One Reader’s declutter story – by Cat’s Meow

The first decluttering I remember doing when I was perhaps ten or eleven years old. I wanted a more “grown-up” room with more aesthetic appeal. I always liked the “less but something I really love”-approach. I remember it being very hard because I felt guilty for tossing away anything. It was mostly broken pencils and some random plastic junk or a freebie sticker. A tiny bag, and I still felt bad about not wanting to keep that stuff anymore. Most stuff I couldn’t even have gotten rid of without asking my parents anyway.

This same feeling followed me around – I actually could not get rid of my first boyfriend because I somehow felt that when I started something or got something, it was mine to take care of forever. After a long time agonizing, I finally did dump the boyfriend, and I was single for a few years. I wanted to make sure he was a keeper next time so I was very picky! During this time in my early twenties I lived alone and got into my first truly minimalist kick. After losing the boyfriend it got easier to dump stuff too, though I still felt incredibly guilty, and I just didn’t really know what to do with the things.

I lived with quite little, yet I spent too much money on clothes and such. I had a fragile self-esteem and I used stuff to try and make myself more confident, make people like me and think I was cool, and trying to define to myself who I was. It is not uncommon for young people trying to find themselves to go through this, and some people are stuck in the cycle for a lifetime. When I met my now-husband and we moved in together, I lost the control of my living surroundings. Suddenly it wasn’t just my stuff, it was his stuff too and our stuff and I could not make decisions about keeping or not keeping it.And I am an all-or-nothing type of person. So if I didn’t have complete control, I didn’t even try to control our stuff at all. Not even my own – why would I have minimal personal stuff if I still had to live with all my husband’s stuff?

Early on living together, my husband would say that he hated cleaning, because it always made me mad. It made me mad because all the cleaning never made it look like I wanted. There was simply too much stuff. Yet it never occurred to me to talk about it and decide how we could make things better together. Until it did. I read Karen Kingston’s “Clear your clutter with feng shui”, and gave it my husband to read. It was an epiphany for both of us. I got my husband on board decluttering and it was great, but it was just the start of our journey a few years ago.

I was in art school and it meant A LOT of stuff. I was a prolific painter all through school and they made us students work hard. I have since got a separate studio (a separate headache!) so that stuff stopped spilling into our everyday living. There were other obstacles though. I’m mildly bi-polar (how fitting for an artist..) and after losing my mother and getting pregnant with my daughter, I just went a bit nuts with decorating our home, and buying baby clothes, and starting large scale craft endeavors, you know, things like that :). Soon after those patterned wallpapers were up I was regretting them, and my enthusiasm for the new craft hobby / business faded in a few months leaving we with bags and piles of materials.. And I realized I’d spent tons of money on clothes for a baby AND that now I had to figure out where to store all those clothes! Needless to say a lot of it was stuff we never ended up using anyway. Turns out I am not a mom who will dress her baby in cute outfits, little dresses and tights and such. Go figure.

The thing is I KNOW my taste, I have pretty much had the same aesthetic ideal for a home since I was seven years old. It was my aunt’s spare, bohemian flat in an old building with some old furniture and hardly any color at all and I remember being very impressed and the images from that apartment followed me as an example of how I wanted my home to look like. But this hasn’t stopped me from derailing from that knowledge. I used to read fashion magazines and decoration magazines and I’d let them influence me, or some weird mood would strike me. I didn’t realize that I could admire colorful, maximalist interiors but it didn’t mean that they were right for me. I will always, ALWAYS end up hating visual noise, be it clutter or patterns or loud colors.

When I was pregnant those things actually made me nauseous. My daughter is now two years old and the last year has been the most important year in my journey towards a minimalist lifestyle. I had to really look at myself, face some demons, and admit things about myself. One HUGE realization (simple as it may seem!) was that the clutter would never stop if I kept bringing in more. I had to get rid of the clutter AND STOP BRINGING IN MORE, whether it was through my own careless shopping to alleviate anxiety, or through gifted items, or through starting another craft project. I had to stop using STUFF to try to heal myself, to express myself. It only ever managed to make me feel worse in the end, and then I’d feel doubly guilty for getting rid of it.

We have donated a lot, but I have also made it my penance to sell some of the stuff. I hate selling so it helps when I consider buying something, to think about having to sell this thing later or dragging it to the charity shop. What a hassle! So now when I buy something it better be a keeper.

