White Elephants Bearing Emotional Baggage

Yesterday I wrote the words, “Decluttering is all tied up with relationships and often those relationships are with folks we’ll never see again.” Sometimes it is hard to understand that permanence.

I used to chair the Music division of an after-school program. The program’s divisions were Music, Art, Piano Lab, Suzuki, Orff, and Dance and the chairs of these divisions formed the faculty arm of the program’s directive circle. Deep political, pedagogical and artistic alliances formed and one of my closest friendships developed with the guy who ran the Piano Lab.

He was a music composer and over the years I worked hard to bring some of his work to the performance stage.

My friend also taught piano lessons out of a studio in his home and he was particularly popular with ladies of uncertain age who brought their children, or sometimes themselves, for music lessons.

One of these ladies grew concerned about the state of his waiting room and set to work to craft a lovely slipcover for the most worn out sofa.  My friend was completely incapable of refusing the rather astonishing gift and more than a bit disturbed by the notion that just maybe her interests lay beyond their music lessons.

Then my friend announced that he was soon to pull up stakes and head off in non-musical directions in a distant state and I found my own self much more devastated than one expects to be at the severing of a merely professional liaison!

As he was dispersing his local effects, he gave me that slipcovered sofa which I accepted knowing full well that I nurtured a faint hope that our bond might have some sustaining elements.

A few years later it was my own turn to pull up stakes.  And although I hired a truck for the first time, I already knew that one should not pack it without some thought for what is to come at the far end of a move. So, fully aware that I was acting upon the death of that old faint hope, I loaded that slipcovered sofa into the back of the truck last and in the early morning light paused briefly to drop it off at Goodwill.

Thirty years later, and after much more experience of the deep emotional tides of decluttering, I realized that along with that sofa, my long ago friend had entrusted to me for safe-keeping his guilt and confusion about his relationship with that student and perhaps, if vanity may be allowed, with me!

So in the faint light of that long-ago dawn I had relinquished custody of a whole lot more than a sofa.

Sometimes, we just need to let things go.

(The featured image, here, obviously can’t be of that particular slipcovered sofa.)


Puppies, a Monkey, and Bears…

Decluttering is all tied up with relationships and often those relationships are with folks we’ll never see again.

My little brother died as a young man about twenty years ago. It was plain awful for all of us, and differently awful for each of us.

But we collected ourselves, came in from our far-flung venues to meet at the family outpost then crossed the river to take our first licks at emptying his apartment. His extended family-of-choice had agreed to come finish the job after we’d taken what we wanted.

My older brother and parents seemed to have their objectives clear: treasures to find or self-assigned tasks to complete. I wandered about the two rooms keeping out of folks’ way and looking at the things my little brother had chosen to keep in his life. There were gifts I’d sent him over the years. I was glad he’d kept them and used them

And I found his old friends from childhood and their newer companions: an array of teddy bears, a couple of toy dogs and a monkey. I couldn’t abandon them! I loaded his collection into a 30-gallon bag and stashed it safely in the car. Although I had no idea what I would do with them, my brother’s companions came back across the river with us.

That evening the phone rang and after a moment Mother passed it to me. There was a tearful voice asking whether in our searches we’d found a toy monkey; she hadn’t been able to find it when she’d gone over with the others. I remembered that unusual toy. I assured her that I had the monkey safe with me.

It turned out that a few years earlier she and my brother both had been strapped for cash. So, for Christmas they’d agreed to exchange precious childhood toys. My brother had given her a book and she had given him her monkey companion. Was there any way, she asked, she could get her monkey back?

The next day I took the train to her place bearing a duffle bag – slightly unzipped, so they all could breathe, of course — full of my brother’s toy friends. There I met three of the most awesome people, friends of my brother’s, one of whom had been in high school with him.

The monkey was home. And, for hours they shared the stories of how my brother had acquired all the newer bears, while I answered with the stories about his childhood friends.

When our tales were all told, those excellent people decided upon appropriate homes for every one of those toys. But I kept Puppable and Junebread, whose picture is featured.

Sometimes, we just need to keep things.

A Kitchen Tale: Decluttering, Cleaning, Tidying

I discovered that the newest milk was sour and that mice had gotten into…

The Teaching Tale:
Several decades ago I was an insignificant in-law of a family gathered around its octogenarian matriarch. The old lady was refusing to eat, drink, or get out of bed. Drama, to say the least, was in progress. For hours.

