Clutter no more: packing in the habit of outrageous consumption
As I up sticks for Sydney, I am on a quest to unburden myself of the tyranny of stuff
Somewhere in between the act of me writing this and you reading it, I will have packed a suitcase for me and one for each of my children, handed over the keys to my house and boarded an aircraft to start my year in Sydney.
When I put it like that, it all sounds so easy.
In reality, I’m willing to bet the signing of the Belfast Agreement took less sweat, compromise and careful diplomatic manoeuvring as the act of getting that suitcase packed.
For my husband, packing his suitcase was a straightforward matter of opening his wardrobe, taking everything out and putting it into a suitcase. Anything that didn’t fit went into a box in the attic. For each of my children, the process was roughly similar. Open wardrobe, fill suitcase, close wardrobe.
For me, the process went something like this: Open wardrobe. Weep a bit. Close wardrobe. Open wardrobe again. Subdivide contents into: summer, winter, work clothes, casual clothes, going-out clothes, posher going-out clothes, gym clothes, gym clothes that I might actually wear one day, clothes for charity shop, clothes not fit for charity shop, clothes I no longer wear but should keep for daughter. Give up, close wardrobe and have a glass of wine. Open wardrobe again. And so, endlessly, on.
Unbearable heaviness of being
Even if nothing else of consequence happens in the next 10 months, our temporary relocation to Australia has already altered my outlook in at least one respect. It has forced me to confront the ghosts of my decades of outrageous overconsumption.
This, I decided somewhere between packing box number four and five, will be my year of living lightly. I will manage with just three bags and three pairs of shoes, and I will become a more streamlined, less burdened, happier version of myself.
When I told my husband I was planning to survive for the next 10 months with three pairs of shoes and three handbags, he looked appalled and begged me to reconsider. Not because he’s worried about what will happen if I find myself confronted with an occasion demanding the precise pair of four-inch nude courts I have left behind in the attic in Dublin, but because he knows me well enough to know that only bringing three pairs of shoes is really just an excuse to shop. Well, not any more.
My quest to unburden myself of the tyranny of stuff has a solid scientific basis. In a recent major study, which evolved into a book called Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, UCLA researchers studied 32 middle-class families and found the mothers’ stress hormone cortisol (though not the the fathers’, funnily enough) spiked during the time they spent dealing with belongings. Three-quarters of families couldn’t pack their cars in garages they had so much stuff (guilty as charged: we recently had to get rid of a three-seater sofa-bed in order to squeeze my car into the garage).
In the first home they entered, researchers listed more than 2,260 possessions immediately visible in just three rooms – two bedrooms and a sitting room. That didn’t include, the study noted, “untold numbers of items tucked into dresser drawers, boxes and cabinets or items positioned behind other items.” (This might have shocked me, had I not just filled three large packing boxes and three medium-sized ones from just one room in my home – a room that is theoretically our uninhabited spare room.)
On one shelf in one little girl’s bedroom, they found: “Beanie Babies, 165; Human/Animal Figurines, 36; Barbie dolls, 22; other dolls, 20; Porcelain dolls, 3; Troll, 1; Castle miniature, 1.”
Stuff and nonsense
Again, this isn’t all that surprising: another study found that the average American child acquires 70 new toys a year.
None of the families in the UCLA study were hoarders: they were just ordinary people who had become overwhelmed with stuff. “Mothers were very aware of the mess and clutter and [had adopted] a laugh-it-off attitude that this was going to just keep recurring,” one of the researchers, anthropology professor Jeanne E Arnold told the Washington Post. “A few were almost bitter.”
Somehow, we have become caught on a treadmill that we can’t get off. We work harder to earn more (or at least in the hope that, in a recession, we won’t earn substantially less), so that we can keep spending. Acquiring and managing our mountains of stuff takes up so much time that we have fewer resources and less energy for the things that really matter. We end up living in cluttered houses, feeling overwhelmed and unproductive, and never, ever able to find our keys.
I’ve had enough. Three pairs of shoes it is. I’ll keep you posted.