Decluttering: A Personal Journey to Voluntary Simplicity

The fear of letting go keeps us trapped in a life of servitude to our possessions. We have a strongly held belief that burying ourselves in books, art or a hundred miniature turtles will somehow provide us with comfort and security. Although we no longer recall the titles or the plots, we keep the books. We pass from one room to the next, unable to recall the color palettes on our favorite paintings, yet we hold onto them as if our home were the annex to the Louvre.

These were the waters I had to tread on my journey to voluntary simplicity. As an art major who had reached the milestone of having traveled to twenty-five countries, I collected art; lots of art, big pieces of art, small pieces of art. I collected fun art, serious and expensive art, as well as objects that were artfully crafted from all over the world. I was a modern day explorer who set out on wide-bodies to travel the world, searching for amazing artifacts too large for a carry-on bag. In fact, I once emailed my friend Mary asking her to bring empty suitcases when she met me in Argentina. She did better than that; she appeared out of customs rolling a huge, empty Stanley toolbox!

It was not so much the desire to acquire possessions; rather it was about possessing what they represented. Every piece held a great story and an experience of the world I had come to know, as well as memories of the people I had met, admired and loved. I did not want to lose this. I needed something to hold onto, a reminder that these experiences were not figments of my imagination, but were real places, real people. They were my bookmarks.

There is one thing about collections (or any possession for that matter); once we bring them into our lives, we are responsible for them. We must maintain them, care for them, and protect them. When they have outlived their usefulness, we, as responsible citizens, must plan for their departure.

As a society, we don’t always do a good job of executing our custodial obligations. In my journey to capture a greater sense of freedom and joy, I realized I would to need live up to my own obligations and not just chuck and run. And by “chuck and run”, I mean I could not assume that all of my friends wanted my stuff, including my 10-inch, heavier-than-a-.45, Nokia 191 cell phone. My friends had stuff of their own. They too may have been seeking a reprieve from their own responsibilities.

The downsizing process, which took just over a year, was made somewhat less stressful with the help of great friends and some creative thinking. In no time, my massive library was at a manageable size. Any books that could be found in the public library or uploaded to my reader were donated to charity shops. I kept a few of my very favorite art books and journals, while other rare books were given (with permission) to close friends

Crates of vinyl records, dating back to the time before eight-track tapes, were converted to MP3, and then donated to a wonderful little record store in my neighborhood. The store owner’s expression was priceless! It was at that moment I had an epiphany: It is not the material attachment that drives memory. I did not need to lug around eleven crates of records for the rest of my life to remind me of one of the greatest Halloween parties I ever threw, where everyone came dressed as their favorite album cover. (I dressed as Cindy Lauper and sang a badass Tina Turner!)

My prized collection of iris was divided between two friends who have since divided them several times again. Every spring they each remind me how wonderful “my” iris are and it gives me such joy to think of the beautiful bouquets I have given them.

My artwork was the most challenging for me. First, there was just so much of it. Secondly, I simply could not imagine myself not surrounded by huge paintings. This is what had given my life depth and richness; it was what had identified me. I had to find a creative solution.

Some of my collections could be incorporated into my new footprint. Many of the great textiles, like the wonderful silks I’d brought from India are now on my bed; the hand carved toothpick holder from China is just the right size for my galley counter. The Russian copper coffeepot gets regular use, and my silver Argentine maté server is used every day. My handcrafted French journeys are in salon and there are smaller paintings I’ve been able to rotate into my small space.

The larger pieces were a bit more challenging of course. You can hardly hang a 5′ x 4′ painting in an Airstream. My life is rich with wonderful friends who have fortunately been frequent admirers of my collection. Together, we have an informal system whereby my artwork is on loan to their collection. I visit, often sitting across from one of my paintings. Our eyes will lock for a moment, as though we are secret lovers, waiting for a chance for some clandestine rendezvous!

Decidedly, when all was said and gone, I have not looked back nor regretted letting go of a single thing. To the contrary, I realized within a year that I had still kept too much. I continue to make regular deliveries (pilgrimages?) to the charity shops because I love the extra space now available in my life. You have to make room for simplicity.

My passion for art is as strong as ever, and yes I still acquire great pieces from time to time, but I now much prefer to collect friends in abundance.

Article by Shelah Johnson

Shelah Johnson is the editor-in-chief of and lives full time in her 1976 – 31′ Airstream Excella 500 which she parks on an island in the middle of two converging rivers in the Pacific Northwest. She supports woman (and men) who want to live fabulously in small eco friendly footprints through her writing, social media and speaking engagements.

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