Editor’s note: It’s the time of year for spring cleaning, yard sales, and trips to Goodwill with bags of old clothes and toys. Today’s post features two Her.meneutics writers’ perspectives on some of the class dynamics tied to the current minimalism and decluttering trends.
The Junk We Carried
by Caryn Rivadeneira
My father’s weeklong spring break from school was called, “spring cleaning week.” On the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s, they dusted knick-knacks, shook rugs, and scrubbed floors rather than going on vacation each year.
Of course, the tradition of spring cleaning carries on—even if it doesn’t replace our ski trips and beach stays. Along with a deep cleaning of the house, around April we start accumulating piles of stuff, big and small, to throw away. Bulging with rusty kitchen gadgets, worn purses, and broken-down toys, our trash no longer fits inside the bins.
As anyone who’s spied a dresser or other leftover item on the side of the road knows, we throw away good stuff. They just happen to be things we don’t want any more—things taking up space, space that could be used by our new things! Landfills aside, this is mostly a good thing. We live with too much.
And yet, I can’t help but contrast our annual pack-it-up and shove-it-to-the-curb spring cleaning tradition with my dad’s workweek. If anything signals privilege, it’s trading hard labor for luxury vacations. They took care of, cleaned, and treasured the little that they had. We have the nerve—and reserve—to throw the dirty and damaged away.
We get so wrapped up in the mess of spring cleaning and junk-hauling, or the delicate “Kondo-ing” of the decluttering movement, that we can overlook the wealth that allowed us to accumulate so much in the first place. As Arielle Bernstein writes in The Atlantic, “To feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust.”
I hold on to more than I should for reasons that would horrify Marie Kondo (both sentimental and practical), who challenges adherents to ask themselves whether their possessions spark joy—and then scrap those that don’t.
What could be more trusting of God’s provision than toss-everything minimalist living? On the one hand, it seems like such a radical act of faith; on the other hand, it can be unwise and impossible. Megan Hill notes all the “joyless” but helpful items in her home—extra sheets, plastic cups, an old Crockpot—and the “certain Pharisaic appeal to tidying up,” as if we’re too good to hang onto these things.
We’re to trust God with junk-filled closets and empty bank accounts and everything in between. Our theology of trust cannot depend on how much we have to give away, since so often our material lives are prone to circumstance. Bernstein notes how fraught “Kondo-ing” becomes in a context where cherished items have been forcibly taken away—like for her Polish grandparents, who fled the Holocaust.
They left everything behind. When Castro took what they had, they lost it again. My husband’s Cuban-refugee grandparents also had nothing when the came to the US. They scrimped and saved for a set of grocery store “china.” His grandmother gave us the set when we married—a bulky gift we didn’t ask for and I assumed we didn’t need.
The place settings took up space and were a huge pain to move. When our basement flooded, the soggy boxes and newspaper crumbled into a huge mess. Though the pattern doesn’t match our style, the love behind these dishes gives me joy more than I can measure. And in the days when the dishes I loved were breaking and we were too broke to buy more, holding on to this precious gift for sentimental reasons paid off in practical measures. They became our plates.
After taking up shelf space for years and years, they became a source of God’s provision. And what greater joy is there than that?
Less Isn’t More When You’re Forced to Have Less
by Marlena Graves
Growing up, our fridge was as clutter-free as they come. Some weeks, I’d open the door to reveal empty and clear shelves, except for maybe a jar of mayonnaise or tub of butter tucked in the door.
No wonder I can’t get excited about a movement that champions having so little. I grew up poor, and our minimalism was not a trendy choice. I loathed it.
I didn’t realize how poor I was until college. At the end-of-the-year dorm move out, my peers left behind clothes, bicycles, computers, and furniture that they didn’t want or couldn’t haul away. They probably had others at home—why clutter up the house by shoving in duplicates? Less is more, after all.
And so I witnessed firsthand the privilege of which Bernstein speaks: the luxury of discarding our stuff.
Most of my life I believed that whatever God-given mental acumen I had could compensate for growing up in poverty. I may have been poor, but I could hold my own in social or academic settings. Still, scarcity remains a close companion.
Poverty shapes our relationship with possessions. Americans who lived during the Great Depression or remember rationing during World War II may hold onto things “just in case” they need them in the future, trying to be prepared. With lives marked by instability and fear, the homeless tend to have special attachments to their stuff, regardless of value or practical use. I’m no hoarder, but I understand the mentality.
When my husband, Shawn, and I were youth leaders, the kids teased us about Shawn’s dated boom box. “Why on earth do you still have that old thing?” they asked. I always replied, “‘Cause it works.” We kept it until it shorted out at nearly 17 years old. Admittedly, I was sad and sentimental when it played its last.
We’ve held onto clothes until they are threadbare, shoes until they are worn out. We drive our cars until they won’t go and gladly take old computers when friends get an upgrade. Even after graduate school, it seems like we’re still tiptoeing away from the financial abyss. I know have some clothes and other material goods that I can get rid of, and like many others I enjoy the feeling of having a clutter-free environment. Yet when it comes time to discard basic things, deep down I still wonder if I’ll regret getting rid of them and if I’ll really be able to replace them. That’s how childhood poverty stalks me.