In middle class America, we have too much stuff, and a helpful Japanese organizer has given us permission to get rid of it. Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” has transmuted into a popular Netflix program in which we get to watch other people get rid of their stuff. Now, thrift stores are getting buried under mountains of our discards.
It feels good to let go. I’ve been a pack rat most of my life, even packing stuff away in a storage unit when I left California to move back in with my parents so I could finish grad school. When I went back for the stuff in 2015, planning to put most of it in a rummage sale and use the proceeds for a volunteer trip to South Africa, this is what I wrote for the Volunteer Forever blog:
It was easier than I thought to let go of most of the things I had packed away. And that made it both easier and more difficult emotionally. …But it was more difficult in the way of getting a sense of how much energy and time and money I invested in hanging on to and accumulating things that didn’t matter.
How much time, energy and money do we put into “stuff” when we could be investing it elsewhere? How many things are useful, and how many things are meant to create a sense of self? Does our “stuff” hinder us or help us? (And can it help someone else?)
Like everyone, I had a lot of hopes and dreams about who I would be and what my life would look like. I surrounded myself with things that I thought fit in that vision, interests I wanted to be associated with, talents I wanted to acquire, strengths I wanted to possess. But opening box after box of unread books, unused items and clothing that wasn’t right for me felt like opening boxes of desire, envy and insecurity.
Still, I brought home a small Penske truck’s worth of goods and, for a short time, it ended up in another storage unit in Wisconsin. Now that I’m in my new small house, I’ve been going through another round of “let’s make it fit,” and it’s been a powerful exercise in learning how much I don’t need, and in what aspects of my life have more space to breathe when dead energy is moved out.
The frequent and fevered question people have is “Do you regret giving anything away?” That fear is a reason why we hold on to stuff in the first place: I might need it later. I might want it later. But the answers can be revealing and powerful: The only thing I ever was sorry to have given up was a pair of tap shoes. And here’s the thing: They were easily replaced—with better, more comfortable, tappier shoes. And more importantly, the loss of those shoes brought me far more wealth: A renewed interest in dance lessons. New kinds of dance. New friendships. Fancy, bright costumes. The thrill of getting on the stage again. And, possibly the most impactful—an important exploration of why I gave up dancing in the first place. Which also gave me important fodder for my writing life.
Purgery: I used this title as wordplay, a twist on the act of purging. But a “purgery” is also a real thing, the place in a sugarhouse in which molasses is drained off maple sugar. A way to the final product, the sweet stuff.
It works in writing, too. Having once or twice dumped a hefty portion of my worldly goods, it’s seemed easier to highlight and delete unwanted or unnecessary lines of text. Working as an editor and reporter honed my sense of what belongs, but releasing “stuff” has maybe added a stronger sense of what has the most impact. Or at least a sense of that whatever you get rid of won’t be noticed or missed.
Still, when I’m editing a novel and taking out big chunks of text, I put them in a file I call a “Holding Pond,” a just-in-case-I-want-it-later file, my own literary junk drawer, so I don’t get distracted by my fear of the lost words. But like real junk drawers, I hardly ever go back and look for what I threw in there. Once in a while, I realize something might fit better in a sequel or a prequel, and I create a special new file for the section of text, giving it the honor and space it deserves.
Keeping things that matter is OK—nobody has to purge everything. Even the Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, who have shared their joy in letting go through their book “Everything That Remains,” say it’s about keeping the things that make you truly happy, curating the most meaningful possessions. In Marie Kondo terms, it’s about what sparks joy.
Like most writers I have a number of works in progress, and I cultivate the ones that I think have potential, letting them simmer and bubble up when the time is right. Recently, I discovered that a long-dormant and partially finished project really belonged integrated into another work-in-progress, a melding of a present-and-future story that became my speculative fiction novella, “The Fledgling.” In February, the manuscript was shortlisted by Brain Mill Press for its novella contest.
With more clarity around each piece, I was able to recognize their strength and power as a congruent narrative and gain momentum on a new and exciting project. And that sparks a hell of a lot of joy.