The Goal of Uncluttering

A famous quote (by William Morris) about a clutter-free home states, “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”  Unfortunately, that statement covers a lot of ground.  Every item that we jam into our cabinets can probably, somehow, be justified by those words.  If the thing wasn’t useful or beautiful, we wouldn’t have bought it in the first place, right?  We can “know” something is useful, without actually ever using it.  We can be so suffocatingly surrounded by things we “believe” to be beautiful that we not only can’t appreciate their beauty, we can’t care for our beautiful things.  So while I love the quote, I don’t know how truly helpful it is as we try to unclutter our spaces.

A not-so-famous quote I discovered recently is a much bigger help to me:  The goal of uncluttering is “….not that you have as little as humanly possible, but that everything you do have counts” (Leo Baubata, blog post:  The Minimalist Principle:  Omit Needless Things).

Look at your home’s storage space as valuable real estate:  stuff needs to earn a place there.  If you have a storage unit rented, you’re paying to keep stuff.  Even if you’re simply paying a mortgage or rent every month, you’re paying to store your stuff.  (Less stuff means, potentially, a smaller house, which means smaller rent or mortgage payments.)  The things you keep should be earning their right to be there!  Everything you keep should count.  It’s taking your time, energy, effort, and money to take care of and store.

My daughter is excellent in this area.  We can go through her things so quickly; I hold up an item and say, “Do you love this?”  And she will respond, “No, we can give that away.”  Obviously, occasionally, items do pass muster, but I’ve never met a young child so willing to part with stuff, all because of the key word, “love.”  She has full recognition of what is truly important to her, and is ready to let go of what isn’t.  Everything that she has, counts.

“You can’t organize clutter….”

I still remember coming home from the hospital with my firstborn and dumping everything (except him) in a chair-and-a-half near the laundry room.  It made perfect sense at the time:  luggage would have to be emptied and laundry done, so I will put this right here.  Weeks later, the chair was still full to overflowing with suitcases, laundry, gift bags full of gifts, CD’s and a portable CD player (yes, this was the “olden days”), and a huge amount of “freebies” that the hospital gives to new mothers.  Every time I looked at it I wanted to cry, which meant every day:  it was sitting in my kitchen.  It was an unavoidable mound of mess that overwhelmed me each time I looked at it.  I had no idea where to start.

I remembered, rattling around in the back of my post-partum brain, hearing reference to a website on household organization run by someone called “The Flylady.”  I Googled it, found it, and began reading furiously.  My favorite phrase, which I grabbed hold of and hung on tight, was “You can’t organize clutter.  You can only get rid of it.”

The freedom those words gave me!  You mean I don’t have to put this stuff away?  I don’t have to find a place for it?  I can just get rid of it? kept echoing in my head.  Bit by bit, I attacked the pile, and discovered it was much easier to put away the sweet gifts and CD player when I wasn’t trying to find a home for things like a dozen gift bags and twenty tubes of Vaseline.  The moment of total freedom and exhilaration I experienced when that chair was empty is hard to explain.  Empty, clear, free, peace—all are words that come to mind.  The best part is that now, in a new home and placed in a different room, that chair is where we snuggle to read our bedtime stories.  That is what it was made for!  To cuddle with kids and make happy memories together, not to “store” piles of stuff that have no home.

That clearness and freedom, that peace, is what I’m hoping to encourage you toward.

“Too” Stuff

Yesterday I referred to the “too” stuff taking up space in our homes.  My prime example of what could be a “too” item in this house is my mother’s Madame Alexander dolls.  Previously, they lived in a cedar chest in my grandmother’s house, and once or twice a month I would ask to play with them, and they would come out of hiding and be played with.  Antiques even when I used them, my grandmother would make clothes and I would play—carefully—before they would eventually get put back away, nestled among the quilts and other items stored away in the chest.  When it came time to sort the dolls, I was thrilled to be able to take some; they had such happy memories for me of Saturdays at Grandma’s house.

Admittedly, a few were worse for wear from excessive love, so I took the worst of the lot into a doll hospital to have repaired.  (As an aside, isn’t it amazing that such a place even exists?  How unbelievably, abundantly, materially blessed are we, that we have people running “doll hospitals!”)  I still remember picking them up, once the work was done, and commenting to the owner of the shop that I looked forward to seeing my (soon-to-be-born) daughter playing with them as I had.

She was horrified.  “Oh, no!” she exclaimed.  “These are not to be played with!”

