Special thanks to Deborah Stein for this Story of Not-a-Lot. It’s especially meaningful to our family right now. Even though our kids are still at home, we’re attempting to downsize to a smaller home. Like Deborah, we’re after “more space.”
Strange as it seemed to my family, paring down possessions and eliminating the unnecessary always brought me joy. My children, now adults, spent many childhood hours trying to ignore repeated requests to go through their piles, drawers and closets to find the things they were ready to donate, recycle and trash. They rolled their eyes at mantras such as “If you have less, you’ll be able to see what you have and enjoy it more.” For me, it was almost addictive to donate sheets or clothes, recycle magazines and papers, and then see the empty space in the closet or feel how easily the drawers would close. As if fresh air were allowed in, and the remaining stuff could take a deep breath (relief, possibly, that it made the cut – this time!).
I think I was just warming up for a major simplification effort. When our two older sons moved on in life and no longer came home for extended visits (although our oldest in particular left plenty of stuff behind!), I felt the call of a smaller, simpler space. We had extra bedrooms and lots of wasted space in other places such as our living room and dining room that were rarely used. As with many other families, we tended to live in the open kitchen and den. Guests loved being in the kitchen, too.
We envisioned remodeling a smaller home that would have enough, but not too much space — and only space that we would use regularly. We took to heart Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House” principle that people are most likely to use the space they see. She advocates an open floor plan where possible, but also encourages including an ‘away space’ for privacy, contemplation and escape. By making our reduced space energy efficient, we also planned to shrink our energy consumption.
In addition, our hope was that our new home would not be cluttered with too much furniture or excess inventory, and that we could achieve the relaxed, vacation house feeling. (Admittedly, this would be easier to accomplish at our almost empty nest life stage — without our children and all of their worldly goods in regular residence.)
Here’s what happened:
We released our excess accumulation of stuff in layers. As much as we had gradually given away (including researching places that could make use of such items as musical instruments and hearing aids), recycled or crammed into the trash in years’ worth of garbage days, there was a tremendous amount to triage quickly at the eleventh hour of moving.
Every item that went with us had to pass the test: ‘Does one of us love this or use it? Do we really want to pack this up, move it ourselves or pay the movers to haul it, unpack it on the other end and find a home for it in our smaller space?’ Sometimes this meant jettisoning worn out fantasies about what I might one day do with certain things (such as costume parties where I might wear particular outfits – I never go to costume parties!), or appreciating the giver of a 35 year old, never used wedding gift while freeing that cut crystal decanter to move on to its next owner. We tried to make the transition from ‘What should we get rid of?’ to ‘What should we keep?’
After many months in our new home, we have truly never missed anything that we outplaced or tossed. Not a single item. Although we now have fewer square feet, we also have fewer possessions so the new house is less crowded and feels much larger than we had ever expected. We have not felt deprived or that we are doing without anything. It’s not perfect, but we have a simpler, more tranquil physical environment in which it’s easier and faster to put things away, keep organized and focus on aspects of life that mean more to us than caring for stuff.
Of course, we need to remain on guard so that we don’t re-accumulate. However, with an attic full of insulation, at least we are certain that no clutter will ever live there.