With all my surviving clothes now neatly stored as per the KonMari method, it was time to turn my attention to the elephant in the room – the discard pile. Leaving it sitting in the corner while I had been diligently folding meant I had acclimatised to the notion that it was time to say goodbye to the items within it. I pulled some plastic bags from the kitchen drawer that overflows with scrumpled supermarket carriers and surveyed the pile. I started easy, selecting items that I was nonchalant about or even pleased to be getting rid of. Once again I thanked the items for their time with me and gave them good wishes for the future. I quickly filled two bags with clothes I was glad to see the back of and walked them down to H&M on the high street.
A colleague had told me about H&M’s recycling scheme which is designed to cut the amount of textiles that end up in landfill sites. I would never have thrown clothes in the bin, anything that could still be worn I would have taken to the charity shop, but a benefit of the H&M scheme is that they will take any textiles in any condition – even things that could never be worn again because they’re torn or too ratty. Under their scheme, items that can still be used are resold as second hand goods, items that can no longer be worn are repurposed into other things, such as cleaning cloths, and items that can’t be used at all are turned into insulation. Their aim is zero waste. When the clothes are resold, H&M don’t pocket the money – it goes towards rewarding people who take part in the scheme (in the form of vouchers), donations to charity and investment in recycling. I had carefully checked all this fine print, sure that in our capitalist society dominated by megalomaniac corporations that someone had to be profiting somewhere along the line. But it all seemed legit – their website clearly outlined how it works. It’s good to see a company trying to offset the waste that their fast fashion ethos is fuelling.
Over the next few days I took two bags down each day. For every bag you hand in, you get a £5 voucher, limited to two per day. This slowed down the discarding process considerably as I was using normal sized carrier bags, rather than large bin bags, so as to maximise the amount of vouchers I received. However, the conditions of the voucher state that it’s £5 off for every £30 you spend; I quickly amassed enough vouchers to mean I would have to spend hundreds of pounds in order to redeem them all. This would clearly undermine my attempts to be a minimalist in the most spectacular fashion. Thus I became the voucher fairy, handing them out to all my friends who shop in H&M.
What I particularly like about the H&M scheme is that they will take literally any and all textiles – even the ones that charity shops wouldn’t want and couldn’t possibly sell. This was useful for discarding the disturbingly large amount of underwear that was heaped on the floor. There were socks with holes, socks worn thin, socks that made my feet sweat too much, tights with little dots of clear nail polish on in an attempt to stop holes turning into ladders, tights with patterns or colours that had, at one point, seemed daring, fun or coquettish but were at odds with the person I was now, leggings that had seen better days, knickers that had always been avoided because for some reason they just weren’t comfortable (boy shorts, I’d wanted so much to like you, you made my derrière look so fine, yet every moment wearing you was a moment pulling you out of places you shouldn’t have been), comfortable knickers now rendered sad and droopy with age, knickers with elastic that had long since thrown in the towel, and the saddest of them all – sexy knickers that had waited so long for their Prince Charming to come but now their flirtatious cuts and colours seemed only to mock their very being, lace becomes frail cobwebs, elastic broken free in the frustration and anarchy of unfulfilled purpose….these were the Miss Havishams of my underwear drawer. Never mind, sexy knickers, you can be set free now and go on to a new life! Maybe you could become a cleaning cloth! My attempts at optimism rang hollow. I sheepishly looked away, feeling somewhat guilty that I had not provided them with the bacchanalian lifestyle to which they aspired. Giving them a weak, consolatory smile I packed them into their Dignitas transport of a Marks & Spencer’s carrier bag.
Another item sent on its way to a new life and a new purpose was my old school tie. This is an item that might have given some people pause and I certainly did hold it a while as I felt all the emotions and memories associated with it. I even slipped it over my head and tightened it up – it was still knotted for me to be able to do this. But it brought me no joy whatsoever. I had not particularly enjoyed my school years and none of the memories it invoked made me yearn to keep it. I took a photo of it, as a nod to the past, but added it to the bags with a touch of relief.
