The Zen of Decluttering

Under duress, writer learns how less stuff can create more spaceand the freedom that goes along with it.

For about two and a half months during a "trial separation," my life was contained in one of those medium-sized Rubbermaid tubs and a giant handbag. I didn't have a car, so when I could persuade friends that they needed a house sitter for a long weekend, I called a cab and "moved." It was pretty awkward, but the weird thing was, I began to really like my virtually possession-free existence. And once the separation began to seem permanent and I settled into the basement of a shared two-bedroom apartment, I actually really dug living a peaceful, minimalist lifestyle. It probably helped that I didn't have much choice, but that experience did teach me how less truly is often more.

From my old relationship and my old 1,300-square-foot house, I managed to retain a futon, a dresser, and some clothes, books, records, and CDs. These were the sum of my new solo existence. Money was tight, but when I could scrape together an extra five bucks, I'd hit the St. Vincent de Paul and find weird art for my walls. My bedroom closet came sans door, so I hung an ancient Dukes of Hazzard bedsheet in its place. I tacked a pretty scarf up around the bare lightbulb. Depressing? NoI really did like my bare, empty room, which measured only about 100 square feet. It was cold down there, but also quite peaceful in its stark, underfurnished glory. My life was a mess, but my room rarely was.

LATER, THE SPLIT became final, and there were all the amassed belongings, all the furniture and assorted wreckage, to divide. It was somewhat odd to find myself not wanting any of itnot the rocking chairs, hair dryers, smelly candles, or framed rock-club posters. There's just nothing like a breakup and a new beginning for paring down your possessions and simplifying your life.

I hauled the furniture and the knickknacks to St. Vinnie's (wishing they had a trade-in policy) and brought a load of unwanted CDs and LPs to Cellophane Square in the U District. While I was on the Ave, I hit Red Light with a bunch of clothes that hadn't ever been wornbecause who needs red pants when you don't have a single shirt to go with them? The old books I didn't have space to store went to Cap Hill's Horizon Books simply because there's this one particular gentleman there who's really nice. It wasn't easy, but it was good. I had to start over, and it made sense to start over with very little stuff.

But you don't need to end a relationship in order to reassess your material ties. For starters, there are tons of books on the subject. On, I found an author named Elaine St. James who has seemingly built a career out of writing titles like Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter; Simplify Your Life With Kids; Simplify Your Christmas; and about half a dozen morehardly very simple, Ms. St. James. (There's probably even a simplicity aisle at Barnes & Noble.)

OR BE YOUR OWN guide, since a lot of your life can be condensed according to your own rules. All you have to do is go room by room and ask yourself if the stuff you see is actually the stuff you need. Make listsor better yet, grab a huge garbage bag and take it with you. Toss in the old, gluey nail polish, the stacks of magazines, the cassette tapes from eighth grade. And then toss them all (after first recycling or donating everything you can to the Salvation Army or other local charities). After all, why do you have 12 bath towels when you and your household only use the four blue ones on the top of the stack?

Instead of roaming around IKEA for four hours looking for just the right CD shelf, go digital oreven easier and cheaperbuy a few of those Case Logic CD storage books. Keep the liner notes and the disc, file them with your own unique Dewey Decimal-like system, and toss the space-devouring jewel boxes. You've just created several cubic feet of empty space that some stupid particleboard shelving unit would have taken up, so put one of those newly emancipated CDs into your stereo and use that space to dance.

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