how to bless our clutter goodbye

Gluttony. Guilt. Gulp.

My gut reactions to the recent New York Times article on “The Way We Live: Drowning In Stuff.”

I actually wondered, for a fleeting second, whether the UCLA researchers had been secretly spying on our recent move. Because if there were one single emotion that dominated this life transition – beyond nostalgia at leaving our first home and excitement at settling into the new – it was a sinking sense of feeling overwhelmed at how much stuff we’ve collected over the years.

Boxes and boxes, tubs upon tubs, books we’ve never read, wedding gifts we’ve never used, Christmas decorations we hung once, children’s clothes they wore twice. All of it saved, stacked, squirreled away in corners of our old basement, now staring at us in our new living room.

I am utterly overwhelmed by how much we own.

We excel at making excuses why we need all this stuff. We live in a state with extreme seasonal swings, so we need clothing to outfit the family from winter’s -30 and summer’s 100+ degrees. My husband is handy and likes to fix things around the house, so we need a garage full of tools. We love to read and I love to write, so we need shelves and shelves of good books. We like to cook and have four hungry mouths to feed three times a day, so we need a kitchen full of plates and cups and pots and pans and appliances.

Need? I wonder.

As I spent hours over the past months packing and then unpacking every single possession I own, I often thought of a good friend who entered a convent last summer. She sold her house and almost everything she owned, and then entered her community with the clothes on her back, a few books, a handful of photographs. I remember talking to her while she was listing furniture on Craigslist and tagging items for a garage sale. It’s tough to get rid of stuff, she said. You realize how attached you are to possessions. But so many times during this move I secretly envied her, the simplicity of a cell without clutter, the freedom of a life without excess.

If you read about the study on how families in our consumer culture accumulate in abundance, maybe you’ll feel the same gut-punch that I did. Recognizing how my stress levels do sky-rocket when faced with clutter. Admitting that my family does overdo Christmas out of our guilt for living so far apart from each other. Realizing that I feel helpless to know how to drastically change my habits as a consumer.

I’m always attempting to manage the clutter. I keep a steady stream of bags flowing to Goodwill. I don’t go shopping for entertainment. I regularly weed through kids’ toys and books to pull out what they don’t use. I always stop myself before I wheel the cart into the checkout to  double-check that I actually need everything I’m about to buy.

But I still find myself in a house so chock full of stuff I barely know where to begin to make real change.

So whenever I read these kind of reports – that we’re drowning in our own abundance, that we’re overwhelmed by our own excess – my initial reaction is always one of guilt and complicity. It’s a first-world problem, and I’m just as swept up in it as my neighbors. But this time I glimpsed one glimmer of hope from the NYTimes piece, a toss-away comment by the lead researcher that “we don’t have rituals, mechanisms, for getting rid of stuff.”

Would it help me if I had a ritual to bless my clutter goodbye?

Ha! Good luck with that, Mama!

So I tried it. At first I felt foolish as I stood over the paper bags stacked by the door, some ready to run to Goodwill, others awaiting their fate on garbage day. Was I supposed to sprinkle the stuff with holy water, perfume it with incense?

But I decided to start by simply thanking God for the good that these possessions once brought me – for the miles I ran in those old sneakers, the meals I fed my babies in those bibs, the photos of dear friends I hung in those frames.

Then I held in blessing the next person who would read the book I never cracked, watch the DVD we never opened, eat from the bowls we rarely used.

And finally I asked for help to become a more careful consumer, to steward my resources wisely, to remember those who go without the basics of food and water and shelter while I have the luxury to worry about my abundance.

Surprisingly, something small did shift inside me. I turned my focus from possessions to people. I felt myself starting to release from the need to cling desperately to every little shred of paper and plastic that passes through my door. A moment’s pause in the midst of purging might be just what I need to break my addiction to materialism and remember how to appreciate material goods for their goodness. That’s a spiritual lesson I want to teach my children, so it’s got to start with me.

But as I blessed our clutter goodbye, I also remembered the most powerful truth about rituals: we have to do them over and over and over again to understand their meaning, to establish them as a life-giving habit. So I sighed, packed the bags into the car, and headed back upstairs with a garbage bag in my fist. Still so much to share, still so little I really need.

At least there’s a whole lot of clutter around me to help deepen my spiritual practice of learning to do with less.

14 thoughts on “how to bless our clutter goodbye

  1. Great post! We have been in full purge mode since we moved to our current home. Our last move (almost two years ago) made such an impression on us, that we are still working to simplify. Though I wish we had a basement, living without one makes us examine more closely whether or not accumulating “extras” for some day is worth it. Do I really need a closet stuffed full of decorations? I have been inspired by this woman’s post on simplifying and have been trying to achieve a clean countertop for a while. I still need more simplifying to achieve this: Bryan also receives a daily reflection from this guy: which has really helped us to purge! It is a worthy cause. I often think of the Missionaries of Charity who carry all of their possessions in one box! Wow! What would I pick?

