Clearing with Sarah: Less not more

Some of the most popular posts I’ve written on here lately are the three linked ones called “The Clearing.” I’ve cleared books, activities and, since I wrote the posts, even a car over the past couple of months. And feel much better for it, thanks.

Well, there are two of us live here and Sarah’s been doing some deep and enthusiastic clearing herself. So here’s her take on the whys, wherefores and hows of living with less and how you get there.

Fair warning, fire is involved.

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If you’re a regular blog reader then you’ll know that we’ve been busy here – busy ‘clearing’. Clearing is the term we use for ‘getting rid of stuff that we don’t use anymore’.

And that ‘stuff’ can be literally ‘things’ like books and possessions (as in The Clearing). It can also be people and activities, yes that’s a bit trickier (as in The Clearing 2). And it can be about time too, a sort of extension of people and activities (as in The Clearing 3). But the end result of all of this clearing is less ‘stuff’, less clutter, and more space and time for you.

For me that’s involved clearing knitting projects, giving me more time to concentrate on the ones that matter – fingerless gloves. It’s also meant that I’ve had time to (finally) re-cover some chairs in a fabric bought much earlier this year.

And I’ve cleared out my recipe folder – amazing the amount of recipes I’ve printed or kept from a magazine and will never make, or have tried and didn’t like. So this clearing has given me the space to concentrate on a couple of recipes that I have improved – like cheesecake and (finally) apple tart.

And just because we are ‘good’ at clearing it doesn’t mean that we don’t own ‘stuff’. I do have stuff – although when it comes to clothes I will almost certainly never match the effortless minimalism displayed by Ronnie in his wardrobe – but anyway this is not a competition. But the point of clearing for me is that the ‘stuff’ that I have is stuff that I want in my life. Like my jug collection, for example.

And having less ‘stuff’ around, gives me space to appreciate the stuff that I do have. And to appreciate the space too.

And it makes finding the right clothes easier, it takes less time, and less time to maintain – this is my ‘work’ wardrobe for funerals. I never have to waste time looking for my work clothes, they are all in order, all ready for when I need them so I can calmly prepare for my work in good time.

When Ronnie wrote his clearing ‘series’ a regular blog reader gave him a link to an article about the Swedish concept of Dostadning – which translates as ‘death clearing’. And this really interested me. The article opens with the following statement:

“If your family doesn’t want your stuff when you’re alive, then they sure won’t want it when you’re dead.”

No-one will want ‘my stuff’. I have a very small family, most of whom don’t Iive in this country, and I have no children by choice. My stuff is extremely personal – to me. And I would also hate to think of someone else (sorry Ronnie) having to go through my clutter. It’s my clutter – and I should be the one to sort it out. 

Reading more about Dostadning:

The ultimate purpose of death cleaning is to minimize the amount of stuff, especially meaningless clutter, that you leave behind for others to deal with.

And that makes perfect sense to me. It also means that I get to live my life clutter free now – which is very appealing. Decluttering expert Marie Kondo is referred to in these death clearing articles and her system using the method of ‘spark joy’, and in particular for sentimental items, Joanna Moorhead writes:

…while putting your life into order so you can fill the present with the things that matter, and that bring you happiness in the moment.

Because a life without clutter is much easier and simpler. From my experience just on clearing the knitting projects I know it gives me time to focus on what’s important. And time, dear reader, is a very valuable commodity and one that is very limited – for all of us. 

Time – the way we measure the passing of our lives in seconds, which become minutes, become hours, become days, become weeks and eventually years. And those years then become our lives. And we truly do not know how many of those precious seconds or years we have left to live. I am acutely aware of this as I work in the funeral industry – and I know that not all funerals are for ‘old’ people, however you define ‘old’. I have been also been reminded about mortality as my younger sister died suddenly earlier this year, she had a brain aneurysm. Her death has given me a profound realisation of my own mortality, if I needed one. I am 54 and am now living well after a breast cancer diagnosis which thankfully is ten years ago, but I also know the reality of recurrence rates for breast cancer, statistically speaking. So mortality – in general and my own too – has been something I have been reflecting on.

