At the age of 92, Diana Athill, British editor and author, closed down the flat where she had lived for many years and moved to a single room in a retirement home. Writing recently about her new downsized life, she said: . . .
Nothing in the room is here out of habit, or because it was given me by dear old so-and-so, or because I couldn’t be bothered to get rid of it. Everything, from the carpet to the biscuit tin and including of course the too-many pictures, ornaments and books, is here because, however uninteresting it might be to others, I love it. It’s as though ‘possessing’ has been distilled down from being a vague pleasure to being an intense one: less is more.
I was reminded of another quote: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” That was from William Morris, an English architect, furniture and textile designer associated with the English Arts and Crafts Movement.
I watched two friends struggle with downsizing for a move to smaller quarters, and saw how difficult it was to get rid of possessions that have accumulated over a long period of time. It made me look around my own house and see an accumulation of stuff that was neither beautiful nor useful. At the time, I had no intention of moving to smaller quarters, but still I got motivated to eliminate some of this stuff that I no longer had any use for. I vowed that when the time comes, I will have already found homes for it all, and won’t have to resort to indiscriminate dumpsterizing.
Some things are easy to get rid of – old papers and magazines, books I will never read again, kitchen gadgets rarely used, clothes that no longer are appealing. (The clothes that no longer fit are a different story – they represent hope – of a leaner, more attractive self). This is a clue as to why this is so difficult: Some of our clutter represents our identity, our dreams, or image of self, our hopes for future (hopefully thinner) selves.
Other things will take time to sort through and what to do with them. It looks like an overwhelming task, but I break it down and take it slowly, a drawer or a shelf at a time. I am making progress in the kitchen and a corner of the basement. The files of teaching materials are harder – I put a lot of myself into developing them, and my identity as a college professor is wrapped up there in those file drawers.
Having achieved a few empty drawers and shelves, I resolved to keep them that way. This required a change of thought process and resulting behavior. I see many lovely things in my volunteer time at Ten Thousand Villages, a shop selling handicrafts from third world countries. However, my new mind set is this: Everything that comes into your house sooner or later will have to go out of your house, either by you or by somebody else. Do you really want this item? Usually the answer is NO.
I hope by the time I have to down size, I will be able, like Diana Athill to have distilled my possessions down to only those I love. When I was a child, my mother made me iron my cotton batiste slips. I hated it, thought it a totally useless waste of time. I vowed I would never be ruled by my possessions. Less really is more. Less is freedom.