Posts Tagged ‘getting rid of stuff’

Tidying

I just read a provocative best-selling book, called “the life-changing magic of tidying up” by marie kondo (lower case hers), which is especially appropriate now that I’m doing a thorough emptying of my household.

First, the bad:  Ms. Kondo has a serious, and I mean serious, case of OCD.  From the time she was a small girl, she has thought of little else besides organizing, neatness, tidying, and discarding to a ruthless degree.  She believes nothing should be stacked lest it be crushed, rumpled or forgotten, and she even lines up her carrots vertically in the beverage holder of her refrigerator door.  Fortunately for her, she has turned her illness and need for control  – – er, I mean thoroughness  – – into a multi-million dollar business via her books, seminars, and private consultations around the world.

The good news is that while there is plenty in the book to make you gag, there is also much merit and profound truth in her concepts.

Why do we have so much stuff?  Because we don’t accurately grasp how much we own.  When we acquire something we want, it gives us a spark of joy.  The problem is, that spark is easily extinguished once we acquire it and use it.  When you are about to acquire something, or are sorting through things you already own,

decide not only if you will keep it, but where you’re going to put it.  If you cannot resolve the latter, then you cannot do the former!

And when the item no longer “sparks joy” (a phrase repeated throughout the book ad nauseum), it is time to let it go. We can’t really find joy in keeping our house clean when we make it so impossibly difficult to keep it that way.

How do we deal with clutter, the flotsam and jetsam in our lives?  We find ingenious ways to store it so we don’t see it.  Alas, that doesn’t make the amount of clutter go away, it simply hides it.

Putting things away doesn’t get rid of clutter.

Organizing clutter is an oxymoron.  We need to deal with the excess, not push it aside.  (Kind of like life.)

Choosing what to toss can be painful.  It’s sometimes easier to give it to a friend or loved one.

If you want to give something away, don’t push people to take it unconditionally or pressure them by making them feel guilty.

Oh!  I am so guilty of this.  When my mother died,  she left so many beautiful antiques and tschotchkes.  I knew I couldn’t keep them for lack of space, but I also felt guilty getting rid of them because her things  were so important to her and she was so emotionally invested in them.  So I implored my children to take them, as if that would relieve me of the guilt and responsibility in discarding them.  (A few things they actually wanted.  I’m talking about the stuff they didn’t want.)  And just recently I begged my son to take an antique bookcase, sentimental to me because it was the first piece of furniture my husband and I bought as newlyweds and it just seemed to represent the foundation of our marriage and the family we built.  He didn’t take it, but probably felt guilty about saying no because he knows how much that bookcase means to me.  (Look for it on craigslist!)

Oh, and here’s an important side note:

It’s extremely stressful for parents to see what children discard.

Yep.  It’s true.  A few years ago I gave my daughter a family heirloom, a huge, gorgeous handmade dining table that hosted all my childhood family and holiday celebrations.  But it was too big and impractical so after a few years, she wanted to return it.  I had no room now that I was living in smaller quarters.  So she gave it away.  I confess – – it killed me! (I’m over it now.)

Ideally, when we sort through our things, we should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to give away. That puts a whole new perspective on it, I think.

By keeping only things that inspire joy, you can identify precisely what you love and need.

But here is the thing.  By looking through our memorabilia and deciding what stays and what goes, by physically handling and touching each thing, we are recognizing and confronting, and processing our past.  We can be thankful for the joy each item gave us, and the memories it sparked.  But in most cases, the sense of joy was at that original moment.  We live in the present; we cannot live in the past.  Time moves forward, never backwards.  So must we.

Another bonus part of this process:  it trains us in decision-making.  When we are forced to make a decision, it doesn’t come easy.  But it does get easier with practice.  And when we are finally able to make decisions without a huge amount of angst, we develop self-confidence.  We know who we are; what we want; what we need.

It’s funny about getting older, but buying and collecting stuff, rather than being a source of pleasure, becomes a burden, because we realize just how enslaved we are by our possessions.  I feel a bit wistful getting rid of stuff, but at the same time, it’s incredibly freeing.

