I was stuck on I-5 on my way to Seattle Saturday. For a long time. Thank goodness for recorded books. I was listening to The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo; you know, that Japanese art of decluttering that’s all the rage. Or maybe that was last year. I put a library hold on it, knowing it was laughable. The first step is purging, and I live in 3400 square feet filled almost entirely of someone else’s stuff. Someone who has zero interest in my fervent wish to “simplify.” The author is definitely OCD, but it was an interesting listen.
I have moved twelve times since 1975, before that I lived in a dorm room. If it’s true what they say, that every move is like suffering a fire, you can appreciate that I don’t have much stuff. My mother hasn’t moved in 55 years. My father lived here for 35. I’m not sure they ever threw anything away. They certainly never did a fire-equivalent purging. My sister’s stuff that doesn’t fit in her apartment is here, too. And the stuff my mom saved because her daughters might want it someday—some of it stored with our handwritten notes saying we don’t want it, which she translated to “may not want.” If they want it, give it to them now.
He saved because it might be useful someday—or not. She saved nostalgia. Really, though, how valuable is Santa’s crushed sleigh made c. 1965 out of an egg carton section with pipe cleaner traces. Thank it for the joy of making it and for its moment of decorative service and put it in the trash bag.
I remember the battered tin button box bringing me joy. But since my sister organized them by color into neatly labeled 1962 church offering envelopes, it no longer does. When was the last time anyone used one of the extra buttons that comes with a shirt, anyway? I will discard the boring buttons and fill it with my interesting collection—including the antique ones I found in a footlocker—for my grandchildren to love as I once did. The box itself still brings joy.
Kondo is clear that you can’t discard other people’s stuff; but I do still have excess stuff of my own, particularly all things paper: filed things and photographs; and I am not going to reread the yoga, gardening, and writing magazines. If you didn’t internalize and put into practice the learning when you read it, you aren’t going to. She doesn’t say anything about unneeded digital effluvia, but my computer keeps telling me I have too much of that, too.
What she instructs for deciding what to keep and what to discard, is to hold each item in your hands—the holding is important—and ask yourself if it gives you joy. If not, thank it for its service and discard it. And, she says, choose what to keep, not what to discard.
And what about a job that doesn’t bring you joy? A lifestyle? Food? Activities? (No, you can’t get rid of family members. Or stop cooking the food your nonagenarian mother will eat, even if choking it down yourself makes you a food hater.) And what are you not doing that would bring you joy? The theory is that if you put your literal house in order, your figurative house will follow. You will make room for happiness in your living if you aren’t surrounded by stuff that doesn’t spark joy. It makes sense to me.
I know my mother as largely a depressed person, happiest outdoors—where she has no problem discarding weeds. Sometimes the weight of all the stuff is like a mac truck parked on my shoulders. Does she feel trapped and heavy inside the house, even though she can no longer see the excess? Has the stuff she can’t get rid of robbed her of space for what would bring joy? It is well documented that she has, all of her life, settled for purchases, rather than getting what she wanted; and then kept it all. A recipe for unhappiness.
Kondo theorizes that the reason we keep stuff is either an attachment to the past or a fear of the future. My mother crisscrossed the country in her early adulthood presumably with only what could be packed in a footlocker. As a child of the depression, she keeps the table scraps from her dinner—fear of the future? Her children were her life’s work. Keeping our art work, the letters we wrote, our piano music with stars in the corner—desperately clinging to the past. Her solution for too much stuff: build more storage shelves, appropriate another closet, collect more boxes.
Every now and then she goes on a cleansing rampage, but very little gets thrown away. She hasn’t worn dresses since the last millennium—but she “might want to.” And then she buys more stuff. Before Christmas she bought a cheap florist’s vase at Goodwill, just like one in the laundry room cabinet. It was for part of a gift she never gave.
I think her recent urges to purge are an attempt to put her house in order before she dies, but she is incapable. She won’t let me to do it for her, and I haven’t the patience to move things from one place to another with her. She has no future. And she doesn’t have much of a present. So she clings to the past. I’m trying to understand. Trying. I think I was adopted.
Meanwhile, realizing that I can get my own house in order, I am taking steps. It’s about self-care. With so much that I have no control over—my mother’s stuff, my mother’s neediness, her decline and impending death—getting my inner house in order is essential care of the soul.
Someday my sisters and I will hold each of my mother’s keepsakes, thank them, and let most of them go. Those that give us joy will be taken out of boxes and footlockers and put on display or into use.
My children will find only the treasures when I am gone, which they might not consider as such. And that will be their decision. But I will save them, I hope, from this weight.