There’s a section in The Wal-Mart Effect about the increase in T-shirt sales that’s taken place in America over the past couple decades. Marketing specialists wonder: what are consumers actually doing with the higher volume of T-shirts they own (compared to T-shirt owners of former generations)? Wearing more shirts each week? Storing extra shirts? Giving them as gifts? What’s happening with those shirts? They don’t know. All they know is T-shirt sales are up.
This snippet rang in my mind more than once during The Purge that preceded the move into our new, littler house. And I’ll tell you what the the extra T-shirts are doing (or were): sitting stuffed into my drawers. And my husband’s drawers. And my kids’ drawers. T-shirts and dozens of other items like them, all in the category of We Had Way Too Many. Some other examples? Kitchen utensils. Hair elastics. Toiletries of all types. Shoes. Bags. Tupperware. Books. Toys. Need I go on? The things in our shelves and drawers were more than we needed, regularly used, or maintained especially well.
I know I’m not alone on this one. The houses are bigger these days than they used to be – average 2350 feet now, up from around 1500 square feet in the 1970′s – but discipline in housekeeping isn’t bigger. In fact, it’s often smaller. And yet the stuff comes in like a flood.
I was surprised, I admit it, by how many toys and kid items we amassed in our four years in that 2200 square foot house. See we aren’t big buyers, my husband and me. We’re pretty frugal and try to keep things simple. Our children’s birthday parties are no-gift gatherings with the next-door-neighbor family. We limit Christmas presents to five-ish per kid. No “noisy toys” or technology-related kids’ gadgets. Our quantity of kid stuff seemed pretty average, maybe even a little below. Most of it was hand-me-down from other families, thrift store purchases, or gifts.
Turned out we had a lot of stuff. A lot. I know this because I was fortunate enough to stumble onto a local resale Facebook group for moms of young kids, and I started selling off items one by one. And selling them. And selling them. It was an endless flow of shape sorters, Mr. Potato Heads, Playmobil, stuffed animals, puzzles, cash register, etc. The kids helped me – and surprised me with their overall willingness to part with items we were selling (about which I generally asked them first). They knew – with a bit of variation by personality- what they played with and what they didn’t, what to keep and what could go. The process was disorienting: I was thrilled to benefit financially from our downsizing… and alarmed to consciously take stock of how many (largely unnecessary) items there really were in the house. Egad.
Before I started The Purge, I made a list of the child-related items I wanted to bring with us, items that were a) frequently used, b) creative/highly enjoyed (ie, the kids notice if when they’re not around, and c) easy to store. Here’s what made the cut for play items:
1. Dress-up clothes (we pared down by nearly half… Photo “demo”)
2. Lego: duplo and small size
3. Dolls and accessories (shoebox-size bin)
4. Snap-it-dolls (shoebox-size bin)
5. Ponies and princesses (shoebox-size bin)
6. K’nex (shoebox-size bin)
7. Wooden blocks
8. Play food and tea party/eating set
9. Matchbox cars (shoebox-size bin)
10. Bristle blocks
11. Little people (shoebox-size bin of people, farm, dollhouse, and bus)
12. Train tracks, Thomas trains, and station
Coloring supplies are also readily available in our new house, but other supplies – paint and craft supplies, a few puzzles and games – are stored out of sight for infrequent, “ask Mom” use. I worked hard to pare our book collection down to about 50 books, probably about one-third of where we started. I kept the classics, ones by excellent authors, and books the kids really love. [In paring down books, the best suggestion I got to figure out what merited saving was to ask, "If my house burned down in a fire, would I replace this book?" It really helped me and worked for adult and children's books alike.]
Read it over and see if you agree: we’ve hardly gone Spartan. Our kids still have plenty of things to play with. And the things we have are basically all the things our kids most enjoy and use. As we have simplified, they haven’t felt any sense of loss.
Instead there has been gain. Gain for the kids in being able to quickly and simply put away their toys at clean-up time. And in not being hounded by their frustrated parents for their messes. Gain for my husband and me in not stepping on toys in every room. And in being able to get the house tidied up quickly and thoroughly. Gain for us all in time and sanity.
“(God’s servants) are to be committed to their spouses, attentive to their own children, and diligent in looking after their own affairs.” 1 Tim 3:12, The Message
The biggest gain for me has been in focus. There’s clarity and purpose related to the contents of our house – starting with the kids’ stuff, but really everything. I used to read the advice to “have nothing in your house you don’t know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” and roll my eyes. Seemed unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky. Now I get how worthwhile, how calming it is to live that way. You don’t have to wade through the extraneous stuff to get to what you’re really after. And you get to enjoy the good stuff more.
Instead of ‘downsizing,’ I like the term ‘reduction’ – because it reminds me of the cooking process of thickening liquid mixtures. (I know this because my husband’s an avid cook, not because I am.) You boil off the liquid and intensify the flavor of the good stuff that’s left behind. Why have a watery, diluted sauce when you could have a thicker, tastier one?
And that’s like our lives. It takes some heat, some time, some stirring things up… but what emerges is so worth it. Tastier, more satisfying. In a way, The Purge is a mirror of the sanctification process, the “refiner’s fire” thing Jesus does with our hearts and character. Letting the less important things, the extraneous and the negative, fall away so that what remains is better, purer, more fulfilling. More like Jesus, and more pleasing to Him.
Originally posted in June, 2012.