Monday, February 27, 2012

Handle With Care

I have this problem. I can't stop myself from getting rid of things. I am the queen of throwing things away. Or giving them away. I see an abundance of stuff as an invitation to sort it and get rid of anything that isn't serving a vital purpose. I guess this can be a positive thing--like when I am inspired to clean out my closets and toss things which don't seem at all useful to me anymore. I can really get on a roll when the spirit of decluttering seizes me. Sometimes I may go too far. There has been the rare occasion when, a month or two after getting rid of something that was simply taking up space, I think of a scenario where it might have proved useful. In my defense though, it hasn't happened all that often!

I used to enjoy watching a show (was it called Clean House?) which featured homeowners who were prone to clutter and disorganization. During the course of the 30-minute show, they learned how to systematically go through a room in order to clean it up and make it pretty. The dude on the show who talked the people through the process of letting go and clearing out almost took on the role of therapist or behavioral psychologist. Some of the homeowners would get really weepy or angry or belligerent as he compelled them to sort and prioritize their belongings. The guy--I'm pretty sure his name was Peter--had a charming Australian accent and a really soothing way of helping people assess what things in their homes were really worth keeping. He compelled the people to explain WHY the objects they couldn't part with were important, or more importantly admit that holding onto things isn't always necessary in order to hold on to the memories we associate with them. Peter taught them to keep only things which were a) useful, b) beautiful, or c) sentimental. His caveat about keeping sentimental things was to skim a handful of meaningful things off the top of one's piles of memories, and keep them in a way that is decorative. He encouraged people to showcase their few, best momentos in a shadow box, a picture frame, or some other mode of display.

My mom is a natural at this sort of thing. She has an innate gift for rescuing old, antique, forgotten items from the ruinous clutches of time and neglect. She finds creative ways of preserving these artifacts so that they can remain as meaningful possessions which tell our family's history. She has framed everything from my great-grandpa's pince nez (old timey clip-on glasses) to the bowler missionary hat worn by my great-great-great grandpa years ago in the deep South. She has rescued gloriously colorful vintage quilt blocks from my grandmother's house and fashioned them into quilts for my sisters and me. Whether its an old cracked, leather bound family Bible, or a stack of yellowing postcards mailed one hundred years ago, she distributes them among family members and keeps us connected to our ancestors.

She likes to keep the things that tell a story. Years ago as she was cleaning out my grandparents' house when they had both passed away, she got to the end of emptying a closet, even climbing on a chair and reaching a hand into the dark recesses of the deep shelf to check for missed items. When my mom prepared to move on to the next project, she heard my Grandma Lila's voice say "look again." So this time, armed with a yard stick, she looked again. This time the stick in her hand pushed against the bulk of one of my grandma's handmade quilts. It is beautiful, useful, and most certainly tells a story, that quilt.

My impatience with superfluous things probably stems from the unique family dynamic which shapes our home life. At my house, things present one son with innumerable opportunities for manipulating, disassembling, or shredding. Jack likes to drag things rapidly through the house to watch them bounce along the floor behind him. He likes to throw things, simply to see what kind of marvelous crash they might make upon landing. He enjoys crinkling things close to his ears, or taking them in the bath and drowning them. While he likes things; he also loves them to death. Things of value tend to be closely guarded and usually are literally kept under lock and key. Anything else is pretty much fair game for the boy who loves to pack it around, beat it up a fair bit, and then abandon it someplace random, like in Mom's shower or in the frozen backyard. It's just the way he rolls, and we can't fault him for manipulating things in the only way he knows or finds intriguing.

While I can't say that I always like finding photographs ripped into dozens of bits under said boy's bed, or finding a newly-purchased item ripped from it's packaging and strewn across the baby's room, I will say that Jack has taught me that things don't matter as much as people do. And from my mom, I'm learning that things do matter, because they connect us to people--especially beloved family members who have gone before. Between the coaching I'm getting from these two, I think I'll probably find a happy medium.


  1. i love this! I too, love to get rid of stuff. So much of it just seems like junk and will all our moves I have really learned to lighten our load. And Jack is teaching the right lessons, stuff dosen't really matter in the end, it's the memories that count.

  2. I just love the time I spend reading your posts. I feel like I've just had a great conversation with you--without me even interrupting:)
    When my mom moved out of her home of 50 years it was quite the learning experience. I learned to throw everything away except those choice family heirlooms like the old old typewriter my grandma used to write her books or the stack of old love letters. Your mom has inspired me to try to find away to display those things beautifully. I remember your house being full of artfully placed treasures (including the formidable buffalo head?:)

  3. Fabulous post! You got me thinking when the last time was we had a de-clutter. I'm sure it's about that time again. :) Have you ever wondered what life would be like with 1/2 the stuff we currently possess? Bet it wouldn't be missed. Would probably be mentally refreshing too. One less thing to keep track of or store. Feng Shui is a big proponent of clearing the clutter and keeping things to the bare minimum. It's the implementation that can be challenging. :)