As we’re preparing to leave Japan after almost three months, getting ready to pack our bags, I find myself reflecting on the belongings we have with us, those we left behind, and the day we arrived in Osaka.
We got off the bus with our small backpacks and began walking down the road. Most people were struggling with heavy suitcases and multiple bags. As we continued on foot to a cheap restaurant where we could spend a few hours killing time before our check-in, we passed a small trolley, probably belonging to a homeless person, impeccably organised. Expensive executive bags with multiple specialty pockets and zippers and organising inserts would not even come close to the precision with which the owner of this trolley had carefully stored their few possessions. An assortment of neatly stacked books. A row of well-organised toiletries.
Not long after my husband and I were first married, we moved from our 1 bedroom apartment to a 3 bedroom, 1.5 bathroom house, purely because the rent was significantly cheaper (the apartment was brand new, the house was in dire need of some renovations). This shift prompted us (or should I say, largely me) to fill up all the bare space with stuff. A house looks cold and unfulfilled when it is too empty. It echoes. And so, we held on to everything we had, and acquired yet more stuff. If someone offered us something – secondhand furniture, some clothes that didn’t fit them any more – we gratefully accepted it. As we were students at the time, we weren’t used to being able to afford to simply buy the things we wanted.
And yet, the love of ‘stuff’ in general really translates to not treating any individual item with respect. If you have too many clothes, for example, laundry becomes a chore, something to put off. Even if you manage to keep on top of the laundry, your clothes end up so cramped in your wardrobe that they can’t ‘breathe’. As Cut the Clutter describes, your clothes wrinkle more easily, and the fibers get damaged.
When you have too much of anything, rather than seeing it as individual objects, we start to view it as a lump. Our tendency to do this can be seen in our language – in English we have both ‘countable’ and ‘uncountable’ nouns. Uncountable nouns are substances and concepts like ‘air’ and ‘water’ that can’t be divided into discrete elements (that is, you can’t say, I breathed 27 airs today). The word ‘clothing‘ itself is used in an uncountable way – e.g. ‘We were poor, but we always had enough food and clothing.’ (not ‘foods’ and ‘clothings’).
Of course, you can quantify clothing, just as you can quantify the number of dishes you have, or the number of shoes you own, but it’s not often that we do. Even when the nouns we use are countable, we rarely specify the number of these kinds of belongings, and when we think about our clothes, for example, it’s highly doubtful that we could picture all of them in our heads at once. And even when you narrow it down to say, how many pairs of underpants, or how many shoes do you have, I’d guess that most people couldn’t say off the top of their head. I know roughly how many plates I own, because we bought them in a set, but all of the little ancillary serving dishes and decorative plates we accumulated as gifts and souvenirs over the years blur this figure.
Currently, however, when I think of ‘my jeans’, I can picture them immediately and know precisely what state of repair they are in, as I only have one pair with me. When I think of ‘my shoes’, I am not thinking of an enormous, uncountable lump of shoes. I’m thinking about the single pair of shoes I have with me.
Do you have a shoe collection?
The average woman, in the UK at least, apparently owns around 20 pairs of shoes – even though they only have 5 on regular rotation. And a staggering 86% of women reported owning at least one pair of shoes they have NEVER worn.
Why would anyone have a collection of anything, 75% of which they don’t use? Somewhat unsurprisingly, the answers were:
1. Too uncomfortable (too tight on feet/too high heels) (64%)
2. Hard to match with an outfit (55%)
3. Scared to damage/were very expensive (41%)
4. Were given as a gift and don’t like them (37%)
5. Didn’t like them as much when I got them home (21%)
The first two of these reasons I suspect are more common to women’s shoes than to men’s. The notion that something is too expensive to use is often relevant to many other belongings as well. For years I had expensive candles I didn’t burn because I received them as gifts and felt it was a waste to use them. And you can guess what happened – they lost most of their scent by the time I decided to finally burn them. The ‘good’ china is another example of something many families have and fail to use because they ‘keep it for best’.