Perhaps this is a theme I return around this time of year, as the leaves are falling, or the trees are shedding them. As the nights arrive early, and the days slip away too soon. This time last year I was feeling particularly sluggish, and I did some clearing (minor compared to this year’s work), and I wrote to a friend:

I’ve done some clearing which I usually find energising, and feel I want ‘less’ not ‘more’ but find it hard to explain what that means.

In this year’s clearing there is still a sense of ‘less not more’ but it’s even stronger. A reaction, maybe, still to my visit to Auschwitz in summer 2016? Of an awareness of what really matters.

So having done the relatively ‘easier’ things – books, craft projects, recipes, clothes… I’ve decided to move on to trickier clearing. And first is my jewellery box. I begin with the bag of broken jewellery – earrings with one back and a random collection of broken bracelets. Things I have kept because they seemed too ‘valuable’ to give to a charity shop. That’s straightforward enough, and when I discover an online service to sell these items, I realise that there’s more in my jewellery box than broken jewellery which could be described as clutter. There’s all those pieces of jewellery that I never wear. And yes, I could sit there and add up how much I spent on them all, but equally I could sit there and remember that I enjoyed buying them, enjoyed wearing them, and now no longer do, and it’s time for them to leave my life, with dignity.

The ease with which this happens is delightful, liberating even.

When I get to potentially ‘sentimental’ items, it is also liberating. I say potentially sentimental because I have a few ‘family heirlooms’ as I jokingly refer to them. In monetary terms they have little value, and I have somehow inherited them, or they have been passed on to me. They simply no longer need to take up space in my life.

In addition to my box I have not one, but two, sets of hooks hanging on the door, which seem to attract ‘stuff’. Why two? Well, when I went to buy an over door hanger, they came in a set of two, so I put both on the door. And that’s often how this clutter happens – the ‘free’ gift, the item you didn’t really want… it somehow ends up in your life. I now only have one set of hooks, and they now only contain items I wish to wear.

And I send off a box of items – at no cost to me – to Vintage Cash Cow. This is easily done, the items will be returned to me if I am not happy with the offer, and the service is professionally done, with access to real humans at every stage to discuss things. I receive an offer for my items within 24 hours. I am delighted, no it isn’t a life-changing sum of money, but it’s enough to add to my pension pot, or to treat myself to some kayaking kit – or something that will be of use to me now. Plus my jewellery box now looks like this:

And is a joy to use. It does indeed ‘spark joy’. I feel immensely lighter, it is a good feeling.

Next is my shed at the allotment. As this space is not part of the house it’s easy for it to inadvertently fill up. So, the dread phrase ‘it’ll come in useful’ can be applied to many things, and some of these have ended up in my shed.

Examples – the bread board we had at home, which was a very nice square thick board, but very heavy and from a practical point of view not actually that good to use. It has somehow resided in my shed for a number of years. Or – the old mirror from the bathroom, with a blue frame, taken out when the bathroom was painted orange in 2015, has also resided in my shed ever since. I could tell you more, but I won’t bore you.

The other thing that makes clutter stick is also shelves and drawers – so having shelves makes it easy to put things somewhere. When I opened my shed door and looked at the task in hand, I realised it would be a lot easier if I didn’t have any shelves.

So I burnt them.

The bread board also went on this fire too. The bathroom mirror (and a lot of other items) have gone to a recycling area at the allotments, and if they don’t find a home they will eventually go on to a skip.

During my clearing I find this bowl of ‘autumn fruits’ collected in New Jersey – acorn cups, cypress cones and sweet gum. I look at them with a pang of sentiment. I collected them when I was there for Rachel’s funeral – my dear friend, I still miss her. I realise that this was now over five years ago. It’s time to let that go, I have done my grieving, these only remind me of Rach dead, not Rach alive. (Rach would be delighted, by the way, to hear about the new fingerless gloves I mentioned earlier, she was an enthusiastic knitter herself). I can let these autumn fruits go now, and what better than a cleansing fire?