And I’m not getting rid of everything.  Some things really do continue to “spark joy”  and those things remain dear. Those possessions I will keep – – for now.  And if I keep them until I die, my children have my permission to toss them without remorse, because the objects I identify with are unique to me and cannot be forced on another.  But I will try to keep the burden of cleaning up after someone else (me!) to a minimum, for their sake!

 

 

 

 

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Today I Did Something Bad

I just came back from our local transfer station, otherwise known as the dump.  Since we don’t have trash pick-up in our town, each resident is responsible for hauling any created trash and recyclable disposables to the transfer station.  But when I threw a certain piece of paper, covered by a cardboard protective sleeve, into the dumpster, I immediately felt sick.

I threw away my father’s diploma.

My father would’ve been over 100 years old today.  He died in the early ’70s when I was 14.  Once it came into my possession, his diploma never hung on my wall and remained unseen, preserved in a cardboard carton for more than 40 years. I figured it wasn’t doing anyone any good, and my kids wouldn’t want it, so I threw it away. I didn’t even take a picture of it.

I immediately regretted it.

My father came to the United States in 1913 as a toddler.  Scared, poor, and sick of pograms, his father preceded him, spending years earning enough money to send for his wife and 3 small boys (2 girls would be born later).  They settled in Rock Island, Illinois, where my grandmother turned their home into a boarding house to help with expenses.  Even before the Depression, my father often went hungry; the ongoing malnutrition was the likely culprit behind his small stature.

His parents realized the only way out was through education.  Anything less than an “A” was unacceptable.  Each child was expected not only to study hard, but to spend several hours a day after school and on the weekends working to help make ends meet.  Mostly they worked on farms picking crops.

My father excelled.  He sailed through high school while participating in the debate club and running a Jewish youth group.  When it was time to apply for college, he had dreams of attending the University of Chicago, but had to turn down his acceptance (in itself a rarity due to Jewish quotas) because the tuition was well beyond his dream.  He instead attended a public university, Illinois University, but even then the cost of tuition required him to work his way through school.  He became a waiter for the dormitory, a job considered fit only for a low-life.  He was popular, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the captain of the university debate team, but the minute any girl he was dating found out he worked as a waiter, he was dropped like a hot potato.  Back then, people were very class conscious.  And while intellectually and through his social graces my father could keep up with the elites, his poverty remained a barrier to acceptance.

My father invited his brother Ben for a long weekend, in which IU would be playing college football against a fierce rival.  When my father took Ben to the stadium, Ben couldn’t wait to find his seat.  “Hold on there, we’re not sitting,” my father said, and handed Ben a stack of programs.  “We’ve got to sell these first.”  They made $25 each that day, a small fortune.  And just as Ben sat down, my father excused himself.  “It’s supper time at the dorm.  I’ve got to work.” He came back near the end of the game, and brought Ben the cold dorm leftovers for dinner.  It was then that my father confessed to Ben that school expenses, even with work, didn’t allow him enough for food.  When leftovers were few, he was often forced to eat the half-eaten food remaining on college students’ plates that he cleared and brought to the kitchen.  He tried not to think about it, just feeling grateful that his hunger was sated.

Not only did he make it through school, he graduated with honors, put himself through law school, and got his J.D.  He passed the bar in 2 states (yes, I threw those papers away too) as well as the US Supreme Court bar.

I looked at his diploma for a long time.  I knew I wouldn’t hang it on the wall, and it would just go back into the box and collect dust and not be of any use to anyone.  Well, I thought, I can’t get too sentimental about every item, or I’ll end up with a mountain of boxes that will mean nothing to my kids, and then when I die they’ll just throw it out anyhow. And so I put it in the paper recycling bin at the transfer station.  And when I heard the “clunk” as it hit the side of the bin, I begged my father’s forgiveness.

His legacy lives on in other, more tangible ways.  It’s just a piece of paper, after all.

