Stuff, Writing, and the Holidays



Stuff causes strong feelings in me and inspires me to set stuff-reduction goals that never seem quite reachable. I’ve spent years trying, though, and even bought books on the subject, which of course adds to my stuff.

As I wrote in my prior post, we have just returned home from small spaces to the large space where most of our stuff is. There’s a certain comfort in being surrounded by one’s favourite books, photographs, and other stuff.

The problem is I have become overwhelmed by stuff. Possibly we could have ignored the situation for a while longer, but my son and his girlfriend will be here for a visit in a couple weeks, a cause for joy, and I realised when looking into his room that the floor space under his bed, which should be clean and clear, is covered by plastic storage bins containing stuff. Some of it is stuff I had before. A lot of it is stuff shipped from New Jersey last year, which I wrote about in Australian Ornaments and Stuff, Redux.

The Immediate Problem

Unless we clear out some of the stuff from under my son’s bed, there will be nowhere, except the middle of the lounge room floor, for him and his girlfriend to store their empty suitcases.

How did I let this happen? Why do we have not even one inch of available space in this spacious apartment to even store a couple large suitcases or 8-10 plastic bins?

Overwhelmed by Stuff

Everywhere I look is full and about to overflow with stuff. It’s not that it’s messy or out of control; I’d say it’s a fairly neat and well-organised collection of stuff. But there is too much of it, everywhere.

Clearly, we have reached the desperate stage.

We have a lot of bookshelves; before our last trip, Clive even set up another one. They are all full (books are my biggest weakness; in the interest of full disclosure/confession I admit during our last trip we mailed a box containing more books, and that box hasn’t arrived yet).

In addition to books, every drawer – desk, wall unit, dressers – is full of stuff. Files — whether in desks, file bins, or paper in 3-ring binders – are all full and starting to bulge.

Every surface is full of stuff – the top of our desks (bad), the top of some bookcases (really bad), and even under my son’s bed (worst of all).

Our garage is full of stuff, neatly labelled in boxes on Clive’s purpose-built shelves. We only got the car in there a few months ago, before our last trip (sparing it from the worst of Sydney’s red dust storm on the day we departed).

I suppose we could park the car back on the street and carry bins of stuff to the garage ‘temporarily’. But we really, really don’t want to do that. The whole idea was not to put them in the garage in the first place, knowing we’d just have to carry them back up eventually.

Pros and Cons of a Large Space

Having a large space is good and bad. Last year, the contents of ten massive, heavy boxes from New Jersey were basically absorbed into our space. Some bins went under my son’s bed (never a good idea), some to bookshelves, some to the wall unit. I also absorbed all my mother’s ongoing paperwork –health, finances, personal affairs, files, archives – which are now with us in Sydney.

It’s a rule of stuff: stuff expands to the space available. I love clear surfaces and shelves that aren’t completely full, but at the moment, everything is full.

Stuff Is Personal

I know stuff is extremely personal and at different times of our lives, we accumulate stuff or get rid of stuff.

As much as I admire country homes and antique collections in my French Country Diary every year, I’m not a collector of bric-a-brac, furniture, or great artwork. My dream is a fairly spare, zen-like space, more the Asian influence with minimal stuff out and about.

One of my favourite organisation gurus, David Allen of Getting Things Done (GTD) fame, says stuff doesn’t matter as long as space is available. The issue Clive and I have at the moment is simple in some ways: too much stuff for our space.

Stuff Accumulates in Phases

This is another rule of stuff: sometimes a lot more comes in than goes out. As all parents of young children know, stuff grows to the max when kids are growing up. Schools alone generate millions of tons of paper and project stuff every year and many of us saved tons of it along the way. As children get older, the time gets better for sorting and purging all the school stuff.

I cut myself a lot of slack when my stepson and son were growing up and in school. Now we’re in another stage and have other triggers for stuff being reduced.

Death and moving are two obvious triggers for stuff-reduction phases. Last year my mother’s move to assisted living felt like a death, from the standpoint of having to empty her house. At a simpler level, the situation we’re in now, just feeling we’re at the limit of what we can absorb into our space, is triggering us to take action and reduce stuff.

