But I’ll Need That in the Zombie Apocalypse (and Other Excuses)

“Why do we even own this?!?” 

I can’t tell you how many times those words have come out of my mouth in the last week.  Since resigning from my position as Stuff Manager last week and taking on the 40 Bags in 40 Days Challenge, I’ve unearthed a treasure trove of items that should have been discarded months or even years ago.  Truth be told, some of them should never have made it in the front door in the first place!

This is just one of the treasures we found in our home this week.  It’s a mug.  Of a face.  
I’m pretty sure we gave it away more than once. 
 I’m not actually sure how it keeps finding its way back to our home.
  Or why no one would keep it.

I’m 17 bags in, and this process has prompted me to think about all the excuses I use to hang onto all of this stuff as well as some of the excuses I’ve heard from others on this decluttering journey.  Here are a few of my favorites, and some ideas for how to overcome them:

Excuse:  I might need it later.  This has to be the most popular excuse for hanging onto our possessions.   We live in a culture that is both consumption driven and obsessed with value.  We want to buy things for as little money as possible, and most of us don’t want to replace those items either (despite the fact that cheap often equals poorly made and likely to fall apart).  This is how we end up storing things like camping gear despite the fact that we’ve only been camping once.  I mean, I might go camping again in fifteen years.  It would be wasteful to go out and buy a new box of waterproof matches when I could have just keep the box I already have in my basement.

My son felt pretty certain he might use these Altoids boxes at some point in the future.

Solution:  Use Goodwill as storage.  One of the most creative solutions I’ve ever heard to this particular excuse comes from a blogger named Nina Nelson who had to pare way back on belongings when she decided to move her family of six into a tiny home in a converted school bus.  Nina once said she likes to use Goodwill like her own personal storage unit.  Chances are, your local Goodwill will have that thing you’ve been hanging onto for ten years when you need it again.  Just because you let something go does not mean you’ll have to pay full-price to replace (if you ever actually need to replace it).  Sharing items with your friends and family is another way around hanging onto clutter.  I’ve seen neighbors all pitch in to purchase one shared snow blower and friends trade baby goods until they were falling apart.   Ask yourself honestly, do you and every member of your extended family each need his or her own fondue set?  Probably not. 

Excuse:  It’s too valuable to part with.  How many times have you gone through your wardrobe in the attempt to discard the clothing you don’t use anymore only to come across something that you haven’t worn in the last year but it seems “too nice” to give away?  When I left full-time work ten years ago, I struggled with this.  I hung onto several suits for way too long, knowing that I would not return to the type of work that required suits before mine went out of style, if ever.  When I finally parted with them, I felt a pang of guilt for not letting them go sooner, because there are women that need suits for interviews or jobs and can’t afford to buy them, and much like my sewing machine, mine were collecting dust in a closet when they could have been out blessing someone else.

Solution:  Use it or let it be of value to someone else.  I’ve got two solutions for you here.  I gave the suits and all of my business casual work clothes away after reading Seven: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess a couple of years ago, and now I approach my donations from the opposite perspective.  If I have something in my closet that I haven’t worn that season and it is particularly nice, that is the item I am most likely to give away, because that is the item that has the potential of making the most impact in someone else’s life.  Your valuable items only offer you as much value as you get out of their use.  If you aren’t using your valuable items, let them be of value to someone else.  If you still can’t part with your valuable items, then for crying out loud, use them!  Bring out your best dishes and serve dinner on them to the people you live with.  Wear that dress on a weekend for no good reason, other than the fact that you love it.  You don’t have to wait for a special occasion.  You are the special occasion, and so are the people you love. 

Excuse:  It was a gift.  This is a tricky one.  Sometimes we hold onto things simply because they were gifts and we don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings that gave the gift.  We imagine that Grandma will come to visit and immediately notice that the miniature spoons she has been sending over the years are not on display.

