the dangers of not letting go. and the dusty path toward redemption.
this is not a story about religion. though it’s a subject with zealots and slackers.
marie kondo, the porcelain doll of a declutterer, calls it sparking joy (and swears it can change your life). i call it getting covered with cobwebs. and eye-watering dust. and reminding myself of my proclivities for not letting go of the sentimental.
but i took a trip to new jersey, to a white-clapboard house that might have been built in the early 19th century, and might have been there (in one form or another) as early as 1789.
and everything changed.
inside that old house were dozens and dozens of orifices, each one packed to the brim. to open the door to the attic was to trigger a domestic avalanche, the sort you might find spelled out in the weekly gazette, where some poor soul was buried alive beneath decades-old shoeboxes, crumbly yellowed news magazines, and strings of christmasy lights that might never have burned.
when your job is to pack up the kitchen, to wrap not only the skinny-necked goblets, but to sift out toothpicks, circa 1960, and mismatched tupperware lids by the dozens, you swiftly absorb an abiding commandment: thou shalt not leave behind a house stuffed with stuff thou hast not had the courage or chutzpah to preemptively toss.
you get cured right quick of your stockpiling ways.
marie kondo, whose best-selling tidying book i once was assigned to survey, makes the closet-clearing task sound downright zen-like, as if standing before overstuffed shelves, blithely sorting and chucking and plucking for joy — would that be placing the object in the palm of one’s hand, awaiting the wee bit of voltage that’s the signal for “keep me”? — is the next best thing to a trip to the spa. (no wonder i tossed aside that pretty little spark of a joy-jolting book, the book that sparked little but befuddlement back in my stuff-keeping days.)
the truth is, i found packing up the kitchen of someone i love a hauntingly heart-tugging endeavor. i unearthed the red apple-shaped placemats she must have delighted in setting on her breakfast table, or when a struggling student she lovingly tutored came for after-school cookies and milk. i pulled from a drawer the crystal-handled cake cutter that might have sliced into chocolatey layers on countless occasions, and i heard once again the peals of laughter that echoed through the house’s post-colonial walls. i discovered my mother-in-law’s absolute obsession for all things valentine’s day; heart-shaped candy dishes, red paper doilies, and 101 variations on heart-speckled pink paper napkins.
it’s as if a life is being unspooled wordlessly, a silent reel of thing upon thing. each one with a story you can only imagine, each one a frame still palpably pulsing, but only just barely. and you feel the slipping away all over again.
i kept picturing my mother-in-law peeking over my shoulder, wincing each time i tossed a tchotchke into a trash bag or pitched some trifle to the give-away pile. i felt guilty. i felt tender of heart. i wiped away dozens of tears. (and i kept those few things that belong in the family treasure heap: a dough cutter (highly likely unused), a trio of age-worn red plates (the ones i ate off dozens of times), the red-plaid apron i long ago sewed for her birthday, and now frayed at the ties.)
but then, stripped of my long-held tossing hesitancies, emboldened to not bequeath such a task to my own two boys, i came home and applied my newfound thick-as-reptilian toughness to the orifices i call my own. all week i’ve been standing akimbo in closets and tucked-away corners, dispatching and discarding with gusto. whole bags have been filled as i’ve scoffed at the millions of times i’ve stashed some odd something away, long deluding myself that some day i might find reason to put into action whatever was the odd esoterica. i now know that someday never comes.
and my new best allies are the fine fellows at goodwill industries, who handily roll out the big blue bins every time they see my red wagon pulling into the lot.
it’s hard work for the heart. and i don’t mean the muscle that’s doing the pumping. i mean the ineffable filaments of said organ that cling too mightily to the objects of everyday living. the invisible cords that — in some of us anyway — tug too hard in the attachment department.
to excavate the closets and cupboards of a life long lived is to sweep across the narrative told in dusty old things. in the story told from the long life i hope is mine, i want the people i leave behind to lift up each object and know it sparked me pure joy.
but more than that, far more than that, in the now, i want my life to not be buried under the crumpled weight of stuff that niggles at me, taunts, “why on earth are you holding onto me?” why not let go, and be freed from the crushingness of closets that threaten to topple, drawers stashed with missing and misplaced parts, and the generalized sense that i live in a house that might split at the seams?
i want only the things that conjure a someone or sometime or someplace i loved. i want to live lean and clean and not take up more than my share of the room. i want a house without the ghosts of fibber mcgee. i want a lightness of being.
mostly, i guess, i want to pare it all back to the essence, the true essence of joy — unencumbered.
turns out, marie kondo was right after all.
how do you rate in the declutter department? are you a stasher or trasher? if you told your life story in objects, what might be the most treasured pages?
