Why I won’t tell others to declutter

I have a close relative who, until this week, I did not recognise as being depressed.  The signs were all there- habitual untidiness, slowness, procrastination, hoarding and wearing of mismatched and old clothes (some of which were in tatters). She would refuse to visit others and refuse to let others visit her (except me).

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cluttered desk is a sign of cluttered mind?  (credit: wikimedia commons)

I could see her habits were having a detrimental effect on her family and her children.  The hoarding also helped to prevent others visiting her and her husband was complaining that they could not invite others.  Her husband would come home from work and stand, drinking his tea because there nowhere to sit- just stuff everywhere.

I thought it was a simple case of being careless about her appearance.  For many years, I sent her books and videos on decluttering, self improvement, spirituality, household management, and even fashion.  She never read or saw anything I sent her, instead all this piled up on the existing clutter.  I’d cajole her sometimes and sometimes plead with her.  I took her to other people’s homes on other pretexts but I was secretly hoping that she might be inspired by other’s tidiness. Each time I visited, I would tidy up her place, hoping that the change would inspire her to keep it that way.  She would refuse to part with anything, so I would leave these things in a bin bag and pray that after I left she would throw the rubbish away.  Each time after a few days, the place would go back to how it was.  She would explain that she was so busy that she had no time to tidy up but in reality she was at home, not working elsewhere.  Her home was her work.

She resisted any efforts to ‘improve’ her. People would always talk about ‘poor her’ and how she could not manage- and I didn’t like hearing people talk like this about her.  But I felt there was nothing I could do.  Slowly I stopped visiting her, instead I would ring her from time to time.

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Clutter may not be as simple to get rid of by asking questions about sparking joy

This week has been the Mental awareness week in the UK, and I was listening to a young woman on the radio talking about her depression.  One of the things she said that struck a chord with me was that she deliberately wore tattered or mismatched clothes to draw attention to her mental state, i.e. she would use her choice of clothes, instead of words, to show the world what her mind was going through.  I realised that my relative was doing exactly the same. I had failed to understand that and instead in a superficial way, was trying to ‘correct’ her.  I feel extremely ashamed now of what I had been trying to do. Instead of seeing her inner life state (depression), I was viewing it as a superficial problem, which could be solved through ‘logical’ and rational means such as self help videos and books.  I had been extremely insensitive for decades while she had descended into chaos- she wanted help in other ways but not through books and videos.  She had let me into her life perhaps hoping that I would help her but I had failed to even grasp the problem for years. I had failed, not her!

I have now reflected on my own selfishness and ignorance and am no longer going to tell her how to live her life or tidy her home.  Instead, I am hoping to rekindle our friendship and love- and help her in the way she wants. People sometimes confuse grief and depression and I had done that too in this case. In some decluttering books and videos, hoarding is viewed as signs of grief and loss.  People are asked to look at things and ask if they ‘spark joy’ and to let them go if they don’t.  While grief is a natural response to a loss, while depression is an illness.  People who are grieving find their feelings of sadness and loss come and go, but they’re still able to enjoy things and look forward to the future. In contrast, people who are depressed don’t enjoy anything and find it difficult to be positive about the future.  So for depressed people, nothing sparks joy- this is a useless question to ask of hoarders who are also depressed.  This is what was going on with my relative. This incident also showed me how judgmental and insensitive I was- I am grateful for my relative for helping to reveal this part of my nature to me. After all these years, I realised I needed to work on myself, not her!  She was my mirror but I had not looked properly.

Have you faced a problem like this, trying to help someone close to you?  How did you go about it?  Let me know by commenting.

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Finding treasures when the skies are clear

There are so many blogs, vlogs, books and other guidance on minimalism, money saving, and living simply these days, that it can be hard to distinguish between them and use the different techniques effectively.  Does this thing spark joy? Should I put things in different boxes and if I haven’t used them in six months, then throw them? How should I go about getting a minimalist wardrobe (if I haven’t got a stylist!)?  And how should I prioritise my day?  How can I save money when I want to buy organic goods?

The title of this post comes from an ancient Japanese saying, used by many Buddhist philosophers, ‘When the skies are clear, the ground is illuminated’.  It has become a key part of how I try to deal with everyday life, including clutter.  First, the concept is about clearing your mind, so that you can take care of the mundane- the things ‘on the ground’.  When your mind is free of worries and in an expansive state like that of the sky, then you can ‘look down’ and see what the priorities are. These include in order- treasures of the store house, the body, and of the mind.  As Nichiren, the Buddhist monk, says,

‘More valuable than treasures in a storehouse are the treasures of the body, and the treasures of the heart are the most valuable of all’.

What he is saying is that the most valuable things are what is in our heart- our intention, followed by our health and matters of our body and lastly, come the accumulation of stuff.  When our heads are clear, we can see instantly which work enables us to accumulate the ‘treasures of the heart’, then tend to our body, and then perhaps to material things.  If we follow this advice, then clearly accumulating stuff is the last thing we ought to do.

So, for instance, for last couple of days, I decided to see some friends and listened to what was going on in their lives.  Although they didn’t reciprocate and ask me what was going on in my life, curiously I wasn’t bothered as normally I would have been.  I was accumulating treasures of the heart which mattered more to me.

