Hoarding and Decluttering: The Temptations of Memory

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A while ago I wrote a blog entry about whether the two mega-trends of thrifting and decluttering were compatible. Did a love of thrifting inevitably lead to hoarding, I wondered. Could a scourer of op shops (like me, for instance) actually lead a minimalist lifestyle?

My preoccupation with hoarding comes from the fact that my parents display totally opposing tendencies in this area.

My father is a hoarder of sorts. This trait took years to fully reveal itself, and remains limited to a few rooms in the house because my mother is a tidiness freak. 

While I was growing up my dad’s hoarding hardly impacted on me – except as an exemplar of untidiness – apart from the garage and garden shed, both almost unusable because stuffed with useless junk, including a canoe that to this day hangs upside down from the roof of the shed like some bizarre art installation, and is purported to have a hole in it. Oh, and my dad's huge glass-topped mahogany desk, whose surface was even then obscured by papers, that my mum had to suffer in their bedroom for many years. As she's gotten older, it's become harder for her to control my dad's messiness.

When we kids grew up and moved out of the house, Dad inherited a bedroom that became his 'office'. He used to complete his watercolour paintings in there, but it's so full of junk now, apart from a small space cleared for a computer and chair, that he’s abandoned it for this purpose. With its boxes of obsolete papers, discarded canvases, painting materials and plastic bags of electrical cables taking up most of the floor space, and the desk obscured by nests of manila folders stuffed with papers, it's a safety hazard.

Ominously my father has been 'given' another room for his painting, a tiny room at the back of the house that was formerly a spare-cum-sewing room. So far it's sufficiently free of junk that my dad can paint again but I predict that in a few months this room too will be unusable. He will occasionally create messy outposts in the rest of the house – for example, spreading his tax return documents around the dining room table, completing a painting project in the sunroom – but these are always temporary and are soon shooed back into the general chaos by my mother.

Dad is in some ways not a typical hoarder. Hoarding is often associated with compulsive shopping; Dad hardly ever shops for non-necessities unless he has to. Nor does he actively accumulate material objects in other ways (although he used to buy the odd broken-down car that he would tinker with on weekends). It's the past he hoards: religious pamphlets, old copies of journals, financial and administrative documents, and anything to do with his political battles with his teachers union, the local council and government bodies. He still has papers from at least fifty years ago.

While hoarding didn’t impact much on my childhood, its roots were present in subtle ways. For example, I knew one thing that would always garner my mother's approval (the usual things didn't really cut it with her): 'cleaning the kitchen' at night. What this meant was not just doing the dishes, but sorting, filing and taming the accumulations of junk that regularly spread themselves around the kitchen benches (this wasn’t just Dad of course – we are a family of seven). Organising this assortment of mail, torn pieces of envelope with phone numbers written on them, tiny miscellaneous toys, coins, sets of keys and so on, and creating sweet if temporary order, was something that my mother and I could both rejoice in.

Has Dad passed down his hoarding tendencies to me? Not at first glance. I'm a tidiness freak and I like to think I’m a great declutterer, but in that regard I’m fooling myself. I'm good at getting rid of some things but not others.

I hold onto clothes for longer than many, but I can get rid of the most treasured garment once I’ve made the decision; I actually enjoy the process of weeding out my wardrobe and dropping off a bag of goodies at my favourite op shop. Once it's time for a piece to go, I don't give it another thought.

But the fact is I do have my own hoarding weakness – books. I have five bookshelves if you don't count the one in my office that is stuffed with folders of edited educational materials.

I find it very hard to let books go. I have thrown the odd few out, but my decisions are extremely conservative. And I still have many books that I won't read again and that bear little relationship to how I live my life these days. Do I really need my secondhand copies of Emotional Intelligence and Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People? (These books were both written before the financial crisis – if they were so influential, why didn't their sage advice for corporate types stop the Goldman Sachs executives plundering the USA and destroying the world economy?) To me the knowledge these books hold represents security, and a link with past versions of me, and I can’t let them go, not yet anyway.

Another thing I hold onto is appointment diaries. Mine go as far back as 1994. I keep them in my bookshelves so it doesn’t feel as if I’m hoarding them. I tell myself they’re useful as primary sources for memoir writing and so on, but they’re really just another link with earlier versions of my life and myself. In the rare times I go through one, trying to discover when some long-ago incident occurred, I’m strangely comforted by the mundanity of the various lists I was so fond of making. Whatever my emotional and material struggles, I continued to go to the supermarket, have my hair cut, drop my books back to the library and pay my rent.

Flyers relating to arts and cultural events – exhibitions, readings, films, plays – are another weakness. It’s so easy to forget the details of these experiences, and while there’s enough room in my filing cabinet, I can’t bring myself to throw away anything that jogs my memory.

In fact, the things I hold onto suggest that I’m like more my father than is comfortable to contemplate. Like him, it’s reminders of the past that I cling to. In the absence of a photographic memory, these refugees from my past testify to my changing life and the things that continue to sustain it.