This realisation, that I don’t need to keep everything that reminds me of Rach, is a reminder that the memories are still there inside me, and those memories are priceless and precious. I do keep these stones, collected on a picnic with Rach, and the summer memory still comes back to me when I look at them.

I included those personal items to show you that I do have sentiment, but not regret. This bowl of stones on a winter allotment looks like this to me – sunshine on the New Jersey shore and me and Rach are laughing…..

And another realisation that sometimes it will take a few years to recognise what is important, what matters enough to want to keep it. My jewellery box now has space for some of Rachel’s possessions to be seen when I open the box – they are not lost amongst the clutter. Her memory will never leave me, and having less ‘stuff’ makes me appreciate the important items, the reminders of her. It is a profound realisation to put into practice, and it does bring me great and heartfelt joy.

The fire burns on, providing me with lots of hot water, which I use to scrub the shed floor. Something I haven’t ever done – and I bought this shed in 2001, when I got my allotment. It’s long overdue and hugely satisfying to clean it so thoroughly. It’s not quite finished yet, but it is well on its way, and I will be returning to this project as weather, time and work allow over the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile at home, the clearing that Marie Kondo suggests is left until last. Photographs.

I have diligently and methodically put photos into albums – usually about two years at a time. I continued to do this even as we ‘went digital’. I printed my favourite photos and continued to do albums, until about 2007. These albums are bulky items – and fill a large box. And – we never look at them.

Perhaps it is because my ‘clearing muscles’ are in good form from all the work I’ve been doing, but I actually find this task much easier than I’d thought. It is another big project – I’ve spent about ten hours so far on this, but am approaching a much more streamlined collection of photos which are in envelopes, not albums. (I also found the idea of sorting by subject or person, rather than by year, to be a better system for me). I am happy to let many photographs go. And the letting go is easy. And I realise that when I have reduced the photos to an appropriate size storage, then the bigger space they occupied will fit my box of sea kayaking gear – which are things that I do actually use regularly, and do ‘spark joy’ indeed, and also give me a sense of freedom that no nostalgic memory of the past gives me. 

So my reflections on clearing, and the ease with which I have done some of these trickier projects have shown me – or rather reminded me – that the perspective that death brings is invaluable. Our own mortality is inevitable. We can embrace that and use it to create the freedom and lightness of really living in the present, without clutter – whether that’s physical or emotional.

And that certainly sparks joy in me.

5 thoughts on “Clearing with Sarah: Less not more

  1. Ella: Craftupyourlife

    I have definitely noticed that clearing does spark joy. When I moved all my belongings to university, it was very obvious that I had too much stuff and I needed to let some things go (mostly clothes). I found it difficult, I was sentimentally attached to the things, but having got rid of them it has really helped me this year when organising my stuff. It has also helped me plan more carefully what to wear which is so joyful!

    Reply
  2. ellem63

    Fantastic post, beautiful photographs and so much that I can relate to. My parents always kept their home tidy and organised and I remember how straightforward it was when the time came for the family to deal with what they had left behind. Funerals were planned and paid for and settling any remaining business was simplified by their methodical record keeping. We all appreciated not having the extra stress on top of our grief. I plan to follow my parents’ example.

    I’m sorry to hear about your sister and all the very best for your own future health.

    Reply
  3. hirstsj

    I just read this to my husband. We are both inspired. I think clearing is a term that we related to more than decluttering, which seemed more faddish. Thank you Sarah. Sally

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes

      I agree Sally. ‘Decluttering’ makes us sound like we don’t matter all that much. That our stuff is clutter. Whereas I think ‘clearing’ is a more dignified and definite word, about clearing space for a clearer view of the future, clearing some serious stuff, but stuff you no longer need. Life is not some car boot sale full of clutter, life is what we are.

      Reply

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