The space between our ideal and our reality

So, I was reading Real Simple the other day…

Yes, I subscribe to Real Simple… and they were talking about decluttering your clutteriest spots, or some such something. This is a topic that I’m always interested in, though if you know me personally and have been to my physical space, you’ll know that I’ve got a lot less stuff that I use to have. Anyway. I was reading, and there was actually a line that went something like, Unless you’ve been trying for some monastic ideal all the way along, you’re like the rest of us: you’ve got too much stuff.

My jaw dropped, and I just bust out with laughter. This, of course, describes me perfectly. (The monastic ideal, bit. That’s what describes me perfectly.)

I’ve got too much stuff, naturally. I mean, I’m an American, and even the poorest among us has got stuff coming out their ears, for the most part. (Forgive me in my sweeping generalization if you exist among the .2% of Americans that don’t have a quantity of possessions that would boggle a certian 75% percent of our world’s population. Clearly, I’m not talking about you, and I do know you exist.) Even though I recognize that I’ve got an incredible amount of stuff, and a dizzying array of interests and hobbies, all of which require specialist equipment… (Knitting needles don’t take up much room, but the stash of yarn does, as does the stash of material for quiliting, and the powertools and spare lumber. And the powertools are heavy, much more so than yarn…) Even though this is true, I manage to make the most of 440 sq ft (plus balcony and attic storage), and though the space between my ideal and my reality is a gaping chasm, my ideal is something one might describe as zen emptiness. Of course, the space between layers of clutter and shit and zen emptiness is largely filled with storage solutions and denial, but it is also occasionally filled with Craig’s List, eBay, Amazon Used, the church rummage sale, and occasionally, the Big Blue Garbage Can Outside – and from that last entry, you can imagine that I’m not talking about new acquisitions.

And so, as I was reading this Real Simple article, it dawned on me that I had already learned all of these tips and tricks from my uber-organized and Queen of Renewed Space, Rose, who also happens to be one of my sisters. And it dawned on me, too, that I’d simply begun to make some decisions in my own life that started to go beyond the Real Simple article. I looked into the principles of Feng Shui, and have taken it seriously. Not the lighter, flufflier quick fix stuff like put a growing plant in your ‘money’ corner, but rather, that every space we occupy is energetic, and that the energy flows – make sure you’re doing what you can do to make it flow well. And, I’ve noticed that for me at least, there is just a feeling involved with being in a space were the energy is good. It feels differently than a space might otherwise. Beyond Feng Shui, I’ve thought a lot about how people in other countries live – people both poverty stricken and affluent – and how what I might buy has an impact – where it was produced, under what conditions. I think about sustainability, and global impact, about urban vs. suburban vs. rural. I think about all these things, and it helps to inform my own decisions that I make.

I think about my own love-hate relationship with monastacism, which I won’t go into detail about here, but be sure I’ve got such a relationship. Anyone who’s followed along for any length of time knows one or two good reasons why I wouldn’t go over well in a convent, and as far as Taking Holy Orders, well, I’ve done that twice now, and I’m still not a monastic. (But feel free to address me as The Holy Reverend Mother anytime you like, if you can do so with a straight face.) And while the strict regimine of prayer is probably idea number one that I love, strong community is idea three, but number two is a complete lack of stuff. I believe they call it voluntary poverty. Now, anyone can embrace voluntary poverty, or a complete lack of stuff. You don’t have to take monastic orders to do this thing. But like all things in life, I think it might be slightly more difficult when it isn’t required of you, and when you’re not getting unconditional support from a strong community around you to do it and maintain it. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps this is not true for everyone, or even just a small pocket of people, but I will take a stand and say that it is true for me, and that I just don’t believe it’s not true for anyone else.

I remember a conversation with my boss just last week. It came out that I do, in fact, exist in an apartment that boasts very nearly 440 sq feet (plus balcony & attic storage), and while his first reaction was just short of shock (the dear man), his second was something like wistfulness. He muttered something along the lines of how nice it might be to live more simply in such a space. I was sort of shocked, as I don’t really think of myself as living simply at all. I’ve got entirely too many books, too many hobbies, and too much furniture to even mimic living simply in such a space. If I lived in 3000 sq ft, sure it might look like I was some sort of displaced buddhist plainclothes monk, but as it is… Not so much.