What a wonderful way to honor your mother-in-law’s life…to lovingly go through “her life in objects” (even though much of it must be donated or disposed of.) Oh, the stories and memories!
“Spark joy” doesn’t do it for me. “Has it served its purpose?” “It’s only paper” and “Organize for the space, not the stuff” (only keep the amount of stuff that fits the space) work better to help my decisions. Another book on this topic – “The Gentle Art of all Swedish Death Cleaning” – so you don’t leave all of your life paraphernalia for your kids to deal with. A thoughtful approach.
oh my! that swedish name for it is quite something. made me swallow hard. i like “has it served its purpose?” and i admit that some things never had one in the first place. other than overstuffing my shelves……
My heart goes out to you, bammy. Those moments are so hard, and yet so precious. And that house! So much character.
The pandemic provided a time for me to go through the storage room and chuck out all kinds of stuff. I am a thrower-awayer, for sure. Sometimes I regret; mostly I don’t. Definitely not a “stuff” person. Would rather collect memories.
One of my most precious treasures, tho, are my friend Ted’s Air Force insignia pins – Lieutenant and Captain, from his AF career. He gave them to me walking down a Washington, DC street December, 2006, when his retirement from the Air Force coincided with our boss “retiring” from the Dept of Defense. This August Ted and I met again in Washington, this time for our boss’s funeral. Ted’s and my 25th friend-a-versary was that same month, and it was the boss who brought Ted and me together … so, in staying with our “pin” theme, I gave him a buffalo pin the boss had given me in 1993 for Christmas. It seemed appropriate to pass it along to someone else who loved him, rather than keep it and have it go who-knows-where at my demise.
I’m blathering. Know my heart was and is with you as we navigate these new griefs. It’s rather gobsmacking, in so many ways. Sending love.
you never blather. and i love your percolations, love imagining a friend so precious to you that you shared a precious trinket. i’ve been in your house and it does have an air of lightness, of light, specifically. it’s a place unencumbered, a place where you can take a deep breath and know your lungs are filling with pure oxygen.
your friend ted is quarter-century blessed. xoxoxo
This tender work you’re doing strikes oh-so-close to home, too close to home. When words fall short, heartbeats must suffice. You are here in my beating heart. Sending love~ ❤
❤ ❤ ❤
heartbeats are everything. always.
Been there, done that way too many times, BAM. I completely understand what you are going thru…except for that last part about your own house. After you’re done cleaning yours with your new found attitude, come and do mine!! Son #1 made us go thru the books last summer but I still kept the children’s library. I started Kondo’s book, looked at my closets and gave the unread missive right back to the public library for it to inspire another soul.
ha!!!! that’s pretty much what i did with my copy back when i had it on tribune time. i don’t think i will ever be able to let go of that children’s library. they’re going to have to go through every single volume, and remember the hours we sat turning those pages. all this clearing for a sentimental soul like moi is just toooooooooooooooo much! i already feel my superpowers waning…….ephemeral they might be….hoping to find a way to keep em going for a few more rooms. soon as BK gets home to make sure i don’t fall off the ladder, i’m taking to the attic. that’ll be a picnic.
sending giant hug to the best thing in DC right now–YOU! xoxox
Sitting at your table today reminds me of cleaning out my own mother’s house as well as my mother-in-law’s. Both were teachers for me in ways I did not realize at the time. But those lessons were helpful when Steve and I downsized five years ago.
I was ruthless, thinking of how other families could be using my stuff. And only one of the items I donated to Goodwill did I have to go back and purchase from them the first time we had company 🙂 The check out guy said to
me: “Lady you have no idea how many people come back and need to purchase what they have donated!” 🙂
I continue to love the energy of fewer things and more space! And our daughters are grateful they will not have to deal with so much stuff in the future!
ohhhhhh, i love the story about the goodwill buy-back! i admit to wondering as i pulled out of the lot if there was anything i might regret or mistakenly have tossed in. you give me hope — and amazement — that it’s possible to find such treasures after the fact.
your word “ruthless” is a necessary one. and one i should repeat like a mantra….ruthless, ruthless, ruthless.
and, finally, you nailed it with your expression of the energy of fewer things and cleaner, clearer space……we are such intriguing creatures of acquisition….
