This has been a time of transition. In the midst of losing Pete’s father, we moved house. We’d planned our move for the beginning of February prior to any inkling of what would eventually transpire with Dennis. This turned out to be a welcome blessing that distracted us from being distracted. And, while there have been many other blessings accompanying these transitions, I plan to write about those later, after we have the memorial service planned for later this week behind us.
During these weeks my thoughts have often turned to the role of our personal effects in life. What we do with our stuff. What meaning we assign to our things, and the distractions we endure from what matters because we’re dealing with belongings.
A move confronts you with everything you own. Doing this in the stark relief of emotional loss makes you think about what owns you. And you must come to grips with what you’ll eventually leave behind.
I thought I might deal with all this more easily, seeing as how I’d already downsized significantly when we combined houses almost five years ago. Then, I was upset that getting rid of my stuff was upsetting. Wandering through the estate sale comprised of things from the household I had made for the children and myself, seeing my life spread out on tabletops, everything neatly arranged and priced, was as if I myself had passed on. In a sense, the former me had done so, and the me-to-be mourned her. So here I was again, on the threshold of this latest move, saying hello to familiar feelings.
Despite the great attention currently paid to having too much stuff, as well as the emphasis on defining how much is too much, most of us continue to acquire. We may rein in our acquisitions with greater awareness, but the simple fact is we own a lot by comparison with the rest of the world. And, we must care for the belongings we have. If we don’t, we’re said to be “letting things go.” And of course, letting go is also what many of us can’t bring ourselves to do.
The human brain defaults to classification mode in its attempts to understand. We need to know what goes with what so we can know where we belong within the mix. Reconciling the voluntary act of letting things go inevitably leads to the associations we’ve made and assigned to our stuff.
We derive comfort from these associations. For example, our beautiful antique china cabinet (shown here on the charity’s showroom floor) held the glasses with which we toasted those we love, and the dishes on which we served many a celebration. Pete’s workshop had tools his grandfather used. I have traveled through the last thirty years toting around an unassuming little paper punch and green-handled needlenose pliers that were my father’s. They’re all old friends.
The disposition and organization of things brings our associations to the forefront. When we simplify and get rid of stuff, it can feel like we are dishonoring experiences and people with whom our things are associated. Are we letting it all go if we let the things go? The china cabinet and its contents had layers of associations. There was the cabinet, and then there were the things inside it. All this made it even harder.
These associations are extremely influential on our behavior. Even though our heads may be ready, our hearts may want to hold on. I tried out many different scenarios – could we keep the china cabinet if we used it in another room or for another purpose? After all, when newly single I had used it in my bedroom where it held my sweaters. Could something like that be done again to keep it with me? Pete suggested there was room in the new dining room for the china cabinet’s partner, the antique buffet. Except I’d already come to grips with giving it up and created a plan for that room. Slowly I traveled in my mind toward the inevitable.
I began to better understand why some people can’t throw anything away. Their associations are just as intense for something we might think is inconsequential – a random greeting card, or even a plate of uncovered food – as mine were for the antique furniture. They think in terms of scarcity, of needing it someday, of not having enough at some other time long gone. In the face of such uncertainties, of what might happen, stuff must be kept.
Equally intense associations for everything must be exhausting. No wonder the inertia with some people! I can’t imagine the level of stimulation coming from being surrounded by all those things and would need to withdraw.
Too much stuff in a place makes me nervous. I feel stricken and made claustrophobic by the disorganization. I watch the television shows about people who hoard with equal parts fascination and nausea. It must help viewers to feel that “there but by the grace of God go I.” Collections and displays feel better to me in store windows and museums. Is this because I was admonished as a child not to touch? Perhaps. But even more so, I’m aware that my associating with this many things would lead to impossible levels of fatigue. The clutter is noise.
As we packed and prepared, one thought brought focus during my struggle with what things meant and what needed to be done with them:
“Life is no less vivid with fewer things.”
I looked back on other periods during my life in which I’d lived in smaller places with less: a shared dorm room, my first apartment – a basement studio, a one-level house. Things were not the reason my experiences were intense. Things were around while I was living life, and keeping them reminded me of what I’d been through. Was I worrying that when I got rid of the things, would I also lose the memories? Now we were getting somewhere, me, myself and I.
We keep things to hold onto the past, to mitigate the sense of loss for what was or might have been, all of which comes with the passage of time. It’s why we inevitably retrieve photo albums during a fire, and why I could have used a quick drink before a box containing hundreds of old, sepia-toned family photos was discarded. Note: if you don’t know who’s in them, it’s okay to let them go.
I made valiant efforts to transfer things to the care of others, too. We returned childhood possessions we were keeping to the appropriate children. (We still have more of this to do). Appeals went out: “Are you sure you don’t want the wicker furniture?” “Who knows who is in these family pictures?” Invariably, the appeals were all declined, and no one knew. Even so, there were pangs of reluctance: my brother recognized our grandmother’s table in a batch of donations publicized on social media by the charity we used. A wistful, philosophical conversation ensued on saying goodbye.
When we pass to the next life, we leave behind all our personal effects. They’re gathered up – handbag, wallet, parking stub, shopping list, jewelry – and held for disposition. The furnishings, clothing, and food in the fridge. The uncompleted project, the unfinished letter. Since we rarely know the moment, it’s safe to say others will make the decisions about all our stuff. My own mother was very direct with her intention: “I’m leaving it all for you to deal with when I’m gone.” She did and we did, which is one of the reasons I don’t want to do the same.
Leaving things tidy feels like a great gift I can give to others at this point in my life. This concept never occurred to me when I was younger, perhaps because my personal effects were fewer and life was more simple and straightforward (consequently?). Somewhere along the way, the inventory swelled and life slowed – a combination that spawns clutter in one’s circumstances, and, I believe, in one’s mind, leading to overwhelm. This kind of messy leaving, with one’s things in disarray or great number, feels like blatant disregard to me.
I’ve been thinking I’d rather my “personal effects” be less tangible and more transient – the first gaze into an infant’s eyes, the way it feels when a task is well done, the beauty of a sunrise, a knowing laugh or the recognition of a kindred spirit.
Today I sit in a space we deliberately chose with more simplicity in mind for our life going forward. Pete and I engineered a reduction in our personal effects to make room for more of what’s important to us now. These priorities promise a less distracted existence, in which we have more freedom to choose and focus on what and whom we care for. This evaluating, these reductions, and yes, these outright eliminations in our inventory of belongings will ensure our energy going forward is devoted to what matters. We’re feeling a lightness that is very right, even with the boxes marked “History” that are stacked in the garage.
What about you? What’s the state of your stuff?