As you may recall, I’ve spent some time working on simplifying things over the past couple of years. Though I feel like Marie Kondo would view me as a failure because I've cleared out once and need to do it again after a couple of years, at the very least, I am starting to notice what it is that I am gathering. One thing I'm accumulating is books. The other thing I'm accumulating is pens. Now, cleared bookshelves overflowing after a year or two I can understand. Even though I have a Kindle, I love actual books. And there are some great deals out there that, to me, seem too good to refuse (I’ve already established that I enjoy bargains). And, of course, I have friends who love to read – and who very generously give me books that they have read. So, it makes sense to me that after a year or two, I would have gathered a significant number of books making another clear-out necessary.
In my quest to simplify, I’ve found some really interesting things to do with books after I’ve read them. While I’d always give specific books to various friends who I think might like the book, I also tend to use the old standby: giving them to the local charity shop. In the past, when most of my books were academic books, I’d be seen at either end of a semester in the campus bookstore, selling back any books they would have. As a student, that was generally quite important, and kept me in food with a roof over my head. But now that there’s more of a mixture, it’s to the charity shop they go. Recently, however, I’ve come across other potential options. I’ve seen pictures of ‘Little Free Libraries’ that seem to pop-up randomly in various areas, which is intriguing to me. It sounds like the loveliest idea ever – only slightly better than going into a library and checking out a book. (Which makes me wonder, when was the last time you went to a library? It's been quite a number of years for me. How did I let that happen?!) So, one option is to look into the possibility of starting a Little Free Library somewhere. Another, slightly easier option I found in a magazine called “the simple things.” In the magazine, they had a sheet with four labels on it. The labels are to be filled in with your name, date and where you’re leaving the book and then stuck into the book you’d like to pass on. I love this idea, but am also slightly concerned that, if I was to do this, I'd need to pick an appropriate place. The question I ask myself is where, if I saw a book lying, would I pick it up and look at it? And I’m not sure yet what my answer would be. I very rarely pick up what is not mine, but somehow I’d need to get over that and try to join in the fun. Because that is what this sounds like to me – a lot of fun.
But, I’ve digressed. The issue around books – gathering them in and sending them back out again – I get. What I can’t get my head wrapped-round is pens. There are pens EVERYWHERE in my house. There are pens in my handbags. There are pens in my car. And no matter how many times I go through my pens and throw away the ones that aren’t working, there are still pens. This wouldn’t baffle me so much if it weren’t for the fact that I can’t remember the last time I bought pens. Ok, this is slightly untrue; I remember buying a pack of 4 pens about a year ago, but these were for my office – and they have stayed in my office. I also bought coloured pens – 2 sets, one glittery and one plain – but I bought these special pens specifically for that friendship jar project I wrote about previously. So, based on that information, I should have 4 pens in my office (which I do) and 2 sets of coloured pens in the house AND THAT’S ALL. Where have the rest of the pens in my house come from? I do recall getting a pen as a present – a fancy pen, engraved and all. And recently, when I thought it might be a good idea to look at cars, I was given a pen while I wandered about the lot. So that takes me up to 18 pens in total: 2 pens, one regular and one fancy, and 16 coloured pens, 8 of which are glittery. But I have many more than these 18 pens. Conservatively speaking, I have about 50 pens in the house, mostly ones with black or blue ink. If I bothered to count them, I’m afraid I’d find I have upwards of 100 pens in the house with no signs of this number reducing.
Remember in my last post, when I quoted that statistic from the LA Times – the one that said the average American home now contains 300,000 items? My first question when I saw that was, “I wonder how many of those 300,000 items are pens?” (I realise I write this from the UK, but I have no reason to believe we have significantly fewer possessions here.) And then I wondered, ‘is it just me?!’ Perhaps I have an unconscious pen-stealing habit. My co-workers might believe this? Or maybe it’s not me; maybe it’s my husband? (When all else fails, blame the husband. Isn’t that what it says in the marriage manual?) If it’s not me and it’s not my husband, then I am at a complete loss to explain how all these pens have come to be in my house. It’s one of those unknown – and maybe even unknowable – mysteries of home living, along the same lines of the sock mystery. Where does that one sock go when you’re doing laundry? (I have a theory that it’s the dryer; the sock gets lost somewhere in the tumble dryer. I say this because I have lived without a tumble dryer for 15 years and in that time, I’ve never once lost a sock.)
The only other explanation that I've come up with is that pens, like paper-clips, multiply. On their own and in the night and perhaps even in a particular kind of environment. Which, to be fair, is fine with me. I do love my office supplies and I always have a use for a pen. Just not 50 pens. Or 100. And though I’m working on simplifying, I find it really difficult to get rid of something that’s working, has a ‘place’ in the house and doesn’t take up too much space. It’s the sheer number – and their usefulness – that keeps me stuck. As I continue to catch-up on my Happier podcasts, I heard Gretchen Rubin give this ‘try this at home’ tip in episode 62: “Don’t keep excessive amounts of stuff.” She basically advises to stop stockpiling things you have mass quantities of building up in your house; if you stop this, you should get a boost of happiness. I immediately thought of the pens.
So now, because I’m convinced all these pens are useful – and because I can’t figure out where all these pens have come from – my goal is to use up my pens. Julia Cameron is helping me with this goal, though she won’t know it. She wrote The Artist’s Way, a book designed as a 12-week course to ‘recover’ your creative spirit. Her first rule of the course is that you are to write morning pages – 3 hand-written, stream-of-consciousness pages, first thing when you get up in the morning. And this might be why I’ve been thinking about pens so much. I’ve used up 4 pens so far and I’m about two-thirds of the way through the course. At this rate, I should be able to manage through the remainder of my pens in about 3 to 5 years if I continue these morning pages. Unless the pens really are multiplying on their own in the night.
It is this possibility which has led me to dream up my next experiment and has given me a possible new direction. Maybe I can establish an answer to the question running through my head: Will I manage to use up my pens – or will there always be more? While it may not sound like an important question to you, it feels like a good enough question for me. It feels like it may be an important way for me to use my time and mental energies. I may learn something new that’s important to me and I will feel engaged in something productive – both in undertaking my experiment and in continuing to use up the pens. People say feeling engaged and feeling productive are ways to boost happiness, so I’m in – and I’m excited to have found a positive way to frame the abundance of pens in my home at this moment in time. In allowing myself to delve deeper into this question, in 'loving' this question, I am showing myself a degree of compassion that used to come far more slowly to me. My struggles with simplicity may continue for a while, but I feel more sure that I am on the right path in achieving simplicity - and in being kind to myself. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes: "There is a path for each of us. When we are on our right path, we have a surefootedness. We know the next right action - although not necessarily what is just around the bend. By trusting, we learn to trust." It may only be pens - this time - but it feels right. And that makes it good enough for me.
Stay tuned to find out my results – though they may be a wee while in coming. Once this experiment is done and I’ve learned all I need to about the possibility that pens have a built-in multiplicative property (at least in my house), I may move on to definitively answer the sock question. And, really, who wouldn’t love to know where that one sock goes?
By the way, if you’ve read this and have ideas about what to do with books you no longer want or if you feel surefooted on your own path, I’d love to hear from you. While I’m sharing what I’m learning about self compassion in walking my own path, I’m certain I have tons to learn from your experiences too. So please get in touch if you feel moved to do so.