Having doled out a whole bunch of H&M vouchers and got rid of all my non-reusable textiles, I began to feel a pull to give things to a charity shop instead. It was a deep, innate pull…despite knowing that H&M was doing good things with the old clothes, it still felt a little weird to be giving them to a big company…and the clothes they were selling on….were they being sold at reasonable prices to people in need, I wondered? I decided to give the rest to a charity shop, namely The British Heart Foundation. This is the one I always give clothes to for the simple fact that, out of the multitude of charity shops on the high street, it is the one closest to my house. I swapped from carrier bags to large bin bags and started to load the remaining items for their final journey. Many charity shops, including the British Heart Foundation, provide a free collection service – they will come round with a van and take all the bags off your hands so you don’t have to worry about getting them to the shop. But I preferred to make the journey myself, even though this meant taking many trips as I was only able to carry one bin bag at a time. Walking the bag down to the shop felt like the final ceremonial goodbye – my last act of gratitude and remembrance for the items that had been part of my life for so long. I liked to feel the weight of the bag in my arms as I carried it down to the shop and the light emptiness of my unencumbered being on the way back. It was a physical representation of why I was doing this. I was releasing myself from the weight – physical, psychological and emotional – of all my unnecessary possessions so I could live a freer, simpler, more intentional life.
As things were moved from the pile to the bags, there was more trying on and more photos taken. For the most part, this was less emotional than the initial decision to place the items in the discard pile. The reactionary dismay and lament at the loss of whatever I considered the clothes to represent had been replaced by acceptance of their terminally joyless state.
However, not everything from the discard pile made it to H&M or The British Heart Foundation. I allowed one pair of shoes to make the return journey across the River Styx back to the safety of the wardrobe – my Sketchers Shapeups. These had been a fairly pricey good intention purchase. I had meant to wear them on my daily walking commute to school, a total of 40 minutes walking per day. I had thought I would maximise the potential of this walk with the Shapeups promising, as they did, all sorts of toning and muscle building benefits. This had been a short lived utopia and they had languished in the bottom of my wardrobe for longer than I cared to remember. But it seemed such a waste to discard them. They were quite expensive and hardly worn. And it had been a genuinely good idea to wear them on the walk to school. Not only were they comfortable and supposedly toning, but it meant my actual school shoes would last longer without needing re-heeling if I only wore them to pad around on the industrial carpet inside the buildings rather than subjecting them to a daily beating on the pavements. I plucked the Shapeups from the discard pile and gave them, and myself, an ultimatum – they had to be worn consistently otherwise they would have to go.
A solitary hat also made the return journey from the pile to safety. Pre-cull, I had owned quite a number of hats. Some I had worn quite extensively in the past, some were from previous back-packing trips, some had once been cool and trendy, and some were novelty hats. But they all had one thing in common: the fact I never wore them anymore. One hat, one that does get used and that lives in my box of travelling equipment rather than being cryogenically frozen in the stasis of storage along with the rest of the hats, had already been conserved – my sensible travelling hat in khaki green – essential for keeping the sun off my face when abroad. But now I was faced with all the rest. Was it wise to discard them all? My travelling hat was a long way from being fashionable – maybe it would be prudent to keep just one less dorky hat. Just in case. These were words I had been warned about. Both Marie Kondo and The Minimalists caution against keeping items “just in case”. But should I really get rid of them all? The need for a hat arises unexpectedly in London, what with the mercurial nature of the weather. Best keep just one, just in case. An old favourite, versatile in what it can go with, was rescued from the pile. Like with the Shapeups, an ultimatum was delivered – you can stay for a while but don’t think you’re safe. You’re on borrowed time while I muse a little longer on the necessity of hats.