    1. “Living for someday” – I’m trapped in that mindset, too! Especially with clothes, as I’m in the years of pregnancy-post-partum-nursing. I save all sorts of sizes since I’m often in-between. But do I really need as much as I think? Definitely not. Thanks for the links – looking forward to checking them out!

  2. I so totally resonate with this post! I feel like the “stuff” just clings to us like dust or sand, and then it turns to stone, weighing us down. My husband and I cleaned out the garage last week and it was like an archeological dig into the past 9 years. Like you, I’m learning to be with it in a calmer spiritual place. I’ve come to regard the process as a “movement of the Spirit” — there’s a sense of energy from moving old stuff along and making space for the new.

    1. Great metaphor, Peg! And an archeological dig indeed. Our garage overwhelms me as much (if not more) than the basement. Where to start – so I just keep piling. But there’s a call here, indeed. To let go of what we don’t need so we have space to embrace the grace we do.

  3. After cleaning out my grandparents’ house this past year this article really hits home. I had a hard time letting go of their stuff (and there was a LOT of it)…but I finally came to realize that it was just stuff. It was both depressing and freeing to see the lifetime accumulation of material things mean absolutely nothing in the end.

    1. Well said, Emily. You reminded me of a moment of clarity I had while packing up our old kitchen a few months ago. I realized that every single thing in our house would someday end up in a landfill. Even the things we passed on to someone else would eventually, down the years, break or lose their meaning. So it’s all going back into the earth eventually. YIKES.

  4. What a wonderful, thoughtful piece you’ve done here! I often have the same feelings, although, like you, I keep a steady stream of “stuff” going to goodwill at all times. We live in a small house for our family size so I am constantly in a state of feeling overwhelmed by all the clutter. It is a constant battle for me. Thank you for writing this!

  5. I’ve written a lot about de-cluttering on my blog. I am a hoarder at heart, so I really have to be vigilant. Luckily I like an ordered home more than I like stuff. I also like my children to pick up them after themselves which is much easier when there is a designated place for everything.

    I limit my stuff by available space. If the designated are for toys/books/glassware is full, then I don’t buy more unless something else is leaving.

  6. I keep forwarding these wonderful essays to our family and friends. We all live under the tyranny of stuff. Having a ritual to bless it on its way sounds wonderful and helpful.

    1. Thank you, Mary. Indeed, we all seem trapped by stuff – even when we know that accumulating won’t bring us happiness. We’re still stuck in the cycle. I wonder how ritual and blessing can help us let go, free our hands to embrace what really matters.

  7. Oh wow. I’ve not read this post yet because, well, it hits a little close to home.

    I like things. I come from a long line of women who collect things. Thimbles, books, cameras, sprinklers, Wee Forest Folk, porcelain boots, buttons–things. We treasure them and honor them.

    As I was discerning the monastery over the past year, I kept getting hung up on my stuff. I talked with the prioress about the things I wanted to bring with me. She said I couldn’t bring my own bed. “But,” I protested, “it was my grandmother’s when she was a girl. It has a story.”

    And there’s the hangup for me. It all has a story. I come by this naturally. Several years ago my mom and her partner bought new bedsheets. The ones they’d had were about ten years old. As they were making the bed with the new sheets, my mom said to her partner, “Think of all the nights we’ve spent in these sheets.” The accumulation of years spent together–morning conversations, love given, tears shed, restless nights–in those sheets that graced the bed.

    As I contemplate starting another blog, one of the things I’ve considered is writing about my things. Sharing stories about why my pint glasses mean something to me. Telling readers where my books come from and why I keep them. Explaining the trinkets on my shelves and the furniture in my home. If anything, it would at least provide an easy way to dive into stories. We shall see . . .

    What I love about this post, now that I’ve read it, is the idea of blessing things and giving thanks for their places in our lives. And anticipating how others will use them. What a grace-filled response to the purging.

    As always . . . thank you.

    1. So the companion piece to this post that I haven’t yet finished is one that hits on precisely what you describe so eloquently – that stuff matters, too; that it isn’t all junk; that it can be beautiful and meaningful, full of stories and full of grace. This move has taught me that, too – that some of my possessions are deeply important to me. Perhaps what I’m searching for is wisdom to know the difference: how to honor what matters and stop accumulating the junk that doesn’t. I love what Benedict teaches about honoring the tools of the monastery as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. The same truth holds for us at home. Material possessions aren’t bad, but we need a healthy attitude towards materiality.

  8. I somehow stumbled upon your blog and can relate to so much of what you are saying! We are in the midst of a move across the country with a toddler. We, too, said many good-byes, prayed for blessings upon those who would live in the home that we left behind, and are now carrying box after box to Goodwill. Thank you for introducing me to this ritual of saying good bye to excess. As I unpack more boxes today, I will begin this new tradition and pray that it helps to bring lasting change to my heart and home!

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