About this blog

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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Some thoughts on clutter

I've had the draft of a post turning over in the back of my mind for a while now, called, In praise of clutter, but then Louisa set a decluttering challenge and I'm forced to admit that this would be really useful for me to do. So you see, my feelings on clutter are somewhat ambivalent.

Why on earth would anyone want to defend clutter? Pretty much by definition, clutter is excess stuff that gets in the way. We are bombarded with advice on how to declutter, the orthodoxy being that too much stuff is the bane of our affluent lives. This is my problem: It has become an orthodoxy, and this is particularly true amongst the simple living community. Now, I'm all for simple living and opting out of the consumerist treadmill. For me, shopping is a chore not a recreation and the latest new gizmo rarely holds any appeal.

So what is it about the decluttering movement that bothers me? I'm a hoarder by nature. I hang on to things not so much for sentimental reasons, but in case they might come in useful one day. I do have a lot of old junk and occasionally give in to the pressure to get rid of some of it. I always regret it shortly afterwards. I once looked in the boot of my car and and thought, I've never used those things - I don't even know what they're for, and threw them away. That included the jack. Luckily, by the time I had a flat tyre and needed it, I was with Ian, who not only had his own jack, but also knew how to use it.

Advice is always given in terms of how recently you last used the thing (example above: Never).Be merciless. If you haven’t used it in the last year, get rid of it. The last year?! I'm currently making a camera bag (ahem, yes, well, I really must get back to that project) from fabric that's been in my cupboard since I inherited it over twenty years ago! Even I admit that's a little extreme, but one year does seem a ridiculously short timescale. Is that just me?

I don't buy the idea that owning things uses up mental resources, either. Yesterday I was standing on a step ladder to paint the top of a wall and thought, This would be much easier if I used the other ladder. Then I couldn't remember when I'd last seen that other ladder. I asked Ian, Am I imagining it, or do we own another step ladder, that's shorter, with a table bit at the top? He looked baffled. Eventually I remembered - I used to own such a ladder, when I lived with my first husband. It must have gone with his share of our things (it's not just books and CDs you have to split). On that occasion, a ladder I no longer owned used up far more mental energy than it would have done if I'd still owned it.

Eco Cat Lady shared her revelation (it took me ages to find that again, and when I did, I see she used pretty much the same title as this post. I'm not copying, honest!) that nobody really owns anything. Stuff exists and we give it house space for a while. Why should we give up our precious space when the stuff could just as well go off and exist somewhere else? We could always go and get stuff when we need it. I tried this thought on for size. I turned it around in my head and pondered it a while, but I just couldn't make it fit. Eventually, I figured out why I didn't feel comfortable with this idea.

Having stuff stored elsewhere, to be got when needed, clashes with the idea of self sufficiency. Now, I hope I don't go as far as thinking of myself as an island, capable of meeting all needs without input from anyone else (even as an ideal - obviously not in practice) - I do value the interdependent nature of community - but the idea of self sufficiency is very appealing to me. When I'm thinking about what to have for dinner, my first thought is, What have I got in the garden? When I need a new set of shelves (to store all the junk that I can't bear to throw away - yes, I know), my first thought is, Do I have any suitable materials in the workshop?

I love having stuff available when I need it. I love reusing things that other people would throw away. I love the challenge of turning something into something else (as I write this, my husband reads to me from 2CVGB News, Laura Ashley fabric has cunningly turned four wheels into a pair of sturdy fireside pouffes - I think I could pick up some creative storage tips there!) Having to go and get stuff when needed takes either money or considerable time to find exactly what you need second hand (and still some money too, usually).

I remain an unrepentant hoarder!

But still, we do have too much stuff...

There are things we own that I definitely intend to get rid of: An electric hob that we took out of our last kitchen to replace with a gas one, toys bought for a party and not used again, many back issues of New Scientist that I'm never actually going to get round to re-reading... When we moved house we hired a 7.5 ton truck, and couldn't get all our stuff in it. At that point we agreed that we have too much stuff and must get rid of some. We've done nothing about it since, so Louisa's November decluttering challenge is the kick up the backside that I need. I'll write about it in a separate post, but the challenge has started. In the meantime I must go and fit an air vent into the floor and finish painting that room.


