Modern Americans face more choices in one trip to the grocery store than our grandparents faced in their entire lifetimes. All that freedom of choice is reflected in most of our homes, littered with more furnishings and gadgets than we need or want. Stuff is a major impediment to becoming wabi, and it’s one of the hardest ones to break through. Most of us have been programmed to acquire more, more and more from the time we could speak. It’s how our economies roll.
“We live in a world overflowing with our own productions, a world in which objects besiege us, suffocate us, and very often distance us from one another both physically and mentally,” Italian designer Claudia Dona wrote in 1988. “They make us forget how to feel, to touch, to think.”
Take a good look around your house. Chances are, you have more stuff than you need. Are you okay with having a TV in every room (how did that happen?) or the glass duck collection that got totally out of hand? Do you need those sweaters that might fit again some day or the wild-haired, legless Barbies languishing in their own messy Barbie houses? You know, deep down, that the clutter you’ve parked in your home is as destructive to your well being as the constant buzz of a nearby highway. The thought of actually doing something about it, however, is paralyzing.
Wabi-sabi gasps for breath in homes rife with gadgets (even if all of them work) and tchotchkes (even if all of them are beautiful). The wabi-sabi room doesn’t have to be prison-like or monkish, completely without ornament or whimsy. It simply shouldn’t be suffused with extraneous details. Clutter smudges clarity, both physically and metaphorically. Things you’re holding onto because they were expensive, because they were gifts from your mother-in-law, or because you might need them some day are all just getting in your way. In a wabi-sabi home, space and light are the most desirable ornaments.
Photo by Barbara Bourne
Uncluttering is common sense; there’s no magic to it. All the experts offer the same basic advice, in one form or another. It goes like this:
—Don’t try to unclutter your entire house at once. Start with a drawer or a shelf and move on to problem areas (such as the garage or the basement) once you’ve had some smaller success.
—Maintenance is key. Spend fifteen minutes per day cleaning up daily detritus before it becomes overwhelming.
—Take everything out of a drawer or closet and spread it out in front of you. You’ll eliminate more and organize what’s left more efficiently if you can see it all at once. (This also gives you a chance to clear out the dust and run a damp rag over the surface.)
—Mark four boxes or bags “Keep,” “Give Away,” “Throw Away,” and “Hold for One Year.” (The last one’s for items you don’t need or use but just can’t bear to part with yet. If you haven’t touched these things in a year, their time has come.)
—If in doubt, throw it out. Give it to Goodwill or any of the charitable organizations who send trucks around to collect it. Or give it away on Craig’s List. Nothing moves faster than the stuff in the “Free” listings.
—If you can’t find a good home for something, it’s time to say farewell.
—Get rid of two items every time you buy a new one.
—Keep like items with like: cups, baking goods, candles, etc.
—Allow only three items on each surface.
—Cover only about one-tenth of a table; use objects of differing sizes.
—Just say no to refrigerator magnets. They encourage clutter.
—Keep windowsills clear of knickknacks and potted plants.
—Keep clutter contained. Use baskets and bowls to collect mail, pens and pencils, loose change and all the other odds and ends that collect on counters and tabletops.
—Storage is key to containing clutter. Storage areas should make up at least ten percent of your home’s total square footage and be placed so that you can store items where they’re used. (If you can’t get rid of the stuff, hide it well.)
—Furnishings that do double duty as storage help minimize clutter. A wicker chest holding blankets can serve as a coffee table in the TV room; a small chest of drawers makes a great end table.