It was as though she were stood beside me shouting: “No, I’m saving that!” – but we would never hear her voice again except for a ten second message left on my aunt’s answer machine. My grandmother was in her early thirties when I was born and pretty much brought me up. At fifty-five, she was far too young to die. Lung cancer. She’d smoked since she was twelve. Her name was Josephine, which she shortened to Joe, with an e, like a man.
Uncle Terry said that she’d once picked up a cigarette nub that was too small to hold by piercing it with a sewing needle to extract the last precious gasps of nicotine. She used to stay up all night when I snuck out to go clubbing. I’d come back, wide-eyed, and find her rocking in her chair to old movies on Channel 5, tea in one hand, a roll up in the other. She was neurotic. And a hoarder.
I loved her to bits, but her junk drove me mad.
Plant pots, empty. Fashions, last seen on Dynasty. Romantic fiction from the 1970s, unread. Ornaments. Piles of newspapers. Recipes, cut out from magazines, that she would never make. Old birthday cards. Bingo cards. Playing cards. Tat, my mother said, but I couldn’t bear to see her shoving it into bin liners for charity or, worse, the skip outside grandma’s apartment. I thought she was being harsh, at the time, but let’s just say there wasn’t any family silver to fight over.
I took most of it. I was in college. God knows what I thought I was going to do with it all but it smelled like Mama Joe, and I was determined to keep it.
And so began my hoarding phase. It wasn’t long after Mama died that I decided life was too short and it was time for me to come out as trans, something I’d known from my earliest memory but which, up until that point, had seemed impossible. I moved to university in Brighton. New home, new friends, new city. New identity. I filled my student bedsit with as much stuff as I could get my hands on. It made me feel safe.
I got into a long-term relationship and for about five years we must have moved house every six months. He was a hoarder, too. CDs. Remember those? It was always phenomenally stressful, and required huge removal vans and extra pairs of hands. Each time I’d vow to declutter before the next, yet there always seemed to be more and more stuff. I was drowning.
Then, last year, following an horrendous breakup, I was desperate to feel better. Marie Kondo was all over the internet evangelising the virtues of owning less. So, rather than obsessing about the death of love, I decided to focus on making my home beautiful by subtracting the unnecessary. I’d always felt quite passionately that more is more and too much is never enough, but I figured the simple life was worth a try. It was that or Prozac.
I fantasised about simplicity. My dream apartment was empty save for a pile of books, a bed, a clothes rack, and a lover. Possibly a Frida Kahlo for good measure. The reality was a bedside drawer stuffed with novelty tea towels, A-level essays and a vibrator shaped like a rabbit. You know the one.
I read blogs and learned the rules. One-in, one-out. ‘Justin Case’ doesn’t live here. If it costs less than ten pounds and you can replace it in less than ten minutes, throw it. If in doubt, throw it. If it doesn’t spark joy – this is one of Kondo’s – throw it. If you haven’t used it for over a year, throw it. Everything must go. Including that dress you’re secretly hoping you’ll fit into again. You won’t. Get over it. I have.
Getting started wasn’t easy, though. I deliberated for weeks over a hi-fi stand that had been my aunt’s as a teenager in the 90s. Some of my earliest memories are of her playing Mariah Carey and reading me stories about Whitney Houston from Smash Hits. The stand seemed like a magic portal to a special time that could never be replaced. But it was just tatty old crap.
Since then, I’ve gotten rid of about eighty per cent of my possessions, keeping only the things I know to be beautiful or genuinely useful. I lacked the patience to sell anything so some went to friends and neighbours, and Oxfam in Dalston isn’t going to be short of stock anytime soon.
Has it changed my life? Yes. Absolutely. I have more space. More time. A cleaner home. I don’t lose stuff. I know where everything is. I look after things better. I’m less stressed. I feel in control. My life is easier. Choosing, buying, cleaning, organising, maintaining, repairing and ultimately discarding stuff all takes time, effort and money. Life is simpler with less.
And I’m not surrounded by sad memories anymore.
Some people thrive in clutter, apparently, but embracing minimalism is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It isn’t just about owning less. It’s about choosing to live consciously and break the cycle of mindless consumption. To pause and ask: how much value do the things I’ve surrounded myself with really add to my life? I haven’t stopped shopping – look, it will be cold day in hell before I renounce consumerism completely – but I buy less, and better quality, and appreciate it more. Why have three sets of cotton bedding when you can have one, in silk, that you adore? Minimalism isn’t Spartanism.
I still have something of my grandmother’s though: a small glass pot she used to keep hair pins in. It had been stuck in a box of junk for years, dusty and unloved. I’ve given it a second lease of life as a candle holder now – I think of her when I use it, and I use it every day.