The Trouble with Joy

My husband and I recently sold our 2400 sf house (too big for us, too vertical, too modern, too too-too.) And now we’re considering making an offer on a 1000 sf house in an older part of town. People lived small in 1905, the year it was built. If we get it, it will be less than half the size of the house we just sold, and downsizing to that degree would be daunting. I own a lot of stuff and love most of it. I don’t mean big furniture stuff. I mean stuff like this little ruler, stuff some people call clutter:

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Of course, loving rulers can lead to stuff like this, too many rulers, all mine. I’m like a crow collecting things, only now the nest is getting smaller. Three-cornered rulers. Rulers marked in centimeters. School rulers. Big, little, chunky, skinny rulers. Love them.

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The same goes for flashlights:

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Which leads to this:

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A sensible voice in my head chants “Declutter, simplify.” The voice has been amplified recently by helping empty out my late mother’s house. She was 92 and had accumulated a lot of meaningful things, things which Marie Kondo, of Tidying Up with Marie Condo fame, would say, “sparked joy” in her. According to Kondo, if it sparks joy, it’s fair to keep it. Do I have that right?

I watched just two episodes of that show, trying to complete the job at my mom’s house cheerfully as well as prepare for the soon-to-be-job of moving into a smaller house. “Does it spark joy?” I kept asking myself, repeating it like a mantra.

And, of course, almost everything I own sparks joy. If it didn’t spark joy, I wouldn’t own it. I could probably put together one box of items that I’m ready to give away – a wooden spoon or two, some old sneakers, afew tape cassettes (though not all: Perry Como sings Christmas carols, love that.) So there’s not much I’m ready to part with. Not enough to fit all my things into a 1000sf house. “It’s darling,” I said when I went to the Open House, but I’m not sure how darling it will be when I have to get rid of so many items that spark joy. I guess the key to doing it is to determine the degree of joy something sparks…?

Well, on a scale of one to ten, rocks and good fortune-cookie fortunes spark 10 units of joy:

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And on the same scale, old pitchers spark 10:

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Ditto marbles and other round things, like paper globes and glass spheres:

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And what about all my books, and, oh – old cameras! Definitely 10’s on the joy scale.

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Plus photos of perfect strangers, all of whom seem to have interesting stories in their past, especially the one of a woman who resembles Eleanor Roosevelt riding a donkey.

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A few photographs don’t take up much room, do they? But I have several shoe boxes full. Declutter? Wait! Do they spark joy? Every single one of them does. Just look at that farmer, and at those two men in their Depression-era caps (Are they out of work? Can they feed their families? There’s a story there….) and the man by the door of his grocery-store-filling-station, or the young man in the striped jacket sitting on the hood of his car so nonchalantly, the moms and kids playing in the water…..

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What about old binoculars?

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Old ink bottles?

Everything is sparking a 10. So I’m in a bind if we buy that 1000 sf house.

Now the question occurs: How do we get rid of the things we are too fond of? In writing workshops, I often heard students say (and maybe I’ve even said it a few times) “Kill your darlings.” If you’re over-fond of something in your story, if you’re too attached, that might mean something’s wrong, something needs reviewing and revising.  Revision is perhaps the closest writers come to decluttering. Killing your darlings is not bad advice. Now if I could just do it.

But I’m in love with words, objects, images. I collect them. I use them (yes, quite a few are functional!) and quite a few inspire me in my writing. But no excuses – I just love stuff. And I think the writing advice I listened to most was “Follow your eccentricities.” Which I’m doing when I buy flashlights or when I write poetry. It conflicts with “Kill your darlings,” doesn’t it?

My mother collected the programs of every single play she went to, from about 1960 to 2018. She went to a lot of plays each year, and now I’m looking at a big box full of programs. I will probably throw them out or, if possible, offer them to drama departments or theaters. Mom couldn’t toss them, because she loved what they represented. They were a record of her life, and I know some of those plays inspired her, changed her, mystified her, challenged her, made her laugh. She wanted to get the programs out and look at them every once in awhile. She wanted to review her life.

What do we keep, what do we give away? And what do we just toss because we don’t need it and who is going to want it? Ouch, that one hurts.

It’s never about needing the things that spark joy, is it? It’s about beauty and where you find it. But what if too many things in the world around you are beautiful? What do you do then? What if you own too many of them and you’re moving into a 1000sf house? Oi.

If you’ve got an answer for me, if you can tolerate Marie Kondo, if you know how to tidy up, or if you’ve figured out how to kill your darlings, how to own only what you need, how to get rid of what you’re over-fond of, if you’ve learned how to toss stuff out, to avoid excess, let me know – put it in the comments!

