How to See Past Your Mountain of Stuff to a Place Called Enough

by Tammy Strobel on October 25, 2010

small closet & wardrobe

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Katie Tallo. Katie writes about simple, joyful life change at Momentum Gathering.

My father-in-law is 84. He lived in a three-bedroom bungalow for the last 30 years, filling every nook and cranny with a lifetime’s worth of stuff. When his wife died last year, he found himself alone with no one to cook for or sit beside. All that was left was a house full of memories and stuff.

The memories just reminded him of his loss and the stuff he couldn’t maintain. He decided to move to a small apartment in a retirement home – to simplify life. Someone else would now cook the meals, wash the dishes, clean, shovel the snow, rake the leaves and put out the garbage. He could make new friends. He took a few pieces of furniture, his stamp collection, his favorite pictures, books and a few dishes. He has ended up where he began – a bachelor with just a few essentials. The rest?

Well, the rest was a ton of odds and ends, nicks and nacks bought, made and received over the course of eight decades in the life of two people. It took months to sort, box, trash, give away, sell and disperse. In the end, it was just a mountain of stuff.

I found myself wondering what the point of it all was – all this accumulating. Here was all this stuff that no one really wanted – that had little value in the end. It wasn’t what made his house a home – his marriage was.

Why do most of us amass so much stuff? Stuff that’s often boxed and packed in the basement, stacks in closets, piled in attics and teetering on the rafters of the garage, rarely opened. What is it that makes us surround ourselves, fill our spaces and continue to want more stuff even when there’s no room or need for more? We envision hoarders as crazy people, but most of us are hoarders. We’re just neat about it. We hide it well. We tuck it away where no one can see it, but likely we couldn’t count the number of things we own. Likely we have a mountain of stuff.

So why did we build this heap in the first place and why do we continue to pile more and more stuff on top of it? The answer lies in the word S-T-U-F-F.

S is for SALES

We’ve been sold on the idea that something is missing from our lives. It’s pointed out to us daily in a barrage of ads, billboards, banners, jingles, pop-ups, TV shows, and movies that make us look around and realize we’re not living like everyone else is supposedly living so we better hurry and upsize, go big and buy more – and the mountain grows.

T is for TRADITION

Our traditions have become gift giving extravaganzas. We rack our brains to come up with a Christmas list every year just so Aunt June can buy us something that never gets taken out of the box. We buy gifts for every occasion imaginable from Father’s Day to Valentine’s Day and end up with a drawer full of vases and soaps – and the mountain gets out of control.

U is UNIQUENESS

We believe our stuff defines our uniqueness, our style, our taste, and in some cases, our status. The car we drive, the fashions we wear, the laptop we display at coffee shops, the way we decorate our homes – all of it tells the world something about us – that we’re upwardly mobile, trendy, savvy, hip, cool, classy, or smart. We come to love our stuff because we think it’s who we are. We start to believe that the more we have, the more we are. And the mountain towers over us.

F is for FILLER

Stuff is filler that feeds the emptiness, anxiety, and loneliness that pervades the human condition. Shopping, buying, redecorating and busying ourselves with our stuff is a means to reward, comfort, treat, excite or give ourselves a sense of purpose. Without new stuff we feel dull, without lots of stuff we get bored. We try to fill the void instead of looking at it’s root cause – and the mountain gets higher.

F is for FRUGAL

When we can’t bare to throw out anything or pass up any deal, frugality just leads to more stuff. My father-in-law had over twenty jars of olive oil in his basement. Why? Because it was on sale. Misguided frugality means we’ll end up with enough oil to fry a small nation.

But how do we begin to see past our mountain of stuff to a place called enough? We do it by stepping back and taking a good look at ourselves, our stuff and our triggers. We limit the onslaught of ads, avoid malls and turn down noise so we can hear our inner voice screaming over the din for us to stop buying shit! And the mountain will begin to crumble.

