) Anyone who came to visit, was notified that whatever was sitting in the front hall was good for the taking. This made it easier to give away things that were definitely worth money, because I could imagine that the money was going to people who could use it, and eased the guilt of passing on gifts that I had just never used. (Surely any giver that found out, could be happy that items were actually being really enjoyed, even if it wasn’t by the original recipient.) It was worth it to see an item that had sat above my stove for two years unused, go to replace the same item a friend had lost and really missed. A lot of ‘used twice-a-year’ items for me, became ‘used twice-a-week’ items for someone else.
I also combined collections with friends. I sew. My friend sews. I only really ever sew with her. (We live six doors apart. She even bought a chair for me to do my knitting in, in her craft room. Like how cool is that, I have a chair designated for me in someone else’s house! That wouldn’t exist, if I didn’t. The feels. Man. The feels.) We added all my various sewing notions and threads to hers. More chances of us both finding stuff we can use, twice the selection of thread colours, and besides, she has organized storage for sewing supplies and materials, and I don’t. Also, her machine is currently set up and in-use and mine isn’t.
Christmas turned out to be great for this challenge. I know presents aren’t mandatory, but somehow my family hasn’t lost the magic of giving or receiving them. In poor years we’ve brought nothing, and in better years we’ve bought or made things for absolutely everyone, and it hasn’t mattered a stitch. So I made myself an additional challenge: make Christmas presents out of anything that was already in the house. (This really only works if you’re crafty, however I’m willing to bet that artsy-ness and crafty-ness go hand-in-hand with clutter more often than not.)
I made six lace snowflakes, seven dishcloths and a dishtowel, two handbound hardcover notebooks, two tiny knitted owls, a tiny Molly Weasley sweater tree ornament, magnetic scrabble for the refrigerator, a school scarf, lavender sachets that read “smellier undies.” (I did previously mention my unique sense of humour.) I bought magnets, stickers, and three sheets of paper, but a whole whack more than that left the house. (Oh, and then I made my poor family play Steal-the-Present. But, not to worry, it turned out to be pretty hilarious, and I think we started a new tradition. Other people are even going to help make gifts, and I get to come up with even more hilarious ideas for next year. The presents do have to be worth stealing.)
By this point, I’d gotten to where the lecturer had stated that you could get just as much of a high from getting rid of one item, as you would from buying one item. Things were flying out of the house at such a rate that I started double checking with my husband to make sure I wasn’t getting rid of things we actually might want later. And I started realising the very, very, obvious: if I don’t bring it inside the house, it can’t get inside the house.
Thrift shops could still be scavenger hunts, but actual scavenger hunts have lists. They are not for buying everything that makes you go “Squeee!!!” and turning to your husband and saying, “Can we buy this please, please, please!!!” My husband is very learn-ed in saying no. My current list includes: colourful contemporary ceramic planters. China that matches the set I already own: Rosebud Chintz by Spode. And retro-mid-century furniture. That last one is mostly just for drooling over. I now understand that I no longer need any more furniture, and that I can’t fit all of it in my tiny flat anyways.
I was keeping tally of how many things I’d gotten rid of on the chalkboard in the kitchen at the beginning, but since it took less time to just get rid of the stuff than to actually count it and mark it off first, I lost track really quickly. I have absolutely no idea how many things are gone now, but I’d guess closer to five thousand than one thousand. By now, the chalkboard is luck its still there!
All of a sudden, I’ve found myself finishing projects, because if I paint my diningroom table, the paintcan can leave my house. And if subtracting things can be just as fun as adding things, then maybe finishing projects could be just as satisfying as starting them, and now the top of our wedding quilt is done, the bookshelf is built, the diningroom table and chairs are almost painted, I finished a halfway-knit scarf, the canvases are mounted on the walls, and get this, my husband suggested we get rid everything we don’t need in the kitchen! And if it’s not impossible to beat the fact that you have been a messy packrat for your entire life, and can make a whole different way of living just as habitually instinctive, then maybe other long-held beliefs, like –every knitter has a giant stash of yarn that they never use and that’s just the way it is if you’re addicted to knitting–, aren’t true either. I challenged myself to start every new knitting project with wool or yarn that I already own, and my entire yarn collection now almost fits into a half-bushel basket, which sits in the corner of my diningroom where I can enjoy the tidiness of all the stacked yarn cakes and let them inspire more fun projects.
I have always wanted to be someone who just walks in and tidies and dusts a room, sweeps and washes empty spacious floors, straightens two books, plumps a couple cushions, and who’s every possession is part of the décor right down to the red collander hanging on the kitchen wall, that is the same one that is used for Spaghetti Tuesdays, and that’s it, there’s no more.
Now I’m currently digging into the deepest depths, of the last room, in farthest corner, of the whole house. I surprised my mom and my aunt this morning with the embossed garden flower cards I brought them home from Albany, Western Australia, six years ago. (There’s no reason that if you find a gift you bought or made for someone, that just somehow never made it there, you can’t still give it to them. Unexpected gifts are the best ones.)
I’m still stuck in the house most of the time, but now I don’t have to look at all the things! Thanks, Liz Wright.