42 responses to “The Trouble with Joy

  1. Oh dear. I’m afraid I’m not going to be any help, because I love “stuff” too, and I have a lot of it. You have so much wonderful stuff too. As an artist/illustrator, I would be loathe to part with any of it, mostly because it could be potential subject matter in a painting or a model in an illustration.

    Sorry, I am no help.

    >

  2. I’m hoping someone will give you sn answer, Julie. I’m facing the exact same situation in a couple of years and am already struggling with how to “declutter” and let go of my “stuff.” Good luck~you have many beautiful treasures!

  3. I’ve had to downsize several times, but I always accumulate things. We need things. Even clutter, especially clutter that sparks joy. I recommend you think about giving your precious things as gifts. One year before I moved, I gave everyone something from my pop-up book collection. It hurt to give away those books, but it caused such delight to those who received them that I still smile about it. A friend once gave me several flashlights (we have power outages here) as a give to light my way. If you know teachers, especially art teachers, you can make gifts of things you love knowing they’ll be treasured or transformed. We are all only stewards of our possessions in life. Good luck!

  4. Barbara Bell

    Stuff! Repurpose..
    Rulers; Cover a chest/ desktop/ small table with rulers or make picture frames
    Flashlights: find a place for each one that is viable: emergency box, night stand, end table, kitchen drawer, car, garage, laundry rm,
    Pitchers/ vases: one of each size, holding flowers, lavender or rulers in bathroom, bedrooms, closets?
    Offer things to your children, they may be tied to childhood memories.
    Is anything museum worthy?
    Offer extras to community for resources; Portland has Community Warehouse for families who have nothing/ lost everything in a disaster/ move!

    • Julie Larios

      Excellent ideas, Barbara, and I’ve done some of them for my mom’s belongings – art supplies to Allied Arts and after-school art programs for kids, yarn to a Weaver’s Guild.

  5. Joy, above, has a great idea & I’ve done some of that, especially when finally I was ready to give away my teaching things. My only experience/advice is that I had the opportunity to move into my new place, smaller without a garage, but a tiny basement for “some” things first. I took what I really, really wanted to keep, and had an estate sale of the rest. For example, I took my favorite cookbooks & really did leave the others. I am a book lover, too, & did not leave most, but gave some children’s to my school (now have accumulated more). Over many years my husband & I had collected so many Santas, little & big. I brought a tiny number of favorites & left the rest. That was hard, but I knew that I would not have any place to put them out in my new place. I am glad I downsized. I have plenty now & try to give more away as the months pass. Yikes, I have rocks and little nature things everywhere, but they give me joy & will be easy for someone else to throw away – someday! Best wishes, Julie. It’s a beautifully thought-filled post.

  6. Julie Paschkis

    My method is to have a tree fall through the roof of your house. It’s a quick and effective way to get rid of things, but I don’t recommend it.

    • Julie Larios

      Priorities tighten up so quickly when crashing trees head straight for you! So glad you were not hurt, Julie P.

  7. Do what Dale Chihuly did with all his collections — display them in glass topped tables in a restaurant.
    I’m sure Bellingham could use a new restaurant run by you and Nando.

    • Julie Larios

      The new restaurant: Nando would serve his creative concoctions and I would offer warmed-up leftovers. Just like home!

  8. Oh, Julie, you have so many wonderful things. If I came to your house, you would find me snooping in every corner to admire them all! I love those old photos. As for Marie Kondo, I could only tolerate one episode, although I do believe in purging and have been a “mostly minimalist” for quite some time. It started when I moved to Italy and threw away or gave away so much stuff, and it felt good to lighten my load. Now I do regular purges, especially clothes and papers — but I still have my “little” collections too that I can’t yet part with: every paper I’ve ever written from 7th grade through grad school, a big box of playbills, a bigger box of sheet music, my annotated theater scripts, teaching units, a steamer trunk of costumes, bins of fabric, lots of vintage costume jewelry. I stem the overflow by keeping it organized in small places, and I’m not much of a consumer so I don’t acquire new stuff very often (except books). If you love your collections, then you will just need to “build up” in the new house and make creative use of the upper part of the wall for display! (Another note: I also review every possible purchase through a “how hard is that going to be to dust” lens!)

  9. Julie Larios

    Renee, you are welcome to come and snoop anytime!

  10. Beautiful piece!!! I’m in the same bind. My sense is that if I let go of beloved things, my mind will be clearer, my body lighter, and I will be more free to enjoy things of the moment, such as reading a fine book then returning it to the library. Problem is my eyes. They are used to the myriad things of my house and take pleasure from them. And there’s my soul, which works hand in hand with my eyes. I know, I’ll declutter only the hidden places – the closets, drawers, attic, and basement.

    • Julie Larios

      Another good idea – focus on stuff in closets, stuff that’s put away. I have extra sets of dishes, etc. Drawers. Boxes in garage. Will approach it from that direction. Thanks, Sarah!