Solution:  People before things.  Look, this one is really personal.  I’ll offer up a few suggestions, but ultimately, you know your people better than I know your people.  If you’re lucky, you’re in honest enough relationships that you can tell the truth about what you like and the amount of objects you like to own.  If you’re even luckier, the gift giver has a sense of humor and understands why you would pass along an object like this in your next White Elephant Gift Exchange:

This very special DVD has been passed around a group of my friends for a decade now. 

But, if you feel that your relationship would be truly damaged if you got rid of a gift, you could consider keeping it.  We use the phrase “people before things” a lot in our home (usually when breaking up fights between our boys over Pokemon cards) and while that usually means that the relationship should be about something more than the material gifts, it might mean, on hopefully a rare occasion, you hang onto the thing for the sake of the relationship.

You know, kind of like that time on The Gilmore Girls when Emily hung onto 35 years worth of gifts from her mother-in-law and only brought them out when she came to visit.  Except maybe on a smaller scale.

Excuse:  I’ll need it in the zombie apocalypse.  You make a fair point here.  As someone who has given up 400 square feet of basement storage for holiday decorations but has only one backpack and few gallons of water in the way of emergency preparation, you win this argument.  There is a point to be made for being prepared for an emergency.  There are so many great resources out there to help you (and me) set up an appropriate emergency preparation center in your home, but I promise you that your 1982 television is not going to do you a lot of good in the zombie apocalypse.  It will only slow down one zombie, if you are lucky.

We can’t be stopped by your Ab Master Plus or your George Forman Grill. 

Solution:  Make a real plan and execute it.  Our plans for the zombie apocalypse involve the above costumes, a Super Walmart and the advice found in Rye Bread and the Loafer’s Post Apocalyptic Love Song: Tales of a Doomsday Prepper, to which you really need to click here and give a listen.  No, seriously.  I’ll wait.  Okay, are you back?  Feeling better prepared?  If you still insist on doing actual emergency planning, check out The Red Cross’s plans for emergency preparedness tips and set aside things you’ll actually need in an emergency.  Keep tabs on those items, making sure you use canned goods or bottled water before it expires.  But don’t fool yourself into thinking that everything in your basement or attic is going to be useful in the event of a natural disaster.  No one is going to barter their canned goods for your childhood Barbie Dreamhouse.

Excuse: But I Collect Those!
  I hear you.  I’m not a collector myself, but I’m raising one.  My seven year old will try to turn anything (rocks, Rainbow Loom bracelets, the aforementioned Pokemon cards, stuffed animals, outgrown baseball caps) into a collection if it means he does not have to throw it away.  I mean, it’s a collection, not clutter.  What kinds of collections are you stashing away?  Maybe you have a huge box of Precious Moments figurines in your basement that you don’t display anymore because they no longer fit your home decor style, but you are hanging onto them for your future daughter-in-law.  Because you just know she’ll love them. 

Solution:  Use it or lose it.   I recognize that collections can be such a joy to true collectors.  There is the thrill of the hunt for the perfect item and the joy in introducing your interests to others through a well-maintained and displayed collection.  At their best, collections are the heart and soul of museums (of which I am a big fan).  But a pile of similarly-themed items in a box does not a collection make.  If you have collections that you are not ready to part with, consider putting them on display in your home where you can enjoy them.  Put the stamps in a photo album or hang the plates on a wall.  Enjoy the work you put into curating your collection.  Otherwise, like with the items that are too valuable to give up, it might be time to let your collection be a blessing to someone else.  Just maybe not your future daughter-in-law.  She can thank me later.

Do you see yourself in any of these excuses?  Or do you have other reasons for hanging on to all of the things you don’t use anymore?  I’d love to hear how you’ve overcome your own obstacles to letting go.

