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Clutter is good for you
What we collect, save or give away at some point says a lot about what we value most and wish to recall from the past
It’s been almost a year since the biggest de-cluttering and emptying experience my life occurred, and only because we sold my mother’s house, where I had also lived for ten years while taking care of her as her dementia got progressively worse. Needless to say there was a huge amount of “stuff,” “things,” “objects,” “artifacts,” and “memorabilia” to sort through, and either give away, sell, get rid of, or preserve for future generations. This included beautiful and centuries-old antiques, furniture, mirrors, end tables, lamps, Chippendale chairs — all collected over decades by my mother, and situated in the home downtown that she loved had always wanted. But that wasn’t all . About 60 years worth of my own memorabilia, books, knick-knacks, photographs, artwork, writings and boxes of papers, treasures bought on numerous road trips, part of my stamp collection from the 1960s, and numerous other “artifacts” from my long life, as I like to think of them now.
The estate sale at my mother’s house was hard enough, but it was all the many small and less monetarily valuable items that had belonged to Mom that were difficult to not just look at and think about, but consider giving away well. My sister came to help sort through much of the jewelry, fine china, and personal items, and I had the monumental task of going through my own stuff and deciding what to keep and bring to my new apartment, or give away or toss. The whole process of chipping away at this emotionally exhausting but essential project, took many months, particularly as related to my stuff because I simply could not, and still cannot bear to part with much of it, including several thousand books, although I did manage to donate about 500 of them to the library last year and the year before.
The estate sale and emptying of the house, and its relatively quick sale, are all long over with, and I am ensconced comfortably in my new place, which is a third the size of Mom’s house downtown. That place is only memories now. The new owners have changed everything outside, removing every plant and shrub from our formerly luxuriant front and side gardens. I cannot even imagine what they’ve done to the inside.
As for my new abode, it has become the repository of a lifetime of accumulating and saving “things” that mean a lot to me, and which are uniquely capable of reviving once-forgotten memories of events and places that constitute small pieces of my life’s story.
Added to that disparate collection of artifacts are the new “things” I’ve been buying at my favorite stores and at Goodwill, and which have now affixed themselves to every possible square foot of space in my apartment. Some, or perhaps most people would say it’s too much clutter. I can hear them now. “You need to get rid of a lot of it.” So because of this imagined reprimands and scolding, I’ve felt guilty about the quantity of stuff I have, now more than ever before, and that’s with a ridiculously expensive 10x10 ft storage unit that’s about half full.
In addition to my stuff, I brought with me a representative selection of Mom’s things from when my siblings and I cleaned out the house. I plan to hold onto these because of the deep and special meaning they hold for me in preserving and cherishing the memory of my mother.
But serendipitous experiences do happen. I found to my astonishment recently an article in “The New York Times” with the headline, “Clutter is Good for You.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. Was this some sort of vindication?
The author of the story, Rob Walker, wrote, “there is something misguided about our general relationship to material culture. In short: What we often dismiss as “clutter” — all those nonessential, often oddball objects that a third-party observer might write off as needless junk — can actually be good for us…”. A new term I discovered as I read on is “cluttercore.”
He continued, “As one cluttercore advocate argued to Architectural Digest, social media has fostered aesthetics that tend toward the neutral, the acceptable, the blandly, conformingly tasteful: an endless series of unobjectionable tidy backdrops ‘devoid of personal style.’ Cluttercore, in contrast, wholly depends on idiosyncratic personalities and rarefied interests, and thus ‘celebrates radical individuality.’ In an era when imitation is everywhere, ‘Architectural Digest’ asserted, so-called “clutter” represents something that “l’can’t be duplicated.’”
This is absolutely true. Those things we cherish and hold onto are one-of-a-kind objects, which, if tossed, given away or sold, are gone forever, as are the many memories associated with them.
Walker makes an important distinction when talking about material things. In the case of memorabilia and keepsakes, there is, in behavioral psychology terms, “terminal materialism,” which means buying or valuing an object solely for its intrinsic properties, such as the latest iPhone, a tech wonder, that will soon enough be replaced with a newer and more fully equipped and advanced model.
Walker describes the “worthless-looking junk” we hang on to as “instrumental materialism,” valued for its “connection to another person, a place, a time in our lives, a meaningful affiliation…”
A crucial takeaway from the article is that those “things” [we] love, no matter how whacky, minuscule, or unimportant they may seem to someone on the outside,” are the building blocks in our lives that resurrect and enhance memories, without which we have no way of revisiting our pasts in such vivid and concrete detail. We can tell many stories about our lives and pasts by referring to, and passing on, these “instrumentally” material things.
