Having a relationship with Stuff is complicated. We know less is more, and that happiness isn’t something you can buy. It is ironic that Marie Kondo has sold 4 million copies of her book about the art of tidying up and letting go of whatever you own that does not give you joy. I wonder how many copies, having released their ability to spark joy in someone’s formerly cluttered life, are for resale in second-hand shops. We are attached to things that hold sentimental, if not actual, value: the baby photos, wedding dress. We hold onto objects because we might need them one day: the air mattress, mom’s old desk. We keep items to protect the feelings of people we love: the engraved decanter/hideous crystal bowl/ inexplicably weird butter dish.
There’s a TED talk by the founder of TreeHugger.com, Graham Hill, called Less Stuff, More Happiness. In my early years I was a minimalist by necessity. I didn’t have a lot of money and would have rather had one thing I loved than five things I was indifferent to, so I was careful about what I bought. Graham Hill suggests we edit our lives down to the bare essentials, to save money and reduce our carbon imprint. I’m impressed that he’s found a way to live in a 400 square foot apartment, but there is a major difference between Graham and I: I have a family.
I like to think that if I was living alone, my home would be sleek and spare. But I am married to a collector. Collecting gives my husband a lot of joy (Suck it, Marie Kondo!), and what he collects — 5,000+ records, 100+ cookbooks, 40+ works of art, and wine — are rooted in the idea of sharing, family and community. Plus we have kids. Who have grandparents. Who give them stuff all the time. Mr. Hill talks about stemming the inflow of things— he’s clearly never met Nana Cheryl and her unstoppable tide of gifts.
I like to think that if I was living alone, my home would be sleek and spare.
Also, my family has moved house ten times in the past thirteen years. No, I’m not on “the lam.” I am a serial renovator, married to a freelancer who has had jobs in London, San Francisco, and New York. In each instance we moved to a city, rented a house, house-hunted, bought a house, moved in, planned a renovation, moved out, moved back in, and eventually moved to another city. With kids! I am made of steel.
Streamlining is a constant business. I can’t stop it coming in, but I can keep it going out. We have a rule for our girls: one in, one out. (Let’s be clear, it’s a battle, and it’s often more like one in, one in, one in, Mom has a freak out about a messy bedroom, three out.) Birthdays can be stressful if they have new toys and a bunch of old toys…they love. We instituted a No-Gift policy for birthday parties, opting for a communal book exchange instead. I have boxes in the basement that I fill up every few months, and we make regular donations to charity shops and hand off bags of outgrown clothes, toys, and books to friends with younger children. What we have, we have because it sparks joy for someone in our house, and that’s even true for the Frozen tissue box hat our nanny brought over for a sick kid one day. It will spark joy for me when I finally reach the last tissue and recycle it, but until then, it’s sitting on the broken credenza along with a bunch of ceramics made with love by tiny hands.
Streamlining is a constant business. I can’t stop it coming in, but I can keep it going out.
If you are just starting out your independent life, great. Keep things as simple as possible. Don’t go into debt buying stuff you don’t need or can borrow. But I’m no longer at the age of living little. When we moved this last time, we were looking at houses of varying sizes. I was talking to a friend about a smaller home or a bigger one, and she advised me to go big. This is the moment, she said, when you are the host of the holidays, the carer of nephew who stays for three months for an internship, the older parent who visits for a few weeks at a time. This is the biggest time of your life: in ten years, your kids will be grown and out of the house or almost. Then you downsize. Then you don’t host 22 people at Christmas, or have 12 kids over for a birthday. But now, you do. And so we host, and house, and share.
This is the moment, she said, when you are the host of the holidays, the carer of nephew who stays for three months for an internship, the older parent who visits for a few weeks at a time.
Until we move into said big house sometime this spring, the wine collection sits in storage next to the art, the garden furniture, and many, many records. It will be the last renovation and our last move for a while. The stuff I threw into the storage space out of sheer exhaustion will be pruned and there will be an even deeper paring down of what we’ve collected in the years as we’ve renovated (yes, years, not year, it’s true it’s always longer than you think). The wonderful thing about transitions are that they demand an active reckoning; you must answer for who you are, what you care about. It is a time to remember that we ought to love the things we own and own only what we love.
N.B. Graham Hill also has a Ted Talk about being a weekday vegetarian. He knows it’s better for his health, better for the planet, better for his ethics, but he just can’t fully eliminate bacon from his life. I think I’m the same with stuff. I can’t get rid of all my books, even though I know I can digitize or get them from the library. So I choose the ones I keep with care, share the ones I’ve read and am done with, and donate the rest. I’m a weekday minimalist.