  11. Thanks for this post — I am a stuff person too and know I need to pare down but it’s SO hard. I’m convinced some people are simply collectors (if not for us, trying to preserve a little social history, would there be any museums?) :). Certain things simply represent important parts of our lives and continue to feed our creativity. I have no real solutions but recently have been trying this tip someone offered awhile ago: take digital photos of certain items before you donate them so you don’t feel you’ve permanently lost them. Looking at the photo later will at the very least spark that joy associated with sentimental value.

    • Julie Larios

      Jama, that solution might actually work. I’m not sure I have to touch the items I love, I just need to see them. And I love photographs, obviously. So good – a workable solution to some of it! Thanks. (I agree about holding on to some things for history’s sake….)

  12. Purging is SO hard. However, as I’ve learned in the last few years losing my parents, if you don’t get rid of your ‘stuff’, someone else will have to do it.
    Sad – but OH so true.

    • Julie Larios

      Yes, Fictionophile, that’s what I’m doing right now, too. Ouch, it’s hard, but I don’t want my kids having to sort through what I’m sorting through at my mom’s house. Okay. Maybe bite the bullet, do it now, while it makes sense!

    • That’s how I see it. I never want to put my son through what my parents put me through. 😓

  13. Actually I agree with Julie Paschkis’s advice. Take a trip to the grocery store or maybe Mexico when the tree is scheduled to fall. Those crazy pieces of our past history, we love and they do give us joy besides making me very inefficient because I have to stop and hold them in my hands or with my eyes and then I have no idea why I am standing in the kitchen but maybe the answer is in the refrigerator. Nancy

    • Julie Larios

      Nancy, hi! I miss hearing about how you’re doing – please stay in touch! And yes, I’m in the same boat (or maybe the same kitchen) you’re in, forgetting what I’m doing there. Would love to blame all that on my clutter and beloved stuff, but I think it has more to do with staying up to late and reading into the wee hours (just got new glasses – I can see again, hooray….)

  14. Hi! This was a fun read. I was curious why you wanted to move to a smaller house when it seems that you do have a lot of beloved stuff that needs to take up space. My opinion is that if you take time to think about why you want to downsize and what you want to make room for (emotions, projects, people, etc), it will help. For example, living in a smaller house will save more money and you want to travel more now. Then weigh what is more important in your life during this transitional time. You don’t necessarily have to downsize into a space that is half your current size. What size of home life is most appropriate to you now?

    I admit that I do enjoy the Marie Kondo method even though I’m definitely not a minimalist. After moving last year, I sorted through a lot of papers and things, though I’d started the process of sorting a few years ago. Because most of my stuff had been in storage for a year, it was very easy at that point to know what I really wanted to include in my new phase of life, and what wasn’t necessary. Objects do take energy to maintain and even to look at, but if they bring you joy that energy comes back to you. I think that simply looking at your stuff is not enough – it really is necessary to hold each object or at least put it in front of you. If it’s truly necessary to downsize, you will feel that pull inside of you, and you will be able to evaluate your life more clearly. It’s a process that takes a lot of time and energy, but it feels good to say a definitive Yes or No to what you want to embrace, whether that’s objects or non-materials qualities of life. Good luck!

    • This feels very sensible and rational to me – to evaluate the WHY of being drawn to downsizing, and to keep that WHY in front of me as I proceed. Thanks for the calm voice.

  15. We changed to a new 1200 square foot house from a very large, high ceiling, old 1920 house. We have since found that it can feel squished. It’s not the stuff that sparks joy. Before Marie Kondo was around, I got rid of most of my treasures because we were moving to Europe, then to the PNW. I don’t believe in storage. Those things stored are forgotten, and my child and grandchildren have their own favorite things. So I had to pare down. I have one cabinet of things that spark joy. If I can’t fit things in there, it has to go. My goal is two plastic flip boxes for our next move to someplace with a little bigger bathrooms and higher ceilings again (like our very old home). I love living spare. The houses that most spark joy from me are those with high ceilings, big door openings, lots of windows… and in an ideal world, tatami mats and not much else. I’m not there yet. I figure letting things go gives others who are real collectors a chance to have some cool things. It’s not as if the things I got rid of are in a dump somewhere. Someone else can treasure them. You can even put a note in things like pitchers with a little history. And I can live lighter and free of stuff.

    • Liz, I don’t think I’ll ever make it to the point where I’m happy with just tatami mats! But I will hold on to the idea that what I give up will go to someone who also loves & treasures it, not to the dump. Quite right.

