What are the first things that come to mind when you hear holidays? Sun, sea, beach, pool? Forest, mountains? Cocktails, music and dancing? All very much associated with what has now become the conventional holidays.
We’ve just returned from a trip, which contained many of the above, which we have enjoyed in many ways and for many reasons. Yet, somehow, one of the most striking things for me wasn’t any of the givens of a “good” trip. It was the fact that we have spent two weeks in a holiday home that is just slightly larger than our living room. It contained 3 bedrooms. So you can imagine that extras such as space around the beds was scarce.
I was a little worried in the beginning that the kids would complain about the bungalow; they did not. I thought they would be sad not to have their boxes of toys; they were not. I thought they would miss, and complain about, the space they have at home to run around like the crazy little humans that they are; if they did miss it, they did not let it show. I was also a little worried that my bourgeois little voice in my head (the one that likes nice things and comforts and the like) would not shut up about everything that was missing. Well, the voice was scandalised in the beginning, but either it was lost for words for the entire two weeks, or it simply agreed that having time to, for instance, sit outside in the shade and read (almost three books in two weeks!!) was far better and far more important than anything else I might not have.
The last few trips we have taken I have made a big effort (which may only have had small results, it’s hard to tell) to pack light. My bourgeois little voice (I should find a name for it, any suggestions?) was having a panic attack at the single pair of shoes in my suitcase and at the combined number of items of clothing that sort of equaled the number of days to be spent on the trip. What would I possibly wear, she kept wondering. Well, the clothes I had packed, some multiple times. No one has died of shock seeing me. Me and my voice have both survived the experiences unscathed.
But maybe the voice has suffered a bit. It doesn’t seem to be as loud as it used to. With the increasing quietness from it, I have had more opportunities to look around me critically. Some may say that that is all I do, I am very critical and with high expectations. But this is different. I am looking around me and expect not that I do or prove or show or whatever; I expect the things around me to prove their value. Many fail. Miserably.
It’s been a week since we’ve come back from holidays and we have already packed a big box of toys for donation and have made an agreement with Kid 1 that next year for King’s Day we will be selling toys*. We have got rid of a shed in our garden whose only virtue was to hide the crap inside it. We never wanted it, it was already in our garden when we bought the house, and we have given in to the temptation to simply fill it up. Giving it away to someone who actually wanted it has meant that we have spent a few days sorting, clearing, cleaning, reorganising, and dumping. When I say dump, I actually mean using a really awesome service offered by our local council, which collects and separates and recycles and reuses and only they know what else, all the junk you want to get rid of. This is not just throwing in the trash. I am immensely relieved to have access to such a service.
So what does our house look like now? To be honest, kind of the same. It’s crazy to think that so much effort, so much work, so much stuff redirected don’t necessarily seem to have had a very visible effect. It makes me increasingly more aware of the lack of mindfulness in my actions over the last few years. Well, decades, probably. I have been taught to think about waste from a small age, but primarily because resources were scarce in post-communist Romania. Waste was not something people could afford. Not wasting was also very much linked to saving for a rainy day, because who knew when you might need something and not be able to find it, or be sorry you had got rid of it and need to purchase it again. But this saving mentality can easily go too far. It can replace critical evaluation and decision making. It can replace measure during the moment of purchase. It can clear consciences because the previous purchases have not been wasted, we are not buying and throwing away, we are buying and storing. And, without ever getting to a reality TV-like level, we end up hoarding.
No wonder organising gurus are a thing. A stupid one, if you ask me, but a thing. Organising is not the point. Decluttering is not the point. Making proper decisions about what to keep around us is not the point. I am not saying they are unnecessary, but they are definitely not worth books, TV shows, social media frenzy, product lines and brands. The first and most important thing to do when our mess has caught up with us is simply to stop. Stop buying, stop taking freebies, stop saying “yes, please” to everything, stop disposing of all the things we have said “yes, please” to. Just stop.
You may wonder why I am saying this after only recently disposing of a huge pile of stuff I have kept for years? Well, because it did make me feel good to have cleared some space, to have reduced the number of items around us; but it also made me feel really weird. Guilty and overwhelmed. Drowned in stuff, almost. So that’s how I started thinking more about this. I am in no way qualified to offer an answer to the psychological questions of why we accumulate things, and I won’t be suggesting solutions to “cure” ourselves. When I say we need to stop, that is not a solution. It’s just an interlude. If we take a moment and allow ourselves to be confronted with all the stuff we have acquired, while unable to throw anything out or upgrade to nicer stuff, just have and use what we already have, what would happen? What would we notice? How would we feel? And what if we stopped for a little while longer? What would happen then?
*It is customary in The Netherlands for kids to be selling their old toys on King’s Day. It’s a nice way to recycle possessions, and to make kids a bit more responsible. But, just like with anything else these days, it has also become an occasion for businesses to be selling their merchandise, which kind of goes against the whole spirit of the day. These markets are still a great way to find toys that are otherwise very expensive. I’m curious how this will go for us.