This post is part of a series on quitting your job as a Stuff Manager.  Drop back in to read more about my journey over the next forty days, or subscribe by email if you don’t want to miss a post!  I look forward to hearing about your own resignation. 
1.  Letter of Resignation – On quitting my job as Stuff Manager
2.  I’m Never Going to Make That Beer Bottle Cap Table – On letting go of things that aren’t for us
3.  But I’ll Need That in the Zombie Apocalypse (and Other Excuses) – On excuses for our clutter  
4.  Donating Outside the Box –  On finding a great place for your donations

I’m Never Going to Make That Beer Bottle Cap Table

Last week, I resigned from my position as Stuff Manager of my household.  This decision has been long in the making, yet there was one, specific incident that put me over the edge and caused me to get real about letting go.  It was not earth-shattering or personally alarming (like the time I discovered my four year old hoarding actual garbage), but it caused something to shift inside me and I wouldn’t be telling the whole story if I left this part out.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see the production of OLD WOUNDS that I shared about on this blog.  After the show, my friend and I went across the street to Pi Pizzeria for some pizza and beer and to discuss what a phenomenal job Mollie Amburgey did in both the storytelling and execution of this production, her first as a writer and producer.  The conversation led to a discussion of our admiration of such a young person so resolutely following her dreams and how many obstacles and distractions we allow in our path each year as we get older.  There’s the real-world responsibilities that layer on over time, but then there’s the additional layers that we add on ourselves in the form of new activities, new hobbies, new stuff.  I shared with my friend the best example I could think of in that moment about the stuff that was weighing me down — my sewing machine.

I got this sewing machine a few years ago for my birthday from Jason.  But before you think I’m about to callously cast off a gift from my husband, this is how it really went down.  I thought I needed a sewing machine, so I went to Target and bought one and then informed my husband it was my birthday present from him.  My birthday falls in early October, which is a huge month for sewing and crafting and construction of all kind in our house.  We’ve been spending Halloween with the same group of friends in themed costumes for eight years now.  But that’s another story entirely, and one I’ll share in the future.  The point is, I put that sewing machine to immediate use, knocking out several  wizard robes and a Dumbledore costume.

But here’s the thing.  I’m pretty bad at sewing and more importantly, I don’t really like it.

After Halloween, the sewing machine sat dormant for the most part until the next October when I’d attempt to wrangle fabric through it, cursing my inability to thread a bobbin or sew anything that resembled a straight line.  Every year, my sewing machine sat in a lonely corner of my basement for eleven months out of the year waiting for October, only to be abused.

So, I admitted to my friend that even though I know sewing is not my thing, and that I have no intention of ever learning this craft, I couldn’t bring myself to just drop the sewing machine off at Goodwill.  I told her that I was sure there was a woman out there who really wanted and needed a sewing machine, a woman who both could sew and loved to sew, and that if that woman would just magically appear, I’d happily give her my sewing machine.

And then our waitress who was walking by with a pitcher of water stopped dead in her tracks and said, “I really need a sewing machine.”

Long story short, she had held a job as a seamstress and embroiderer for five years, lost it when the company relocated, and needed a new sewing machine to continue the work she loved.  She shared that just that day she had spent almost an hour hand-mending a co-worker’s pants, a job she could have done in five minutes with a sewing machine.  Numbers were exchanged and the very next day we met and I gave her my sewing machine and every bit of sewing paraphernalia I could find in my home, scrap fabric and all.  I left feeling lighter and happier and inspired to identify and let go of the rest of the things that are not for me.

There’s this moment in Little Women (the movie version) after Aunt March passes away and they are touring her large, drafty house when Marmee says, “Her blessings became a burden because she couldn’t share them.”  That line has always stuck with me.  Our blessings become burdens when we can’t share them with others.  We live in a this relatively affluent culture and stockpile possessions in such quantities that we need entire basements or external storage units to store them but how many of those things do we use on a regular basis?  How many of them are we allowing to actually bless our own lives?  And if those things are relegated to boxes for some potential future date when we might learn to sew or take up camping or make that scrapbook or learn the tuba, could those same objects find life right now in someone else’s hands?

Now, I realize that there are some underlying issues with this story.  The fact that I could not just let go of the sewing machine, that I needed to know where it ended up, that certainly speaks to some control issues on my part.  In fact, it’s one of the excuses a lot of us use to hang onto things we don’t need, and I’ll be back in a few days with a separate post about some of the other excuses we use and a few ideas to overcome them.  I’ll also be back to talk about creative ways and places to donate your stuff for those of you who share my control issues. 