  16. Addendum: About getting rid of parent’s stuff. Yes! I hear others posting about who needs to dispose of things after relative’s death. I had to disposed of everything in my dad’s house, and he was a hoarder. We had one tool garage sale, and then used 4-40 yard dumpsters to get rid of it all, 160 cubic yards of mostly junk. And I didn’t live in the city he did, so it was hard. I’m sure he would have said it was worth money. 😦

  17. I can’t help either – I love all my stuff and my collections. I want to move to a bigger house, but can’t, for various reasons. Anyway we’re never moving anywhere smaller and I don’t have that “I need to downsize! get rid of stuff!” that everybody my age seems to be feeling.

    • Yes, it seems that all the Baby Boomers are now downsizing, and we are a multitude. You might be lucky to not be going up or down – it will keep you from accumulating more, more, more.

  18. Julie,

    I’m late commenting here because I am in the middle of moving my father from his 2200sf townhouse to a 2 bedroom 1000 sf apartment in a retirement community. I am battling this very same issue. Dad loves stuff and so do I. I find the hardest items to part with are those attached to memories (Anything of my mother’s I want to keep!) while Dad remembers how much he paid for each item. (LOL! A man’s brain vs a woman’s, right?) But I cannot relocate all of the sentimental tchotchkes into my basement (well, not if I want to maintain my marriage) so I have to deal with it somehow.

    Here is a solution I found which may work for you, too: if you find you have things you can’t bear to part with, box them up. Rent a very small storage unit (here, a 5×5 unit costs about$50/mo). Put the boxes of extras in there and leave them untouched for a few months or a year. When you take them out again, gauge your reaction. If it feels like finding an old friend, find a place for it in your home. If not, pass it on to someone who might love it too. Or maybe rotate your things, some go in storage when others come out. It may be worth the extra money to diminish the anguish, and it may make it ultimately easier to part with things a little at a time. If you love those $50 more than you love those items, you’ll say goodbye more quickly! But moving is traumatic enough as it is, no need to add an additional emotional burden to the mix.

    I wish you the best!
    Sending love and hopes for peace of mind during your stressful time.
    -Patti

    • A sensible plan, Patti. I’ll check out the cost of storage units. Good luck with your Dad’s move!

  19. I thought of a bit of advice, Julie. I recommend waiting a day or two before you haul anything away (thrift store or dump). I’ve found that allowing myself that little bit of time helps me to determine if there’s anything I’ll really regret giving away. It’s basically taking baby steps to allow yourself time to reconsider if you truly want to keep something. (like I did with a pair of old hiking boots–Mark had put them in the car to haul away when I realized I had over a thousand miles of backpacking memories in those boots so I ran out and grabbed them!).

    • Good idea, Terry. If I try sleeping on my decisions for a couple of nights & decide there’s something keeping me awake, I’ll do as you did!

  20. I am getting ready to move on to the 3rd act of my life, and for the last 30+ years where I have been raising children, I accumulated a lot of hobbies. I would have been fine if I had been stranded in a real life game of Settlers of Katan. Just today I cleared off my desk to where you can actually see the desk. I think I have 20 spindles. I’m having to reduce my projects in knitting, stitching, and painting and dance to a manageable level. I have 10 shopping bags full of yarn! (How did I get 10 shopping bags of yarn?)

    I am able to get rid of things based on thinking about what’s going to be a priority for me. Am I going to be getting done with work and thinking about being excited to go home and work on these projects, or are they going to be something for me to just get done? Time is about to become a huge priority for me.

    The sad part is that so many objects were things that I spent money on. I hate to throw things out or just give them away when I spent money on them. I was so broke! But I comfort myself realizing that just going out to look for these things and purchased them gave me a pleasant time and sociability between picking up children and dropping them off places. I’m letting go with as few regrets as possible.

    I’m also having to rethink things. Having 5 or 6 spindles is one thing. Having 30 is excessive. Three shopping bags of yarn offers me a choice of projects… 9 overwhelms me and I forget what I have! Having 10 good children’s books that contain beautiful art in them is good. Having 50 of them is too many and my grand children are never sitting still long enough for me to go through them all anyway.

    This is just my method that I am applying right now and it’s been working.

    I hate to see that you are in a similar situation, but it makes me feel better realizing that I’m not alone. Just knowing that somebody also struggling and in my frustration, I can let go of it more because it’s not just me. I came to your blog from reading something that you wrote at Amazon. I’m really glad that my mind wandered and I started surfing around!

  21. Kay, thanks for visiting Books Around the Table. I just realized today, as I packed up more books to take to offer to the buyers at a local used book store, that part of my problem is as you describe: I’m thrifty to a fault, and I hate to think of the money I spent acquiring the books. I decided to give the books I can do without now to the Friends of the Library sale instead of trying to peddle them to the used book store. That way, I can think of how my accumulation of books over the years can help the library!

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