I keep a photo in my bedroom of my college dorm — not for sentimental musings over my halcyon college days, but for the simplicity expressed. The room is largely open, containing a twin bed, an end table with a TV perched atop it, a computer table dominated by a hulking CRT monitor, and a single bookbag in the corner. The room is utilitarian to the point of spartan; the same box that was used for my books and CD albums now sits upturned, in used as a bedside table, while in the closet my jeans, t-shirts, and laundry are simply stored in the same boxes they arrived in.
I keep the photo as a reminder that I have lived quite comfortably with very little at hand. Ever since I left college and began working, “stuff” has accumulated – mostly books, DVDs, and game discs. DVDs alone, for instance, run across three huge 500-disc albums and three smaller ones, plus series that wouldn’t fit in an album, like NCIS and The Office. The books run across six bookcases and at one time, into several boxes. In recent years the sheer weight of all this stuff has stymied my ability to sort through it and find what I want when I need it, and the problem feels worse even amid efforts to organize things. (The albums exist to avoid case clutter, for instance). Perhaps what makes it worse is the fact that I’m aware of and often advocate the virtues of a simple life.
In the last year, my efforts to conquer clutter have ratcheted up, as I increasingly take advantage of digital services like Kindle, Steam, and Netflix to diminish my ‘need’ for physical media. The last time I bought a game on discs, I believe, was in early 2018 – for my Windows 98 PC. I’ve also donated nearly twenty boxes of books to thrift stores and reduced my clothing to just one closet and one dresser’s worth. I have now created enough space that I can neatly store what’s left.
It wasn’t easy to get rid of these things, especially the books. Some may remember my ill-fated “Warp Speed Discard Challenge”, in which, faced with boxes of Star Trek paperbacks I’d purchased on the cheap at ebay and not touched in six years, I resolved to read and discard them. Within three months I’d decided to go through the piles and get rid of the ones which were formulaic or unoriginal (based on their plot descriptions – the numbered Trek novels could be absolute dreck in the 90s), and on the year anniversary I just abandoned the whole kit and kaboodle to Goodwill. I’ve since further reduced my Trek collection, so that ironically it contains only 20 more books than it did ten years ago. It was though to get to where I wanted to go, I had to progress through stages of de-attaching myself to the books. When I moved on to other collections, I had to reflect on why I wanted to hold on to items that, rationally, I knew I’d never re-read. One tactic I found which was helpful was to put books into a lidded box, and place them in the closet for a few months: when I took them out for evaluation, I found it was much easier to discard most of them. (About 30% of a given load would return to the shelves, and I’d load up the probation box with more.)
As of yesterday, I think I’ve turned a corner with all the stuff, which is why I’m writing this now, as a kind of reflection. I think the reason I keep holding on to things is because I haven’t, or hadn’t, adjusted to the cheap affluence of modern life. When I was growing up, the money I made from odd jobs and got from allowance was precious, and so were the items it purchased. My books were read and re-read. These days, however, my access to entertainment is less like wandering in a desert and finding oases periodically, and more like living next to a river. The reason I’m not continually re-reading admittedly great novels or fascinating books, or re-watching favorites like Boy Meets World, is because there’s always more stuff. The torrent of cheap books and DVDs has been growing by the year, and I think I’m finally realizing that I can just fish from the stream at my leisure instead of holding on to every little thing I can.