Then there was the subset of clothes that were earmarked to give to my sister. Upon hearing of my decluttering endeavours, my sister had eagerly requested that I give my old clothes to her. She then looked decidedly aggrieved when I told her that this was against the rules of the KonMari method. Kondo says that your tidying journey is an individual pilgrimage. Parents should not see what you choose to discard incase they feel sentimental about your old possessions, are concerned you’ll discard too much or are appalled at the sheer volume of waste. And as for younger sisters, Kondo has a specific chapter about not passing on items to them. My younger sister now views Kondo as some sort of meddling nemesis, standing spitefully in-between her and a whole new wardrobe of free clothes.
Kondo’s premise is sound – it’s all too easy, in this painful discarding process, to pass things onto younger sisters as a way of getting rid of items without going through the guilt and emotional wrench of truly and genuinely parting with them. My case was a little different though, instead of a situation where you present your discards as a supposed gift for a sibling in order to swerve the process of fully facing up to your past purchases, I had a sister who was actively requesting my clothes. But Kondo warns that we should show consideration for others by helping them to avoid the burden of owning too much. It was this that I was concerned about for I fear my sister suffers just as much as I do from the affliction of being overly attached to things. It seemed wrong that I should manage to declutter by cluttering up someone else’s space with my old possessions. But she did pleading eyes and promised, hand on heart, that if I gave her something and she wasn’t going to wear it she’d take it to the charity shop. She eagerly specified the name and location of her nearest charity shop as proof that she could be trusted to go through with it if the need arose. So I conceded. As I worked through my discard pile I kept an eye out for suitable items to give to her – they had to be items that I genuinely thought might look good on her and were fashionable. Quite a few times the thought arose, “Oh maybe I could give this to Laura”, sometimes it was even stuff that probably would have looked good on her but I knew, deep down, when it was a case of me just not quite wanting to part with something from my past. And for these items, I suspect it would have seemed a little jarring to see her wearing them – like the ghost of a past me reincarnated in her. No, for those older, sentimental items it was safest to just let them go to the charity shop to be adopted into an entirely new home – a clean break and a fresh start for all. By following these guidelines I ended up with a small, choice selection for my sister – guilt-free clothes, with no emotional baggage, that I hoped she would like.
As I chipped way at the discard pile, bagging things up and walking them down to the charity shop, I knew I wasn’t being entirely honest with myself. As my hands delved into the pile to pluck out items, I found they never settled on certain things. I was strategically avoiding the big emotional ones. The ones that had choked me with memories, tears and physical feelings of loss just by placing them in the pile were now being carefully avoided by my cowardly hands. As much as the time in the limbo of the discard pile had helped me to distance myself from most of the clothes, the big ticket items continued to haunt me. But I couldn’t avoid them forever. As I whittled the pile down and they were laid bare by my excavation work, I managed to muster the courage and resolve to get rid of some of these affecting items. I would place these clothes right at the top of the bags and not tie them shut, then I would walk the bags down with my hands resting directly on these clothes inside the top of the bag. This last laying on of hands felt like the last connection to the memories within them. We relived our experiences, the clothes and I, as I carried them through the quiet back streets and then onto the bustling highstreet.
And then there were my clubbing clothes lying on the floor, no longer protected by the joyless clothes around them that had acted like human shields. And I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t quite put them in the bin bag. It wasn’t just the memories of those crazy lived years, it was something about their otherness. All three items were from Cyberdog and all three items had that “Gosh, did I really used to wear this?!” quality. Their out-there-ness combined with the poignant memories they stirred meant I couldn’t quite get my hands to work properly – to put them in that bin bag and sever the umbilical cord to the past. I placed them with the one item from my past that I had been sure I would keep. This was a large navy blue polo shirt that was embroidered with the Birmingham University crest and the words “Chamberlain Hall Bar Staff”. It had been my work uniform when I was a bartender in my halls of residence in the first year of uni. I had loved my time at university and still count it as some of the happiest years of my life. That t-shirt was staying. Kondo is clear that you can keep whatever you like so long as it truly brings you joy. Even things that other people would raise an eyebrow at and say “Surely there’s no way this brings you joy!”, whatever it is – broken, misshapen, ugly, aged, random or strange – if it brings you joy you can keep it. Your possessions should make you happy and if something lights up your life and “you like yourself for having it” then ignore the haters and hold on to it. The very idea behind the process of decluttering is to live surrounded by things you love – remove the cloying, oppressive, unnecessary detritus that weighs you down and be left with a carefully curated environment where you value every item, whatever that may be.
