Each Thursday, I post some thoughts or bits of books or poetry I am working on.
—I call them “thunks.”
In 2015, my book group kicked off our sixth year together by reading Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (I think it’s hilarious that a book about minimalist living has such a cluttered title). The book had a lot of haters in our group. Yet, a few of us were intrigued enough to put into practice what we’d read (if only temporarily).
Kondo urges her readers to purge closets and drawers of all manner of tops and bottoms and delicate underthings. This sounds great (if not magical) when you yearn for a tidier, streamlined self. However, Kondo’s process for paring down, known as the KonMari Method, was simultaneously brutal and weird: dump everything in your closet—everything—onto the floor or bed (I recommend the bed for the shock and awe you will feel at the mountain of clothing before you, and please do have a moment of silence for all the hours you braved the racks at Macy’s, Marshalls, and TJ Maxx).
Next, you are to pick up that sad, cerulean blue sweater you shoved to the back of the closet in embarrassment after watching “The Devil Wears Prada” fifteen years ago, and ask yourself: does this sweater spark joy?
I kid you not. (Just go with that first flicker of joy, revulsion, or meh; do not try to spark the joy.)
If said sweater of shame brings sunshine to your soul, place it in the sacred “keep” pile (at least give the poor thing a hanger at some point!). If you feel not a jot of joy, thank the garment for its service—a silent thanksgiving will do, so your significant other doesn’t think you’ve gone completely bonkers—and place it in the “give-away” pile. Repeat said process.
After hours—days—of talking to yourself and to every shoe and dress worn over the last twenty-five years (just say goodbye to that bridesmaid dress, and don’t bother to say thank you), and Mount Everest still remains, your only recourse is to hire a KonMari consultant (or light a match). Warning: this will cost you more than Miranda Priestly’s Prada’s.
Accumulating stuff seems to happen without much effort. Paring down is not so easy. We have moved several times over the last three decades, and weeks before each move we held a yard sale, garage sale, or tag sale (each place we’ve lived had a different name for the same kind of event) and threw out stuff. So. Much. Stuff. And yet we stuffed a UHaul top to bottom on moving day.
Have you ever found boxes in your basement or attic taped shut and stored from two or three moves ago? We have. I found some last summer in our basement that a decade earlier (or was it two?) had been hastily labeled, “Family Pictures,” “Kitchen Items,” and “Books.” Great job, Einstein. Which pictures? Are there dishes in there or a coffee maker? Are those books the kids’ Calvin and Hobbes collection or the set of Dickens?
Granted, when you move there is always that last minute panic when you toss an entire junk drawer (or two?) into the Amazon box you saved from a shipment of still unused free weights that now may or may not be packed in another hastily labeled container. You pinky swear you will sift through the detritus upon arrival in your new, wonderfully empty and echoey dwelling. I’ll never clutter again! Or buy free weights!
Two years ago, I came across another slim volume dedicated to the art of downsizing. Like Kondo’s, it springs from a culturally centered practice: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter (again with the long title!) by Margareta Magnussen.
Since I’m part Swedish and I hate clutter (believe it or not) and death is likely in my future, I bought one (actually, I bought two—I looked through my Amazon orders the other day and discovered I had purchased copies on two successive days, but I can’t remember why. Ironic.) Magnussen doesn’t make you talk to your Pfalzgraff butter dish, but she does want you to understand that your family does not want your Pfalzgraff butter dish in the event of your untimely demise. Ditch your crap now so they don’t have to. But do it gently (see title). That’s about all I remember from the book.
In 2017, a Next Avenue blog post entitled, “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff” struck a nerve. (See? Just five words in the title and it says so much.) The post generated 1.5 million views online and was shared 32,000 times on Facebook. The gist of the piece was to urge boomers to help aging parents divest themselves of a century or two’s accumulation of so. much. stuff. Don’t wait until the inevitable happens, Richard Eisenberg suggested, because you won’t be offloading Grandma’s mahogany dining room set or collection of Hummels onto your kids. They don’t want them.
“This is an Ikea and Target generation. They live minimally, much more so than the boomers. They don’t have the emotional connection to things that earlier generations did,” said a senior move manager to Eisenberg (I just realized I am an amateur senior move manager).
What a difference one generation makes: the Dickens set I mentioned earlier? It belonged to my husband’s great-aunt. I treasure it. And last year, we finally gave away furniture we had sentimentally kept for decades that had once belonged to another beloved aunt.
This Target generation doesn’t care about fine china, either, by the way. A few years ago, our youngest daughter and her fiancé rolled their eyes when I urged them to pick out some china for their registry. You’ll love having a nice set for special occasions with family and friends, or just yourselves!
Doubtful, they registered for a beautiful Kate Spade place setting.
“I’ll never use it, Mom,” my daughter sighed.
Guess who uses the Spade set every day? Me! They are moving and have no interest in schlepping breakables across the country. I did feel bad as I loaded the pink boxes into my car (so pretty!), but the generous girl that she is, my daughter turned down my offer to pay for them.
Kids, don’t listen to your boomer mothers with a weird affinity for place settings. (I also have a treasured Royal Doulton set my Aunt Margaret in London gave us as a wedding present. Though I have used them hundreds of times, the dishes look just as beautiful today. Have I said enough about fine china?)
I often thought about that Next Avenue article as I helped my mother sort through her things before she sold the home she and my dad built in the Connecticut River Valley, and then again when my sister sold her home, where my mom was living at the time. My sisters had no interest or room in their own homes for our mother’s Belleek or Waterford or everyday dishes. Neither did I, yet I found myself boxing up my grandmother’s Noritake china because we can’t just give it to strangers! The set remained in my closet for three years, until I gave it to an Afghan refugee non-profit when we moved last fall, along with much of our furniture.
This last move—after eleven years in one home, the longest we have lived anywhere—became the sad kick in the pants we needed to pare down. Everything must go! and it did. Eighty percent of our furniture and other household items were sold or given away. I sorted through at least 1,000 family photographs and school papers and artwork and divided them among three linen, labeled boxes for each of our adult children.
One late summer day last year, just before our move, we met up with our kids and their families in a park and I gave Sam, Maggie, and Emma large manila envelopes with things that couldn’t fit in the containers. Laughter rose from the picnic area as they found poems they wrote, pictures they drew, and sixth-grade projects.
It was so satisfying and sweet to witness that. We should have given them those things years ago. I hope they keep at least some of the childhood poems and paintings and notes to show their own kids one day, but that’s up to them.
It also feels good that we’ve already done what the Next Avenue article recommended: we pared down. Well, for the most part. We do have about thirty or forty boxes of books in storage (we had given away at least a couple of hundred books). But, important books are in that climate-controlled container!
We do need to find that obscure commentary set on the New Testament (in a hastily labeled Staples book box), and surely our kids would want that Dickens set one day. I can’t give those to strangers!