Editorial – Stuff and Nonsense

Natural disasters can inspire a lot of deep feelings and emotions?gratitude, empathy, anger, confusion, solidarity. And definitely the inspiration to turn a magnifying glass on one’s own life.

Looking at the photos of the aftermath of Japan’s tragic earthquake/tsunami, one persistent thought has stayed with me: what a mess. All those houses, treasured possessions, clothes, books, papers, and must-have stuff?in an instant, all reduced to nothing. Mess. Garbage. Trash.

It suddenly struck me that all the things bursting from my own closets and cupboards are just that: one natural disaster away from the trash heap.

And That’s the truth. Add the power of nature?or even the passage of time?and all the stuff we buy and hold dear (or not) isn’t much more than a pile of waste, a big mess to wade through and clean eventually. Pieces to pick up and throw away. Meaningless clutter. Junk.

Coincidentally, this weekend I stumbled across a blog written by Béa Johnson, an advocate of the zero-waste lifestyle. This Sunset magazine photo slideshow is a window on their intriguing, waste-free world. But ?waste-free? doesn’t merely mean reducing dependence on packaged foods. It’s a whole lifestyle, one premised on changing our relationship with our stuff.

I look at Johnson’s photos, and one thing stands out: no mess. No clutter. I somehow doubt that, even at their neatest, my closets and cupboards would qualify as clutter-free. While I’m far from a hoarder?and people insist that my house is too neat?I still look around me and see things that I haven’t touched for months. Things gathering dust ?just in case? I’ll use them in a year or two. For utility purposes, junk.

To be honest, I’m not sure I could do an all-out purge like the Johnsons. There are some items I enjoy collecting?fashion and books for example?although I can certainly prune down my shelves and pass on things I no longer care for (and restrict myself to buying only items I’m sure I will use and love).

But do I need all those kitchen appliances and handy gadgets? There are a few that I use frequently, and a few make that their appearance every month or two. But then there are those once-a-year items. Sure, they’re convenient when I do use them, but is it worth storing the large ice cream maker, when its use is such a hassle that I usually put it off?

Because stuff is often more trouble than It’s worth. Many of Johnson’s readers might at first object that her ways of conserving?like canning her own tomatoes, for example?aren’t practicable for someone with time constraints. She counters that living a zero-waste lifestyle actually saves time.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but I absolutely believe her. A few years back, my family and I lived for four months in a small apartment. No car, and only a few suitcases? worth of our ?stuff.? And I remember one striking fact: I had so much more time, simply because I had less to deal with. Less mess. Less washing up. Fewer piles to sort. Less clutter to interfere with my productivity and my ability to enjoy life.

Can I say I’m a bit nostalgic for that once again?

As I begin my annual garage sale preparations over the next few weeks, I’m going to turn a much more critical eye on my stuff. What can I live without? What clutter is holding me back? What things would I miss most if some disaster were to level my home?

And what about the future? I find it interesting that the Johnsons seem to have adopted a ?4 Rs? mantra: ?Refuse, refuse, refuse. Then reduce, reuse, recycle.? I love it.

Because essentially, living a calmer, saner, more people and planet-friendly lifestyle is about more than just dealing with trash. It’s about drastically altering the way we look at our possessions. Rather than being slaves to stuff, we can assert our control, decide what belongs in our lives, and determine to dominate our possessions rather than the other way around.

It’s time for a good spring cleaning.