One of the many hats I wear is as the author of a funny, yet relevant – and hopefully wise – ADVICE COLUMN. One of the questions that a DARLING READER sent to me in the early years of the column is one in which my answer should prove germane to the people who read Festival Prose. Rhonni’s been asking me for years to jot down some thoughts on simplifying and streamlining your lifestyle. Here’s what I’ve come up with for you all today.
You, Comic Hack, lead a nomadic existence. It cannot always have been thus. I am “settled”, as it were. I have lived in the same home for a large segment of my life. In gaining these roots, there is, of course, a certain comfort. Along with that comfort comes the accumulation of possessions. Given we live in a world where much of our society is consumers and much of the product sold is consumable, it seems this should not present a problem. However, the consumption comes with the expense of expanding waistlines and bulging walls, bank accounts drained and satisfaction NOT guaranteed. How do I reconcile the NEED to cling to things with the knowledge that this is not a healthy practice? I have come to the definite conclusion that my fight against being buried by clutter is a losing battle. In fact, most days I just close my eyes and leave my house and pretend it’s not happening. How do you manage to LIVE with only what you can carry? How does one LEARN to “just say no” to things that speak to their heart? And HOW?HOW?HOW? Do I find the strength to part with the things that are so special to me but injure me by their sheer volume?
Can you impart some practical tips and wisdom from your migratory existence that can set me free (or better arm me for battle?) Your faithful reader, A Stuff Saver with a Gypsy Soul
Now this, THIS is a question I am uniquely qualified by training, experience and inclination to answer. Let me start by clarifying, I have ALWAYS lived a nomadic lifestyle. It was always thus and I could not be happier. By the time I was 18 I’d attended fifteen different schools. This does not imply that I hadn’t accumulated a lot of Stuff – or not to put too fine a point on it – Junk. It just means that my piles of stuff were spread out over a more vast distance until I learned a better way. I am just lucky enough to have learned how to divest myself, to de-clutter and simplify.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Labyrinth and not just because of the majestic wonder of Mr. Tom Cruise’s thighs, the delicious decadence of Tim Curry as Darkness or the slightly pervy attraction to the too young Mia Sara.
Wait – That’s the movie Legend. Labyrinth had the too young Jennifer Connelly, dark-and-twisted Muppets and David Bowie with is tight pants and ball manipulation (giggity!). In this beautiful, lyrical film one of the hazards depicted in the titular labyrinth, one of the most compelling and unsettling scenes, involved a monstrous hag covered with accumulated stuff who tries to distract our young heroine by plying her and piling her high with her own possessions. The Junk Lady – for so she is unimaginatively named – is one of many junk people who occupy an area of the Labyrinth known as The Junk Fields – or so this entry in the Labyrinth Wiki tells us. She briefly tempts Sarah (Connelly) away from her quest by getting her to hold, treasure and accumulate her possessions. Wow.
This is the perfect metaphor for your situation. Don’t fall for the Junk Lady’s tricks!
I want you right now to take a step back, breathe and remember you’re not a victim here so stop trying to use that as an excuse for not doing the work. This is a society of consumers sure; but it is also the society of the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo; if you cannot see how abhorrent those knuckleheads are and cannot choose not to emulate them – your problems are far more deep-rooted than I will be able to address. Not to wax all Buddhist-sounding but you are so much more than just the accumulation of things. You are not your objects and they have no more sway over you than you allow them to. You are not powerless.
I understand the sway of the safe, the pull of comfort, and of the gravity of the familiar. One of the Newtonian laws – number one on the pop charts – dictates that a body at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an external source! (emphasis mine). You can certainly choose to stay as you have always been or you can choose to exercise an act of will. Again, you are not your stuff and you are not powerless.
Let me tell you how I finally reached enlightenment in this realm. When I first went on the road I lived in a school bus – I kind of thought you were required to do so to be a Renaissance Festival performer. Because I had such a surplus of space the bus that was originally equipped to transport 66 passengers carted around an embarrassment of Junk instead. Funny, I was going to put a quote from George Carlin right here about “Stuff” versus “Shit” but I think I’m going to avoid any quotes this month out of sheer perversity; but I digress.