Did my uni top fall into this category? I hoped so. I enjoyed its continued existence too much to consider getting rid of it. It lives among my pyjamas, its large size making it suitable for nightwear. However I don’t wear it in bed. It doesn’t get worn at all. I usually wear long sleeved pyjamas, my basement bedroom being on the chilly side, but even in summer it never gets picked. It’s almost too special, too vintage (how many years since uni?!), too zeitgeist – representing as it does that all too brief period of wide eyed 18-year-old enthusiasm and freedom and excitement, new beginnings and new friends…how could it be used for something as mundane as sleeping and subjected to something as potentially damaging as an overly exuberant washing machine spin cycle? That top had always been going to survive the cull. And now it was joined by the three items of clubbing wear.
And then there was the Pulp t-shirt. This was the very last item left on the floor. Not because it just happened to be lying at the bottom, of course, but because my hands had studiously ignored and actively avoided it throughout this whole process. On the Friday evening before the Sunday that I had begun decluttering my clothes, I’d been out with some work colleagues. Somehow the conversation had landed on the topic of Pulp and I had waxed lyrical with gin-fuelled gusto about how much I had loved them in the 90s. Pulp were my absolute favourites of the Britpop scene. I would lie against my pink stripy beanbag in my teenage bedroom, overlooked by pictures of Jarvis bluetacked to my walls, listening to Different Class while studying the changeable inlay cards that had come with the CD. Jarvis’s lyrics spoke to me. He understood. A few years ago Pulp played a gig in Hyde Park and I spent most of it with both arms raised aloft towards him in some sort of quasi-religious fervour – there was the gangly-limbed poster boy of my teenage years reanimated and made whole again. When a Pulp song comes on the radio these days, the tsunami of memories and emotions that engulf me can be almost painful. With the physical jolt of time travel, I’m suddenly back driving my Austin Metro through Epping Forrest listening to the set Pulp played at Glastonbury which I’d taped off the radio – even now I remember the exact point in Sorted for E’s and Wizz where I used to have to turn the tape over. I’d keep singing until the tape started playing again and Jarvis’s voice would join mine in perfect synchronicity. And yet, when I picked up that t-shirt during the initial categorisation process, I felt no joy. It’s a burgundy t-shirt with the Pulp logo on the front and a faded list of tour cities on the back. It’s size extra large because I’d really thought that was good look at the time. It smelt mildewy because it had been hibernating under the stairs. It was with surprise, as I held it in my hands, that I noted that there was no joy left here. I realised with absolute clarity that I did not need to continue to own this t-shirt to remember how much I had loved Pulp. I had spoken of them with breathless impassioned belief on the Friday night and this t-shirt had had no bearing on that.
