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Cropping Our Possessions
As a photographer, I have often used the technique of cropping a picture to focus on the central point or theme of the photograph, to eliminate the extraneous and distracting elements. I had no idea that the technique could be applied to one s possessions with similar success.
Then, I had to move from a large house that I had shared with my extended family for many years to a small dwelling which I share with my partner. My new home, which doubles as my office, has less than half the space. I was thus faced with the task of packing forty years of accumulated things into less space than I had had since I was a university student. My first reaction was panic and despair.
But then, I took several deep breaths. Whenever I faced a difficult shoot, I had always sought a quiet bench in a park in order to focus myself. This I did and soon the analogy to cropping photographs flashed in my mind. If I cropped those things that I had collected over the years to the essentials and eliminated those distracting elements, I should be able to fit comfortably into my new home.
But where to begin, the task seemed so daunting. I was fortunate that I had several months before the move would be made so I didn t have to make panic decisions. Looking for keys to start the process, I thought of the many times I had been assigned to photograph natural disasters such as tornadoes hurricanes, floods and earthquakes and human disasters such as war and fire. I had looked into the eyes of those who had lost all and asked myself, "What if that was me? How would I rebuild?"
Since I was in some way at a point in my life when I had nearly lost all and was starting over, I decided to use the disaster analogy as my first crop. I sat down and made a list. "If I lost everything, what would I go out and replace immediately? And what would I be glad that fate had taken from me?" The second list proved the most useful at first. I would be happy to be rid of that old loveseat and that awful planter that Aunt Mary had given me. This start gave me such enthusiasm that I went straight to the garage and removed the car so I had space to move things. I struggled with the loveseat and the planter, I added several lamps and tables that were just places for junk to accumulate. By the end of the weekend I had nearly filled the garage with things I was glad to get rid of! On Monday, I called the Goodwill truck and they took everything. Out of sight, out of mind.
That was a start and now I had enthusiasm and a sense that the task was achievable. What is that they say about the first step? My first step had reduced mostly the big things. I had not tackled closets, cabinets nor storage spaces. I decided that next I would assault one closet and one room at a time. I went to the grocery and picked up a number of boxes. One of these I labelled Pure Junk. This was for things that had no value to anyone and were going straight to the dump. Another was labelled Recycling and was for materials that could be recycled, but were of no use to others such as old personal papers and newspapers and magazines. Finally, I took a third box and set it in the middle of the house. In this one I threw things that had potential value to someone, but not for me. For the next few weeks this box received miscellaneous things that I picked up and said, "Why am I keeping this?" When it was full, I closed it and drove it to the Salvation Army donation box. A new box replaced the old one.
I found boxes in the back of closets and storage areas that had not been opened for years. I only briefly glanced within each to make sure no treasure was within. They then went to donation. Next came the clothes closets and dressers. Those items which were out of fashion or that I was saving for when I lost weight quickly went into Sally Ann, as I affectionately called the box which would go to one of the charitable organizations. I found that I had a whole box of gardening clothes — items that had passed their prime but I was saving to wear when I worked in the garden or other potentially messy situations. If I were a professional gardener, I doubt if I would have worn-out all of them.
Next to be invaded was the linen closet. I found sheets for twin beds which quickly went into Sally Ann since I did not own this size bed. I found balled up sheets and pillow cases with wild paisley and other patterns (one reminded me of a giant piece of graph paper, perhaps a good way to equally divide the bed). I decided to keep only simple white sheets and pillow cases, and my partner agreed that we would stick to basic white linens, at least until we decided on the colour scheme of the bedroom. This eliminated several bedspreads. When I was through, I had less than a suitcase full of linen remaining.
The kitchen proved an interesting conquest. The stuff that had accumulated in that large country kitchen reminded me of a history of kitchen appliances. To my grandmother s utensils, some of which I had no idea of what they were used for, my mother had added some mysterious gadgets. Then we had bought all sorts of electric kitchen tools: coffee grinders (I don t even drink coffee), electric salad choppers and slicers; bacon makers, etc. I could tell from the thick coating of grim and grease that these had not been used in years.