As the years went by I streamlined my life. I also moved into progressively smaller and smaller accommodations until eventually, everything I needed or wanted in this nomadic life fit tidily into the back of a capper-covered pick-up truck bed. But rather than discard all of my old possessions; some of them dating back to when I’d been married and in the Navy, I had them squirreled-away at various weird locations all over the country. I had stuff in my ex-wife’s attic and stuff in two different storage units thousands of miles apart. I had stuff in my business partner’s garage and stuff at my mom’s house. All of this was in addition to the STUFF I travelled with year after year.
The purchase of a new travel-trailer caused me to take a long, hard (giggity) look at the madness and finally stop my hoarding ways. I gathered –up all of my possessions from their many disparate locations and went through them all piece-by-piece. I sold many of my “treasured” items- my books were the hardest to part with – and I even made a little money in the process. I threw away nearly a dumpster’s worth of crap, and packed away into the new trailer only that bare-minimum of things I needed or wanted to truck around with me from state-to-state. After the preceding few years, I understood how few and simple my needs really were, even being a bit of a clothes horse like I am. Discarding and divesting myself of this accumulated trash was one of the single most freeing moments in my entire life. I condensed and discarded until eventually all that required storing – stuff too esoteric to cart about but that I was too attached to and couldn’t throw away – finally filled one small steamer trunk. This was a life-changing moment and I hope my example helps motivate you.
You might find some inspiration and some tips in the rules I live by now. Since I move my entire household about seven or eight times a year, I reexamine what I need and what I possess each time. Maybe a simpler twice-a-year reassessment would suffice for you? I go through my clothes, my toys and even my housewares and if I haven’t used them in a year, and cannot foresee using them in the next six months I sell them, discard them or leave them in a secure location for when I return the following year. We used to pack up and transport a gas-fired grill from state to state, now I just buy one and leave it for when I return to each location. I think we own five. Digital media is your friend. I don’t buy paper books anymore. I keep a very tiny percentage that have sentimental or fiscal value and the rest I get on Kindle. When I do read a paper book, as soon as I finish it – even if I plan to read it again someday, I give it as a gift to someone who will appreciate it. There are exceptions: I’m not giving up My Adam Ant Biography for example. All of my CDs are in my computer and my iPod. I’ll be moving my MASSIVE – over seven hundred disc – movie collection to a series of hard drives at some point in the future because this kind of simplifying is not an ACT it is an ongoing process.
Give this a shot – simplify your life starting this weekend but start the preparations today. Begin with “Spring Cleaning” right now. Even though it’s autumn. Pull out all the crap from your attic, your bookshelves and your basement and have a garage sale Saturday morning. Reassess all that you’ve walled yourself up with and sell, trash or give away all of the things that are weighing down your life like an anchor. Look at it this way: if you give it an honest effort and find that you’re not happier without all the physical, and metaphorical clutter then you can always experience the hollow joy of shopping therapy as you acquire more “Stuff”.
Once you start stripping down and simplifying your life it becomes easier and easier to continue but you have to be just as cognizant of stuff creeping back in as you were aware of getting rid of it in the first place. You can implement “One in, Two out” and “Maximum number” rules where for example every time you purchase one pair of shoes you must discard two that you no longer wear. For the second rule you can set a number that you’re not allowed to exceed on certain possessions. Who needs more than fifteen t-shirts anyway? Don’t become a collector, and don’t attach too much of your sense of self to your stuff; the joy brought by possessions is a fleeting one. In my family we’re gift givers, but we tend to put the emphasis more on experiences than on things. Except guns, I still have a bit of an arsenal. Ya know, for the Zombie Apocalypse.
Finally realize that in some rare cases there is an actual disorder that compels you to acquire beyond what is reasonable. In most cases it “only” takes an act of will no-less strong than the one that makes you go to the gym each day to choose to take the steps to de-clutter your life. But sometimes you’ll need to seek professional help. If you think you’re one of these cases – do so. In even the most extreme cases, if you want to change you can. It does not have to be a losing battle. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with keeping and valuing some prized possessions any more than there is any wrong in eating a cupcake from time-to-time. But when you cause yourself harm, when you hoard to the point of shame or embarrassment it’s the same horrors as eating an entire box of donuts over the garbage can while crying. Choose better for yourself; get help if you need it. You are not powerless and you are not your stuff.