Conflicting Feelings about Stuff

Of course there’s a difference between worthy or useful stuff and messy, unnecessary clutter, but still, too much of either makes me feel bad. When I can’t see a clear surface or easily put papers into a file or find room for a couple empty suitcases, it brings me down. I just can’t stand living in that kind of full-to-overflowing space. And judging by the hundreds of books on the subject, I’m not alone in my desire to live clean and clutter-free.

My most favourite (anti) clutter book is Karen Kingston’s Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shuian intentionally small book with hugely valuable information inside.  Kingston acknowledges the importance of meaningful possessions while providing helpful guidance on how to manage stuff in a way that works for the individual.  Another book I’ve found useful is Cindy Glovinsky’s Making Peace with the Things in Your Life.

In some ways it’s fascinating to consider psychological aspects of stuff, such as clutter representing deferred decisions, or clutter reflecting parents’ Depression-era saving and ‘just in case’ approaches to life. I know from experience in clearing my mother’s house last year the actual process of decision-making – what stays, what goes – can be one of the most physically and emotionally demanding and draining exercises any of us will ever perform.

What Now – Aussie Stuff, New Jersey Stuff, New Stuff, Old Stuff

Last year I did my best to organise my mother’s and my family stuff by generation, person, and subject area, but still it was a first pass and needs more sorting and purging to get it down to a manageable size.

When the New Jersey boxes arrived in Australia, I unpacked them only enough to store them in plastic bins and files here in Sydney. I was weary of decision-making and couldn’t bear to look at the contents any further than I’d already done in the weeks just before.

Now I’ve had a year or so of distance, and it’s time to go back and complete the work of reviewing and deciding and figuring out what can be discarded or scanned or taken to recycling here.

It’s not only the New Jersey stuff. Clive and I have accumulated a lot of our own new stuff, from our travels and our life, as you do when you live with someone over a period of years.

And to close the loop on these particular musings, it’s been our travels and being away for extended periods that have reminded us we can do quite well without a lot of stuff.

Sorting, Purging, Saving – A Sad and Happy Process

I actually – usually – like the sorting and purging process, knowing it will result in less stuff and, for me, less stress and aggravation.

The challenge, as always, is the decision-making, and sometimes it causes sadness and tears. How many photos of my great-grandparents should I scan and/or save? How many love letters of my grandparents? How many papers of my late brother Rob? What should be scanned, what can be let go forever? What if I make a wrong decision and regret it later? What books do we most want to keep and which ones can we agree to let go?

On the positive side for me: I’m inspired by the goal of space that’s clean and well-organised, knowing what’s saved – whether out in the open or stored in boxes and bins somewhere in our residence – are the most special, meaningful objects and personal possessions.

Where Does Writing Fit In All This?

 I’m working on a book and I know one truism above all others: writers write. It’s hard work and requires dedication and discipline, ‘butt on chair’, to put it bluntly – regularly, every day if possible. Some writers write 365 days a year.

In ‘Writing? You Need a Job’ I wrote about the challenge of other people’s reactions and judgments about writing. Now I also have to manage my own expectations and desires vis a vis other demands on our time.

In 2009 I made progress: a writing course, my first critique group, a professional evaluation of my first 37,500 words. I have so much more work to do and an intense desire to complete this book, not the first draft of it but a polished, reviewed, ready-for-sharing-in-public manuscript.

And I have so much stuff surrounding me, and Christmas is in less than two weeks. I know there is never a perfect time to write. People write everywhere – on the kitchen table, surrounded by children, on buses, in airports – and so do I.

But our arrival home and realisation there is nowhere to put two empty suitcases has triggered an equally intense desire to attack and reduce the stuff that surrounds us.

A Plan of Action

Maybe the timing is meant to be – our next curbside pick-up is in February. The pick-ups are only twice a year here, so this gives us a not-too-distant deadline to get rid of any stuff we can’t recycle or give away. And we can keep our big shredder going as long as necessary, until the paper files and piles are culled to where they need to be.

