There are few things I love more than spring cleaning. Something about cleaning house from floor to ceiling and hauling away boxes of junk fills me with an indescribable sense of serenity and relief. Perhaps it speaks to a deep need for order in my life, but something about walking into a clean, organized room fills me with the same excitement I get whenever I get to buy a new notebook.
The process of cleaning and removing stuff is rarely a simple one.
Every time I do a thorough clean-out, I’m forced to reflect on my relationship with stuff: our long history, and all the hopes and expectations I have surrounding it. I have courted stuff my whole life, and it has courted me. It has called to me, tantalized me, and I have pursued it with passion, only to feel disenchanted…and yet determined to pursue it further. A kind of quest for the holy grail, in which the holy grail comes in multiple colors, changes from season to season, and needs upgrading every two years. A whole holy dining room set. Of course, it’s not the grail that’s important, but the holiness it imparts to the bearer.
As I dig through, sort, wash, and dust all of the stuff I have acquired, I am faced with a literal trail of all my quests; the material manifestation of my pursuit of happiness, and the confirmation or denial of my success. I am simultaneously enthralled by the prospect of getting new stuff, and relieved to get rid of it.
Although he is mostly known as a controversial raw-foods guru, one jewel of wisdom that I gleaned from David Wolfe is that most of the time, when people are seeking to acquire something, it isn’t the object itself that they want: it’s the feeling or belief that having the object produces. Sometimes you want a sweater simply because you’re cold. Sometimes you want a sweater because it’s new, or in fashion: it’s the novelty and the status that you’re seeking. In her article on fashion as a feminist issue, Greta Christina talks about clothing as a language: signs made up of arbitrary symbols, endowed with specific meaning. There is nothing inherently powerful about a suit, or incriminating about a hoodie, but these are meanings with which we have collectively endowed these objects.
I’m convinced that in our culture, in which most of our material needs are easily met, we do not simply buy objects: we buy stories, emotions, and identities. An object is rarely a necessity, and almost always a vehicle upon which some sort of extra meaning is layered. Realizing this was one of those “emperor has no clothes moments” for me. The effort taken to turn a simple thing into an experience, into something more meaningful than just a razor or a tube of mascara, is formidable; the amount of money, time, and energy spent on advertising, on packaging, on window displays, on creating a phantasmagorical, irresistible retail wonderland—completely blows my mind.
Some have complained that Facebook and other social media have reduced individuals to a conglomeration of the things that they “like,” but I would argue that this process has been a long time in the making, and may go back way further than we think. For as long as I can remember, at least, I have sought to create myself out of things that I liked—in particular, things that I liked enough to purchase. I was my stuff, and my stuff was me. So the prospect of parting with it was daunting: after all, who would I be without it? What would fill the space?
Over time, though, I felt the need for more space. Throughout college I began to gradually eliminate things from my room at my father’s house. I remembered visiting my grandmother’s house and seeing the way my dad’s and my aunt’s rooms there looked—not crammed full of stuff, but containing a select few meaningful objects and photographs: a football trophy, a sequined dance costume, a high school yearbook, a vintage Barbie doll, a box of slides from a trip to Greece. These were a handful of things that helped to evoke the past without desperately clinging to it. I loved the idea of having a serene space in which I could enjoy positive memories from growing up, so I sought to create that space (or at least go in that direction). But letting go of things was not always a fun or easy process.
There were the more predictable obstacles: thoughts of the “what if I need this some day,” and “I paid good money for this,” and “so-and-so would be crushed if I didn’t keep this” variety. But the biggest challenge for me was coming to terms with the fact that most of the things I needed to purge had been acquired in an attempt to make myself feel better. And I was keenly reminded of the fact that it simply had not worked.
I was surrounded by piles of clothes, makeup, jewelry; colors of nail polish I’d worn only once, perilous shoes bought on sale because I could. Things I never used, that I bought hoping to feel stylish, current, important, pretty. To add a sense of wonder or glamour to my life. Then there were the art supplies, purchased to make myself feel creative and productive. The books bought, but never read, to make me feel intelligent and sophisticated. A trail of my attempts to soothe myself through stuff.
Over time I have noticed an interesting parallel between my relationship with food and my relationship with stuff: I tend to turn to both to make myself feel better, and the impulse to consume, whether to eat or to buy, is often difficult to turn off, even when I know quite clearly that I will simply feel broke and burdened afterward. The positive flip-side to this is that as a result of actually addressing stress and troubling feelings in my life, my appetite, both for food and for material things, has diminished considerably.
Still, as I sorted through piles and piles of stuff, I was confronted by many things. First, the profound sense of failure, that my efforts were ineffective. (My sister, who is known among our friends for her excellent, witty Facebook status updates, once posted this: “Retail therapy! Now I’m lonely and wearing an expensive shirt.”) Secondly, it was a stark reminder of all of the bad feelings I had been trying to avoid. To each object were attached memories of the things I had wanted to eliminate or avoid: feelings of smallness, emptiness, boredom, of being left behind, obsolete, insufficient, even invisible. Thirdly, I felt embarrassed. Did I really think that getting a new outfit would make me feel good about myself…forever? Did I really think that I could somehow craft a character for myself, and step into a new identity, like an actor putting on a costume? Apparently I did. (I should mention that I make a clear distinction between this kind of identity transfer and looking professional/dressing like you give a damn, but that is a post for a different day.) I felt that someone had pulled one over on me; that by believing these commercial messages, I had fallen for a trap set for the ignorant.