It occurred to me that folks were going to need dinner sooner or later, especially her nonagenarian husband who did not, as a rule set foot in the kitchen. Nor did he tolerate well either drama or missing his dinner. I repaired to the pantry to consider our options.

I discovered that the newest milk was sour and that mice had gotten into the baby cereal purchased during her toddler years for their now college-student granddaughter.  Things went on from there. I tied on an apron, located trash bags, sponges, a can of cleanser and went to work …

Later, as folks continued to scream into telephones and rush about to pharmacies, the old gentleman wandered into the kitchen. Surprised to find any useful industry in progress, he asked what I was doing. VERY deferentially, deeply concerned not to appear in any way dramatic or disruptive of his home. I explained about the outdated food and the scrubbing.

A slow smile crept across his face. “Can you stay another week?” he asked….

That turned out not to be the only neglected kitchen I tackled in my lifetime. And maybe except for the mice, it wasn’t the worst, either.

The Lesson:
Decluttering, to my way of thinking, is the practice of discerning between the things you’ll never use and the things you will, or could – then discarding the first pile. Decluttering is a joyful time full of the sense of industry, purpose and reclaiming of one’s spaces for good use.

I find refrigerators and food cupboards to be the easiest places to practice decluttering. From there I, myself, move on to decluttering beauty products and bathroom paraphernalia as much of that stuff has similarly limited shelf life. It is easy for me to throw out five-year-old vitamins, stale cosmetics or solidified shoe polish. After that, the decisions of what to discard and what to keep can get trickier.

Cleaning is the scrubbing up of mouse droppings, spills, tarnish, cobwebs and so forth. Thorough cleaning is much easier to do after decluttering, because often not only the space but also the salvageable items need to be cleaned. I prefer not to dust something I’m planning to trash!

Tidying, in my lexicon, involves neatly stowing away tools, groceries, projects-in-progress, clothes, back stock paper products and so forth in some readily accessible place. Keeping things tidy: erasing the chalkboard, realigning the student desks, logging off the computer, and collecting one’s keys at the end of a lecture, say; is especially important when sharing space. Otherwise, if nobody is likely to sit on my banjo, I’ll probably leave it lying around.

The old lady improved once her meds were regulated.  She lived quite happily several more years.  Meanwhile the “featured images” is of a quite successful Yorkshire pudding I made that has nothing to do with this story.  Although I did make it in another kitchen I’ve (mostly) decluttered.

American Decluttering vs. Japanese Tidying

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo’s book on the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing, caught my eye on a Barnes and Noble table during the days when I was shutting down my office and dismantling my townhouse to retire and relocate.

I read a lot of it while I stood there in the store, so here’s look at how this American Declutterer views the Japanese art of tidying by reviewing the six basic steps of Kondo’s program:

Commit yourself to tidying up
Fine.  As long as I am tidying things which are unquestionably my own, and space over which I have sole jurisdiction.  Otherwise the commitment must come from the whole family.

Imagine my ideal lifestyle: the kind of house I want and how I want to live in it
Okay….  Actually, we did benefit from considering first, how to use our spaces.

Finish discarding first
This is within the context of understanding that tidying is first and foremost about deciding what to keep, getting rid of everything else, and only then deciding how to store the things you decide to keep.  Clearly this requires finesse.  One of my favorite complaints about Kondo’s book is captured in a review on Amazon:

“My wife read this book and threw away a bunch of my stuff. I had to hide things in my truck to keep them off the chopping block. I no longer have a charger for my old iPod, she threw it away. I hate this book.”

Tidy by category, not by location
In other words, go through all your clothes, then all your books, then all your paperwork and so forth rather than tidying a single closet or drawer or room at a time.

Follow the right order of categories
Kondo is very prescriptive here.  But nowhere on her list is kitchen equipment, say; any tools pertaining to one’s vocation or hobbies; or even food, an essential consideration when one is clearing out a house in order to move!

It’s a good thing too, that as I was clearing out my office I remembered to transfer all the files from my office computer to a jump drive.  Kondo doesn’t include any discussion virtual tidying.

Ask yourself if it sparks joy
My great question as I shed personal belongings right and left was not, “Does this item spark joy?”
Rather it was (repeat after me), “Do I want to pay a moving company to haul this item across the Great Plains, a desert and two mountain ranges?”

I left Barnes and Noble without buying her book.  It hadn’t passed my test.