We have made progress – the neat garage, the ongoing shredding — and now it feels right to me, with Christmas approaching, to put my book on hold for about six weeks, focus on family time and my son’s visit, and in January, devote a few weeks of summer to tackling our stuff problem. The goal is to be ‘done’ for the February curbside pick-up, then return to eight words of advice I read years ago to achieve ongoing control of clutter: fend off the new; weed out the old.

I’ll still be thinking about my book and possibly writing here and there, but that will be a bonus and I won’t feel too guilty about setting it aside and coming back with fresh energy in the new year.

And I’ll be so much happier without all this stuff around!  Please wish us luck; we’ll need it to achieve this goal.  I hope by sharing it here, in public, that Universe provides whatever support is appropriate to move us along.

Cheers and dreaming of clear surfaces, organised storage bins, and enough free space to accommodate my son and his girlfriend’s empty suitcases.

8 Responses

  1. When we moved to Paris and had limited bookshelves and weight allowance, I decided that it was time to change my relationship with my books all of which I considered sacred. But it turns out that there are so many books that I can say I will ever read again. The new books, the fun reads, I don’t hang onto them anymore. I give them to friends and tell them to pay it forward.

  2. My husband should read this….he is one of the most untidiest people I have ever known, and the bigger the house the more mess he makes and what a hoarder, ..I have a space in the fitted wardrobes in his office, mine is all neatly boxed and labelled..or next to my tiny desk…I would love for him to build himself an office at the bottom of the garden…like he used to have!!

  3. I remember when my grandfather died, my grandmother carefully sorted a bunch of stuff out to be thrown away. She had another pile of stuff she wanted to keep. At some point she realized she had thrown the wrong pile away. She said she was sad for a little while, then threw the stuff she’d designated as trash away as she’d originally intended and moved on – it was only stuff.

    (Sitting here in a room full of ‘stuff’ that is screaming to be sorted!)

  4. Our Paris apartment is so tiny that I had to throw out a lot of stuff just so we could move around. It doesn’t stop me from buying books which I then sell to the second hand bookstore. I’m wondering if Kindle is the answer.

  5. Anne, great approach re paying it forward. I try to do that, too, with newer books and ones I won’t read again. (I do re-read a lot of my old favourites and have to further weed out my childhood book treasures, etc!)

    anne, good luck with your hubby! Sounds like he’d need a pretty big garden shed 🙂

    Almost American, your grandmother’s story is wonderful. I think she was right about ‘just stuff.’

    Linda, definitely e-books are one of the answers going forward! I just have to let go some of my saved book treasures.

    Cheers and thanks, all.

  6. Great post Carolyn; We are all overwhelmed with “stuff”; I feel so good when I clean up closets, drawers; I open doors and admire my work and keep it organized until it gets worse, but it is never horrible.
    I do have a lot of books (cooking books mostly). Recently, I have been wondering what my son would do with my belongings if I was dead and it is easier with that in my mind to just get rid of what I hang on to; I will probably never wear it or use it again.

  7. Hi Carolyn,

    Once again, a very thought provoking post.
    You don’t have to be an expat to accumulate the material weight of the past- we all do !
    It takes strenght to toss out,shred,recylcle or give away.

    For books, I find it hard to get rid of them too. But there comes a time. That’s a very personal decison. But of course, if the book part is the hardest, you can (temporarily) work AROUND that and look at your other items first.

    I also find it hard to toss out old photos. Being a hobby genealogist makes this worse because I keep all old pics.. and their scanned backups !! i think that perhaps one day, these are something that might be passed on to your son.

    Maybe making an album with the old paper pics, and keep it to be handed down later. These pics take on a deeper value when children become older and parenrs.

    Good luck with everything and yes, for your writing once the holidays are done.- you can do it !!


    Hugs to you both XX

  8. Nadege, exactly! re feeling good and admiring one’s work for a while 🙂 And we are similar in thinking of what our sons would do with our belongings.

    xpat, some great ideas there – thank you! You’re so right it takes strength to throw out things. Thanks for your encouragement – much appreciated!


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