Neither my partner nor I views shopping as a recreational activity. And yet, our house fills up with stuff. Books, art, pretty objects that remind us of places we have been occupy every available spot of wall space and every flat surface. Magazines can be found in every room. Drawers fill to overflowing with tablecloths and napkins we bring back every year from San Miguel. Cupboard shelves groan under the weight of Mexican glass and ceramic dishes.
I am sure there was a good reason at the time for my purchases of 100 ceramic Chinese soup spoons, enough wine glasses for 60 people and serving platters galore, but in these days of no entertaining, they just seem to mock our life of meal after meal for two.
As I write this, I am casting a critical eye over my office, where every surface is full. A collection of glass fish. Cards I have received over the years. A feather that must have meant something to me at some point. Little stones. Stacks of books I know I will never read. Mardi Gras bead necklaces from a fundraising event. Snow globes. A bird and a lamb from last year’s festive season tree. A roller for my back which I never use. Fidget toys. A kaleidoscope I never look through. Two Buddhas, which should, but have failed to, inspire me to simplify.
Love or hate?
I love every one of these items. Some of them give me comfort, some amuse me, others give me hope: hope that we will be able to return to San Miguel, hope that we will be able to have a dinner party where I need all those serving platters and at least some of the Chinese soup spoons; hope that, one day, I will be the kind of person who meditates.
But I also hate them. They take up space, create clutter and are a nuisance when it comes to dusting and cleaning. When I am feeling especially stressed, I want to clear all of them out, imagining that I will feel calm and serene when I am surrounded by clear surfaces, uncrowded shelves, cupboards and closets where I can instantly lay my hands on what I am looking for and drawers that open and close without getting stuck because they are too full.
Now that I am in “these years on the downhill slalom,” as Ann Patchett calls this time of life, I have also begun to wonder about what kind of mess I will be leaving for my children to sort through when I die. They have been politely but firmly turning down most of the items I offer them on a regular basis, so I think they are unlikely to want what lurks around my house. Perhaps, out of kindness to them, I ought to start the decluttering process now.
Need or want?
In “How to Practice,” Patchett describes her journey to get rid of stuff; a journey that began when she helped a lifelong friend dismantle the friend’s father’s apartment after his death. After listing a sampling of the thousands of items the two of them discovered (“a case of Lance cheese crackers with peanut butter. . a gross of Gin Gins ginger candy . . . “), she asks herself: “How had one man acquired so many extension cords, so many batteries and rosary beads?”
I could ask a similar question: Why do I think I need I need to surround myself with so much stuff? Even as the clutter irritates me, whenever I consider getting rid of something, I find a reason – often an emotional one –to keep it.
My partner is more sanguine about our accumulation of possessions, partly because he is less troubled by clutter than I am and partly because, while he has emotional attachments to some of his belongings and enjoys others because they are beautiful, most of what fills his workshop and the basement is practical in nature. It often seems like unnecessary clutter to me, but, sure enough, too often for me to count, when we have need of a particular kind of screw or bit of wood or a tool, he usually has it stored away.
What to do with it all?
I am trying to be inspired by Patchett’s essay into taking more concrete action than putting the occasional book in our neighbourhood tiny library or taking a bag of clothes I will never wear again to a used clothing bin. It is just time to say goodbye to some items. As she writes:
“I found the burnt-down ends of candles, campaign buttons, nickels, a shocking quantity of pencils, more decks of cards than two people could shuffle in a lifetime. I gathered together the paper clips, made a ball out of the rubber bands, and threw the rest away.”
Like her, I tell myself, I will keep only those possessions that are of practical use, beautiful or have true emotional meaning.
But where do I draw the line? Might those boxes of political activism files not be useful to an archive somewhere? Is it possible a grandchild might grow up into an adult who wants to pore over ancient, yellowing family photos? What’s wrong with having a few spare paring knives and whisks? It’s possible that one day we will decide to burn incense again, and then we’ll be glad we kept hundreds of sticks of the stuff around, right?
And on it goes
I long for the lightness that Patchett describes feeling as space opened up around her once she had given away decades worth of accumulations. However, that space quickly began to refill: her mother, “sensing a vacuum in my house, rushed in to fill it” with a large box of letters and stories Patchett had written in her youth.
I suspect I will be my own worst enemy in that regard. Not long after one of my regular rants to my partner about the need to declutter, my daughter texted me a photo of an unidentifiable to us but intriguing looking item at a local second-hand store. When she told me it cost just $9.99, I asked her to buy it for me.
My partner showed incredible good grace in not pointing out the inconsistency in my having acquired something without even knowing what it was while also insisting that we have too much stuff and, in fact, spent some time polishing it till it shone.
We still don’t know what it is – all suggestions are welcome – or whether it can be of any use to us, and we don’t really have anywhere to put it. I am okay with that for now. Ever hopeful, I trust that someday we will know what it is and maybe even what to do with it.