I also had to finally come to terms with what I truly liked to live like, not what seemed like a cool way to live. I am a highly visual person and I get very agitated and restless in a cluttered home (though other people’s maximalist homes don’t bother me and I even like them!). I do not like to own a lot of things, only what is actually used and loved. Things are not in short supply in this world, on the contrary, there is an excess of stuff and I will always be able to get more, so there is no need to keep reserves of stuff like craft supplies or clothes. More than likely it’ll end up unused because I’ve moved on! I have also realized that I dislike recognizable designer furniture and decorations and clothing with labels.

I have to ease up on my perfectionist tendencies. I’m very thankful for my husband being into minimalism too, so it’s actually pretty easy, though I’d rather not look into his desk drawers because he is so disorganized it makes my head spin! But I am sharing a home with two other people who have a right to have their important things too, even if I can’t always see the value in them. We recently up-sized from 600 square feet to 1000 sq ft because I thought I wanted more space. Three months later we are back in the same 600 sq ft apartment. I missed the friendly neighborhood, living right next to a beach and a community playground and just being in the middle of an active community, very important to me now as a stay-at-home-mom. I felt so at home coming back to our 50’s one-bedroom that is a bit rough around the edges.

I feel at peace when there is no thinking and planning of buying stuff, going shopping and buying stuff, and finding space for it and maintaining it and cleaning around it, to distract me from simply being there, doing nothing, playing with my daughter, hanging out as a family.

For this last move I had a friend to help me pack and we did the whole thing in three hours. With furniture, it took three trips with a small van (with some bits left over). After it was all here, my husband said half jokingly: ” Let’s reduce our stuff to one-third of this!” And so we actually started another round of decluttering, just when I thought we were surely done. The goal is, when we move the next time, to fit all our things in two trips with a small van, so more like reducing another 30%.

While on my journey towards a minimalist life, and since the life-altering events of losing my mom and becoming a mom, I have also shed my ambitions like an old skin. I used to dream of being a successful artist and all that jazz, but now I simply want to be. There is no career in the world that would be more important than taking care of my daughter. I also used to dream of a big house. Now I don’t ever want a big house. Small and cozy yet ascetic is the way for us. The ascetic part comes from having little stuff, and the coziness comes from natural materials and colors, a slightly worn look. I like my old stripy rag rugs that I can throw in the washer, and the small and light but very comfortable 50’s arm chairs, our simple set of dishes, plain linen sheets, only paper blinds on the windows, walls of unfinished cement that are simply painted over, and almost complete lack of decoration throughout. Our “decoration” comes from beautiful everyday objects, like a vintage enamel bowl full of fruit and a pot of kitchen utensils in the kitchen, handmade soap and organic cotton shower curtain in the bathroom and our daughters colorful toys in the living room. This home is for us, for living and laughing and loving. For making milk shakes and sleeping late and reading books. It’s not a place to display our good taste, or money, or artistry, or knowledge of what’s hip. In the end there is no reward for the one who finishes with the most money and possessions, biggest house, travels around the world, three doctorates, acclaim and fame. It’s just us and our creator and like my grandpa used to say: “There are no pockets in the last shirt”. ~~Thank you Colleen for asking me to write a guest post for you, and thank you to anyone who read it :)~~

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Continue reading with these posts:

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About Colleen Madsen

Colleen is the founder of 365 Less Things and lives in Newcastle, Australia.

Comments

  1. Breath-takingly beautiful and revealing Cat’s Meow. Fabulous job.

  2. Wow! I actually should write down my story too, I think.

  3. That was such a great read, thank you. I’m struggling a little with acknowledging my deeper desirer to ‘just be’ against the loss of a lot of dreams and potential due to ill health. It is really good to read of others ‘just being’.

    • Hi Katherine,
      we should all be allowed to feel free to just be. Unfortunately we tend to bow to societies idea of success. I suppose the thing to do is ignore society or what our minds tell us society is thinking.

      • yes, I agree. I think I find it easy to ignore societies bigger pressures – don’t care about a big house and have long let go of the sucessful career or high income. It’s the smaller subtle stuff that I am working on letting go of now.
        I love the saying ” We can’t all be stars, but we can all twinkle – that is my motto now for my life: it makes me smile when I see it (I have recently written it on my wall)and makes the small goodness of my life and simple life affirming gestures towards others during the day matter.

        • Hi Katherine,
          We can’t all be stars, but we can all twinkle – I like that!

        • We can be the star in our own damn show 😀 You know, who cares about the society when the whole universe sees us. Or something.

          • Well yeah, I am the star of my own show and the light of my OH’s life :O)
            But I am also part of society, not separate from it, and I choose to let go of desires to be a star there, but love to play a positve and proactive role in society, in my own undemanding and simple way by twinkling. It makes me happy, and spreads that around and makes my life better and is a way to give to others.