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My traditional Indian mortar and pestle 

Another simple thing I’ve been doing over the years for decluttering is the ‘non replacement’ technique. If something breaks down, then I don’t replace it. Usually I find I can manage quite fine without it.  So when my food processor broke down several years ago, I found this piece of stone which was going to be thrown away from an exhibition stand on stone products, and a traditional Indian pestle which my mother had given me.  The pestle had precious childhood memories for me.  I now use this to grind wet spices and herbs- remembering this rhythmical action from my childhood, the sound of the stone against stone, my mother’s hands where my hands are now.  I’ve not bought anything thus saving money (first by not replacing and secondly, by not using electricity); and also the hand pestle is a good way of exercising my arms and getting rid of tension (perhaps like kneading bread). Quite simply, as my experience with the pestle and the piece of stone proves, if you can associate something with the three ‘treasures’, then it is a keeper.

And what of the food processor?  I recycled the electrical part but kept all the other bits as they are quite useful for storing liquids and dry stuff.  One of the parts has become a an unusual plant holder for me.  As the food processor was given to me by my son, again this is part of my three treasures concept- each time, I look at the plant, I remember my son.

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Can you spot the food processor part?  The glass ‘vase’ was part of a tea maker and the tile it sits on was found in a rubbish dump in Caracas, Venezuela!  All marks and chipped bits on the tile tell me stories of the house it once was a part of.

 

On taking other people’s junk

Let me say this straightaway, ‘Don’t ever do it!’  

It seems a bit strange to discuss the cons of taking what others have thrown out- in fact, there’s a saying to the effect that someone’s junk is someone else’s treasure. For many years, I took in stuff given by people and also those I found lying in the street.  I believed that it was good manners to not only accept other people’s gifts but also use them, whether they proved to a hindrance to my daily life or not.  I believed that picking what other people had left out on the street, not only could help me (just in case I needed those items suddenly!) but also helped to clean the streets and the environment, giving things a second life.  My way of thinking also came from having been brought up in great poverty and having too little.

For years, these objects lay in my home, in boxes when I moved, and in my new home.  Even if they were difficult to use, I had to use them.  The turning point came when I realised that I had become so tired of taking care of these things, storing them and cleaning them when they are so patently useless.  Of my gifts, I noticed that one of my friends had a knack of giving me stuff that cannot be washed in the dishwasher.  Hand washing is one of thing I hate, having done it from childhood and I love my eco-friendly dishwasher.  Dishwashing is one chore I would be gladly free off.  One gave me flowers and bowls which although very pretty did not last.  So I would be left with utensils (or broken crockery that I thought I would use for arts projects!) that I could not use and empty flower pots. I picked up stuff from the street, stuff I haven’t used at all- books, cutlery, glassware, etc.  Of the things I have picked up, furniture has been my most used item and I have even sold some antique stuff for profit.  But the money made is really negligible.  But the most despicable thing I have done is, giving my own unused stuff to my parents.  Perhaps out of love, they did not say they couldn’t use it and at times, they even tried to, but gave up.  These items have been languishing in their homes for years.

Now my eldest son having left home, and my father having died, I am now finding stuff stored in all corner of my own house and that of my parents. My mother is going to move to a smaller place.  I’ve spent more than two months trying to declutter and stuff keeps coming out of everywhere. I tried selling them on eBay and no one would have them (although they are either brand new, unusual or antique items).  It is also an effort of put items on the website and then keep checking and then having to post them.  I’ve had people who bought the stuff without reading t&c’s and told me that they thought I was going to deliver the item to their home!  Really!  I tried selling them at antique shops- they were interested but always told me to come back when their shop had a little more space. In the end I got tired of ringing them and waiting for them.  They also would give me very little money, which really wasn’t worth the effort.  Then I tried giving them to the charity shops which are also filled to the brim with other people’s junk.  But taking them on public transport to various charities, really tires me- I’ve got an incurable blood disorder which is debilitating.  So I’m now ‘freegling’ stuff which means people can take it away.  Bu that has been a great pain as well.  People promising to turn up at an agreed time and then not doing so.  One person even kept me waiting for two days giving all sorts of improbable excuses.

I now look back at my time over the years, collecting all this stuff (dragging some huge pots or furniture from the street), looking after it, moving it, trying all sorts of creative ways of re-using or up-cycling it, trying to give it to others, selling it, donating it and having failed in all these ways, then storing it.  What a waste of time (and space) that could have been spent more creatively and usefully!  But I still will not litter the streets with my junk, even though I might have picked the junk off the street.  But perhaps something in me has changed. Today, my younger son, who is a hoarder, has given away two boxes of children’s books to someone who was very happy to have them.  He even hoovered and cleaned his room- a teenager doing this is very rare!  I am slowly decluttering- things that have been collected for years will take some time leave.  In Buddhism, the word ‘karma’ means action and also denotes the effects of the action. So I think I may have changed my karma. I have thanked all the junk that came my way for the lesson it taught me and how it has helped changed my ‘poverty karma’. I feel rich and full, without all the junk in my life. I will leave up-cycling, selling, organising and re-using to all those people who get paid for it, have time for it, and do it well.  My life’s work is different although it is still very creative. Also, I’ve made many friends by giving away stuff but disposing of junk does take a lot of time from my work.

As for picking other’s people’s trash, I will never do it again!  So here are some lessons I’ve learnt-

  1. Do not have a junk mentality- do not let junk enter your body and environment in any way- junk food, junk mail or junk stuff.
  2. Do not even consider a junk drawer- if you have stuff that you are unsure about, put it where you and your family will see it everyday.  If the sight irritates you or you haven’t used it for a month, give it away.
  3. Do not give junk to others, especially your family and friends. If you receive what you know is junk, accept it gracefully and then give it away. No one will care or ask about it!
  4. If you have no skills in up-cycling, re-purposing, or DIY, do not ever pick up junk that you think might be useful.
  5. Do not clear other people’s junk- their karma is theirs, they don’t need your meddling.

What are your lessons? Do you agree with me?