We lead ourselves by the scruff of our Armani shirt towards a life of our own definition. A life we’ve decided makes sense to us, not necessarily to The Desperate Housewives. We recognize how much we already have. We honor our stuff, are grateful for our stuff, but stop worshipping our stuff. We alter our traditions, shift gears, make gifts, repurpose, or skip gift-giving altogether and create new traditions of sharing stories not gifts, hugs not presents, and excursions not excess. And the mountain will get smaller.

We begin to see ourselves apart from our stuff. We connect with each other instead. We free ourselves of our attachment to pretty fabrics and fancy cars and we reclaim our attachment to each other and our planet. We stop eating away at it’s very fabric. We reward, comfort, treat, excite or give ourselves a sense of purpose through soulful, simple actions that have nothing to do with bargain hunting or olive oil. Okay, maybe we can use some of that oil to make a kick ass spaghetti sauce and share it with some good friends.

I don’t have all the answers. I’m still grappling with my own stuff and I’m not suggesting that stuff is evil or bullshit. I’m just saying that awareness can lead to rethinking and change — and change can feel really good.

In my new e-book, The 7-Week Life Cleanse, I try to spark this kind of awareness. I ask questions and offer solutions for creating more space and time in which to examine how you move in the world, what you can let go of and where your soul might like to venture next. If I’ve convinced you not to buy anymore stuff then don’t buy the e-book. Go to my blog and grab the Life Cleanse Starter Kit for free.

Either way, I encourage you to begin to chisel away at your mountain of stuff so that you can see clear across to a place called enough. The view is spectacular!

***

Peeps: Go check out Katie’s wonderful blog Momentum Gathering. And consider purchasing her new ebook The 7-Week Life Cleanse! It rocks!

1 Katie October 25, 2010

Tammy, you are an awesome host and I always love visiting your blog and joining in the conversation. Feels like we had a coffee and a chat together. Thanks for the support of my new e-book and for having me over.

2 Adrienne October 25, 2010

Hi Katie, you’re just popping up with great stuff all over the place! I don’t think you could have picked a better name for your blog, because momentum gathering is definitely what you’re doing!

I can definitely relate to this story…my mom has always been a packrat. She loves antiques, flea markets, yard sales, you name it, so our house has always been filled with odds and ends. Sure enough, every year for Christmas I end up with a bunch of trinkets and other “fillers” that I don’t need. The thing is, I used to hang on to all that crap cus I felt bad throwing it away. Finally, a couple years ago, I asked her not to buy me any more “stuff.” It’s funny, now that my husband and I own a house, I find myself constantly donating and selling off our stuff. We’re finally at the point where we just have a small storage closet filled with stuff to store, which makes me feel really good. Life is just better with less clutter and less stuff to worry about.

Btw, I love the STUFF acronym. You have a wonderful way of taking great information an turning it into catchy and entertaining stories. You’re writing is a continuous source of inspiration. :)

Tammy,

Thanks for featuring Katie’s work here…a great contribution to a truly incredible blog. Love what you’re doing here!

3 Katie October 25, 2010

Thank you Adrienne, I can appreciate the dilemma of having to tell people “no more stuff”. We want to be social and kind, but gift giving has become a distorted ritual and if there’s a kind way to say it, then well done. As children, it’s all about getting stuff. Funny how the stuff just ends up getting in the way as we grow up. Good for you for minimizing and feeling the freedom and power in that.

4 Meg October 25, 2010

This was a fun and oh-so-true post, Katie, and thanks to Tammy for having you as a guest. Your father-in-law is the same age as my father, and I’m going to be facing the same daunting challenge with my parents’ stuff before much longer. Just got rid of tons more stuff I’d been hanging onto for far too long, because it was the way I was raised and hadn’t sufficiently stepped back from and assessed. I can sooooo relate to this post! :)

5 Katie October 25, 2010

Me too Meg. I guess we write about what we need most and I need a kick in the pants to further declutter my life. I’ve done okay, but more could be done so I’ve begun with a small box a week. Each week I put a few odds and ends in it that I no longer need and donate them to the neighbourhood services in our area. It’s easy and slowly gets rid of the unwanted clutter. Unfortunately, my husband brought loads of stuff from his parent’s house that he felt he wanted to keep for sentimental value so now I’ve got the sticky issue of hanging on to it for a bit so I don’t look heartless. Navigating tricky waters. Glad you can relate.

