"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Limitations: Clearing Out Stuff

This is a season focused on giving and receiving. In an effort to continue the discussion on the power of limitations, I invite you to think about what you could give away.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve already got too much stuff. I don’t want any gifts this December. If anything, I want a gift I can give myself – of inventorying my stuff and divesting of as much of it as I can.

Recently I noticed a property for sale in my neighborhood - perfect for a retreat center/teaching studio. Never mind that it’s on the market for way more than I can afford. I had to have a look. The formerly grand 1920’s house stands on a promontory with a view of downtown San Antonio. Situated on over an acre, there is plenty of space for a new studio building – and maybe even a guesthouse. (Let me know if you have some funds to invest!)

While I practiced active imagination envisioning what I could do with the house I noticed something else about the property. It was clear the owner had issues when it came to parting with stuff. Two cars, carrying plates that hadn’t been current since 1999, were parked in the large driveway. The inside of the house confirmed its occupation by a seasoned stuffologist. Every room was stacked with boxes. The spare bedroom had been turned into makeshift closet for hundreds of pieces of clothing – more than any person could wear in one lifetime. I felt sad for the owner, and also slightly claustrophobic.

To break free from that level of acquisitive behavior probably requires help. We all know people who can’t give anything away. I encounter them in workshops all the time. One student I adore had five bags of denim in her studio, just waiting for the right project to present itself. That alone might not have been a problem, but the garage was full of stuff too. And neither you nor I can pass judgment on this. Last April I helped my mother clear out a basement’s worth of stuff, in preparation for a move to a new home. Our time together in the basement produced touching memories and several belly laughs. It’s hard to get rid of things that remind us of the past. The electrically heated melamine baby dish with the shiny moon and stars on it (my youngest sister is in her mid-forties) tugged at both our heartstrings, but it had to go. And what about the dozens of cereal box fronts, carefully trimmed into 9” x 12” pieces? “You never know when you might need a good piece of cardboard,” my mother explained sheepishly. We both laughed. The cereal boxes went into the paper-recycling bag, although I can’t help but wonder whether some of it was vintage, and worth something.

And that’s the hook. We’re easily duped into keeping far more of the stuff we own than we will ever need or use, because we are sentimentally attached, or motivated by a belief that somehow the stuff will bring us money. If we got busy and listed everything on Ebay, or tagged it all and filled up tables in the driveway, it would. But there’s one niggling detail. Actually doing it.

My point is that the more stuff you have, the more stuff you have to take care of. Sooner or later there’s a tipping point. You’re serving the stuff instead of allowing the stuff to serve you.

So give yourself the gift of dumping some stuff this season. Face the facts. Will you ever get a garage sale organized? Will you ever learn how to use Ebay? For that matter, will you ever use those five bags of fabric scraps you’re currently hoarding? Or all of the old copies of Quilting Arts you have stacked in the corner of the bedroom? Do yourself a favor and clear some stuff out. And don’t focus on how much it cost originally, or whether it’s worth money now. Pay it forward, and give everything away. Use freecycle.com or send a note out to fellow artists. I know one group in San Antonio that hosts a clothes swap twice a year.

How about an artists’ swap? Or the good, old-fashioned Salvation Army? It’s been proven that those who give without worrying about getting anything back have actually healed physical maladies. Check out Cami Walker at 29gifts.org. Suffering from multiple sclerosis, she determined to give 29 gifts in twenty-nine days. Amazingly enough, during the course of the giving her symptoms actually abated.

I know when I cleared out my closets and studio in September it was as though a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Is it a coincidence that the pain I had in my back also went away? I don’t know. I do know the coats that went to the homeless shelter are needed this morning. And that all the textile paints I’d accumulated but was never going to use found a good home with a young student living on tips as a waitress. And it makes me smile – and feel considerably lighter on my feet – to imagine what someone must have thought when they encountered the original artwork (old and no longer viably salable) that I donated to Goodwill. I just hope it didn’t go into a bedroom stacked with so much stuff it won’t ever be truly enjoyed.

