catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 2 :: 2012.01.20 — 2012.02.02


Clutter, control and the freedom of simplicity

There’s a famous photo, taken in the early 80s, that resurfaced in the wake of Steve Jobs’ death. It’s called “Steve Jobs at Home (1982).” In the picture, taken by Diana Walker, a young Jobs sits on a hardwood floor with his legs crossed. There is no furniture in the bare room, save a floor lamp. Jobs is surrounded by a few random pieces of paper. He appears to be sitting on a mat.

Many eulogists who reflected on Jobs’ death in November of 2011 focused on his Spartan style almost as much as they did on his IT innovations. His taste for simplicity — in interior décor, in dress — probably wasn’t motivated by a desire for spiritual calm and clarity as much as it was a sort of mad perfectionism. Jobs hated flawed design. He found it distracting, frustrating. Oracle founder Larry Ellison famously reflected on Jobs’ spare house interior that “there wasn’t furniture good enough for Steve in the world. He’d rather have nothing if he couldn’t have perfection.”

Walker’s photo of Jobs inspires and haunts me as my husband and I examine the crates of papers and knickknacks and other things we’ve stowed over the years and assess how much of this stuff we really need. After all, if the creative genius Steve Jobs didn’t need a lot of stuff, why do we? We look up to Steve Jobs, flawed as he might have been, as someone who was able to capture a kind of genius that eludes us. Perhaps by removing the physical clutter from our homes we’d also remove the psychic clutter that prevents us from growing as artists and thinkers.

Of course, for us there is a spiritual element to simplicity as well. One might argue that clutter is sinful. It’s sinful because it’s spiritually distracting; because it’s wrong to cling to that which “moth and rust destroy”; because it’s selfish to keep for ourselves what others might be able to put to good use.

Problem is, it’s one thing to long for a clutter-free life and another to go through a room full of junk and figure out what’s worth saving and what needs to go. It’s hard work and, what’s more, reminds us of the painful passage of time represented in decaying earthly treasures.

We began acquiring stuff in our early twenties, when we married and bought our first home. In those years, we rarely turned away a hand-me-down from our downsizing friends and family. We had no idea how useless most of those items would become. Tools, holiday decorations, old TVs and DVD players that barely work. Books, magazines, family artifacts, children’s clothes. When we accepted these things, we didn’t know how they’d look stored in our basement, stuffed into closets. We didn’t know we’d feel too guilty to give them away, just because they once meant something to people who mean something to us.

Yes, both my husband and I have a modest problem with hoarding that seems to get worse every year. No, we’re not potential stars of the show Hoarders, but we do have a problem getting rid of stuff. I hang on to papers that have even a modicum of meaning to me: thank you notes, Christmas cards, articles I’ve had published in newspapers and magazines, letters from my loved ones. I have boxes and boxes of papers, in my basement, in my office, and in a few other spots around the house. I also hoard books. My mom used to say that “books are souls.” It’s very hard for me to consider getting rid of anything another human wrote with any sort of feeling for fear I’d be disposing of a little piece of that person’s heart.

I also hoard gardening supplies, thinking that when times get tough, like if circumstances arise that cause food to become more expensive or scarce, I’ll need the extra stacks of plastic pots and buckets of potting medium to grow more food. You should see my garage. It’s so full of gardening supplies that my 11-year-old daughter is embarrassed to leave the door open because she’s afraid someone she knows will catch on to my little hoarding problem.

I married a borderline hoarder, too. He has trouble throwing away anything that might be useful or that has any sentimental value at all, from cassette tapes to his grandpa’s old tools.

We know simple living is important. We’re not even that materialistic. We rarely indulge in frivolous purchases. I have almost no jewelry and my personal possessions (not counting papers, books and gardening supplies) would probably fit in one box. We don’t have a lot of fancy electronics, other than the old hand-me-downs that are probably worthless at this point. If someone were to burglarize our home they’d be sorely disappointed.

Yes, we’re surrounded by the kind of stuff Steve Jobs wouldn’t have tolerated, crafted cheaply by machines and the hands of slaves in far off lands. Stuff I assembled myself from boxes lugged home from department stores. Stuff that became obsolete only a few months after it was purchased.

Why do I cling to these things so? What do I really need? What would I need if we lost our jobs and had to live on government aid alone? What would I need if we were forced to flee our home and live in the woods, off the land? What would I need if I had a degenerative disease and had to spend the remainder of my days in a hospital bed?

What will I need when I’m dead?

When I ask myself these questions, suddenly all the knickknacks and do-dads that fill my house seem kind of silly and vain. Yet my heart still clings to them, as if they help me control time, to prevent it from passing, prevent me from feeling small and alone when in actuality I would probably feel so much freer without them. 

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