6 Hsinya October 25, 2010

“It wasn’t what made his house a home – his marriage was.” This is so true! It reminds me of the end of the Pixar movie “Up,” (I hope I’m not spoiling any story here) when Carl realized that it was the time spent together that mattered the most and he let go of his house and everything in there.

7 Katie October 25, 2010

Hsinya, I guess that is the lesson. We are not our stuff. It simply surrounds us and sometimes overwhelms our ability to see what is truly important. Thanks for commenting. I haven’t seen “Up” but might just check it out. Sounds uplifting.

8 Marian Hess October 25, 2010

Hi Katie when I started reading your article, I just had to laugh! Last year in December I had to move into my Mom’s house, Dad had died in 2004. I needed just two rooms one for computer and one for my bedroom. The house has 4 bedrooms. I don’t know how many dump runs or Salvation Army runs I had to make, her house was filled with junk…. Old newspapers, plastic containers stack high, two full size closets 4 bedroom closets full of clothes, ( that she would never wear) I think she kept all her clothes and kept buying more…Some of my Dad’s, knickknacks, that were wrapped away, and never going to use, old phones, you get my drift….It was not fun to go all through this stuff, but kind of glad I had her here to bring back some memories and stories I did not know about…and she more happy because she can move around her house again…

9 Katie October 25, 2010

Marian, my mother-in-law kept every piece of clothing she ever owned. She had some that she’s never worn with tags still on them. Old phones, that’s funny. I used to have a few in a junk drawer too. Part of the problem is that things are not made to last. It’s lovely that you found stories to share while de-cluttering. What a great opportunity to get to know more about her life. Great story. Thanks for sharing.

10 marianney October 25, 2010

thanks for this well written post to both Katie and Tammy. i just found this blog a few weeks ago and i love it. now i will have to follow Katie’s too! i am having this dilemma everyday. twice a year, my girlfriend and i host a clotheswap where we invite girlfriends and we all bring our unwanted clothes and shoes and it’s a free for all. what’s left goes straight to Goodwill. last year, we decided to add other items to the list: unused or leftover products, jewelry, books, etc.

what amazes me is that even though I have this twice a year, i still manage to have a mountain of clothes to give away! we just had one yesterday as a matter of fact and for the first time, i only took home 3 “new” items (instead of the huge pile i usually come home with), so maybe that’s progress?? ;)

i guess the point i’m trying to make is that it really is hard to give stuff up! i still have a TON of clothes and i found it very hard to really cut it down to essentials because “what if” and “i love this skirt,” etc. but i hope that the more i read from you two, the more i will learn to let go of these silly attachments!

thank you!

11 Katie October 25, 2010

Marianney, it is hard to give up stuff. That’s a great idea to swap and share clothes because part of the problem is we get bored with the same old same old. Trading makes it feel new again. I guess if you love clothes then you love clothes. No judgment here. It’s when the tons of clothes cause you anxiety that you need to let go. But you’ll be able to gauge that better than anyone. One thing that I know Tammy has found from minimizing her possessions is that it gives her a sense of freedom. Room opens up for more joy and there’s just more space to focus on what really matters. To each his or her own though. I’m by no means as minimalist as Tammy but I aspire to follow her ideals and learn from her wisdom.

12 marianney October 25, 2010

You know, I think you are right. I love having a just cleaned house because it feels like there is room to breathe and less stress w/o all the clutter. I need to keep that feeling alive when I go through my closet, office, and basement too!