  4. Lovely poetic writing, Cat’s Meow – you are artistic even in that form! – and informative at the same time.

    I remember feeling somewhat like this when my children were little (before school). All I ever wanted to be was a wife and mom, and once I got there, I poured myself into it. Nothing else appealed to me. Once my kids were both in school, though, my mind seemed to start looking for something else, something for me, and also some way to contribute financially. I still feel that motherhood was my greatest job, though 🙂

    • Hi Jo,
      thank you for adding your thoughts to this. I was fortunate to be able to do the same as you, stay home and raise my children. I took on parttime work on and off once they were in school but now that they are grown I am feeling like I should do something with my life but I am not sure where to start or if I even want to. In reality we don’t need more money and I still have a home to care for and it is so convenient not having a job holding me down. Being able to pick up and go with my husband on business trips and not having to coordinate vacation time is a nice thing.

    • Thank you Jo! It’s sad to me that being a mother is so undervalued, when it has such profound effect on these little people! I often feel like I just don’t understand this world we live in. Once the kids are grown and don’t need you so much all the time, it’s natural to turn our attentions somewhere else. I don’t know if I’ll ever make much money, but I will make some art and perhaps some volunteer work. I’d actually like to volunteer to be a companion to an elder person together with my daughter..

  5. Loved this post. So many things resonate.

    I, too, found inspiration in Karen Kingston’s book. I re-read it when I need to.

    I’ve always felt that plain was better than decorated because life provides enough “decorating” and distraction that there is plenty to look at in my house without putting more there on purpose.

    As for style, I joke that Zen/Danish modern married Ethan Allen. I like low pieces with no curlicues and my husband likes tall, dark wood with articulated surfaces. What we actually have is garage sale chic; still unable to find things we both like after 30 years! Don’t be depressed – we’re still trying!

    • Hi Delores,
      thank you for finding your way to the comment section of 365lessthings. I know we are going to enjoy what you have to say.
      Now that we are getting to a point that we are beginning to know how much furniture we are going to need in our home to house our decluttered lifestyle we are thinking of selling our too big items and purchasing smaller stuff. I will be happy to take my time to do this because I expect our choice to last us for a long time.

    • Thanks Delores!
      I’m lucky to have a husband who isn’t too particular about what style of furniture etc. we have. (But then I have to take the responsibility of any past mistakes too, ouch!)
      I know that in a more austere, plain home I feel like I can breathe easier and I’m more easy-going and more willing to make a mess with my daughter! It’ll be easy to clean up anything!

  6. 600 wow! And I go on and on about making due in 1100! I liked hearing you respect your husband and child’s right to having things they enjoy too. I hear so many mom’s say “It’s all his stuff that is cluttering this place up”. It’s never the truth. I’m working on minimizing my own stuff and I hope to get somewhere near where you are some day. I can’t envision that quite yet, but I’m heading in that direction. Good post.

    • I liked that aspect too Megan. I’m working hard on my clutter, peeling away the layers with increasing ruthlessness. But my OH has loads of stuff. But he has the right to go at his own pace and to have the things that matter to him. Combining 2 households in our 40’s has been a whole new ball game (but very worthwhile:O) ). I found I have needed to demonstrate that there was room for my OH by getting rid of my stuff and leaving blank space (as it was my place we combined) as I realised over time he wasn’t able to visualise that I did have room for him and his life.

    • It’s usually that each person has different type of clutter. My clutter used to be excess decorative junk like mirrors and pillows (and the craft supplies). Even excess furniture can be clutter even though it’s not always the most obvious clutter. I realized that we really have to be honest about our daily life and not keep furniture arrangements that look nice, if they are preventing us actually using the space!
      My husband hasn’t been into decorating but his stuff is electronics and cords and cd’s and things like that. Of course it’s ideal if both can see their own clutter and work on it equally..

  7. Beautiful post Cat’s Meow. I stopped reading fashion and house magazines a while back as I’d always feel my house and I were inadequate in so many ways 🙂 I find most blogs make me feel that way too (especially the design ones – not yours Colleen!) Just who are we trying to impress when we ‘decorate’ our houses? I prefer function paired with beauty over purely decorative now.

    And I think you hit on an important point: that to truly declutter, you need to stop clutter coming IN, and that is the hardest part at first!

    • Hi Loretta,
      I also prefer function paired with beauty and tending towards minimal as well. When the Anthony Funnel phoned to do the radio interview this week I had to go out on my patio to do the interview in the end because my lounge room echoed. I told him that was a side affect of my decluttering (which is true).

