Stuff . . continued


Some time ago, I wrote about Stuff-all those belongings that pile up and fill our homes.  Now, as many of us are thinking about relocating and downsizing, all that accumulation of stuff can be a daunting obstacle.   Here in Princeton, our most popular speaker on the Next Step speaker series was Professional Organizer Ellen Tozzi, talking about Downsizing Your Possessions with Ease. One very cold night, over 70 people came to hear her, in the face of an impending blizzard!

That earlier article quoted Diana Athill who downsized from a flat to a one room unit in a retirement home at the age of 92. She used the word ‘distill’ for the process – keeping only the things she truly loved and eliminating all the rest.

Well, my turn came.  I moved from a two bedroom townhouse with basement and garage to a small one bedroom apartment.  However, as I said in the first Stuff article, I have been working on downsizing for a number of years, being motivated by watching other friends’ struggles and hearing Ellen Tozzi’s talk numerous times.  I can offer some advice from personal experience:

First, start long before you anticipate a move. When you go into a drawer or a shelf, look at what is there – all of it.  See if there is anything there you have no further use for, and get rid of it right then and there.  It only takes a few minutes, and little-by-little, the job will get done. For a serious downsizing project, Ellen advocates setting aside an hour or two at a specific time each week, rather than attempting to clean out the whole house at once.  Most of my cupboards and closets had already been ‘distilled’ before I started packing process.  That made the job much easier, and far less stressful than it might have been.

Second, it can take multiple ‘distillations’ before you get to the essentials.  What looked important in the first go-through may be less so when you have an actual picture of your future space.  I found myself thinking “Why did I save this?” quite often.

Third, much of the material we have trouble parting with has to do with emotional connections with the past – papers, pictures, souvenirs of important occasions, connections with friends and family who may no longer be around.  I had the most trouble with tossing teaching and consulting materials – There was very good stuff there! But their real meaning was in my professional identity as a college professor and hospitality consultant. I found that it was important to think about the future, rather than ruminating on the past. In my future place, I will not have room for all these files. But more important, I will never teach those courses again. I will be moving on to new and exciting opportunities, and I will use my new space for new activities. My self-image does not depend on those file drawers in the garage.

Fourth, there are services and professionals who can help you get through the process. You don’t have to do it all yourself. The Princeton Senior Resource’s Community Resources guide has a page on Downsizing and Moving that lists companies to help you downsize and move, and also places to donate unwanted items. While many of the organizations listed are local to Central New Jersey, there are national websites there where you can find a credentialed real estate and move specialists in your area. You can also get some ideas on where to look in your community for organizations that will accept donated goods.

So, here I am, some months post-move, and by the door is a pile of stuff ready to go a local church’s rummage sale.   And no, I did not over estimate how much stuff to move; I just got my get-rid muscles up to strength. I actually have extra room in the closets and some drawers I am not using, but I have no reason to hang on to this stuff.

Once you get in the habit, getting rid of stuff you no longer have a use for come naturally.  And, there is a feeling of freedom, not having all this unnecessary stuff cluttering up the place.  My life has become much simpler, and one reason is that there isn’t all that stuff holding me back.   The condo is small, but it holds everything I need.  I just need to keep my get-rid muscles strong, because I know there will be new stuff coming in here from time to time, and I will need to keep things under control.




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.