  1. I'm a pretty unrepentant hoarder too - this decluttering (even tidying) lark doesn't come naturally to me either, which is one of the reasons I've started this challenge.

    I agree that the "haven't used it in the last year" line is too short for people who make stuff -- but it's probably about right for people who don't. I've got fabric in my stash that I bought when I was at uni in Liverpool 12 years ago. My knitting needle collection is in part from my mum's long unused stash, dating from before my birth 32 years ago. My father-not-in-law replaced a stone lintel at his other son's home using a girder he'd acquired for free decades earlier before. It all comes in useful in the end. But there would be little point in my non-crafty friend keeping an accidentally felted jumper or her mum's knitting needles because she'd never use them, no matter how long she kept them for. (I would clearly attempt to snag both.)

    Regarding the mental resources: I don't consciously update my mental map of which book is where but I'm sure it happens - I can deal with that resource use though. What I find more problematic is the background stress caused by the anticipation of dealing with lots of stuff in the future.

    I vividly remember how difficult it was moving all our stuff here - if we'd had to do it in one day, I think it might have killed us - so don't relish the idea of moving again. The FnIL also deposits various building supplies in our garden - stored for presumed future use here - but if we don't use them, we're going to have to carry them all back up four flights of stairs again when we move, whenever that is -- it comes in gradually but all has to be shifted in one go. And it's not just our garden: the FnIL is an extreme hoarder of building materials and other potentially-useful-one-day-maybe things and he has a considerable amount of stuff stashed at each of his three children's houses, in cellars of two houses they rent out, his own cellar/garage/garden and at his own MIL's house. We have a fair Psych 101 idea why he does it (orphan born in the 1940s, had nothing for a long time) and we all do benefit from his stashes but all the family has a background anxiety about having to clear everything out at some point in the not very distant future. I realise that's a very particular situation with him but that's what I think about when I think about mental resource & clutter.

    My t'other half is very much his father's son but has found a new approach to his clutter, especially electronic stuff and books: he would rather it was being used by someone, anyone, that gathering dust (and in some cases, becoming obsolete) here. I think his idea is if he's unlikely to reuse it but it could be easily replaced if on the off chance he did need it, he'd prefer to give it away now. I agree with that to some extent, just it gets a bit muddier for me as a lot of my things would be harder to replace...

    Anyway, enough waffle from me, sorry for the super long comment! I need to get on and find my day 2 item anyway :)

  2. Thanks for the long comment :-)

    Interesting thoughts on the anxiety of having to deal with all this stuff in the future. I loathe moving house more than anything else I can think of right now, and it's certainly easier with less stuff. On the other hand, I'm pretty good at blocking that thought from my mind (right until moving day itself, which doesn't tend to help!) and I'm not intending to move any time soon, if ever. It's quite possible that I have such anxiety without being aware of it (see comment on blocking thoughts) but it doesn't bother me. Perhaps I'd feel a great relief if I did in fact get rid of all my clutter, but past experience indicates that regret is more likely.

  3. Oy! Well, I have to say that there are different kinds of clutter... and the one part of the house I haven't been able to tackle at all yet is the garage. But I'm gonna have to do something soon because it's seriously becoming a fire hazard out there. Plus, I'm getting pretty sick of having to trip over things every time I'm out there trying to do something.

    I guess I sort of see it both ways. I definitely hoard stuff, especially stuff for making things... you don't EVEN want to know how much scrap lumber is hanging out in my garage at the moment. But there comes a point when you have so much stuff that you can't find anything when you need it, and you also can't do anything because there's no place to move around and get work done.

    So, while I will NEVER be a minimalist, I am grateful that I uncovered the spare bedroom downstairs. I just bought a little home photo studio and I'm getting it all set up down there... and I am SOOO excited about it. I guess for me it was a choice between having a bunch of stuff that I might regret letting go of someday, and having space to do what I want right now.

