The Weight of Stuff

shelves
I pull out a drawer and gasp. It brims with  electronics–cords and devices, chargers and controllers. It is so full that I don’t know how the last person to open it got it closed. Now I am committed: this drawer is going to have to be cleaned out.

Jim comes in as I am hefting it out of the dresser and lowering it to the floor.

“Yeah,” he says. “Dad and I just throw electronic stuff in there.”

I give him the Mom Look over the top of my glasses, and then I begin to sort.

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I find:

–pristine ear buds and a never-used charger for one of our current phones.
–a complete history of our smart phone lives in discarded boxes, some with bits and parts of add-ons we will never use again.
–cords for video game systems from the 1990’s.
–accessories for old computers and game systems and controllers and phones that we never used when we had the devices.
–a stack of owner’s manuals for things we no longer own.

In and among these dubious treasures is truly usable stuff–cords for our laptops, storage cases, a handful of batteries. One or the other other of us has probably rampaged through the house at some point, stomping and yelling, “Why can’t I ever find the thing I need when I need it?”

The answer is that we are buried in stuff. I am, finally, cleaning out the cupboards.

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We live in a lovely 1930’s house that was designed and inhabited by a smart couple, an engineer and his wife. They insured that there is plenty of built-in storage: capacious closets, bookshelves, cabinets with doors that close to hide what lurks behind. There is a linen closet and a pantry cupboard. There are hall closets in the front and in the back. There are nooks under the eaves in each of the bedrooms that provide space for big and bulky things. Our dry basement offers a hidden storage room and old kitchen cabinets.

It is, really, more usable storage space than we’ve had in any other home. To that, we add our own storage units–the repurposed cabinets we use for an entertainment center; the old dresser I repainted that anchors the living room, bedroom storage, and basement shelving.

There is stuff filling every single inch.

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When we moved in, on a weekend, rushing to get ready for the work week bearing down on us, we said this:

“Just put it anywhere it fits. We’ll go through the storage spaces, one by one, and we’ll sort it out as we go.”

Tonight, I am looking at things I haven’t seen or touched since that weekend five years ago. I am picking up and turning over and deciding how to dispose of things that I didn’t need when I moved them.

Yet I moved them anyway.  Those things had some kind of hold on me, demanding to be taken wherever I went.

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Some things seem to need approval from a higher authority to be disposed of. So paperwork for cars that sputtered, died, and were replaced long ago, lives on in my filing cabinets, along with a mortgage for a home we sold in 1995.There are folders full of defunct medical insurance information. There are human resources packets from jobs in a different state.

Why are we keeping all this?  Mark and I look at each other helplessly.

It’s all….official.

We buy a shredder and begin, officially, to grind it all up.

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There are things we stashed, thinking vaguely that we might need them. The laptop stayed out where it would get plenty of use; accompanying CD’s for a trial of some publishing software lingered in the bottom of a drawer. Other stuff layered on top of it–lots of layers over lots of acquisitions.  When we happen on the software trial again, we don’t own the laptop and none of the current technology will even support this cute and quaint program.

We get on line to see where one recycles old CD’s.

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There are gifts given by people we hold very dear–cheap mugs from kids that sport our initials or that say, “World’s Best Dad.”  They are chipped and worn, and we each have other favorites–thick, heavy mugs that weigh substantially in our hands and keep our beverages warm a long time. But how do you toss the things that sweet, grubby  hands weighed and measured, plotting surprises? How to recycle something paid for with carefully counted out cash earned by pounding the pavement day after day, delivering the paper?

We take them out of the china cupboard, we roll them around in our hands. Finally, we wrap them in newspaper and stash them in boxes which go down to the basement, awaiting a judgement we’re not quite ready to give.

We move on to other gifts.  There are painstakingly stitched and hammered homemade seasonal decorations. There is a kind of crockpot thing that melts waxy scented cubes, wafting enticing aromas through the house. The enticing aromas make Mark and Jim sneeze.

Still, the electric smeller-thingie is brand new, and a gift from a  special friend…

We start a Goodwill pile.

I find a beautiful hand-glazed blue tray, a tray that had pride of place on holiday tables and at potluck dinners, a tray that held cookies and moist and tender slices of banana bread studded with chocolate chips, and that offered up halves of deluxe grilled cheese sandwiches for Friday night dinners in three different houses. The tray was a special gift. Now it has a corner missing. I do not want to lose this tray, to throw away its beauty and its memory and its meaning. I want to take it outside when the spring comes, sandwich it between layers of heavy cloth, smash it into shards. I want to use it, and the chipped cups and plates we’ve saved,–special pieces, pieces by local and beloved potters. I want to create a very special mosaic next to Mark’s fire pit.

I take myself sternly to task. Will you REALLY do it? I demand.