There’s so much in the article I relate to with regard to the decluttering issue because the points made pretty much silence the critics who badger the keepers of keepsakes about becoming hoarders, a uniquely psychological and pathological series of personality traits that lead some people down a path of cluttering no return. I have to honestly say anxiety about having too many material things has been a painful problem for me for decades now, and although I’ve managed to toss out a lot of stuff during this huge move to a smaller place just completed, and although I’ve managed to give away to the library hundreds of books, it still hasn’t made a real dent in my overall level of “clutter,” using that term pejoratively because that’s what neater and more organized people call it. I truly despise the word because it demeans and denigrates the value and purpose of holding onto things, and becomes a sweeping term of gross generalization.
Somehow, as I’ve already noted, I’ve managed to cram most of my treasured belongings into a space that’s less than a third the size of the house I moved from. It’s not a pretty sight to the average person, and I keep acquiring.
I love this stuff. I really need a huge mansion to live in and then I’d be able to properly display all the do-dads and keepsakes I’ve bought over the years, lately in particular.
I did manage to toss a bunch of old algebra and geometry tests from high school that I’ve kept in folders and boxes since 1969. I have lots and lots of other school papers from 8th grade essay to researched chapter papers for my short-lived PhD studies and dissertation in the 1980s.
I have a hard time throwing away anything that is remotely interesting to me because each and every bit of minutia has a story behind it. Everything. This is how I recall my past. Memory slips as you get older, but mine is constantly refreshed every time I go through a box of memorabilia. I think I’d feel lost without most of this stuff.
In her book “The Sum of Trifles,” Julia Ridley Smith was confronted with “a virtual museum of furniture, books, art and artifacts,” after her parents died. The agonizing question, for her, and last year for my siblings and me, is how we decide what to keep and treasure, and what to we part with. Ultimately the decisions we make are highly subjective and based on much soul-searching and expenditure of a range of emotions.
My sister is here from Seattle, and next week she will begin going through about a dozen boxes I hastily put in my storage unit as the deadline loomed for us to have everything out of Mom’s house. I’ve saved what I want to help me remember my mother, a selection of her possessions that mean so much to me, particularly since I lived in the house taking care of her the last ten years of her life. Every time I look at one of her framed flower prints, a particular piece of jewelry or one of her favorite, well-worn stuffed animals, “Baby Bear,” I smile at the sweet memories the poignant and sweet evoke.
Mom was a much more selective buyer than I ever was, or even am today. She had many beautiful antiques, oriental rugs, framed bird and botanical prints, and various antique boxes, including a letter box she gave me 40 years ago. I, on the other hand, collect books, new and old, I go to discount remainder stores like Big Lots and Tuesday Morning (now sadly gone), as well as the Goodwill Thrift store, and buy little new and used “things” that make me smile or bring me happiness just holding and looking at them. Some of it might be considered kitschy or even tacky by others, but to me they are priceless in their own unique way. For example, a small pencil holder shaped like a little library of books with a tiny antique-looking globe attached to it. Perfect! I collect most anything I can find picturing or containing, miniature stacks of books, home libraries and the like, whether objects, or books, posters and tee shirts. One of my favorite quotes is, “It’s not hoarding if it’s books.”
I’m still grounded enough in reality to not become an actual “hoarder” because I do give away books, and I have a nice sized storage unit where I can “temporarily” put stuff if it all gets too busy in my apartment. The key is exact placement of items in available spaces. I have become a master at finding room for things without it looking too jumbled and random. There’s definitely a method to all this collecting madness.
From personal observation and simple common sense, I deduce that the majority of people have a minimum number of books in their homes, on a few neglected shelves or small bookcases. If they read books, most check them out at libraries. Not me. I have books of every size, weight and description everywhere in my apartment.
Most folks have neat, tidy living rooms, dens, and bedrooms, unless there are lots of kids around. There are numerous magazines featuring perfect homes, with perfect rooms and gardens. I love to look at these magazines because they depict spaces I might love to inhabit, but which I’m pretty sure I never will. But would I actually be happier in a neat, tidy, and perfectly arranged home? I seriously doubt it.
In my case, living alone, my belongings going back decades are “me,” “myself,” the person I have become. When I look closely at any of my accumulated “things” or “artifacts,” I have a feeling of warmth and security. I say to myself, “This is my place, my fortress, my safe place, despite those not infrequent times when it can all seem overwhelming, and even a bit depressing. But those moods usually pass rather quickly.
So as long as my place is navigable, and not too overwhelming, I’ll live with it. But guilt? Yes. That doesn’t go away. Even if I’m very different, or more than mildly eccentric, that’s okay, especially at my age. I’ve earned it.