We moved into a new house on October 1. The house is charming and cozy and adorable, all words that real estate agents like to use as code for “small & old + no storage.” And okay, yeah, it’s true that the house was built in the early 1900s and there are no closets anywhere except the tiny ones in our bedroom. But somehow even with only half the square footage of our previous living space, we feel nestled instead of cramped, like we’ve been tucked in for a good night’s sleep complete with loving kiss on forehead.
As much as we adore living in what my mom has (appropriately) dubbed our Gingerbread House, making the transition to a smaller space required serious downsizing. The townhouse where we’d lived before had its shortcomings, but lack of storage was not one of them. We had a full basement, a stupid amount of closet space and much larger bedrooms.
Once our Gingerbread House lease was signed and U-Haul was reserved, we had to start making decisions about what was gonna live boxed up in the shed out back for the next year or two. Then followed many conversations like “Well if we can live without this crap for a year or two, why keep it at all?” Dan & I agreed that maybe it was time to embrace a new lifestyle: Less stuff. More practicality.
Around the same time, plans for our future changed. Before, we thought we’d be moving into a big ol’ adobe house in Albuquerque within the next couple years. Now, we’re talking about relocating to Hawaii so we can be closer to Dan’s folks as his dad faces cancer.
Downsizing to accommodate scarce closet space is not at all the same animal as downsizing to accommodate moving 3000+ miles away to somewhere that requires fees for all checked baggage and/or exorbitant shipping rates. The logistics involved made both of us think hard— I mean really really hard— about what we truly needed in terms of stuff.
Right around this time, a book I’d requested from the library came in: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.
I missed the bandwagon when this book was all the rage a couple years ago, but now I hoped the “KonMari method” of organizing the author described might help me to A) understand how to manage living in a smaller space without feeling cluttered when we moved to our tiny new house in a few weeks and B) might help me figure out what to keep and what to jettison if we are indeed pointed toward life on a small island.
Instead, the book completely changed my perspective on physical possessions: why we keep them, what we’re really hanging onto, why it’s okay to let things go.
The basic concept of the book is to keep only those items that spark joy. For everything else, you hold it a moment, thank it for its role in your life, and release it. Pay that item forward. Envision the joy it could spark for someone else.
In this way, Kondo explains, buying a dress for a special occasion and only wearing it once (for example) isn’t wasteful at all. The dress has served its purpose. And now you can donate it to a thrift store, where it can be discovered by someone else to serve that person’s purpose.
I looked at my closet, at all the shirts and pants I skim over because they don’t fit quite right or the tags are scratchy or the cuffs are just the tiniest bit too short but I bought them anyway— and I realized, yep. Those can all go.
Earlier this year, I bought a bunch of business-y clothes for a conference I attended in the spring. Have I worn any of them since? No. Had they served their purpose? Perfectly. I thanked them profusely and dumped them in a donation bag. I also thanked (and then lovingly crammed into more donation bags) clothes I’d held onto out of pure nostalgia, anything I thought I might wear someday but someday still hadn’t come, and that one vintage lace shirt I’ve had longer than I’ve had my kid but have maybe worn twice in all that time.
Before this book, I never associated guilt with clutter. Yet going through all my crap one item at a time, paying attention to the emotional response each item evoked, I couldn’t believe how much guilt I carried over the idea of getting rid of stuff I’d bought, thought I’d use, and didn’t use. And I couldn’t believe how changing my perspective from “This thing was a total waste of money if I only wore it once so I’d better hang onto it and wear it a bunch more times” to “This thing was perfect for the occasion I bought it for and served its purpose well; thanks, Thing!” eliminated all that angst.
And I realized, too, that part of letting things go is trusting that what you need will find its way to you again. If another business conference comes around, I need to trust that the thrift store will yield more perfect shirts and pants, just like they did for me this last time. Let go of the poverty mindset that whispers in the back of my mind we might not have money for those things when that day comes. Let go of uncertainty, the expectations of worst-case-scenarios. Trust more that better days wait ahead.
In the end, it’s all just stuff.
The bedroom closet in our Gingerbread House holds only those clothes I reach for again and again, the ones that live full-time in either the washer or in my dirty clothes basket because I’m constantly wearing them. I now have extra room in my very small closet. I kept only kitchen items I use constantly, the knives I need to sharpen weekly. I kept only collage papers in patterns that sparked joy for me, paints in my favorite brand, high-quality editions of favorite books.
And since this revelation showed up about 2/3 of my way through packing up our entire existence, I plan on going through all the boxes in the shed over the next year to find other items I can pay forward— books and jewelry and belongings that can then be reincarnated into starring roles in someone else’s closet.
Keep only what sparks joy.