Rummage stuff
Books tower and teeter. James and I wield fine-point Sharpies, writing tags. So, Traveling Mercies, we might write. Hard cover. Fifty cents.

I cut a supply of one-inch stubs of masking tape, hang them from the table’s rim, use them to affix tags to the appropriate books.

We write and tape and pile, getting ready for the rummage sale. When we have a reasonable stack, I wrap it with green twine, tie a tight knot, swing it into the far corner of the family room, and we begin again.

Some of the books are used books, books that we gleaned, crowing triumphantly, from clearance racks or community sales or library bookstores. Those books may have names written inside, and inscriptions. When there are identifying characteristics, addresses or phone numbers, we take the Sharpie and blot that out. But sometimes the inscription makes us pause.

“Matt wrote in this book,” Jim says, “for Dad.”

He moves that volume to the keeper-after-all pile.

I do the same when I find a book with Kim’s name on the fly leaf, written in her unique and lilting hand–Kim, gone this past spring, loved and greatly missed. She wanted me to have this book. She wanted me to read it. I put it with the keepers.

But still. By the time we are done, James and I have bundled up many, many books, marking those old friends ‘.50’ or, ‘$1.00.’ There are clean spaces on the bookshelves, which Jim undertakes to organize–fiction in the living room, non-fiction in the family room.  He swoops and dances, formatting alphabetically by author. As he works, the shelves transform from groaning boards, homes to jumbled, jammed-in stacks of random, anonymous volumes, to pleasing, inviting vistas.

We just have too many books.


My friend and colleague Cindi sent out an email: Would you have any interest in participating in a yard sale to benefit my daughter’s swim team?

It seems like a pretty sweet deal. We pack up our stuff according to a firm style-guide provided by the planners, who stipulate size of tag, and placement of info, and how to affix the tags to objects. We drop them off at the school between 9 am and 7 pm on the appointed night. We’ll sort and place on drop-off.

Then they’ll sell our stuff. There’s a five dollar fee to take part. If we work a volunteer shift, we’ll get 80 per cent of the take from our items. If we don’t volunteer, we’ll get 60 per cent. And, sale over, the planners will send all things unspoken for to appropriate charities.

It’s a win-win-win.  We support the swim team. We make a little cash.

We get rid of stuff.


I pull old electronics out of a drawer and jumble them all together in a box. I’ll have Mark go through them, determine which components, if any, we might ever need again. Then I’ll ask him to determine which components someone else might ever need again.

We’ll tape tags onto those that others might possibly use: N600 WiFi Dual Band USB Adapter….50 cents. A landline set with two phones. A tiny tape recorder. A long-since needed modem.

Why did we keep all this stuff?

Why did we buy it in the first place?


We sort clothes according to strict instructions. Hangers hooks must go to the left, like a question mark. Shirts must be buttoned. Every item of clothing–even shorts–must be on a hanger. Labels should be safety-pinned to the upper left-hand front.

We joke that we have an evilly magic closet or two: when our clothes go in, they fit. And then, one day, they don’t fit.  Obviously, the closets shrunk them.

We put hangers into twenty odd men’s dress shirts, size 16 and a half–33/34. We button them up; this sale won’t brook any shirts missing buttons. There are shirts in every hue and stripe–peach and mint and navy, black and gray and blue. When the back of a chair fills, Jim takes them downstairs and hangs them on the drying rack, where they wait to be delivered.

Dresses. Slacks. Skirts. Shorts.


We package up office supplies–three boxes of perforated name tags, unopened, that could be printed via laser-jet. Two thick stacks of USPS stamps for use with a home postal system. We no longer have that service.

Three hole punches. Mechanical pencils.

We put loose items into sturdy storage bags and mark them, “Assorted office supplies. 50 cents.”

We pull mismatched china, glasses, old pots and pans, from their storage shelves, mark and pack them. I take table linens from a drawer, iron them neatly, place them on hangers.


We stack the goods in the back corner of the house, by the door we seldom use. The piles grow to shoulder height.

I feel satisfied and accomplished: we are purging, clearing space. This feels good.

But then I think: we just have too much stuff.


I remember going to a conference where a Native American Catholic nun spoke. She was wearing a blue dress. It was one of her two dresses, she said; blue to honor the virgin Mary. The other dress was red, and it reminded her of Christ’s sacred heart.

She bought both dresses at thrift stores. She didn’t need more, she said; one to wear and one to wash. Any more would slow her down.

I look at the growing stack of stuff in the corner. I think of  money spent, time involved, storage space clotted with unused things. There is something, I realize, something overdone and obscene about this.

We have cleared spaces. We will take those things to a place where they may do some good, where they will be donated if they do not sell.

But how long will it take us to fill the empty spots on the bookshelves, the open spaces in the drawers.

How much do we need?

How much does what we have slow us down?

I have to turn my back on the stack of rummage sale goodies.


Rummaging: lightening the weight of stuff.