But for now, I’m taking a personal inventory of the things I’m hanging onto that just aren’t for me.  I love a lot of different things, which can make this process difficult, but I also know that we only have so many days on this earth.  Since I didn’t come with an exact expiration date, it makes it a little difficult to plan for the future.  If I want to pursue the things I love the most, I have to let go of the things that simply aren’t for me.  Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist refers to this as rational minimalism which allows space for our own unique values, talents and purposes to influence our choices on what we keep and what we let go. For me, that list extends beyond my sewing machine to a fair amount of crafty objects in my basement for which I had big, Pinteresty dreams.  So, until I get my control issues under control I’ll be looking for the perfect new home for hundreds of beer bottle caps for that table I’m never going to make. (Any takers?)

 The odds of these ever becoming this….

 are pretty slim as long as I hoard these bottle caps in my basement, 
otherwise known as the place my crafting dreams go to die. (Image Source)

How about you?  What are you hanging onto that simply is not for you?  Could you find someone to share it with?  I’d like to challenge you to choose one thing in your home that you are not using and have no plans of using in the immediately foreseeable future and give it away to someone who will bring it to life.  Then come back and tell me about your experience, because I can’t wait to hear it.

This post is part of a series on quitting your job as a Stuff Manager.  Drop back in to read more about my journey over the next forty days, or subscribe by email if you don’t want to miss a post!  I look forward to hearing about your own resignation. 

1.  Letter of Resignation – On quitting my job as Stuff Manager
2.  I’m Never Going to Make That Beer Bottle Cap Table – On letting go of things that aren’t for us
3.  But I’ll Need That in the Zombie Apocalypse (and Other Excuses) – On excuses for our clutter  
4.  Donating Outside the Box –  On finding a great place for your donations
5.  7 Ideas for Managing Digital Clutter – On minimizing distractions and clutter on your devices 
6.  Is Organizing Just Well-Managed Hoarding? – On the difference between organizing and purging 
7.  Getting to Know Mr. Jones:  An Antidote to ConsumerismOn exploring where we got all of this stuff in the first place and a communal antidote to over-consumption
8.  Taking Back Your Square Footage –  On creating space in your home that reflects your intentions and values

Letter of Resignation

Dear Stuff,

I am writing to inform you that I am resigning from my position as Stuff Manager for the Townes Household, effective April 5, 2015.  I hope you find that forty days is ample notice to find a replacement for the position, or to restructure as necessary.

When I began this position nearly fifteen years ago, I never dreamed that this organization would grow to its current size.  What started as a meager position (and an even more meager salary) managing only 400 square feet of minimal stuff has more than tripled in fifteen years, and expanded in both scope and mission.  I have tried my best to keep pace with this growth, implementing new systems of organization and streamlined processes.  I have hired and trained assistant managers (who also complain about the meager pay) and have even implemented numerous systems of sticks and carrots to provide external motivation when the intrinsic fails.  As one assistant manager aptly pointed out just this week, it seems that each time we try to eliminate the ever-growing quantity of stuff, we only manage to keep pace with the Acquisitions Department.

I know it is customary at this point in a resignation letter to thank you for the opportunities for professional and personal development, or to express the the enjoyment I’ve experienced in my position as Stuff Manager over the years.  Forgive me if I fall short of this expectation, but know that I hold myself wholly responsible for the length of this completely mismatched employment.  The fault is mine, and mine alone.  There is nothing you, dear stuff, could have done to provide more meaning to this position. There are not enough beautiful baskets, built-in organization systems, or carefully curated pins on Pinterest to develop a love of stuff management in the heart of one who longs to manage a lighter load.  Moreover, as I develop other professional interests, I find that my role as Stuff Manager is a time-consuming distraction from pursuing my actual passions.  As Peace Pilgrim once said, “Anything you cannot relinquish when it has outlived its usefulness possesses you, and in this materialistic age a great many of us are possessed by our possessions.”
If there is any way I can be of help during this transition, please let me know.  I stand ready to assist in the search process for my replacement(s), and will do all that I can over the next forty days to find new managers for each and every object of stuff that needs to relocate due to my resignation.  I will continue to train the assistant managers within the organization to manage the stuff that remains.  I will not, however, continue to manage superfluous stuff at the end of this forty day notice, and at such time, all stuff that does support the values of this organization will be unscrupulously discarded.