Saying Goodbye to my First Doll — Mother Got it Right

Snooky, my first and dearest doll, my companion from before I could remember, was made in the days before plastic evolved.  Her head was molded of hard rubber while her body and limbs were a thin rubber skin stuffed with cotton kapok.

By the time I was seven, my mother had bandaged, numerous worn places on her arms and body to contain the leaking stuffing. I understood that she had become fragile so by the time I started school I’d taken to leaving her in her doll bed most of the time.

Then one day the stuffing began to leak out where it couldn’t be patched, at the join of her soft body and her firmer head.

It was kind of that Santa Claus thing. My head had just begun to accept that Snooky was an inanimate toy. But my heart knew that she was my best and constant companion.

Mother and I had a gentle conversation during which I allowed that I understood that Snooky was beyond repair; I even understood that it was time for her to go. Mother offered me the option of participating in her disposal or of taking care of it herself while I was at school. She really let me choose.

My head and my heart conferred and agreed that she had to go but that it would be too awful to incinerate her myself. I asked mother to do it. And the next day I came home to find a brand new modern and very desirable Betsy-Wetsy wearing Snooky’s nightgown and resting there in Snooky’s bed.

I remember being sad, but also completely satisfied that mother’s and my contract had been honored. The new doll was one I had wanted. But although I played with it I never gave it a special name.

My mother got it right that time.

Releasing What Once Was Treasure

I think a lot about what turns stuff into treasure.

It seems rarely to be the thing itself that is valuable.

Rather it is the dreams we tie on to our stuff.

Through our stuff we hope to find fun, community, identity, position and power, self-reliance, and respect. We dream of using it to save the day for someone who will love us, solve the world’s problems, and make our own work easier. Through these beautiful dreams, value rubs into our things.

In our home in California, stored away in wardrobe boxes, stuffed into closets, crammed onto auxiliary racks, and packed into plastic bags were four decades worth of my husband’s first wife’s clothes. They spanned a continuum of sizes and some of the newest pieces still had their tags..

She was a tasteful dresser: a little formal with an eye for conservative professionalism appropriate to her vision of herself as a teacher. From the sizes and colors I immediately could tell she had been darker complected, and taller than I.

No woman can fail to understand how that collection had been amassed or the forces that led her to keep all of it. For one thing the initial investment had been substantial.

My husband kept it all intact partly because the sheer volume overwhelmed him. But more than that, he sensed the value the collection had held for his departed wife. He had an idea that his next wife, (and he knew he wanted to marry again), might benefit from, or even delight in this treasure trove.

Well. Here I was.

With one eye I saw an overwhelming jumble of another woman’s stuff. But through a more important eye I saw my husband’s openhearted desire to share with me a glittering horde.

He easily came to understand that I couldn’t use any of it. So together we released all of it to go and become a blessing to people who need it.

Space and Treasures

Last time I wrote about working with my husband to decide what to do with the spaces in our home. We have the luxury of enough space to suit our projects. Not all do…

Recently, a friend with pre-teen children told how she had cleared her living room to make way for a time-sensitive project. No sooner had she finished than her son gleefully dragged out his bin full of Legos. Within minutes this wealth of open workspace was filled with his projects-in-progress. You may imagine what ensued! (The Legos were impounded.)

When I was young, we kids received a gift craft set. It had wooden beads painted to be faces, bodies, arms and legs and instructions for assembling them into little figures using adroitly twisted pipe cleaners. I loved those little painted beads; in my imagination they became living characters and I couldn’t wait to bring them to life.

The detail was too picky for our child-sized fingers and although my father helped us finish making a few of the figures, my exuberant, bored, younger siblings soon littered the room with the colorful bits and pieces.

My mother, who could be impatient about gifts of children’s projects that required adult participation, regarded the mess and announced that if, on the morrow, she found ANY of this mess it would all be discarded.

She must have stepped on a bead because the next day I came home from school to find the set, even the finished figures, gone.

Although I knew that she’d warned us, I wailed so bitterly over the deaths of my inanimate friends that my mother softened. But it was too late. She did find one little figure she had missed in the sweep. For years that figure was a fixture on our Christmas trees.

But what took root in my heart was not the intended lesson of “Don’t Leave Your Stuff Lying Around Cluttering Up The Place.” Rather it reinforced my already skeptical views about sharing precious things. I learned to hide my treasures and became reluctant even to admit aloud that I had any.