So why do I feel such remorse?

 

Decluttering: Ah, The Memories

In America, we collect stuff.  I don’t know how it happens, but soon we realize our houses are overflowing with things we had to have but do not need.  I have yet to meet an American rich or poor who does not suffer this sickness.  We live in a tremendously materialistic culture, and are constantly bombarded with advertisements telling us how much we need the latest, greatest, newest, or best.  When we can’t afford it, we use credit cards, because we can’t live without it, whatever “it” might be.  Or it was on sale or on clearance and how can we resist such a great deal?  Even if we don’t need it we might need it in the future.  So we buy, buy, buy. Partly it’s because even the simplest American homes are bigger than most houses in other parts of the world and we have storage space.  And of course, there are plenty of McMansions that can really hold a lot of crap.   I know people in Europe and Israel who don’t have collection fetishes as Americans do, but that’s because their physical environment is so much smaller.  There is simply no room to put anything anywhere, so they desist.  Heck, most homes in Europe and Israel don’t even come with closets!

One thing I love about March and April, even though I kvetch about it, is Pesach cleaning.  This goes way beyond the gentiles’ Spring Cleaning.  We Jews are supposed to turn our homes upside down looking for leavened foods, called chametz , which are forbidden to be eaten or owned by Jews during the week of Passover.  Pesach cleaning and preparations take two weeks to a month.  But in the process, our homes get really clean and downright immaculate.  And best of all, we throw out mountains of stuff that have nothing to do with actual chametz, but are superfluous to our lives.  To be honest, the act of getting rid of stuff and cleaning is an exhausting pain, and we do it strictly out of religious obligation.  But when it’s complete, it’s not only a relief; it’s a release; a cleansing of the soul; redemption.  It forces us to take stock of what’s really important in our lives, and the answer, of course, is not “stuff.”  It is, indeed, a religious experience.

One of the hardest tasks facing a person once their elderly parent dies is getting rid of that parent’s “stuff.”  The thing is, it wasn’t just “stuff” to the deceased.  If they kept it, it was usually because the item had real meaning, whether it was a souvenir that reminded them of a trip once taken, some tschotchke that was part of a hobby collection, assorted memorabilia or photographs of family and friends from younger days.  In other words, a life of memories.

I hate to sound harsh, but . . . well, for the most part, one person’s treasure is another’s trash.  My parents’ memories are usually not my memories.  Going through their clutter helps me better understand who they were and what was important to them, but ultimately . . . it’s still clutter.  And even though I wish I could incorporate their nostalgia into my own oeuvre, and even though I feel guilty as heck getting rid of stuff that I know was an important part of my parents’ lives, in my own house it’s a huge space-taker and dust magnet.  But oh, the guilt!  The sacrilege!

My mom was a life-long collector with fabulous taste.  Even objectively, I can see that most of her stuff is nice.  But: I. Do. Not. Want. It.

It pains me to know that my mother would have been unhappy about my getting rid of her stuff.  Usually there is little I want.  I ask family members if they want it.  Other than a few tokens, the answer is most often “no.”  So I post her things on craigslist, and offer other things to auction houses, consignment stores, and donate things to thrift shops.  I have yard sales, garage sales, and estate sales.  Occasionally people buy stuff that they are really delighted with and then I feel good; because my mother would have loved that her things brought someone else joy and that these strangers appreciate – – really appreciate – –  the same things that she did.  Other times priggish antique and junk dealers swoop in like vultures, offering me pennies on the dollar for things that cost my mom a small fortune.  Usually I say no, because I know how upset my mom would have been by their cold, calculated greed, and that they were buying to make a profit and not because they loved whatever it was that she so cherished.  And so, much of her stuff still sits in my house, collecting dust in cardboard boxes.