    • Thanks Loretta 🙂 I’m much happier since I stopped reading those magazines. The first incentive was that I didn’t want my daughter growing up around fashion magazines, and I promptly disposed of every single one in our home. Then went the decoration mags. They just started feeling so redundant and artificial, and so obviously aimed at making people dissatisfied and running to buy buy buy. I can’t believe I ever read them and bough into the message!

  8. Hi everyone! Beautiful piece by Cat’sMeow! It really shows that we should make our home for us, and not to impress others. In my decluttering process (it is happening, Colleen! lol) I discovered that a few things in my home were there because I was influenced to think that one day I would need that stuff, or that because so and so had it and I had to have one too. I never did use the stuff, and it ended out of the house after a long time-consuming process. So it’s a very inspiring post that made me see that my house and what’s inside should reflect our tastes and be functional to the family.

    • Thanks Andreia! I’ve come to think that anything (not seasonal) that I plan to take to the attic perhaps really should go to the charity shop instead. Some things are harder to give up. I had a box of gorgeous, quality yarns (some of it hand spun) that I didn’t want to give up, until I saw that our neighborhood charity shop was collecting yarn for immigrant women in the “receiving facility” so that they could knit warm stuff for their kids, as many come here from much warmer countries and they don’t have warm winter clothes. Then it was suddenly easy to let that yarn go! They could use and enjoy it NOW and I can always get yarn if I need some!!

  9. After finally making it to Friday night, I’m here to read 365–and this is a great post Cat’s Meow! The most important thing you wrote? Realizing that you’ll never have a minimalist space if you keep filling it up again! Love it!

    • Hi Willow,
      where have you been I hope you haven’t been unwell. It was a great post by Cat’s Meow and although it was longer than our usual posts I found it riveting and it kept me enthralled from beginning to its touching end. After reading it the first time I knew I could not edit it to make it shorter so I am very glad the my readers have enjoyed it just as much as I did.
      Not matter what else one learns during the declutter process making the pledge to not replace the clutter with more clutter is paramount to the success of the mission.

    • Thanks Willow! It’s so simple that when I finally got it I felt like smacking my own head! Each and every single thing we bring our home will make *more stuff* unless something else goes out. Each and every single thing has the potential to become future clutter (sadly it can happen quite soon even).

  10. Thank you for sharing your story. I loved reading it; I totally get it. What a painful yet wonderful journey to your true self. My journey has similarities to yours. The best part is being where we are now! Yahoo! 🙂

    • Hi Annabelle,
      I love your enthusiasm.

    • Thank you for reading Annabelle! I do feel a certain lightness of finally having so little, really just what we need. It’s a beautiful way of living to me. It’s also such a relief to NOT WANT all the time. Having a consumerist mind takes so much of our attention and energy away from living life!

  11. Lovely post, thank you sharing your story.

  12. What a wonderful post Cat’s Meow, I loved every word. I was also very encouraged by “Clear your clutter with feng shui” back in 2002 and that started me on my journey. I just wish I had learned about this earlier in my life.

    I would LOVE to see some pictures of your home and I’m sure other readers would too, it sounds so inspiring.

    Thank you for a very well written post.

  13. Thank you Janetta for reading and commenting:) I could post some pictures in my blog. There actually are pictures from this apartment, from before this last move 🙂 The kitchen and bedroom are pretty much the same now. The living room used to be a bit more cluttered and had different things in it -we got rid of some storage furniture that had become redundant (but I brought a desk from my old studio so now my husband and I both have our own desk..) But anyway, I’d be happy to make a post of how everything is now and how it works for us 😀

  14. Hi Cat’s Meow, I’ve just been having a look at your blog and promptly added it to my Favourites. I will read through it in time, but would love a few pictures if you have the time and inclination. You write so well.

  15. What a wonderful piece! I admire your honestly, without embarrassment or self-depreciation, with regards to how clutter can accumulate for anyone, even when you know yourself and your needs well.

    • Hi Liina,
      I will send a link to comment to Cat’sMeow so she doesn’t miss seeing it. Thanks for dropping by and welcome to 365lessthings.

  16. Hey Liina! Thanks for your kind words.
    It’s so easy to be impressionable and get sucked into the craziness around us..Lose track of one’s true self. But then we can take it as a another learning experience and we are one step closer to inner freedom. And without setbacks and being disappointed in ourselves we would become too pleased with ourselves and think we are on top of everything, and not search for God.

    • I LOVE what you said here: “But then we can take it as another learning experience and we are one step closer to inner freedom. And without setbacks and being disappointed in ourselves we would become too pleased with ourselves and think we are on top of everything, and not search for God.”

      That’s so beautiful & true. Thank you for sharing.