13 Katie October 26, 2010

What I’ve noticed too, Marianney, is that a cluttered closet or drawer can actually drive me crazy if it’s a daily thing I have to tackle and wrestle with. Once cleaned up it seems like that negative energy is also dispersed. Highly recommend tackling those hidden messes too.

14 Freedom October 25, 2010

We’ve just begun separating ourselves from our stuff. My closet now looks very similar to the one in the picture. It’s amazing how much junk just piles up over time. I had old Halloween costumes, clothes that no longer fit, clothes I never wore, and on and on. We’re still working our way through the whole house cleanse, but I hope to come out of this lighter and feeling more freedom.

15 Katie October 26, 2010

Freedom, it is amazing how much stuff piles up. I think you’ve hit upon the key – “working our way through the whole house cleanse”. It’s a process and doesn’t have to happen overnight. One box, one item at a time. It’s just trying not to introduce more than you get rid of. Well done on our road to freedom.

16 Katie October 25, 2010

Great post! I whole-heartedly agree with the S.T.U.F.F. acronym. I have to say that I don’t collect stuff because someday I will be gone and someone will have to go through it – I fear for that day for my own parents. Having almost had the experience of leaving other people to deal with my stuff, it makes me realize that which is important, and that which isn’t. I am glad to know the difference, and see how simplicity impacts my own life. Although, the picture of Tammy’s closet above makes my jaw drop!

17 Katie (the other one) October 26, 2010

Hi NorcalKatie, sounds like you’ve had a profound experience that moved you away from stuff and towards life affirming experiences instead. Thank you for sharing. Yeah, I’m astounded by Tammy’s closet too. She definitely gets it.

18 Mark Powers October 26, 2010

So true, Katie . . . there are so many reasons that we accumulate all this junk we surround ourselves with. What a difficult undertaking it can be to dejunk and rid our lives of the unnecessary excess. I’m amidst that struggle as we speak. Thanks for the reminder why some of it’s here, and why it really needs to be gone!

19 Katie October 26, 2010

Mark, funny how we don’t realize we’ve accumulated so much stuff until we move or try to find something buried deep in the junk heap. Maybe awareness is the first step. Best of luck with your de-junking efforts. At least, you’re headed in the right direction.

20 Dan Goodwin October 26, 2010

Katie this is excellent, one of your best posts I’ve read so far on any blog. : )

The S.T.U.F.F. acronym is very clever and for me, U for Uniquneness is what I struggle with most. Our environments don’t help if we’re surrounded by people with new or nearly new cars, trendy clothes and the latest gadgets, because we’ve been so programmed to compete and keep up with everyone else or feel inadequate. We become a product of our crazily consumerist surroundings, and like you say, the danger is our stuff defines us, rather than our values, our relationships, what we create, what’s important to us, who we really are.

Much to think about, thanks Katie, and Tammy.

21 Katie October 26, 2010

Wow, high praise Dan (or maybe my other posts have just been shit) either way, love the enthusiasm. You’re right, we can’t help but be a product of our environment to some degree. It’s finding a balance and a way to blend that influence with our own values and what’s important to us and saying, to hell with the rest of it.

22 Dan Goodwin October 26, 2010

I often wonder how different I’d be if I’d have grown up somewhere very rural like the Highlands of Scotland or the Welsh Mountains, whether I’d be still so attached to, and seduced by, cars and gadgets… In other words, how much is natural, how much has been programmed into by decades of advertising… I wonder how those creative, curious urges to explore the new and the fringes of things would have manifested themselves in vastly different surroundings…

For the record Katie, you’ve written loads of great articles, just this is one of my very favourites. : )

23 Understanding Alice October 26, 2010

an interesting and useful article – I have passed it on to my friends!

24 Katie October 26, 2010

Thanks Alice for sharing the article. Most appreciated.