Next came anger. Why had I felt so bad, anyway? How had I acquired the beliefs that I was somehow not good enough, or in need of improvement? A wave of bitterness came over me as I thought back to a particularly interesting phase of my angry teenage days: my exposure to Adbusters magazine, and the emperor-grade realization that I was, in fact, constantly bombarded with such messages.
I think the artist Banksy puts it quite nicely when he says, “People are taking the piss out of you every day. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear… They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else… They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it… They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you.”
I had made the mistake of assuming that awareness of something was the same thing as immunity to it. I had to come to peace with the fact that, despite my expensive education and training in mindfulness, I could not instantaneously snap out of a lifetime of social conditioning.
It was disenchanting: each item corresponded with some belief that turned out not to be true: that x would make me happy, that I really needed y, that z would be the last z I would ever need. Each cleaning session contained a lot of admissions that I was wrong. When the feelings of anger subsided, I was left simply with dread. I had all of this stuff, all these clothes, all these unread books, all these unfinished projects. Now what the hell was I going to do with them? And so began many trips to Goodwill, to the library, to secondhand stores, and for some things, the trash.
The good news was, as the result of starting to let go of the unwanted things, I could get greater enjoyment out of what was left. I could curate my collection of meaningful objects, which brought waves of good memories and appreciation. I could move easily through the space; I was less distracted. The more I cleaned out, whether in Atlanta or Chicago, the more I had a sense of safety and mobility. I could, in fact, live without much of what I’d been hanging onto, and live more peacefully.
They say that the reptilian brain in humans is hard-wired to want more, that more is always better. But something about constantly seeking more is distressing: it implies that whatever there is already is insufficient; it implies a lack of something, a void, a crisis. When I go downtown to run errands, I marvel at the enormity of the stores: the infinity of stuff, shelves piled high, racks bursting. Every visit, the stuff is different. Always new, always up to date. Use it once, forget it, find the next thing. Pushing through people in a chaotic swirl.
As I’m writing this post, I realize how very bourgeois it sounds, or at least how arrogant—I have been so privileged to have so much. What a first-world problem, to have too many things. And yet that sounds about right. I consider it a sign of wealth to have enough to let go safely. To not grasp or cling, but to be able to peruse, consider, and decline. In the process of letting go of more things, I’ve realized just how incredibly materialistic I am, in the sense that I love exquisite things, things that are well-made, well-designed, highly functional, and meaningful. As I let go of more things, I can focus on just those things that are really useful and beautiful to me. I love to have nice things, but finding them and using them feels more like a pastime than a battle for survival, which is a huge relief to my psyche as well as my bank account.
I began to take an interest in the minimalist lifestyle over the past summer, after coming across the blog Zen Habits (thanks, Khaled!). While I certainly have a long way to go, the idea of having more room in my life, fewer responsibilities, and more time to pursue my interests appeals to me greatly. Contrary to what I had thought growing up, the core principle of minimalism is not self-righteous austerity, but rather having exactly enough to meet one’s needs. So it has been very useful to me to reflect on that: what do I need, really? What do I actually desire? Moreover, how do I want to feel?
I should mention here that this meditation on feeling has been immensely helpful to me. Figuring out what my end goal is, fully imagining the feeling that I want to create, is a very revealing process. It has taught me that in most situations, I simply want to feel good about myself. I want to believe, and be utterly convinced, that I am accepted, good, and worthy. Imagining that feeling, letting that feeling be present, feels wonderful. It also brings to mind wonderful memories of feeling the same way. It brings up evidence from day to day life that these things are, in many ways, true—that I am accepted and loved—and the feeling amplifies. And it brings to mind the things I can do to continue experiencing that feeling. More often than not, there is no object involved. Say I want to feel important. I imagine, what does that feel like, to be important? And I think of all the times I have been in charge of something, or have helped someone, and the feeling of importance grows and solidifies. (And I feel less inclined to go buy a fountain pen or a coffee mug with the University of Chicago seal on it.)
One of the objects I have chosen to keep in my room at my dad’s house is an old issue of Adbusters. On the back cover is an icon of Jesus, heart ablaze, with text that reads, “I want you to buy less and live more.” Well, Adbusters Jesus, I agree with you there. Because for all my fascination with the decorative, I really do crave that freedom to be more present in my life, and the conviction that I not only do I have enough, I am enough. I still have plenty of attachments, and impulses flicker through my mind constantly, but I also relish this feeling of letting go, because it makes me feel richer. Letting go of anything that isn’t really meaningful to me, whether an object, a commitment, a pastime, or whatever, leaves behind the things that are meaningful, and they capture my attention. No wonder spring cleaning feels so good.
**I have come across a number of great articles, blogs, and books on decluttering and adopting a more minimalist lifestyle: Leo Babauta’s popular Zen Habits blog and his best of collection, Francine Joy’s Miss Minimalist blog and her best of collection, Khaled’s post on clear spaces and creativity, and Karen Kingston’s book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, which, despite the new-agey title, contains a very thoughtful discussion of the psychology of attachment and hoarding.
**Also, for your viewing pleasure, the Spring Cleaning song from Rocko’s Modern Life.