Drowning in Stuff

When Colin and I spent 5 months in our little rowboat slowly making our way across the Atlantic, I remember thinking about how little we really needed in life. Our boat was tiny, with barely enough room for us, let alone anything extraneous. Food, oars and some clothes, that was about it.

But as we returned to our normal lives and our much much bigger dwelling, that minimalist feeling ebbed. Now we have boxes of toys stuffed in the attic and piles of books carpeting our closet, just to name a few of our minor indiscretions. We’re far from alone in this culture of more (and yes, even free stuff, hand-me-downs and gifts count) and earlier this month I was reminded of just how oppressive stuff can be and how difficult it can be to part with.

My mother, who lives on her own in an apartment in Hamilton, slipped and broke her hip, a difficult accident made even harder because her only child, me, lives across the country in Victoria. When I flew to Hamilton to help her, I expected to be busy with doctor appointments, arranging food deliveries, and organizing in-home care, but what I underestimated is just how much stuff she had collected over the years. And now with her limited mobility and reliance on a walker, she needed space and easy access to things.

We sorted through boxes of clothes, many never worn and not even her size, keepsakes from my childhood and baking pans that hadn’t seen the inside of an oven in decades. Nearly every item was a struggle to part with – I could take those pants in so they fit, I might need that fifteen-year-old juicer I’ve never unboxed – but with every carload of items donated to charity, we felt a little lighter. She found things that had been missing for years and her wardrobe felt larger, because now all the clothes in her closet fit. Somehow having less felt like more, and we felt happier. According to scientific research this makes perfect sense. We secrete the stress hormone cortisol when we’re surrounded by disarray: less mess = less stress.

When I returned home, I was keen for another jolt of declutter bliss. Did I really need all those pans in the kitchen cupboard, obscure spices I hadn’t used in years or clothes from previous decades? Those were all noble pursuits but the real chaos lay in our 5-year-old’s room.

“How about mommy helps you clean up your room,” I offered. Suspicious that I didn’t bark “Clean up your room!” as usual, our son cautiously agreed. Then I dropped the bombshell. To help keep his room clean, we would go through each of his toys and decide whether he still played with it. And if he didn’t, we would put it away. He looked uncertain but as we began he wholeheartedly participated, sorting his favourite cars and trucks from those he didn’t like or those that were for “little boys”. His room is now two toy bins lighter and although it’s far from spotless, I can see the floor more often. Now it’s time to tackle my closet and admit that skin-tight acid wash jeans aren’t making a comeback.

Tips to help you declutter:

  1. Sort through your closet, putting clothes in 3 piles: clothes you want to keep, give to charity or give to friends. A good clue as to whether it should still be in your closet is whether you’ve worn it in the last year.
  2. Get rid of old magazines and books you aren’t going to read.
  3. Clean out your fridge, freezer and cupboards. Toss out expired food and donate canned/packaged foods that you’re not going to use.
  4. Help your kids sort through their toys and clothes.

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1 Comments to “Drowning in Stuff”

  1. Catheryn says:

    I relate to the feeling lighter with less. I was shocked at how much stuff I have when I moved recently….and I don’t even have furniture to speak of! I really struggle getting rid of stuff once I have it. Your article is a good reminder for all of us. One tip I found: if it is of sentimental value (but won’t ever be used again) you can take a photo of the item before giving it away.

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