25 Leigh Purtill October 26, 2010

Excellent guest post, Katie. My parents too have lived in a large home for most of my life and have accumulated so much stuff that they joke about how horrible it will be for my brother and me to sort through everything when they pass on. My father is the one with the collections and I admit I like that collecting gives him such joy. His whole family are/were antique dealers which I suppose gave them license to collect. :) Odd that I am so anti-consumer! I hate stuff.

Posts like yours (and Tammy’s blog itself) make me want to purge my parents’ house for them!

26 Katie October 26, 2010

Leigh, thanks for sharing. I think your situation is very common. I can’t believe how lucky my husband and I are to have that step behind us with his parents. Maybe because your parents are collectors of stuff and you grew up surrounded by it — maybe that’s why you have an aversion to stuff. I wish you luck in trying to convince them to purge.

27 Sandy October 26, 2010

I love love love this post. What a great discussion on STUFF. It really hits home right now as my husband’s grandmother recently passed away, and his grandfather is now floating without an anchor in their large family farm surrounded by stuff.

28 Katie October 26, 2010

Thanks Sandy. Glad to hear you love love love it. Your image of your grandfather floating without an anchor is very poignant. Our stuff really can feel like an ocean that we’re set adrift in. Without his ship mate he’s lost and likely can’t see the horizon. Okay, carrying the metaphor a little too far, but you get the point. I feel for him.

29 mark owen-ward October 27, 2010

An inspiring post Katie. And I like your clever acronym for STUFF. I think my parents could have gone the same way, hoarding for God knows what eventuality. When my Dad showed me that he had about 300 pencils, not new, just various lengths I had to ask him the obvious question of whether, at 70, he needed to buy or collect any more? He looked at me for quite a time, and not long after that, started on a quest to rid the family home of a lot of stuff. Both parents appear a lot happier for having grasped this. My Dad, had been the executor for many Aunties, and it is a very difficult task, picking through someone else’s possessions not knowing what they valued and what they didn’t – all of our “value” in a possession is contained in the emotional packaging we wrap it with, which few others can see. Perhaps we should just focus on keeping the emotional packaging and let all the possessions go. mark

30 Katie October 27, 2010

Mark, what a lovely way to look at our possessions as having their value in the “emotional packaging” we wrap them in. You are right. It has to be up to us to size up our stuff, evaluate its worth and then down size it. I think some people just reach a point where the 300 pencils are too overwhelming to even contemplate sorting through. I guess that’s why it’s left to those who are younger or youngish to deal with. I agree. Keep the emotions, let go the stuff. Thanks Mark, for you always poignant words.

31 Gil October 27, 2010

Excellent article, Katie! I’ve been de-cluttering for a few years now and it occurs in spurts. I once has tons of things such as books, dvds, cds, you name it. I now have only what I need now, but am still seeking to pare down a bit more. What’s funny is that things i SWORE i would never let go of are gone now. I now focus on quality instead of quantity. I would rather have 5 movies I really enjoy instead of 100 crappy ones that take up room. The same with clothes, etc.

Ironically, I had more stuff when I lived in a smal studio apartment than I do now. I also had a huge storage shad that I stuffed with things. Now my wife and I have a new home and we made a pact never to allow it to become a storage shed. If it hasn’t or will not be used, it goes, period.

I would also like to add that my shedding did not translate into me becoming a dull person. I actually feel free now and can focus on enjoying what really matters in life. Thanks again.

32 Katie October 27, 2010

Gil, sounds like you’ve found a way to ease into living with less. I’ve been reading a lot about decluttering and downsizing lately. The approaches are all over the map from doing it quickly, like pulling off a bandaid, to doing it gradually and mindfully. As long as it works for you then I say, begin. That’s the hardest part, just getting that first box of crap out the door. Well done to you and your wife for sticking to it even with more space. Freedom is never dull.

