We recently made the decision as a family to paint our house inside and out, which meant emptying each room, going through every single thing in it, and deciding which items really meant something to us and which things we were ready to let go of.
This simplification process isn’t always easy. It can be very emotional, this nostalgic letting go. Because we are inevitably confronted with the fact that we’ve changed, physically or emotionally, that we’ve gotten older, that tastes or interests have waned or been replaced, that the things we cherished only a few years ago somehow ended up in the back of a junk drawer. We are also inevitably confronted with what we think we “should” keep, what either society, family or our own sense of moral obligation tells us we shouldn’t throw out or give to someone else even though we may no longer want or need them.
It had been about six years since we’d really examined our possessions and the pile of things that no longer fit into our lives was impressive. After my typical nostalgic procrastination of lingering over baby clothes, scribbled drawings, books and old photos (and lamenting several pairs of jeans that hadn’t magically gotten any bigger), the four of us really got to work at weeding through our things.
During the process of de-cluttering our home, I found an unexpected connection between taking stock of our possessions and the evolution that unschooling has taken in our lives. I became acutely aware of how my children have evolved and how little they need to be happy and fulfilled. Few of the things I had supplied them with at the beginning of our decision to homeschool –things I had assumed were necessary for them to learn and grow intellectually–survived the cut. Expensive text books, science kits, times tables posters, writing guides and math workbooks had all been gathering dust while my children gathered the knowledge they needed and wanted in a natural progression of deep understanding and interest.
Initially those textbooks and other educational material were a reassuring presence for me, a reflection of my own insecurities, of what society deems essential to a child’s education. They had been brought into our home when I was still caught up in the doubt and skepticism that others had openly expressed about our children being able to learn without school. They had stayed on as vestiges of my old way of thinking and conforming. But just like those jeans that no longer fit, I finally had to acknowledge that they, too, no longer held a place in our lives and that it was okay to let them go.
Other things my children were willing to get rid of were a testament to the progression of their learning and their growing bodies and minds. They kept only those things which meant something to them personally, items that furthered their interests, supported their creative activities, inspired play or nourished their souls. My husband and I followed their lead.
What we cherished most turned out to be books-fiction, history, architecture, art. Not surprising for a reading family. We read alone in a pile of pillows on the floor or under a tree outside. We read to each other in bed, on the sofa. Sometimes a book catches our eye and we sit down right where we are on the floor and that thing we were on our way to do gets forgotten. That’s okay, it’s part of learning as we go. And we’re tactile readers. We love to feel the weight of the book, hear the satisfaction of turning a page, smell the history of old books. They are like steadfast friends.
With all the extraneous stuff that no longer serves us either given away, recycled, or tossed, we find ourselves surrounded by what we love and care about and what is truly useful to us. Being able to see those things clearly and have easy access to them has also cleared our minds and consciousness of old patterns and habits. I’m certain that over the coming years, as our family of four continues to grow and change, more things will be added and subtracted. But they will be chosen carefully and reflect a learning and living philosophy that more closely resembles who we are as individuals and as a family.
In the meantime, we’ve found more space to work, play, create and breathe. We intentionally left one shelf in our bookcase empty. It’s a freshly painted reminder of the endless possibilities ahead.
A Big P.S. and a de-cluttering tip:
This is not meant to be a judgment of textbooks or other standardized learning material, or of those homeschooling families who choose to incorporate them in their individual learning philosophies. It’s about talking to our children and listening to ourselves, taking a close look at what’s working, and letting go of what isn’t in order to make space for new things to come into our lives, literally and figuratively.
I am not a clean freak. Nor do I like stark rooms or dainty meals (which would account for the jeans that don’t fit). And I love a good mess, which is always a sign of creation. However, taking the time and effort to simplify our belongings had a profound effect on our lives in several ways. First, it made us more aware of our consumer habits and the impact we have on the environment when we purchase unnecessary or cheaply made, disposable items that, if not recycled, end up polluting the environment.
Secondly, taking stock of our possessions ultimately led us to take stock of our lives and make some simple changes like taking electronics out of the bedrooms so we sleep better, and organizing our shared office space and the kitchen in a way that made sense for everyone.
Getting rid of or storing things we didn’t use on a weekly basis allowed us to really see, have access to, and appreciate those things that we value the most. As a result, our house has seen a focused, creative burst and a slowing down to enjoy peaceful moments at the same time.
Going through our possessions can also remind us of the personal changes we want to make as well as the things we’ve accomplished and the goals we’ve attained. Sometimes we forget that we are not static! Move things around as a reminder of that.
Lastly, this process took a while for our family, and patience was crucial. But my husband came up with a great technique for helping us de-clutter. When we were hesitant, rather than threatening to get rid of things, we each put ten items that felt important to us in a separate space (our garden shed) for one week. At the end of that week, if we couldn’t remember any of the ten things without looking, or if we decided we could live without them, they went. What remained were the essentials we needed and sentimental things we loved. This is a respectful and effective way to let go of things we are holding onto for the wrong reasons. And it empowers each family member to individually make the final decision about what stays and what goes, which fits right in with our unschooling philosophy.