Jess Townes

Readers, if you too are considering resignation from your role as a Stuff Manager, I cannot recommend the following resources highly enough:

Becoming Minimalist – This blog is written by Joshua Becker, an ordinary guy who had an epiphany cleaning out his garage one weekend (or rather, his neighbor offered him an epiphany).  Click on the link and read “Our Story” and if his story appeals to you, consider digging into his blog.  There is great, great stuff here.

Art of Simple – The Art of Simple defines “simple living” as “living holistically with your life’s purpose” without any additional prescriptive commentary.  This blog is a collaboration, and you may find some method or approach that speaks to you simply because it lines up with your values, but you will not find a one-size fits all approach to simple living.  In fact, if you feel your life’s purpose is home organization, you might be aptly suited to be a Stuff Manager and you should probably give me a call because I have some stuff for you.

Apartment Therapy  – Don’t be fooled by the title, this book can be applied to a tiny apartment or a very large home.  This book approaches the organization and decorating of a home from a therapeutic perspective, asking the reader to identify his or her values and create a space that amplifies those values for its inhabitants.  It is a unique approach that I’m still working through at the time of this writing. 

Seven: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess  – Jason and I read this book a couple of years ago with some of our oldest friends, the kind of friends who knew us back when we were managing only a dorm room (or bedroom) of belongings.  We met weekly to discuss each chapter, and to implement strategies to take on the excess in our own lives.  We made a lot of strides in that time period, and some long-term changes took place.  I keep coming back to this book when I find myself slipping into patterns of consumption, and I’ll probably review it again during the next forty days, which you may have noticed coincides with the observation of Lent.

Over the next forty days, I’ll be participating in a 40 Bags in 40 Days Challenge.  
This is my first bag, and if you are looking for some very short running shorts, 
I’d suggest you check out the Goodwill near my house later this week.  Because I don’t run.   

This post is part of a series on quitting your job as a Stuff Manager.  Drop back in to read more about my journey over the next forty days, or subscribe by email if you don’t want to miss a post!  I look forward to hearing about your own resignation. 

1.  Letter of Resignation – On quitting my job as Stuff Manager
2.  I’m Never Going to Make That Beer Bottle Cap Table – On letting go of things that aren’t for us
3.  But I’ll Need That in the Zombie Apocalypse (and Other Excuses) – On excuses for our clutter  
4.  Donating Outside the Box –  On finding a great place for your donations
5.  7 Ideas for Managing Digital Clutter – On minimizing distractions and clutter on your devices 
6.  Is Organizing Just Well-Managed Hoarding? – On the difference between organizing and purging 
7.  Getting to Know Mr. Jones:  An Antidote to ConsumerismOn exploring where we got all of this stuff in the first place and a communal antidote to over-consumption
8.  Taking Back Your Square Footage –  On creating space in your home that reflects your intentions and values


The Antidote to Discontent

There’s something about the month of February that brings out the grumbling in all of us.  Maybe it is the fact that it is several months into the cold, dark season of winter, especially for those of you still buried under a couple feet of snow.  Last week, the groundhog confirmed we’ve got another six weeks of winter ahead of us (why do we keep consulting that groundhog anyway, he’s not even a trained meteorologist?) and I know many of you are ready to pack up the snow boots and break out your gardening gear.  (I hear you.  Last night while I was hibernating I had a dream that it was going to be 80 degrees all week long here in St. Louis and actually started to get dressed in a tank top before I realized it was still winter.  Talk about disappointing).  Or maybe our complaining has something to do with the fact that we’re a month into a new year, just long enough to have completely abandoned our sparkly New Year’s resolutions, yet not so long as to have forgotten we ever set them in the first place.  Or maybe it is because we’re smack in the middle of cold and flu season and we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.  I feel fairly certain that if Facebook were to run a quick analytic search it would confirm the fact that our status updates contain the most complaints this month compared to any other month of the year.  February seems to be the month of discontent.