Having a surplus of plates is something that encourages laziness in my opinion. When we talk about ‘washing the dishes’, we don’t usually attach any kind of measurement to it, in the way we do ‘running a 5k race’ or ‘writing a 50,000 word novella’. ‘Washing the dishes’ covers everything from rinsing a few bowls to scrubbing your entire collection of pots and pans.
Doing the dishes
Just as having a wide variety of clothes makes it more tempting to grab some fresh clothes out of the wardrobe rather than to take care of the laundry you’ve already amassed, having lots of dishes makes it more tempting to grab a new bowl or spoon out of the cupboard than deal with those already ‘soaking’ in the sink. And while soaking for a little while can help you cut down on using harsh detergents by softening baked-on food, it’s not great when you’re cutlery starts to rust!
My husband came up with a great idea to combat this tendency of ours, putting away all of our excess crockery and cutlery, so that we had one set each. When guests came over, we could easily access the other settings, but for day-to-day use, this encouraged us to quickly do the dishes after each meal – or at the very least, before the next one! Rather than looking for ‘a mug’ to fill with coffee, I began using ‘my mug’.
For the love of books
One of the hardest things for me to pack up and give away when we moved out and started our world trip was my books. I donated around 400 books, and a few years back, that would have felt like I was giving away part of my identity. However, although it may sound sacrilegious for a book lover to say this, it is not the physical printed paper that is part of me, but the words that I have already internalised.
More importantly, getting rid of the books that didn’t really reflect me and that were just taking up space has allowed me to more properly store the books that I truly love.
As a book lover, I of course love book shops, and one of my favourites was absolutely crammed with books – even the basement was filled with books in every nook and cranny. So many, the shelves were double-stacked and books were piled on the floor.
But one day, I pulled out an interesting-looking title from the corner of a shelf to find that it was thick with mould. As I looked further along the row, I saw that all the books in that corner were the same. Someone else I know had an enormous collection of VHS tapes that similarly got damp and mouldy. When we have too much of anything, we can’t look after it all. We lose things, things get mouldy or rusty or motheaten without us noticing.
That’s not how I want my books to become.
I used to think I wanted the book-stuffed house, but now I realise, the few books I saw stacked up in that cart, carefully wrapped in a plastic shopping bag, were much better looked after.
Being grateful for what you have doesn’t mean loving stuff indiscriminately for stuff’s sake. It means acknowledging the natural and human resources that go into any product, and treating it with the respect that will make it last a long time and serve its purpose (and also, save you money).
As the women’s responses in the survey above demonstrate, money is often a factor in deciding whether or not we should hang onto something. We refuse to discard something we bought or were given, even if we don’t like it or it doesn’t meet our needs, simply because it cost money.
This, to me, is an unhelpful outcome of a poverty mindset. When you truly have very little resources, it makes sense to hold on to what you can. And the mindset that many of our grandparents had – holding on to parts that could be used to repair things, or items that might come in handy – also makes sense. But hoarding shoes that you don’t like when you have plenty that you do, or, even worse, shoes that don’t fit you doesn’t save you money. In fact, you’re spending money on maintaining them.
Most people’s solution to ‘organising’ their home seems to be buying expensive storage containers, shelving, and so on. For every $100 you spend on wardrobe accessories for storing your shoes – shoe racks, boxes, boot inserts, and so on – if you’re like the average UK woman, $75 of that is wasted on the 75% of shoes you don’t even wear. (Arguably, all $100 is wasted, because with only 5 pairs in common rotation, you probably don’t need any of that gear at all). If you apply this style of thinking not only to shoes, books, dishes and clothes, but to everything in your home, you may well find that you’re spending money maintaining entire rooms that are unnecessary.
As de Botton points out in his observations during A Week at the Airport, it is now the wealthy who tend to carry the least luggage ‘for their rank and itineraries led them to subscribe to the much-polished axiom that one can now buy anything anywhere’. Being able to get rid of the things you do not need requires a feeling of security that if they do become necessary, you’ll be able to replace them. But once you do it, you’ll realise that not only did you truly not need all that stuff, but you appreciate the things you do have so much more without all the distraction.
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Today’s featured image is of some beautiful Japanese bowls.
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Do you have too many of anything? Do you collect anything? Let me know in the comments below!