Friday, December 14, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!

I have a t-shirt that I bought at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau's one-time home.  Yes, there's a gift shop now, with a view of the pond.  The t-shirt says only, "Simplify, simplify," and I wear it when I go to yard sales, flea markets and the like, to try to remind myself not to buy every useless item that catches my eye.  One flaw in that theory is that I can't see the shirt when I'm wearing it, and if the vendor reads it, they'll be encouraged to get rid of the item they can tell I'm coveting. 

If I'm a hoarder, it is only of the little things (sounds like a book title, doesn't it?  The Hoarder of Little Things).  No, I don't have head-high stacks of old papers and magazines that I really do mean to get around to reading someday: I recycle my paper stuff regularly.  No, I don't have cans of soup that are as old as my daughter (although some of my spices have sentimental value and probably taste like dust by now).  My biggest problem is the endless accumulation of small items that must have seemed important at some point, and that I can't seem to toss.  They cover our most of our horizontal surfaces, and they keep multiplying.  Periodically I toss them into a box, which then sits there for a while.  If I get really frustrated, I put the box somewhere else—in a little-used bedroom or even in the attic.  But you will notice that I don't throw it away.

I'm thinking about this now because (as I have said in various places more than once) I just came back from a trip to Ireland, where I spent ten days in a relatively new cottage (if you can call a four-bedroom stone house with a Jacuzzi a cottage).  The owner bought the property and several others around it to graze his cattle—he's a dairy farmer—but he carved out a patch from each of two properties to build a new house on, intended for sale.  He and his teenage sons built them themselves, and they did a great job. Then the Irish economy tanked, so he rents out one, and the other one sits unfinished. 

Our rented cottage had all the essential furnishings—beds, couches, a satellite television, and a well-equipped kitchen.  What is did not have is "stuff"—all those accumulated items that drive me crazy at home.  Horizontal surfaces were clear.  There were only a few pictures on the walls, and even fewer rugs.  There were no "things" everywhere.  And I didn't feel that it was sterile and impersonal; I felt that it was clean and simple. It was a relief. That made coming home all the harder, because I was so aware of my own clutter.

This past week I had lunch with a few mystery writer friends.  One is moving to a new city, leaving behind her home of many years and settling into an apartment.  She's wrestling daily with what to throw away, what to keep, what to take with her.  The rest of us around the table have moved at some time in our lives, and we're all fighting creeping clutter, so we know all too well what she's talking about.  We laughed when we all admitted that we keep buying storage boxes, hoping that shifting the "stuff" from one place to another, even putting a label on it, will make things better.  The friend who is moving is shredding a lot of old papers; no one else admitted to owning a shredder.  Me, I've still got my grandmother's cancelled checks in the attic—I'm sure there's a story waiting in there somewhere, a biography of my grandmother based on where she shopped in the grand department stores of New York.

My writing space is a mess.  There, I've admitted it.  I save items that interest me, that I hope might someday find their way into a book—but I never know where to file them, so they sit in a pile, and then I move the pile, and then they're lost.  There must be a better way.

Simplify! (And all suggestions welcome!)


Katreader said...

LOL-I'm the same as you...except I also save magazines and newspaper clippings. My parents have been downsizing and simplifying (so I don't have as much to do when they die...gee, thanks, I guess) but I keep adding to my stash.

Edith Maxwell said...

I know exactly what you mean about visiting an uncluttered place. You feel like you can breathe.

We moved in the summer. From a house with an attic to a house with a smaller attic that doesn't yet have usable access or a floor in it. Gulp. We just returned the POD yesterday, so now the "dining room" is filled primarily with all the boxes that had been in the attic.

I see more simplifying in my life very soon! But it's not easy. Complicated further by a box my ex-husband just unearthed and returned to me containing letters from my exchange-student year in Brazil in 1970, my old toe shoes, all the high-school newspaper articles I wrote, diaries from the mid-1970s, and more. Sigh.

Edith Maxwell said...

I took a picture of the toe shoes and then put them in the trash. Aren't I good? ;^)

Sheila Connolly said...

I hear you, Edith (my mother was better than I am at throwing things out, so my toe shoes are long gone). I pity my daughter, an only child, who will inherit generations of stuff to deal with.

I forgot to mention that at the luncheon, several of us also confessed to keeping boxes of boxes (we might need them some day!) and bags of bags (ditto).

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

If I had an attic, I'd never throw anything away. We're bursting out of the apartment where I've lived for more than 40 years.I just bought a four-drawer lateral file cabinet and have been doing some ruthless pruning. Painful! It seems to me I've read the Thoreau quote, "Simplify, simplify," elsewhere recently, and I'll make the same comment I made before: to anyone with editing skills, the best way to simplify would be to delete the repetition and just say, "Simplify!"

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Shiela,
I like clutter. My "writing table" has piles of stuff. Although I have an inkling about where to find something I need, no one else could. I love old, dark, and musty bookstores too, those with lots of used books overflowing the shelves and stacked everywhere.
I do agree with "simplify, simplify." I'm not sure I'd put Thoreau on that philosophical pedestal though. He almost burned down Walden woods and his group almost let their families starve one winter out at their Fruitlands utopian site while the boys slurped hot rum in ye olde Concord.
Take care,

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