And yet, I had kept avoiding it when going through the pile. It had never been the right time to put it in the bags and ferry it off to the British Heart Foundation. And now it was unavoidable as the very last item that remained. It couldn’t be left lying on my bedroom floor forever. I picked it up and with a gargantuan feat of sheer will power I lay it on the top of the very last bin bag. I kept trying to hold on to that feeling, the realisation I’d had that it held no joy. But my head spun with emotions and memories. It was the last remnant of that time – those angst-ridden teenage years and the heady effervescence of the Britpop era. If only I’d known at the time how fleeting those years of spirited, exciting, ebullient music were going to be, I would have gone to so many more gigs and spent so much more time listening to Jo Whiley and Steve Lamacq on The Evening Session. But I was young and thought that this was how it just was and how it would always be. I hadn’t realised such galvanising musical movements are rare occurrences. All too soon the genre became a cliched parody of itself and the sparkle faded. Now Jo Whiley speaks to me not about energetic new music but about middle class parents waiting to pick up their children from extra-curricular activities as I listen to Radio 2 while wearing rubber gloves, doing the washing up after a long day at school. If only I’d known this is where Jo and I would end up, I would have grasped those years so much more tightly. But as they say, youth is wasted on the young. For the young, with their whole lives laid before them as a shimmering mirage, have no idea just how quickly the sands of youth will run through their fingers. And here I was with the Pulp t-shirt – it was the last grains of the sand of my youth. But you knew as soon as you pulled it from the suitcase under the stairs that it brought you no joy! But how can I possibly get rid of it?! Be strong. You can do it. I picked up the bag and walked to the shop. My hand lay upon the t-shirt the whole way. I suspect I looked somewhat haunted and skittish on that walk. There was a tightness in my chest. My breathing had grown a little shallow and ragged. Was I actually going to do this….get rid of it? It had been with me for 20 years. It was an ancient artefact, a relic of the time, a piece of a bygone era, a survivors souvenir, a cotton vestige of that time and place. At that moment it seemed that t-shirt was the last piece of the 1990s, the last piece of Britpop, the last piece of that awkward girl who evolved to be me.
I walked into the British Heart Foundation. A kindly woman greeted me. In a voice that wasn’t quite my own I said I had some things to donate. She went to take the bag from me. Our arms got a little tangled, probably because I was holding the bag in a strange way that had meant I could rest my hand on the top. In an attempt to untangle ourselves, the bag was jostled. A couple of items fell from it. The Pulp t-shirt was lying on the floor of the shop. She now had the bag in her arms. I bent to pick up the items on the floor. The t-shirt was in my hand again. I followed her to the back of the shop. She put the bag down and reached for the items I was holding. I handed over a couple of minuscule vest tops I’d used to wear when clubbing. And now I was just holding the t-shirt. And out of my mouth came the words, “Maybe I’ll hold onto this one after all”. And immediately I felt like crying. Tears sprang to my eyes and a lump formed in my throat. I hadn’t been able to do it. I just couldn’t do it.
At the British Heart Foundation, they make you fill out a form when you donate stuff. You have a donation number and after your things have been sold they send you a letter saying how much money you helped make for the charity. It’s nice to know people wanted your stuff, it’s gone to a good home and you’ve helped to support a good cause. I was ushered to the front desk and asked my name for the system. My voice was shaky as I choked back tears and my handwriting was erratic as I filled out the form. I didn’t meet anyone’s eye because for them to see my tears would have been weird and embarrassing. And then I took my Pulp t-shirt home. And I cried on the way but I’m not sure what I was crying about. Was some of it disappointment? Disappointment in myself that I hadn’t managed to let it go. Disappointment that I’d failed? Was it relief? Relief that it had been saved? Relief that the choice had been made? Was it an emotional release after all those torrid thoughts, memories and feelings had been stirred up?
In the silence of my bedroom, I added the t-shirt to the other saved items. The items I never wore, didn’t need, and couldn’t quite part with. This collection comprises, in chronological order: the Pulp t-shirt (relic of Britpop and my teenage years), the Birmingham University t-shirt (relic of my uni years) and the Cyberdog clothes (relics of my clubbing years). In a way it’s a fitting collection – each item represents a past phase of my life. There’s something about that that makes me think the Pulp t-shirt wanted to be saved, that it valiantly jumped out of the bag in order to be preserved, that it was a sign that it was ok to keep it. Or maybe it was just cold-hard physics that meant it fell to the floor and it’s just my desire to see patterns, logic and reason in the world that makes me think this collection has symmetry and wholeness. After all, it is easier and more pleasing to think that rather than face the fundamental truth of the flawed, mawkish, sentimental, weakness of my being. But whatever. I put the collection at the back of a shelf in my wardrobe. I looked round my room, a space that had, as I slowly ploughed through this lengthy process, resembled a sartorial Mordor for weeks. But finally, it was done. All my clothes had been sorted, sifted, stored or sent away to begin a new life. The first stage of decluttering my life was complete.