Right now, as I sit at my desk, I am surrounded. Books are piled high into a makeshift fortress, scraps of newspaper line the spaces in between. There’s a discarded, well-intentioned lunchbox, Post-it Notes scrawled with overly optimistic ideas and three half-finished coffees turning stale. Keys. Loyalty cards for places I’ll probably never visit again. A rainbow meringue, bizarrely in the shape of a poo.
I am not a tidy person. I’m not particularly messy, either, but still – at work, at home, in the (several) bags I lug around London with me – I am usually surrounded by clutter. I know what you’re thinking and, yes, admittedly, it can be a hindrance to organisation (and, occasionally, sanity). I’m aware of how my tangled mind is prone to manifesting itself on my chaotic bedroom floor, and I feel better when things are ordered. But, still, I know I couldn’t bear to be a “minimalist”.
That’s not a “cool” thing to admit; it’s much more aspirational to be someone who “can’t bear things everywhere”. And being tidy is also a lucrative aspiration. Look at Marie Kondo, or Kevin McCloud, or the swathes of blogs dedicated just to organising. Lately, being a clutter bug – or, more to the point, being the opposite – has become a hot topic. At its extreme, the devastating affliction of hoarding (which is soon to become recognised as a serious, debilitating mental illness) has been generating discussion. Scotland is due to hold a conference dedicated to dealing with hoarding and its implications, it was announced last week. A powerful, new book, The Life Of Stuff by Susanna Walker, out in May, follows the author as she uncovers the truth about her mother through the possessions she left behind after her death. It plays into the recent Swedish trend for death-cleaning – the “art” of clearing out your crap, so your loved ones don’t have to tackle it after you’ve passed away.
And along with these intriguing stories, a rather less serious discussion has trickled down into the ether – about the things we collect around us over the years, and what we choose to discard and what that says about us.
It’s the latter that really resonates with me. My possessions are portals to different times and tributes to the versions of myself I’ve lived and loved (or not) – and left. Things that no longer define me are still stepping stones to who I have become. They’re sometimes fragments of things I’d like to remember; sometimes remnants of times I’d like to forget. While I’m not a hoarder, I may be guilty of appeasing the emotional connection I have to some objects: I could throw away the Nokia 3310 in my second drawer down, but it once told me life-defining news that makes me hold on each time I think of it. I don’t read the postcards rammed in shoeboxes under my bed, and I can’t read the scores of 1960s Italian magazines next to them. Still, I’m comforted they’re there.
I could easily throw all this “stuff” away. And, to be clear, not everything I (probably misguidedly) keep is jam-packed with existential memories or sentimental value. Sometimes I keep stuff just because I like to see it. And isn’t it just… romantic? Isn’t it poetic, somehow, that, bit by bit, we collect physical manifestations of ourselves, sometimes by accident? Is it by accident? Similarly to the way we dress in a certain way, our possessions reflect our unique tastes and opinions and show, sometimes in the smallest of ways, that we exist. Isn’t that cool? Or am I (still) crazy?
My possessions are portals to different times and tributes to the versions of myself I’ve lived and loved – or not – and left. Things that no longer define me are still stepping stones to who I have become
Maybe. I spent a time without any possessions at all a few years ago. I left the flat where I had been living with an ex-boyfriend with two suitcases (one large – books, mainly; a laptop – and one small case for clothes). I stepped out into a newly minimalist, linear life and not a lot else. Crashing wherever I could for the next five months – while I changed jobs and joined Tinder for the first time and poured wine over my broken heart every night – meant there was little room for things. And, for a while, I felt anew.
Because, regardless, it was one of those break-ups that leaves little room for much else. So, being unburdened by surplus clothes and books, and records and products and plastic and whatever else I was holding on to felt surprisingly good. I thought of myself, naively, as a free-spirited type to whom material possessions were not only surplus to happiness, but wasteful. You don’t waste time getting dressed when you only have two pairs of jeans, a skirt and five tops. There’s hardly a need to tidy up when your things are so contained. It’s easy to up and leave – to go anywhere you like, really – when you have little to carry. When your physical life is small, you can see everything and check it and make absolutely sure that you are together; that your things are organised and you are at the helm. You have more control. Except, then, something I couldn’t have anticipated: when my life was this small, I felt small. And the penalty to enjoying the freedom of being able to leave at a moment’s notice is the burden of never really feeling like you belong.
I scaled back so much that I tore strips from myself. Even when I eventually found a home, months down the line, I was still an unanchored ship. I felt fucking lost, like maybe I was forgetting who I had been. Yes, I was heartbroken and, yes, this was an extreme example – even minimalists, I presume, live with more than just two suitcases of stuff. But, honestly, I missed all that crap I’d left behind.
Slowly, I gathered myself back up. First, I brought home my radio. My friends helped me fill my room back up with books and records. I started (and, admittedly, have ashamedly not yet finished) bringing my clothes over. Diaries. Lost words and thoughts; a shit old typewriter I bought on a particularly embarrassing whim (it reminded me of how much of a wanker I could be). I brought back sheets I wrapped around myself as I bedded into my new, single life.
Over the years, more stuff has joined me: a piano, plenty of records, a terrarium, a shitload of T-shirts, sippy cups, plates with my own face on them (don’t ask) – much, much more. Now, I try to be more balanced – I clear out once in a while and I try to find a place for things. But, if I don’t want to throw something out, I don’t. I keep the memory and hold on to a fragment of myself.
As a result of collecting up my stuff, life no longer feels small, but big, and full, and colourful, and occasionally wonderfully chaotic. I might not be minimalist, but neither is my life and neither am I. I feel so incredibly lucky to be in a position to have accumulated these things it seems sad and limiting to discard them. I can’t condense myself down, and finally, I’m accepting that I don’t want to. So, I keep my things, my clutter, and feel thankful. For now, anyway, I am a mess, in the best way possible.