And yet, it’s all relative, isn’t it? Yesterday found me walking through the large mall nearest me, an endeavor I avoid for the most part, but I had to make a trek to the Apple Store, so I had to brave the Galleria. Ah, the mall. It’s a consumer wonderland. It’s a zen emptiness nightmare writ large. And as I succumed to the lure of a new tea shop, and read the descriptions of the Chinese symbolism on the beautiful cast iron tea pots that called my name (though I did resist), I imagined this beautiful tea set and how it might be best displayed – in an empty room with open windows, on a small low table surrounded by cushions with no electronics, no clutter, no crap lying about. And I imagined how it might be displayed in my home: squished inbetween my English bone china tea pot and my Bolivian coffee pot, both of which I use, mind you, but just one more among many. And I thought, yes it’s beautiful, yes it would be useful, but do I need it?

I bought tea instead.

All this to say, that I’ve been thinking about this clutter thing for a while now. I’ve been thinking about how much stuff I’ve got for a fair number of years. I’ve been building up and wearing away, in turns, the amount of stuff I own, or maintain, depending on your view. I’ve flirted with the ‘monastic ideal,’ studied the principles of feng shui, and learnt at the feet of my sister who is fearless in the face of clutter and able to dispose of just about anything. I’ve looked long and hard at what I actually do, what my values are, what I need for survival, for sanity, and to be able to flourish, and I’ve laid a cold and beady eye on all that remains. I’ve changed my habits as a consumer. And when I read things like that article, it dawns on me that I’ve already taken the first steps that it is describing. (1 – realize you’ve got more shit than you need and begin to deal with the stuff that you clearly have absolutely no use for, what so ever.) And I’ve taken the second and third steps. (2 – there’s ancient wisdom about how your space affects your life. Learn up on it, start to apply it. 3 – Differentiate between the person who presented you with something and the thing they presented to you.) And maybe even the fourth and fifth steps. (4 – put your life in a global context, because that’s the context you actually exist within. 5 – Take a good hard look at your life, your activities, your assumptions, and your possessions. What do they say about your values? Do you like what you see?)

And now? Now I feel like I’ve probably gathered all the tools one might need to live a simple and organized life (beautiful and just-so, I believe I once called it). Now, I just need to do it, which is probably the most challenging bit.

Sarey’s Five Essentials for ‘Decluttering’. (Can you call a major life shift like this, ‘decluttering’?)

  1. Realize you’ve got more shit than you need and begin to deal with the stuff that you clearly have absolutely no use for, what so ever. In this case, ‘deal with’ is the painless euphemism for sell/donate/throw away, or otherwise get rid of.
  2. There’s ancient wisdom about how your space affects your life. It’s ancient, and more importantly, enduring for a reason – there’s a serious amount of validity to it, and whether or not it’s been proven by modern science is completely besides the point – it’s been proven by centures of human experience. Learn up on it, start to apply it.
  3. Differentiate between the person who presented you with something and the thing they presented to you. Feel free to sell/give away/donate what you no longer wish to have in your space. And don’t forget that even family heirlooms are maintained by you – at some point you’ll give them up. Do you only wish to declutter when you die, or do you wish to reap the rewards of decluttering in this lifetime?
  4. Put your life in a global context, because that’s the context you actually exist within. At what price do you own your stuff? Is that the price you’re willing to pay? If these questions make no sense, continue your research on the price of consumerism, and the ethics of consumerism.
  5. Take a good hard look at your life, your activities, your assumptions, your spending habits, and your possessions. What do they say about your values? Do you like what you see? When you’ve finished doing this, do it again. And again. And again. And next year, do it again and again. And the year after that, and the year after that, and the year after that. If at any point you don’t like what you see, do something about it. After all – it’s your life. You can change it, if you wish. In fact, you’re the only one who can.

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