As trees shed leaves, people shed 'stuff'

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Any suburbanite heading out at 7 or 8 a.m. on an October Saturday might catch a glimpse of an annual rite of autumn: homeowners tacking hand-lettered signs to telephone poles. The wording may vary, but the theme is always the same: "Yard Sale! Great stuff!!! 9-2."

Toys, clothes, old Christmas decorations, worn furniture – it's all there on the lawn for neighbors and bargain-hunters to see. With each modest sale, relieved owners rejoice at the prospect of less clutter and more space.

This is the season when something in the crisp autumn air inspires homeowners to follow the example of nature: If trees can shed all those leaves, we seem to reason, we can jettison at least some of the jumble in the basement, attic, and garage. Yet it's also the season when extra possessions cast a defiant eye attheir owners, as if to say, "I dare you to get rid of me."

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Too much stuff ranks as one of the subtle domestic challenges of our time. It's the ironic downside of a prosperous culture that is supposed to bring pleasure in acquiring and pride in owning. Instead, the excess bounty sometimes adds up to a costly burden – paying cleaning help to dust and polish it, hiring contractors to expand the house to accommodate more things, and paying storage facilities to hold the overflow. As a brochure for a self-storage company puts it, "Your stuff deserves extra space."

Or does it?

William Morris, the 19th-century British designer, offers one of the best ideals for creating a satisfying home: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."

Those 18 small words have the potential to transform a home. Utility and beauty – what criteria could be simpler? If an object fails either test, the decision should be clear: Out it goes.

Then again, maybe not. Everyone's definition of usefulness and beauty is different. Sentiment and family connections exert a strong emotional tug.

Morris's dictum is constantly reflected in the pages of glossy shelter magazines, where serene, uncluttered rooms have been arranged to perfection by a small army of decorators and stylists and captured on paper by artful photographers. It's the same nothing-out-of-place style that gives model homes and decorator show houses their appeal.

But even the most appreciative audiences might also, on second glance, sense a certain sterility. Where are the children's drawings on the refrigerator, for example? Where are the quirky objects picked up as happy reminders of vacations over the years? And where is the reading material in these often-bookless rooms?

Anthony Powell sums up the need perfectly in the title of one of his novels: "Books Do Furnish a Room."

Fall housecleaning, at least the frenzied basement-to-attic approach our grandmothers and great-grandmothers supposedly took, has mercifully gone the way of the rug beater. Our 21st-century solution is more likely to be straight out of the lick-and-a-promise school of housekeeping – incomplete, but good enough for now.

Great-grandmother's way might have been exhausting, but she did enjoy one distinct advantage: She had no need of yard sales and self-storage units, given the relative permanence of her generation's possessions and the greater frugality of her times. Then again, she never knew the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction we derive from what could be called fall house-purging.

The longing for order transcends eras and generational styles. With each trip to the dump and every load of donations dropped off at Goodwill or the Salvation Army, we hear William Morris's advice echoing in our ears, and we know he was right.

In this case, parting is such sweet pleasure.

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