When I started watching DIY videos, YouTube decided that I could use some minimalist advice. One or two curious clicks later, YouTube offers me an endless list of 10, 20 or 50 items people no longer want in their homes and lives. This reminded me of writing a pandemic-time post about unwish lists. I also re-read the blog post that inspired it. I enjoyed the author’s strict honesty that goes against some of the common social conventions, such as accepting things with gratitude.
Like many others, I often feel overwhelmed with the amount of stuff — physical and digital. At the same time, I’m curious about how the statements all these Western Europeans and North Americans on Youtube make today compare with their childhood experiences and memories. For one thing, the reason I see people in my family hold on to stuff is their experience living in a planned economy with chronic shortages. And no, people, all these well-intentioned ‘ostalgic’ essays about how socialism made people shop sustainably (I’m thinking of this example in Calvert Magazine — What Socialist Style Can Teach Us About Fast Fashion) don’t really get the point. “During socialism, it was scarcity that fuelled innovation,” the author writes, and conveniently omits to mention both the rampant exploitation of textile factory workers and the mental energy it took ordinary women to secure the items they wanted to have in their lives. Socialist countries were not anti-consumerist — they were extremely pro-consumption and wanted their residents to buy loads of industrially produced stuff from the socialist block (example: commercial from socialist Hungary. Find 5 differences to capitalist advertising). It’s just that the stuff did not please the consumers or would not be delivered where people wanted to consume it. Industrial clothing was mass-produced alright, but it was hoarded by gatekeepers, restrictive in terms of sizing and shape, and unpredictable in terms of availability at stores. Also, while community seamstresses were popular, community weavers weren’t a thing, and you couldn’t exactly walk into a store and pick a quality fabric of your choice. One secure way to access fabrics was to know someone at a textile factory, where they would get fabrics as a bonus, collect offcuts, or sneak some away.
In short, whatever families couldn’t obtain for money had to be obtained with women’s emotional labour, which was often invisible and undervalued. Maintaining good relationships with gatekeepers meant people-pleasing, finding things to give in return, keeping track of birthdays and anniversaries, tolerating their quirks and sometimes even harassment. What socialist women expected from capitalism was to be relieved of these duties. But turbocapitalism of the 1990s also meant more precarity and diminished purchasing power. ‘Imports’ and seemingly curated gifts from abroad became an important social currency. The suddenly abundant fast fashion items from Turkey, sold by stocky women and men at open-air markets, depended on how much risk the traders were ready to take and how lucky they were at borders.
This left an imprint on many people and induced hoarding behaviours. The underlying principles during both of these eras were (a) if you find an item you really like, buy five, because you never know when it will be available again; (b) if someone gives you a rare item, keep it even if it’s not quite right — maybe you’ll find a way to adjust or repurpose it in the future; and (c) honour the social relationships that surround material exchanges — do what pleases people and don’t forget to keep adding material objects, services and advice to the social circulation. If you give them the rare items that you can access, maybe they will give you rare items too. If you went to the Eiffel Tower, bring them a statuette, and when they bring you a camel plushie from Egypt, show your appreciation, because later you may also be exchanging dentist contacts, fabrics, gadgets, job recommendations and so on.
I honour these cultural behaviours that my family and I developed in these circumstances. They kept us safe and connected. Now, however, when almost every household has someone who has been abroad and all kinds of stuff can be ordered online and shipped, these behaviours no longer serve us and it’s time to bid them farewell. This means letting go of some mental shortcuts that allowed communities to function smoothly in the past, but processing change in one way or another is simply necessary.
How does this relate to unwish lists and decluttering? Well, something I notice in myself is that much of my shopping stems from a “you never know” mentality. In my case I feel that I may never find this item again not because I live in a dysfunctional planned economy or because the trader who brought it may be detained at the border next week. It’s because I find items in different countries, because when trends change some items disappear, and because I avoid shopping online. Last year I found a new / functionally different type of top at a Uniqlo shop in Brussels, I was delighted to see how many of my needs it meets, and caught myself thinking, “I should have bought two!” because this brand is not available where I live. I had to remind myself that I have several years before I feel deprived of this type of item and have to think how to obtain a replacement. And even if not, it’s a global brand. And even if it wasn’t, someone else will produce something similar. Better yet, when I talked to someone I know, she told me how good her mother is at replicating clothes, so here’s another potential solution. In short, there is plenty of stuff out there. There is no shortage. The world is full of stuff.
So in 2023, these are the things I want to let go of:
- Ghost accounts — it’s time to review them, unsubscribe, uninstall, and delete;
- Apps that duplicate one another — OneNote, Evernote, some kind of other note… chose one and stick to it;
- Old emails — tickets, purchase receipts, drafts and pre-final versions of various documents, conference agendas, reimbursement forms, emails I keep just to have someone’s contacts;
- Working files from projects that ended ages ago;
- Photos for information purposes and no longer useful screenshots — idle time while waiting for transport is a great opportunity to declutter those.
- Academic, philosophy and fiction books — I am giving those away bundle by bundle and will continue doing so;
- Art supplies — streamline, simplify and repurpose what I have;
- Containers of all kinds — they accumulate so easily, so I will do my best to buy from traders who take their containers back (examples in Malta are Julian’s Heavenlies and Tulliera) or find people who can put them back into circulation (I was very happy to find people who needed many egg cartons/ boxes);
- Clothes and gear for my fantasy self — I have more than enough of stuff for all my outdoorsy and athletic endeavours, so I just need to use, donate or retire what I have;
- Sympathy purchases — 2022 was the year when I tried it out what it’s like to trade stuff that I made, and while I know how frustrating it is to be ignored, I want to refrain from buying anything just because the person selling it is cool and works very hard;
- This one is very specific: hair ties and scrunchies, as they are so easy to make from old socks or mask straps (here’s one tutorial);
- Pouches, organisers, fabric bags and cases of all kinds — again, same reason, so easy and fun to make, so it’s time to retire, upcycle or give away the industrial ones;
- Perfume — I want to find ways to repurpose those already in my household;
- Event totes — there was a time when every conference or event under the sun insisted on participants taking away a tote bag. I don’t need more than two, so I want to upcycle or give away the others;
- Tight-fitting turtlenecks — living in the North, I used to love the turtleneck + blazer look, but in the Mediterranean it’s not so practical. When the spandex gives in, turtlenecks warp and wrinkle around my body, and they are only good for a short time anyway. Now my go-to smart casual look is increasingly thermals + shirt;
- Anything that doesn’t fit, is stressful to use, or can be replaced by a simpler, multi-functional item.