For better or worse I may be stuck with my mom’s stuff but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I don’t want to do this to my kids.  So for the past 4 years, I’ve slowly been getting rid of my own things big and small.   Furniture.  Accent pieces.  Extra cookware and serving pieces.  Things that I no longer use regularly.  Things I needed in my twenties that I don’t need in my fifties.   I always ask my kids if they want it before I get rid of it, and usually the answer is no.  And I try to divest myself of things the same way I tried with my mother’s things:  yard sales, craigslist, consignment stores, thrift stores.  The difference is that it’s my stuff and no one else’s, so it’s easy to give myself permission to let it go.

Fortunately I am not a tschotchke collector (not because I don’t like tschotchkes, but because I am a terrible housekeeper and I couldn’t bear the thought of dusting every few days).  But I have tens of thousands of papers and books and photos that sit in boxes that will eventually suffer either from mildew or dry rot.  I admit it:  like my mother with her stuff, I cannot bear to throw these things away.

The good news is that unlike my mother’s objets d’art, technology has provided me a solution to my media hoarding:  scanning and digitizing.  All those articles I wrote or were written by others I admire that, let’s face it, will probably never be read again, can now be scanned.  (Maybe, just maybe, my kids or grandkids will be interested in my writings and journals and photographs some day?)

I have been slowly going through my bookshelves and re-reading everything.  Not every story brings me the joy I thought I remembered.  So slowly I am dissolving my library; I donate my books to our little rural library here in Maine.  What they can’t use they sell as overstock and that also provides paltry but necessary funds for the library’s use.

But the worst clutter offender:  my photographs.  So far my husband has scanned over 20,000 (!) photos which — and this is almost physically painful for me – – I have then dumped into the trash.  Thanks to an Adobe software program called Lightroom, when he scans the photos, he “tags” them with keywords so anyone with access to our digital library will be able to quickly and painlessly retrieve specific photos based on names, places, family members, events, or approximate dates.  No more going through albums and boxes.  I think there are approximately 35,000 photos total.  But that doesn’t include thousands of slides and film negatives.

Recently I bought a slide and film converter at Costco.  You simply place a negative film strip or slide transparency inside the converter, and in 3 seconds it digitizes the image and stores it on your computer  (essential:  backing up one’s separate hard drive!).  There are professional, expensive converters/scanners out there that do a fabulous job; this one is not that.  The resolution is not terrific and the color renditions and clarity are somewhat off.  But I realized the chance of me or my children (I asked them first) wishing to enlarge a digitized image from their 5th birthday party that happened 30 years ago into a quality 8×10 print copy was indeed remote. Even if I could make prints of all the slides and negatives, it would take an entire room just to contain the albums that would hold them.  It’s nice to view the images and relive the past – – for a few minutes.  Neatly archived, the only space my life’s memories take up can fit on a disk drive . . . or is that just plain, sad commentary?

And then, it’s time to move on.

 

 

 

 

Nature or Nurture?

The last two weeks in my home town I’ve been cleaning out my house.

Discarding tangible “stuff” that is a microcosm (or is that macrocosm?) of who you are and from whence you came is completely emotionally exhausting, thrilling, and terrifying.   I have dozens of boxes full of tens of thousands of loose photo prints, photo albums, negatives, and slides of family members, from sorrowful sepia portraits of impoverished great-grandparents left behind in tsarist Russia, to oodles of shots of my grandchildren participating in all varieties of childhood activities.  I have a hundred magazines and newspapers and journals containing articles I wrote over the past three decades about every topic imaginable, from Jewish culture to pop culture; health issues and political interviews;  travel; camping;  extreme sports; and weird museums.  All of these my husband is dutifully scanning and documenting.

I’m just now getting to stored boxes from my deceased parents, which  include amazing revelations about them both (it turns out that my mother, who throughout her life complained about how stupid and inadequate she felt, was a National Merit Scholar, junior high school valedictorian, and captain of her debate team (who knew!?); my father was friends with actress Mitzi Gaynor and served as her legal counsel, and was qualified to argue cases in the US Supreme Court; he survived unscathed through hundreds of beach landings in the South Pacific during WWII as a Lt. Cmdr of a fleet of LCIs, as well as a kamikaze attack, only to be hit by a streetcar in San Francisco during his discharge from the Armed Forces and was confined for months to a wheelchair in a veterans’  hospital there).