  4. Hi ECL :-)
    I guess you and I are actually quite similar in our approach to clutter, in practice. It's just a matter of what tricks we use to persuade ourselves to get rid of some of our junk. What works for you doesn't work for me, but I am determined to have a useable workshop - that space could so easily fill up with stuff. Some people (and I certainly don't mean you!) do get irritatingly evangelical on this subject, though...

  5. Ha! I know the type... did you know there are people out there who think they should pare down their belongings to 100 things? Lordy! I think I'd be over the limit just with socks and underwear!

    Can't wait to see what sort of tricks you come up with because, honestly, I can use all the help I can get!

  6. Yes, I've heard about those 100 thing folks. I wouldn't be willing to go below that in my kitchen!

    The only trick I have so far is a public commitment to a challenge, which I'm hoping will be enough to get me through the month. Louisa may be hoping to create a new habit; I'm taking comfort from the fact that this is a strictly limited period.

  7. You ladies could be talking about me - I admit it. I'm obsessive compulsive when it comes to hoarding. I'm so sure that the things will in handy some day - and they actually do, but I have to put effort into making them useful, assigning them tasks and then actually using them on that task.

    For instance, I collect card: soap boxes, cereal boxes, backings of things bought etc. They're (in theory) assigned for backing templates for toys I sew as well as making boxes. Problem is, I CAN do those things and enjoy it, but infrequently.

    It's interesting to read your declutter post as I'm currently doing that too - it's too annoying to not know where things are - but... I know that "what if I throw away and need it later" feeling. Deep breath definitely needed. :)

    So I've been doing the same as you Rachel but I don't expect to discard much. It's mostly putting things of similar potential use together. I suppose that eventually it will come to a point where I realise that something is NOT at all useful (doubt it :P) and then, bin.

    Anyways, I'm going on, but it's always good to know when someone else thinks in a similar way to you, even from across the seas. ^_^

    I really do like the idea of turning 'junk' into treasures though and must find the courage to explore that wish more... :)

    Cheers from Barbados, Dana.

  8. Hey, Dana :-)
    Your cardboard sounds like my plastic bottles. I kept them to store home-made drinks - cordial, wine and beer - but they've been accumulating until they'd nearly taken over my kitchen. I started to lose track of which ones were clean and which were waiting to be washed up. There more of them there were, the bigger task it was to clean them (they take up a lot of draining board space) and the more muddled it all got...

    I have been tackling them over the last few weeks. I've admitted that one litre squash bottles are no use - too big for cordial, which goes off quickly without preservative, and don't seal tightly enough for fizzy drinks - so they're going in the recycling bin. I then cut a spare piece of shelf to fit a cupboard with some space, which I'd been meaning to do for ages, so I have somewhere to put the smaller bottles. That's nearly full now and when it is, the rest can go in the bin. I can do this, really I can!

  9. Yes you can!

    My decluttering is at stand-still, but it's because I've realised that I need to change what I store where. Makes a whole lot of difference - believe it. :)

    We are lucky with our bottles as there's a neighbour who's happy to collect and sell them. It's something that bothers me when I think of it: how little we recycle here because you can't get paid for it. Paper and tin collecting businesses exist, but why bother with that for no 'reward' when you can just throw it out?

    I really admire what you're doing and try to reuse what I can. Oftimes, if I can't reuse the container a food/drink comes in - I don't buy it, but that's not always practical. >.<

    Keep at it though Rachel, eventually the job will be done. ^_^

  10. I suppose my approach to clutter is as long as stuff can fit in the space I've decided that it is going to live in, it can stay...I really hate tripping over stuff, not being able to open doors, or not being able to find something because the cupboard is full of junk... I won't throw away craft supplies though... At the moment I am not buying wool and so on though, because the knitting and sewing room is overflowing!

    1. I think that's a very good approach. Now all I have to do is assign things places to live, and make sure the places are big enough for the things! (My store room is a work in progress...)


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