But that can’t be my concern. All I can do is keep clearing out – creating plenty of healthy psychic space for new ideas and new work. Which is just another version of working within limitations and staying in present time.


  1. Artists and crafters seem especially at risk for collecting too much stuff - after all, we reason, it is the tools of our trade - those bits and pieces of fabric, paper, buttons, and braid (to mention just a few potential stash items). We are going to make something else out of all the bits - we aren't collecting them just to have.... or are we? Will a particular piece of marbled blue paper suddenly give us a talent we really don't have, or will the perfect length of fabric magically turn us into an award-winning quilter? Probably not (except of course for those of us who already are!) but we continue to fortify our insecurities by continuing to collect. I've been sewing up my stash and am having fun doing it!! Using combinations of fabric I would never otherwise have thought possible had I given myself permission to run to the quilt store. Likewise with the paper art I create. It has been an exercise of necessity and invention to make do with what I have - repurposing, recycling, rethinking techniques, and altering. At this point, I have to sift through too many files of embellishments even to remember what I have (carefully labeled though they are) and when I open my drawers of fabric, I am always surprised to find fat Q's I'd forgotten all about! You are correct Jane, when you say that clearing out makes room for new energy!

  2. I just did two closets on Saturday. I think the house gave a great sigh along with me. Now the little clock my daughter gave me has broken, too sad. I will check to see if I can find a new inside for it, but if I cannot, I am determined to throw it away. In one closet I found a box of children's books I'd used as a teacher; off they went to the library for their book sale, desperately needed right now. Mucking out helps the spirits, it feels very good. Some marginal things I've kept, but next time...they'll be gone. Thank you for a timely, thoughtful post and Merry Christmas!

  3. Yes, letting go and clearing out gives one a great sense of accomplishment and peacefulness! "GROJ" (get rid of junk) was written in a predominate place in my parents home - I think that would be a good thing to post in my home as well.

  4. When I found up that I was allergic to wool I decided to give all of my wool fabrics (hundreds of dollars worth) to the VCU School of Fashion Design. Fortunately I took it in several trips. After the first trip I found out that the INSTRUCTORS were taking the fabric. The rest of the donations were conditional on them only being given to students.
    I love doing a clear out periodically. I'll give away anything that someone else can use.

  5. great post jane! i live in a small apartment and have been complaining about this for years until i discovered the benefit of it: it's impossible to accumulate "stuff". i have to clear out my studio and the the other rooms on a regular basis.

  6. A few years ago I stayed with a woman dying of cancer. Her home was chock-a-block filled with antiques worth tons. I was with her the night she died and a week later saw all the lovely contents of her home in second hand shops - those "priceless" items she had hoarded for her family. That was a big eye opener for me. I too had been saving things for my kids who I assumed ( and we know what that means)that they would want these things too. I imagined my kids "clearing" out my house after my death and all my lovelies ending on the tip. So I have preemptively have started selling all my goodies and I am using the money for art supplies and workshops - actually yours Jane is one of them. I DO feel lighter and looking forward to all the fun I will have spending my new windfall.

  7. Tis the season to clean, limit and gift others - check out my blog on the same:

  8. I actually have a physical need to purge this time of year. I move into a very busy season for my "other career" (the one currently paying the bills) and need the peace of a clutter free space. Freecycle and the local art colleges are where most of the studio items end up. I really like knowing I am helping students find free materials to work with. Clothes are not my weakness so emptying the closets is easy and go to the Salvation Army or one of the women's shelters. And Jane you are right, the benefit of giving freely, out weights any of the costs. Years ago I was told you pay for material items three times...first, to accumulate it; second, to maintain/store it; and third, to dispose of it. And that is just money, then the cost in mental energy regarding stuff is hard to track.

  9. This lesson keeps talking to me. I have the boxes ready and the Volunteers of America are coming to pick up through our neighborhood on 12/20. This time it will be a big giving. I still cannot give up the boxes of shells, the old and vintage textiles and some other stuff from passed on to me by my mom. Some day, but not now.

    Thanks for sharing this lesson.