I want to be really clear about something.  I don’t think complaining is an inherently bad thing.  There is catharsis in complaining, especially in the safety of authentic relationships.  Sometimes we complain because we are seeking solutions, and sometimes we simply need to be heard and have someone else say, “yes, I hear you, me too.”  I think being honest about our disappointments or challenges can draw us closer to the ones we love and actually play a positive role in creating community.  I don’t live in a highlight reel, and my guess is that neither does anyone reading this, so I am often relieved, inspired or just simply touched when others open up and share their struggles alongside their victories.  In fact, I read recently that one of the greatest gifts we bring to others is our authenticity, and I believe that is true. 

However, I also believe that living in a state discontent blocks our ability to live authentically, because to live an authentic life requires us to recognize and develop our own unique gifts.  It’s hard to do that when we are focused on the things we lack, or are caught in a trap of comparison.  Until we are willing to take inventory of the gifts we already hold in our hands and the beauty that already exists in our current reality, we will be blocked by discontent.  So, at least for me, it follows that the antidote to discontent is gratitude.

We hear a lot about gratitude practices in November, and to be fair, it’s an easier time of year to focus on our abundance.  We’re gearing up for the holidays and we haven’t been confronted by the real bite of winter yet, with its below zero temperatures and new strains of vaccine-resistant influenza.  It seems strange to talk about gratitude in February, yet this might just be the month we need to put this practice in place the most.  If you don’t already have a gratitude practice in place in your home or life, I want to encourage you to join me in one of the following practices for the next thirty days.  Look, many of us have already abandoned those New Year’s Resolutions, so we’ve got plenty of time on our hands to try something new, right?  Practicing gratitude for thirty days will carry us right into the middle of March when the forsythia blooms and we can begin to hope for Spring in earnest.  Besides, they say it takes thirty days to start a habit, and this is a habit that has the power to radically change your life.  What do you have to lose?

Here’s a few ideas to get you started, some that I’ve used over the years and some that are new to me (and most copied straight off Pinterest):

1.  Gratitude Journals:  The old standard.  You can purchase a journal, or make one like the example below, or just use any notebook from around your house.  Leave it on your nightstand and make a habit of writing in it before bed.  

2.  Gratitude Jar:  This is a great way to include your entire family in your gratitude practice.  Leave your jar and a few strips of paper on the kitchen table or somewhere your family tends to gather and encourage everyone to include an offering of daily thanks into the jar.

3.  Gratitude List:  I love this ring-bound, portable gratitude list to keep year round.  
4.  Gratitude App:  For the more tech-savvy, I adore this gratitude app.  I’ve used it on and off for a few years now and love that it is always at my fingertips.  You can also upload a photo from the day to include in your gratitude journal.  
5.  Gratitude Photography:  They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so if writing is not your thing, consider an Instagram gratitude challenge.  For the next thirty days, take at least one picture of something you felt grateful for each day and share it with a hashtag like #30daysofgratitude. 

6.  Gratitude Simplified:  If all of the above suggestions feel too complicated or crafty or contrived, then keep it simple.  I love this bulletin board tacked with scrap pieces of paper expressing gratitude for co-workers.  This could easily be modified for your home.  Don’t have a bulletin board?  Try Post-It notes on the refrigerator or a closet door.  Or, don’t record anything at all.  Just simply set aside a time and space in your day to mentally review the moments that were life-affirming.  It doesn’t have to be pretty or perfect.  It just has to be.

While I can’t promise that I won’t complain for the next thirty days, I will make a commitment to balance complaints with a renewed, dedicated gratitude practice.  Will you join me?  I would love to hear how you plan to incorporate a practice of gratitude in your life, or what you are already doing to give thanks on a daily basis.