16 thoughts on “Rummaging

  1. Thank for putting to words what many of us, especially this age, feel. A friend recently moved to another city, smaller space and her advice to me, don’t ever move!! Seriously though she said, start paring down now!

    1. Exactly, Carole! We’ve been contemplating a potential move in the long-term future, and even three years away, it’s pretty daunting when we consider all the STUFF we have to contend with. At this point in life, I want to be lighter and freer than this!

  2. Ah, you’ve touched a chord here, Pam. The generation of your parents and my parents grew up not wanting to waste anything or throw anything away, believing that the things they saved would somehow be useful in their Depressed times. We’ve moved away from that thinking, almost to its polar opposite, an era of superabundance and of wastefulness, too. We think nothing of throwing away food or plastic bottles that previous generations would have begged to use. Our superabundance has permitted us a deep change in attitude, too, and I am talking to myself, here, as well as to our friends: we now believe that our possessions define us. They tell us who we are, where we’ve been, what we’ve done. That is why we find it difficult to let them go, even when we must. But is that thinking illusory? Are we being false to ourselves in believing that our possessions really do say something fundamental about who we are as people? I do not know.

    I do know that circumstances have forced me twice to surrender 500 books at a time out of my library, and both occasions of surrender brought me sadness, for I still believe, even in the face of the foregoing doubts, that our books, our libraries, do define us in some way. They express the measure of who we are. I am, therefore, loathe to part with any book I now own. All of them, whether I can see them or not, are part of the invisible house I am building inside of me, the rooms of which go where I go, and are furnished by particular books which have a particular place in that room. I have to admit there’s “stuff” in that house, too, most of which I’d clear out if I had any sense, but even as I doggedly hang on to it, I say to us all that, even so, I have less stuff than I used to. I also wonder, as I consider the objects in my bedroom (books, CDs, television, Blu-Ray player), is there a distinction to be made between our “stuff” and the things we actually possess–the things that matter to us? Perhaps there is. If so, that might make it easier for us to part with unnecessary items, and yet, here we all are, with all this stuff anyway.

    Now, I’m confused, dang it. I don’t know what to think about the things I own, and I wonder whether my things own me. Probably not. I go back to the idea of our possessions representing who we are as people–kinda like the volleyball Wilson did for Tom Hanks in *Cast Away*, but in a deeper sense. There’s a human need to remind ourselves of what we done, what we’ve accomplished over our lives, and our possessions remind us of those accomplishments. We build up collections of such things, and if we pass them on to the next generation, that’s good; iy keeps the line going. Even if we don’t, though, our things (our books, the backpack we used on the trip to Grand Canyon, the whistle we blew at Jamie’s sixth birthday party) form traces of what we did and who we cared about while we were here for other people to find. Thought about in this way, nothing we’ve ever really owned is useless, and nothing of value ever gets thrown away.

    1. I’d like to think that if our spaces were frozen in time, whoever discovered those vacuumed-pack rooms would be able to ‘know’ us–Ah, here was a person who loved to read and draw and cared about education and poverty… Maybe that’s a good clearance line: when the things we accumulate don’t reflect who we are, we need to purge…?

      It is hard to get rid of books. If I think about that too much I will undo those bundles and put the volumes back on the shelves…

  3. As I read your post and sit typing a reply I smile and glance at the sign hanging on the wall just over my left shoulder that says – “simplify.” A lesson I keep needing to embrace!

  4. And it’s funny because for the first time in ten years I could have used a landline phone a few days ago for an interview. So you never know who could use your “stuff”. Have fun!!

    1. Ah, and that’s what I worry about… if I give this away today, will I need it tomorrow?

      I hope the interview went bell and you have the options you’re hoping for to choose from…

  5. Andrea Salahub

    For the first 15 years of my life, I was a “Navy Brat.” The Navy dictated how many things we could keep when moving from base to base by weight. Early on I had to choose what things were important enough to send on, since it was too expensive to pay for it yourself. It was never much. I tell myself that is my reason for holding on to things longer than necessary. You would think at the age that I am, I could let that experience go, but for some reason, it seems to be ever present. Good luck removing things from your home. I know it feels good to release things, but I always wonder if I will need it in the future. Guess I will always be a pack rat.

  6. Move frequently! That is the key to not having too much stuff. When you move house you get the chance to get rid of anything that doesn’t seem worth taking, and tidy up what is. If there’s no likelihood that you will ever have to move you just don’t have that incentive. It’s just too tempting to keep everything “just in case.”
    Of course there is a rule that if you do keep something for 10 years then throw it out, you will certainly find that you will need it tomorrow.

  7. I recently read “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” I still can’t decide if the author is a genius or bat-sh** crazy! I did use her method for my clothe, and it has been incredibly satisfying. Books though – that will be a tough one. 🙂 I once moved from one 3rd floor apartment to another 3rd apartment. After lugging several boxes of books one of the movers gasped “haven’t you ever heard of a library?” haha!

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