Brooks Riley on shedding sentimentality and decluttering your life
At a certain age, my mother said, “I don’t envy you children having to deal with all this after I’m gone.” She was referring to the lifelong accumulation of belongings that occupied the large house where she lived alone after my father died. The question of “sizing down” never occurred to her. She assumed, correctly, that she would live out the rest of her life in that house, with all those belongings.
Not all of her “stuff,” as George Carlin and rest of us call the things we keep, was accumulated by her. Some of it was brought by my father from faraway places he had lived in his youth. Some of it came from the many Southern generations that had preceded my mother, such as our mahogany dining table, affectionately known as Mr. Reed’s legs because it had 16 legs. There were letters from the 19th century, an attic full of old lace, unused silver, knick-knacks, and Chinese chests containing colorful eastern European peasant costumes which my father and mother had worn just once, for a costume party.
Eventually, we children did have to deal with “all this”— a marathon effort which included brothers, their wives, nieces, nephews, and me. We divvied up my parents’ belongings, whether we wanted them or not. That’s how my spare, modern apartment décor was suddenly invaded by Louis XV chairs, Chinese chests, and Biedermeier cabinets. I could have sold them off right then. But I was too busy living my life, and it seemed heretical at the time to sell things my mother or father had cherished.
Years later, when I gave up my New York apartment, I did peddle most of it and felt kilos lighter, a most enjoyable lightness of being without the stuff of others to weigh me down. (I admit, some of my own stuff found its way into other people’s attics and garages, thanks to generous offers from relatives with more space than I had.)
The ultimate “to be or not to be” question is this: To keep or not to keep? It’s a weighted issue that has arisen with Jungian synchronicity more than once in the last few months, most directly with my own address change after 14 years from a large apartment with a shamefully large storage room in the cellar, to a smaller place with a small storage room. As someone told me recently, “When you move, you suddenly discover all the things you brought into the apartment but never took out.” Woefully true.
And not long before we moved, my brother died, a continent away, leaving a house and garage full of stuff he had inherited, stored for others (including me), and collected himself over the years. While I was contemplating my own immediate confrontation with too much stuff, I was getting field reports from his wife and children, who were tackling a hoard not of their own making. Here we were, on two continents, facing the same hard decisions and brutal excisions.
There are degrees of keeping, from “saving for a rainy day,” to saving “just in case,” to saving as a “souvenir,” to saving “for later,” to saving “for the children, nieces or nephews.” While I had finally liberated myself from most of what the generations had dragged in, my partner fell into the same trap with his own family heirloot. When his parents’ house was sold, he simply had all their belongings moved into our large storage room, to be dealt with later.
Suddenly, later was now. In my nightmares, the move loomed over us like a thick Berlin wall that had to be torn down piece by piece before we could see the future. Any worries about stamina were soon put to rest: Nothing energizes more than ridding oneself of detritus, and there was plenty of that to be tossed. After the first, giddy wave of throwing out, that itchy feeling that “I might need this one day” became harder to resist: It applied to everything from old shoes to an electric mosquito zapper, still sealed in plastic, never used. The last mosquito I saw was years ago, but I heard one in the night last summer, buzzing near my ear. So…
Progress has often been based on the equation that bigger equals better. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the boom years’ surge toward bigger houses. But just as work fills the time allotted to it, according to Parkinson’s Law, so does stuff fill the space allotted to it. How many of us really succeed in maintaining that spare modern look we seek as redemption for all the things we own? Is such a look even possible without a storage space somewhere to hide all the things that mar the minimalism? Are we a nation of hoarders, fighting for space by buying bigger instead of emptying out? Is the skeleton in the closet the closet itself?
Keeping often has more to do with memory than ownership. A favorite dress causes us to recall how we once looked or felt in that dress. Deep down, we hope to wear the favorite dress again and experience the same pleasure wearing it. So we keep it to immortalise a feeling we may or may not ever have again.
We keep photographs, memorabilia, objects we like to look at — and why not? But what about the books and magazines we haven’t read, the clothes we haven’t worn, the shoes we shouldn’t have bought? Our good intentions keep us from throwing these things out, and just like dust, they accumulate … a mite more space-consuming than dust.
Hoarding may not be so bad if you know where things are. Having control over what you keep is half the battle. Some people deal with the problem by organizing on a regular basis. Others exercise “stuff maintenance,” periodically throwing things out. But many simply don’t deal with it at all until circumstance steps in. For me, the urge to purge was always there — but it remained an urge, nothing more. Moving out and sizing down changed all that.
I am light as a feather — for now at least.
Editor’s Note: Brooks Riley lives in Germany where she directs operas for TV and DVD.