I was my father’s only child and there is nothing of mine he did not save.  Hence I have every bit of correspondence we exchanged (he was a workaholic and rarely home when I was awake, so we used to exchange notes (example, age 4:  “Dad, I am so angry at you I don’t even want to give you a kiss!”; at age 9, I wrote an “Amicus Curiae” brief in third person arguing in legalese why I deserved a raise in allowance).  In my visits to his office I was given free rein to record my thoughts on a Dictaphone (a needle scratched into a piece of cylindrical celluloid, to be played back at a later date on a special machine); one such celluloid recording is labeled “my daughter’s  thoughts on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy” — I was 6 1/2 years old at the time.  My parents also saved every single report card from nursery school through high school (I confess I was not a stellar student and rarely worked to my potential, according to my teachers’ comments).

There are two things I find most fascinating:  the observational essays I wrote as a pre-teen and teenager are still entirely relevant today (why I loved my parents; an analysis of their marriage (I was a precocious little brat!); what life was like in Israel before the 1973 Yom Kippur War; why Judaism was important to me; and, perhaps even more unsettling, the realization that for better or worse, the person I was at the young age of 4 years and 2 months, based on my preschool evaluation, is basically the same person that I am today.

According to that report card, I was “physically agile and active; good in both small and large muscle control;” I ate “well” and “willingly and enthusiastically participated in all activities, especially music and stories and craft work.”   As part of a group, I “got acquainted with others with self-assurance, enjoyed one ‘special friend’ but could include others if necessary”; usually preferred to lead, and reacted to other children in a “friendly but sometimes indifferent manner.”  Under “temperament” I was “sociable and flexible, sometimes critical; but popular with the children.”   According to my father, in a series of letters he wrote his parents when I was ages 2 – 10,  I left my socks and shoes discarded all over the house.  I had many interests but lacked the staying power and self-discipline to develop expertise or finesse.  I was highly opinionated.  Whether it was a game of Candyland or a school debate, I hated losing so much that rather than possibly win at something, I avoided all forms of competition in any subject.

Fifty-two years later, I am still all of the above!

Every person is given talents and weaknesses, good traits and bad; we were designed to be dependent on others’ talents where we are lacking so we can learn and practice give-and-take, cooperation, humility, gratitude and love.  But what if we have a natural propensity for a certain character weakness – – for example, anger, or inappropriate compulsive or immoral behavior?  Are we forever doomed, or is it possible to change negative character traits and flaws that are inherent and seemingly genetically programmed within us?

According to Jewish philosophy, using the Torah as a moral compass, it is our life’s task to overcome character flaws and to constantly strive to better ourselves.  It is no coincidence that much of the Bible reads like a soap opera; not one of the people mentioned in the Bible is free of sin or the temptation of sin; indeed their “saintliness” is more a result of the toil required in changing  and overcoming their “natural” negative traits into genuinely positive ones; growing and developing via a string of disappointments, trials, tribulations and joys, into the leaders they eventually become.  We vicariously experience their successes; equally we mourn their failures; but they are “real” so that we, too, can empathize and emulate  them and at the same time realize that positive change is not out of our reach nor impossible, no matter how formidable.

Living in Maine I have consciously and conscientiously  made several positive personal changes within myself, yet reading that nursery school report card was certainly humbling.  I still  have so far to go – – so many things to work on and improve about myself and in my interaction with others.  I realized this:  I guess, ideally, we’re never “done” and perhaps precisely this  – –  more than any other reason – –  should be our motivation for wanting to live a long life.

As I read my parents’ words and reflect on the legacies contained in the myriad of cardboard boxes, I hope that my own “stuff” will be a sort of legacy for my own children, both the good and even the baggage, from which they will grow and develop and soar.

P.S.  Still working on picking up my socks!