I didn’t fight her.  But I wondered, if they were never played with, how on earth would my daughter develop an appreciation and an enjoyment of them?  If she never had any happy memories of playing with her grandmother’s dolls, why would she have any interest in owning them later?  I suppose an argument could be made for that:  I’d be simplifying her life if she didn’t have these dolls to take care of.  As it is, though, they live in a drawer in her bedroom, and yes, she does play with them, carefully, on occasion.  Don’t tell the owner of the doll hospital.

It’s the same reason I sometimes use my grandmother’s cranberry glassware, or her deep green parfait glasses, or her tablecloths, or any of the other items I elected to keep.  I use them, think of her, and smile; and in the process, we are making memories for my children, using these things.  (My daughter adores “the beautiful dishes.”)  I can’t think of an item in this house that is “too special” to use.  I have lots of items in this home that are becoming more special, through use.

Kinds of Stuff

If you are truly serious about uncluttering, here’s a good place to start:  Stand in the doorway of your living room or family room; the room where people congregate most often.  Survey the scene.  There are a few different layers of “stuff” to make decisions about.


Stuff you know you absolutely should throw away, but you just haven’t gotten around to it yet.  My example is the bag containing pamphlets from about six different business schools that was sitting in the living room recently.  Papers can be filed until a decision is made; the bag is just trash (or recycling, in this instance).  The pile of newspapers that always seems to grow before we actually get around to dumping them in “the blue box” is another perfect example.

Fun stuff:
Things you keep around because they make you smile.  Family photos, CD’s, books, maybe some knick-knacks may qualify.  How many goo-gahs do you really need, though; keeping in mind that each item is one more thing to move as you clean?

Useful stuff:

Things you use frequently, that serve a definite purpose and meet a need.  This list would include things like pots and pans, dishes, toiletries, clothing, etc.  While these are things we absolutely need some of, this can be a great area to cull and really see a difference.

Sentimental stuff:

Things you keep around because they remind you of a special time in your life, or a special person.  (Not to be confused with “too” stuff.)  Notes from friends, cards, Grandma’s quilts, grandpa’s handmade cradle, etc.

“Too” stuff:

Things you keep only “because it was grandma’s,” which you never use—are maybe even afraid to touch—because you fear ruining it or you’re keeping it “for a special occasion” (which never arrives).  Or, my personal favorite, “too” expensive:  “That cost a lot of money!!  It’s worth something!”  China, crystal, silver, tablecloths, quilts, could all fall in this category.  (I’m posting separately tomorrow on one of my examples of “too” stuff….”too” much to pile on here.)

If you are truly overwhelmed by “stuff,” steer toward the easy stuff when you first start to clean out.  Decisions about ketchup packets and fast food napkins are a hundred times easier to make than decisions about your grandmother’s silver.  Start small…just start.

Our hope is in Him

The Bible Reader’s Companion, by Lawrence O. Richards, states that the “key verse” for the first chapter of I Peter is:  “1:13:  the antidote to materialism.”  Eager to discover the advice, I read through to verse thirteen:  “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

Where is our “hope” placed?  Again, is God our everything?  Or is our hope in the acquiring and gathering of goods?  Is it in the comfort of a spacious, luxurious home?  Is it in the squirrelling away of money and “loot” to be “assured” of a safe and secure future?  Peter talks extensively about living “as strangers here;” as my commentary states, “A Christian’s home is heaven.  Our hopes are not centered in what will happen to us in this world, but the inheritance we will receive when Jesus returns.”  According to verse four, that inheritance “can never perish, spoil, or fade;” unlike any—no, every—item we could possibly purchase for ourselves on this earth.

I was also struck as I read the account in Luke of Jesus calling his disciples.  Peter, James and John “left everything and followed him” (5:11).  Levi (otherwise known as Matthew) “left everything and followed him” (5:28).  This aroused my curiosity, so I began to search the other gospels for their descriptions.

  • In Matthew:  “At once they left their nets and followed him.” (4:20)
  • “and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”  (4:22)
  • “and Matthew got up and followed him.” (9:9)
  • As He sends his disciples out:  “Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff…”  (10:10)
  • Peter reminds Jesus later:  “We have left everything to follow you!” (19:27)
  • The Gospel of Mark concurs:  “At once they left their nets and followed him.” (1:18)
  • “…and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.” (1:20)
  • “…and Levi got up and followed him.” (2:14)

Are we prepared to leave, too?  Are we prepared to go where He calls us, when He calls us, immediately?  Are we prepared to leave all this stuff behind as we follow Him; follow His leading and His calling to where He wants us to be?  How tightly are we holding on to the things around us?  Or are we holding them out in open hands, ready to give it all to Him if that is what He asks of us?