how to bless our clutter goodbye

Gluttony. Guilt. Gulp.

My gut reactions to the recent New York Times article on “The Way We Live: Drowning In Stuff.”

I actually wondered, for a fleeting second, whether the UCLA researchers had been secretly spying on our recent move. Because if there were one single emotion that dominated this life transition – beyond nostalgia at leaving our first home and excitement at settling into the new – it was a sinking sense of feeling overwhelmed at how much stuff we’ve collected over the years.

Boxes and boxes, tubs upon tubs, books we’ve never read, wedding gifts we’ve never used, Christmas decorations we hung once, children’s clothes they wore twice. All of it saved, stacked, squirreled away in corners of our old basement, now staring at us in our new living room.

I am utterly overwhelmed by how much we own.

We excel at making excuses why we need all this stuff. We live in a state with extreme seasonal swings, so we need clothing to outfit the family from winter’s -30 and summer’s 100+ degrees. My husband is handy and likes to fix things around the house, so we need a garage full of tools. We love to read and I love to write, so we need shelves and shelves of good books. We like to cook and have four hungry mouths to feed three times a day, so we need a kitchen full of plates and cups and pots and pans and appliances.

Need? I wonder.

As I spent hours over the past months packing and then unpacking every single possession I own, I often thought of a good friend who entered a convent last summer. She sold her house and almost everything she owned, and then entered her community with the clothes on her back, a few books, a handful of photographs. I remember talking to her while she was listing furniture on Craigslist and tagging items for a garage sale. It’s tough to get rid of stuff, she said. You realize how attached you are to possessions. But so many times during this move I secretly envied her, the simplicity of a cell without clutter, the freedom of a life without excess.

If you read about the study on how families in our consumer culture accumulate in abundance, maybe you’ll feel the same gut-punch that I did. Recognizing how my stress levels do sky-rocket when faced with clutter. Admitting that my family does overdo Christmas out of our guilt for living so far apart from each other. Realizing that I feel helpless to know how to drastically change my habits as a consumer.

I’m always attempting to manage the clutter. I keep a steady stream of bags flowing to Goodwill. I don’t go shopping for entertainment. I regularly weed through kids’ toys and books to pull out what they don’t use. I always stop myself before I wheel the cart into the checkout to  double-check that I actually need everything I’m about to buy.

But I still find myself in a house so chock full of stuff I barely know where to begin to make real change.

So whenever I read these kind of reports – that we’re drowning in our own abundance, that we’re overwhelmed by our own excess – my initial reaction is always one of guilt and complicity. It’s a first-world problem, and I’m just as swept up in it as my neighbors. But this time I glimpsed one glimmer of hope from the NYTimes piece, a toss-away comment by the lead researcher that “we don’t have rituals, mechanisms, for getting rid of stuff.”

Would it help me if I had a ritual to bless my clutter goodbye?

Ha! Good luck with that, Mama!

So I tried it. At first I felt foolish as I stood over the paper bags stacked by the door, some ready to run to Goodwill, others awaiting their fate on garbage day. Was I supposed to sprinkle the stuff with holy water, perfume it with incense?

But I decided to start by simply thanking God for the good that these possessions once brought me – for the miles I ran in those old sneakers, the meals I fed my babies in those bibs, the photos of dear friends I hung in those frames.

Then I held in blessing the next person who would read the book I never cracked, watch the DVD we never opened, eat from the bowls we rarely used.

And finally I asked for help to become a more careful consumer, to steward my resources wisely, to remember those who go without the basics of food and water and shelter while I have the luxury to worry about my abundance.

Surprisingly, something small did shift inside me. I turned my focus from possessions to people. I felt myself starting to release from the need to cling desperately to every little shred of paper and plastic that passes through my door. A moment’s pause in the midst of purging might be just what I need to break my addiction to materialism and remember how to appreciate material goods for their goodness. That’s a spiritual lesson I want to teach my children, so it’s got to start with me.

But as I blessed our clutter goodbye, I also remembered the most powerful truth about rituals: we have to do them over and over and over again to understand their meaning, to establish them as a life-giving habit. So I sighed, packed the bags into the car, and headed back upstairs with a garbage bag in my fist. Still so much to share, still so little I really need.

At least there’s a whole lot of clutter around me to help deepen my spiritual practice of learning to do with less.