Then I came to the cupboards. There were enough coffee mugs to entertain an invading army. As I said, I do not drink coffee or tea, so I kept four — I might have neighbours over. Eliminating all the mismatched plates, bowls and glasses left me with a basic place-setting for eight. I had never known there were so many different types of drinking glasses. I kept a dozen. Plastic storage containers without lids quickly found their way out; I was always frustrated by the inability to find a proper lid. (Do kitchen cabinets have the same black hole that dryers do, where one sock is whisked to another dimension each load?)
Then I called my partner and we checked our lists. We eliminated many duplications. In fact we eliminated my dishes entirely. After I was done in the kitchen, it looked as though I were about to load the moving truck. In fact, it was again Goodwill and Salvation Army that did the moving. The war against excess was going well, but the final battle would be fought in my office. Here the cropping knife would have its toughest challenge. The first foray was against the filing cabinets. I knew that my new office would only have room for one of the three I had. That meant, at least two thirds of the material within would have to go. I first gleaned out all those reports and papers that were older than five years. These went straight to recycling. Then I vowed to reduce the remaining pile by at least half. What remained after this vicious attack filled but two drawers of my largest filling cabinet. The other two cabinets went to the office of the local crisis centre. My old, now unused, computer went to the office of an environmental group.
There were but two fronts left to fight: one, my photograph archive; the other, my library. Here were the toughest engagements. I decided not to discard anything from here that had sentimental value, I could make those decisions later. To make a long and personally agonizing story short, I succeeded in reducing the volume of both my archive and library considerably, though not as much as I should have and yet much more than I had ever thought possible.
When we finally made the move, we filled our new home to the brim with stuff. But nothing, like us, was left on the curb due to lack of space. After one week, my partner and I sat down and had a conference. More had to go and little could come in. We formalized some rules for engagement:
We have held to that set of rules fairly well over the years since the move. Books and tapes have increased somewhat over our stringent restrictions, but we review our collections periodically to make sure only the best and most cherished are retained.
Most of our friends have marvelled at our ability to crop our possessions so dramatically. There arose such a standard set of questions that I will close this piece with them and our responses.
What about those things that you "might need someday"? We found that, in most cases, we could borrow or rent most of those things cheaper than the cost of added more house space to store them. In one case, I replaced the discarded brief case with a backpack which has proved much more versatile. We did have to go out and buy a large pot when we started canning and pickling, but that was about all for which we have found, after three years, someday had arrived.
But you spend so much money on some of those things! Yes, chalk them up to bouts of stupidity or something like that. We just had to have those things and yet we may not have fully paid for some before they went into permanent oblivion. With hindsight I regret many of the purchases, but that is all in the past. However, there is no sense paying for a big house or apartment to store that stuff just to avoid admitting the purchase was a mistake.
What do you do when you have guests? We rarely have more than one other couple for dinner. When the kids came with their children, we did have to borrow some items. However, after talking with some friends, we agreed to assemble a guest box. We all chipped in to buy a set of dishes and towels and linens. It is stored by one member of the group who has a large house with ample storage space. It is available on a "first-come" basis. We have only had a problem once when we all had Christmas guests.
Don't you feel...strange...not having all those things surrounding you? No, actually it is quite liberating. Since dishes cannot pile up, washing them only takes five or ten minutes. When we change linens, the dirty set goes to the wash and then back on the bed. The second set is actually rarely used. The linen closet became our food storage place for the jars for our canning, pickling and jam-making, and bulk food purchases. We use the lawn chairs in the living room when we have extra guests. Cleaning the house is quick because we do not have to shuffle things around. Thus, we have more time for fun activities.
What was the toughest area to cut? Family pictures and memorabilia. Of course, as a photographer I had taken so many over the years. But, even though I am a professional, not all were really keepers and when we looked at many, had no idea who the people in the photos were, or where the scenic photograph was taken. It is amazing that a scene you were once so impressed by, twenty years later is unrecognizable. Still, the photos where the baby s eyes were closed were hard to throw out, even when the one taken six seconds later was technically perfect.
What was the biggest surprise? That we could live comfortably with so much less. In fact, the realization that we could cut down on our stuff led us into searching out other ways we could simplify our lives. The result is that we are happier and feel we are having less of an impact on the environment. It certainly has helped our finances. We now have a monthly surplus which we save for retirement or travel.
Cropping Our Possessions by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©2001, All Rights Reserved.
I have recently added many of my lifetime collection of photographs and art works to an on-line shop where you can purchase notecards, posters, and greeting cards, etc. of my best images.