Do you find it easier to let go of some things and not others?

Are there mementoes of the past that you struggle to throw out?

Until next time!
If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might also like Clearing Out Clutter: A Goodbye Ritual for a Loved Object.

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Become a Fearless Habit Breaker - Tips for Changing Your Shopping Habits

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Since moving south of the Yarra I’ve been buying my free range chicken from the supermarket. But it’s vacuum-packed and far from fresh, and I’ve recently started a new shopping habit -- buying organic from a stall at my local food market. I made the change not just because organic chicken is healthier but because the animal welfare standards are higher.*

In the meantime, here I am, fronting up yet again to the organic meat stall. It’s not at all like the market’s organic groceries store, which has an unpretentious, down-to-earth atmosphere. Here, the whole look and feel goes against organic as earthy and embraces organic as superior tasting, premium meat, for the comfortably-off that have long gentrified this area, and Melbourne’s army of foodies.

The all-male staff are dressed in spiffy blue-and-white butchers aprons. On busy Saturday mornings a couple of them hover in the tiny shop floor area, which has a cash register so they’re not serving you from behind a counter.

I make my way to the stall, past the conventional slabs of meat set out on their antiseptic white trays, past the live lobsters in their tank that I feel so sorry for. The staff always ask me awkward questions, such as what I am planning to make the family for dinner (I live alone!). They sometimes overcharge me, as if so few people buy the chicken drumsticks that they’ve forgotten that they’re actually half the price of the thighs.

Still, it’s convenient and I know that if I keep at it this, too, will become routine. The market is close enough to home that if I’m organised enough I can tram it instead of driving. I’ll learn to bat off the silly questions that I know the stall managers have told the staff to ask, replying with a witty remark that will defeat their formulaic responses.

I’ll stop feeling guilty that I’m buying the cheaper cuts. I’ll resign myself to the fact that with my frugal ways and holier-than-thou questions about the origins of the meat, I am not their target market. And a new, more positive shopping habit will become second nature.

We know deep down that shopping isn’t trivial even though it’s often portrayed that way. How we shop has massive effects on our budget, our wellbeing and the producers of the things we buy, and also reflects our ethics. Consumers make the world by what, how and how much we buy.

Sometimes we get stuck in our ways when shopping. We’re stressed and busy, and it’s easier to do what we’ve always done.

Whether you’re trying to save money, go green or simply spend less time in recreational shopping, changing a shopping habit isn’t easy. It means getting out of your comfort zone when so much else in life is uncertain. Here are some tips that can help.

Recognise how habits work. The brain is very adaptable, and habits are sticky things. It can feel uncomfortable and take some willpower to change the way you do things. However, simply persevering with a new habit will mean it eventually becomes a seamless part of life. Recognise that you are going to feel uncomfortable for a while when you change an ingrained habit, and try to sit with the discomfort until the new way of doing things becomes a part of your routine.

Don’t make too many changes all at once. This could lead you to feel overwhelmed. Make one small change at a time and see if you can stick with it.

Don’t let small slip-ups stop you. If you backtrack on a goal, don’t worry. Just try again. If it doesn’t feel right to continue with the change, drop it (this is not the same as feeling uncomfortable).

Budget for the change.
If the change is going to cost more money, especially in the short term, you may need to budget for it by foregoing another expense.

Learn from the experiences of others. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. There is a ton of information on the internet about new ways to shop and live.

Don’t compare yourself with others. This is an easy mistake to make when starting to change the way you shop. Dramatic change garners attention. Social media means we know right away what everyone else is doing and it’s human nature to compare ourselves with others. People who produce zero waste, have stopped using plastic, or no longer buy new clothes or takeaway food are setting a fantastic example, but doing something, especially at the start, is still better than doing nothing. Start from where you are and use the experiences of others as inspiration for your own unique journey.

Find support. If you have friends who are making similar changes, become a motivator for each other. You could arrange to meet or talk regularly to compare notes, cheer each other on and affirm your goals. Start a blog or Facebook group, or join a group that has similar goals to yours; for instance, the Meetup website includes groups with goals of saving money or living a greener lifestyle, or you could start your own meet-up group.

Are there shopping habits you are trying to break?

What techniques have worked for you?

Until next time!
If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might also like Three Frugal Tips So Obvious You Probably Haven't Thought of Them.

I’m vegetarian at heart, but because of food intolerance and low blood sugar, my diet’s so limited I have little choice but to eat meat.

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Get Your Copy of the Inspired Shopper for Free!

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For a few days only, The Inspired Shopper is totally free!

That's right, downloading the book won't cost a cent! Here's the page on the Amazon UK site.

You don't have to register separately - Amazon sets up an account for you when you buy for the first time.

You can also download a free Kindle reader.

Why am I doing this? I believe in the ideas in the book, and I want as many people to gain from them as possible.

I'm also looking for feedback on the book, and hope that those who read it for free might take the time to submit a short review.

This offer will only last a few days so grab it while it's hot!
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