And I just ‘rescued’ a hand crocheted white lace tablecloth from a neighbor’s garbage heap….guess Marie Kondo wouldn’t approve???
ha! and the other side of the equation here is that BK just got home with a car filled with boxes, so all the room i’d made might soon be filled again. but with treasures from earlier generations. and to meet that’s as rich as it gets.
bless the rescuers!!!! XOXO
I’m with you 100% on getting rid of household items that are never used and/or have been saved strictly on an emotional basis. I know that my kids will appreciate it one day. I do feel lighter, less encumbered. And I pretty much know where everything is now! I recently purchased something that you might find as useful as the books by Marie Kondo. It’s called “Putting Things in Order: To help my loved ones when I’m gone”. It’s a workbook, really. It covers what you want your family to know about your wishes, finances, belongings, etc. when you’re gone and has pockets for important documents. I found it on Amazon. I’m going to use this as a guide with my parents if they’re willing. If not, I’ll get started on it for myself. Glad that you made it back from the Jersey Shore safe and sound, Barbie! After all the work you’ve done this week, it’s time to put your feet up and relax as you celebrate your lightness.
you are so sweet. and i kept thinking of you as i was “cleaning,” because you’d written in a comment that you came home from a similar adventure at your mother-in-law’s and were prompted to clear the decks at your house. some of it isn’t so hard, and definitely feels lightening, but boy some of it really tugs at the heart. it’s like taking off a bandaid. OUCH! it’s amazing that it’s so hard for me, because my own mother has been the Queen of Minimalism for years and years, and has the barest of bones left in her house……(in fact, after she read this post she was totally bewildered and wondered if maybe i’d never thrown out a thing in my life…..)
Ha!! Your mom is amazing. And so are you. Pat yourself on the back for ripping off those nasty bandaids!
Eavan Boland, a brilliant irish poet, is one of my favorites, and i just happened to find this poem in my in-box. it’s related, in a way, to our conversation here about things……not directly related, but it might spur some thinking so i leave it here….it’s a gut-wrencher….
The Necessity for Irony
by Eavan Boland
when the rain held off,
after lunch or later,
I would go with my twelve year old
daughter into town,
and put down the time
at junk sales, antique fairs.
There I would
lean over tables,
lace, wooden frames,
glass. My daughter stood
at the other end of the room,
her flame-coloured hair
which was not often—
I turned around.
I turned around.
She was gone.
Grown. No longer ready
to come with me, whenever
a dry Sunday
held out its promises
of small histories. Endings.
When I was young
I studied styles: their use
and origin. Which age
was known for which
ornament: and was always drawn
to a lyric speech, a civil tone.
But never thought
I would have the need,
as I do now, for a darker one:
Spirit of irony,
my caustic author
of the past, of memory,—
and of its pain, which returns
hurts, stings—reproach me now,
that I was in those rooms,
with my child,
with my back turned to her,
for beautiful things.
Eavan Boland, “The Necessity of Irony” from The Lost Land. Copyright © 1999 W.W. Norton.
After reading Marie Kondo’s book, I filled 3 trash bags that I then carried around in the back of my trunk for several months. Only a FEW times did I need to go out to the car, untwist the ties and retrieve a few items. Apparently, I am unclear on the concept of sparking joy 🙂
Just today, I bought a vintage version of my mother’s Spritz cookie press so I can make them with my grandson this Christmas. Somehow, my mother’s was lost or sold, but the memory was still sparking joy in my head.
oh, polly, polly, i sighed in communion with you: “apparently, i am unclear on the concept of sparking joy,” with the untwisting of the twist ties, and the re-retrieving. not once this week have i driven away from the donation centers and not winced and wondered if oh-my-gosh, did i make a mistake. one of my insurance policies is ferreting out the REALLY good stuff and giving it to people i really love. then the sting of letting go is swapped out with real true sparks of joy. (and when i see them wearing such thing, the joy will be tripled.) hug to new mexico, my beautiful wise friend. have fun with those cookies. which reminds me, maybe i should start saving for a little someday grand baby child…..xoxox