I look around at the lightness of newly organized shelves, and the mosaic suddenly seems like a do-able dream. I gently wrap the tray and place it in a box, neatly labelled, and I put it in an easy to access place. If I don’t follow through in a year, it will go.

But there are some things worth keeping.

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I find plastic hands and swords from action figures, a battery-powered alarm clock, and episode guides to DVD seasons long ago traded in. I find a baby blanket and seven jars without tops. I find a can of fruit cocktail that tells me it is best used by March 12, 2014.

I find boxes and magazines and letters.

I sort and consider and dispose.

And my house seems to sigh in relief.  When I open the door to come in after work, things feel lighter and less pressing. Every time I sort a shelf or a drawer, I lighten the oppression of stuff.

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There are reasons I haven’t tackled this job until now.

The sorting is daunting, of course. Just opening a drawer clogged with random bits and pieces–every single thing requiring consideration, deliberation, determination,–is a weighty act. Then to commit to their appropriate disposal–well, how long will that take? Because of course, no good deed goes unpunished: sorted, items then demand to be taken to the thrift shop, delivered to the recycling bin, mashed into their smallest selves and relegated to the trash can.

Cleaning the clutter is a lot like work. That’s one reason to assiduously avoid it.

But there’s another, deeper process going on.  Every time I weigh that long-kept item in my hand, every time I say, “No, I will truly never use this—never again make a label with my battery-operated label machine, never put these once-important  pictures into a fun collage, never turn these boxes into festive gift containers–“…every time I make that kind of admission, I am giving something up. I am acknowledging a day that will never come. I am relinquishing a dream that seemed so easy, so important, to live out at one time, but that I now know will never really happen. I am saying goodbye to a hope or a plan or a creative impulse that no longer belongs in the life I live today.

I am putting a lid on a younger self and bidding her a firm farewell.

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But that’s my job, isn’t it?  Every decision point bids me to let something go. If I refuse to listen, if I cling and clutch, that weight goes with me. It slows me down. It fills my arms and hands and heart, and I cannot embrace the new treasures that a quirky, unpredictable fate rattles in its dice cup and tosses into my path.

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And, at the end of the day, it is just stuff. The purpose of the device is gone; it has no relevance to us, today, and so it needs to go. The love that went into the gift–we hope it’s still there; we don’t need the holey old blue socks to remind us.

Some of it, maybe,we can re-purpose and reuse. Some of it can be donated, keeping someone else warm, scenting someone else’s holiday home, making someone else smile when they use it. Some can be recycled, mashed down to the essence, and used to create something that, we hope, will make a life better or easier or brighter.

And some just has to go, its thing-ly lifespan finished.

And then I can go on, too–lightened and freed, open to next things.

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It may be time of life. But it heartens me to be letting go of the weight of stuff.

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10 thoughts on “The Weight of Stuff

  1. We just had to do this so our daughter and partner can house-sit for us for six months . . . it is amazingly cathartic isn’t it.

    My rule was – if I don’t recognise it throw it, if it is damaged and I won’t use it again throw it. If I don’t like it, even if it was a gift, give it away so someone else can cherish and use it as I’m doing neither with it in a cupboard and if it brings back many memories but still won’t be used or go on show keep it but be prepared to review that decision in six months:-)

  2. I can completely relate. I embarked on the decluttering journey last year, and haven’t even accomplished a complete sweep through the house, yet. It does feel better though, every once of space that I have gained does make me feel lighter.

  3. This surely resonates with me!
    Favorite line:
    “If I refuse to listen, if I cling and clutch, that weight goes with me. It slows me down. It fills my arms and hands and heart, and I cannot embrace the new treasures that a quirky, unpredictable fate rattles in its dice cup and tosses into my path.”
    Thank you for your wise and wonderful writing!

  4. 🙂 I loved reading about the mosaic and all those cherished bits and pieces. I never throw my old CDs away and still wish I’d kept my old ZXSpectrum, Amiga 500 and MegaDrive, all still with their games but failing to collect them in time and so losing them in the process of moving house to a thief. Shame. but i still have my win95 to fall back on and all my old freeloading magazine issue software should run on my trusty old dino self-built win98 puter. All these things currently clutter my home awaiting some energetic enough day to have a rummage and sort through. Never mind. I really like the ‘goodwill pile’ idea too though 🙂 Very best wishes 🙂

  5. Oh, Pam, you’ve done it again. Such wonderful writing touching our hearts, and in the end pointing me to the fact that it really is just stuff. And there is so much to living besides stuff.

  6. Pam,

    Oh, do I hear you!! We are currently living in a “blivet” (that is, 10 lbs of crap in a 5 lb container). If I ever had the courage to go through all our boxes (which we’ve had packed away since 2007), I would probably keel over……

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