When my husband and I moved back to the United States a few years ago, we had been living an adventurous, unconventional life on a boat overseas. We moved to Maine and fell in love with a piece of land. It came with a huge, old, white farmhouse much larger than we needed or wanted. We had two children in quick succession and got a dog. We went rapidly from living in a minuscule space on the water with only two duffel bags to a life on land as a family of four in a big house overwhelmed with stuff.
We try to be conscious about what we bring into our home, but we still have to come to terms with the fact that, like a goldfish that expands according to the size of its bowl, we’ve swollen in size to fill the space in which we live.
And it’s burying us. It’s financially stressful, emotionally draining, and exhausting to try to keep up with both the size and the needs of this home and everything in it. Every night for the last few months, I’ve been trying to clean out and clear little pockets to lessen the burden, but organizing isn’t enough. I feel, rightly, like I’m just moving piles around. In order to really make significant change, we need to own at least 50% less stuff.
A couple of weeks ago, going through a stack of books I’d organized, I found my late mother’s now-twenty-year-old, dog-eared copy of “Simplify Your Life” by Elaine St. James. It includes 100 wise ideas like Take a Vacation at Home (#37, now known in pop-parlance as a “stay-cation”) and Create Your Own Rituals (#67). I’d read it a number of times myself, adding my own penciled notes and folding down more pages. I sat with the book in my lap and looked around me. My office is a minefield of clutter that we have been gradually sorting through for the past three years, and the book in my lap felt like an oasis and a call to sanity.
When we moved and when we had both of our children, we were blessed by gifts from doting family members and sweet friends: bags and bags of hand-me-down clothes, beautiful toys, a dollhouse, a kitchen set, wooden trains, Legos, loads of books.
We also had antiques we inherited from my parents, keepsakes from both of our childhoods, and furniture, toys and sporting goods from friends who moved. Two storage units worth of stuff also came here with us from our lives before we had left the US years prior. We thought we’d come home to live in a sailboat-sized eco-home as dedicated minimalists. How did we end up with so much stuff? We just didn’t see things piling up as they did so quickly.
It’s an embarrassment of riches. But it is exactly that. It’s an overabundance, a little too much of a good thing.
As I sat there with the book in my lap I wondered if St. James wrote other books on the topic and so began an internet search that led me into a maze, deeper and deeper into simplicity, minimalism, life without plastic, and a phrase that was new to me, zero waste.
On Amazon, I clicked on a book cover that looked appealing, “The Zero Waste Home” by Bea Johnson. I read the introduction and instantly wanted to know everything about Ms. Johnson and her lifestyle. I was living her former life in some ways – not in the suburbs but in an oversized house with too many things, and feeling somehow that I was missing some critical piece of information about my life that I couldn’t identify. I stayed up past my bedtime reading her blog and became absorbed in the feeling of peace and serenity I felt looking at the uncluttered, open surfaces of her tidy home.
As I watched Johnson give a video tour of her zero-waste pantry (stacked neatly with glass jars) and her minimalist closet, a forgotten sense of ease washed over me. I sat with the feeling, cherishing it, in a way I usually reserve for salted caramel desserts or an amazing night sky. What was missing from our life, from our home, was emptiness. Space. My house can’t breathe, it’s no wonder I feel like I can’t either.
As a consequence of this mental and emotional transformation that has begun to occur, my husband and I have just undertaken an experiment inspired by these resources that we hope will lead to a major lifestyle shift for our whole family.
As I read Johnson’s book, I started my quest to declutter and downsize by cleaning my kitchen.
I emptied out my cupboards and drawers. I put everything I wanted to keep on our dining room table. Everything else went into a huge bin for the sale we’ll have after the new year. I didn’t even realize I had four ice cream scoops, three 9x12 pans, and seven muffin tins!
I have enjoyed cooking in my kitchen more the last week than I have the whole time we’ve lived here. My drawers are beautiful now--one or two utensils in each organized space. It’s not enough to just organize, letting go is what feels the best and the simplicity that results does bring peace. The rest of my house is undeniably still a wreck but for now, I’m content to take this in small steps.
Like any new beginning, there are hesitations, trepidation. I thought about rescuing a couple of my tossed kitchen items from the bin. I wanted to shave some raw beets for a salad but instead of getting the mandoline out of the discard pile, I’m just going to have to sharpen my blade more often and get better knife skills. Last night, making cranberry pomegranate sauce for Thanksgiving, I was wishing I hadn’t already tossed my food mill as I struggled to press the pulp through my crude sieve with a wooden spoon.
Then I opened the cabinet and saw the now uncluttered spots where both of those tools used to be. The important thing is, there is space. I can see now where a genuine need might exist, instead of a tsunami of objects.
In a few months we will move into a new house less than half the size of the one we’re currently inhabiting. When we do, our goal is to take less than half of what we currently own with us and to break the habits that got us here in the first place so it doesn’t happen again.
I will be documenting our journey as we go; how we face the emotional load of sentimental things we are gifted or that we inherited, having a giant estate sale, how our two children adjust to the idea of reducing their playroom and two separate rooms to one small shared bedroom with just a few toys. I will also have to face my own biggest, beloved demon: my closet.
I can see I’m still thinking now about what I will lose. What I hope becomes more and more clear is what we will gain by letting go.