33 alexandra October 28, 2010

Katie,

This article sums up very neatly the argument for less stuff, even incorporating the acronym ‘stuff’ – very impressive! I never get tired of reading articles about uncluttering because I like to hear different people’s stories and experiences. I look forward to reading your e-book, which I already like from the title, as ‘cleansing’ is certainly an appropriate way to describe the process of minimalising.

I also like your description of the gift-giving process – how you’ve decided to create new traditions. At first I didn’t want to let go of getting gifts for people because I love the process of finding something perfect for someone. But giving – and sharing – experiences rather than things just adds an extra creative challenge that I’m excited to embrace.

Thanks for sharing :)

34 Katie October 28, 2010

Thanks Alexandra, happy to hear you are ready to embrace new traditions and make them your own. All of Gil’s ideas are inspired and make so much sense.

35 Gil October 28, 2010

Thank you, Katie. Oh how I wish my closet would be like the one in the photo :). I’m about less than halfway there.

Alexandra,

My wife and I decided instead of giving people big gifts this holiday, we will simply give gift cards to chain or local restaurants. I also like to give out coffee, candles and beer and or wine. These things can be consumed and be shared with others. If the beer stays in our fridge too long, though , guess what? :)

What I really would like to do this holiday season is simply contribute a cash donation to either the local food bank, shelters or toys for tots. I will also donate some more clothing as well.

I’ve always considered myself a giving person, but once material things continue to play less and less of a role in my life, I find myself wanting to give and share with those who need and enjoy them more than I do.

36 Lucinda October 29, 2010

Thanks for a great article. Mark’s comment about “emotional packaging” is right on for me. We continue the one-way exit of stuff from our house but it is those last few “Grandma always wanted you to have this” kind of stuff that is the hardest! I’ve kept a few pieces that are important to ME but here’s what I did with the rest – I took a picture of it! Now I have a digital album of all of it. Then it got sold, donated, etc…

It is always a work in progress though, as I am so attached to many letters from friends over the years, all in boxes in the attic. I’m thinking about scanning them…. Any suggestions?

37 Katie October 29, 2010

One thing I have done with old photos, which you could do with letters, is make collages. I’ve taken a large piece of scrap board or foam core or an old cork bulletin board and I’ve cut and pasted photos on them. This way I don’t have a house full of boxes or albums, but some beautiful collages that hang on the wall. I enjoy them, visitors enjoy them and I don’t have the clutter. You could do this with letters, pulling out your favourite quotes, cutting them out and making an amazing keepsake of beautiful words to frame. I know this sounds kind of like doing crafts (and you may not be in to that), but I’ve always been happy I did this with my favourite photos because I’m enjoying them everyday vs. just when I feel the urge to pull an album out. Thanks for your comment and love the digital album idea. You could do that with your scanned letters too. My idea is just a little more tactile.

38 alexandra October 29, 2010

I’ve been meaning to ask about letters too! I find it difficult to get rid of anything that a friend or family member bothered to put on paper and make for me. In particular I have boxes of letters from my childhood pen pals, as I’ve moved a lot. Letting them sit in my closet has so far been easier than rummaging through them for what is actually meaningful, but I guess I should do that at some point, because they are of no use if they’re just sitting around! Thanks for the suggestions – I might do a combination of a digital collection and tactile collage.

39 Katie October 29, 2010

Alexandra, yep. Closets aren’t the place for meaningful interaction with precious things. Hmm, on second thought there was that interaction in the closet with Jimmy whatshisname at that party when I was 16 … oh forget it, I digress.

I hope you create something that works for you out of those precious momentos.

40 Melissa November 16, 2010

This is a wonderful post. I plan to share it with my Sunday School class as we start on a new topic- consumerism. Thank you for your insight.

41 Katie November 17, 2010

Melissa, that’s awesome. I hope the children enjoy it. Great topic to teach them.

42 Tammy November 17, 2010

@Melissa – thank you! And that is so cool you are going to share the post with your students. Yay! :)

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