Some of us just don’t get around to clearing out our junk. But most hoarders are shackled to mountains of stuff because of one of two sentences.
#1 ‘But it’s bound to come in handy one day!’
#2 ‘But it has a lot of sentimental value…’
If you’ve got the headspace and storage space, I do have some sympathy for #1. But as for the second one: I’ve been devoted to it for far too long, and I’m chasing it off the property with a pitchfork.
Here’s my replacement:
‘If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’
William Morris, artist, designer, socialist, in an 1880 lecture.
Note well that there is no exception here for objects we neither love nor need but which have ‘sentimental’ value. I’m going to go out on a reformed-hoarder’s limb here and say I think sentimental value is a sham that chains us to inanimate objects that then take up precious time and space. We need to ditch it if we’re going to make the most of our lives.
Spending the last year and a half – almost all of SBJ’s life – with most of our possessions in storage has turned out to be wonderfully liberating. I know now just what objects are most useful to us and most enjoyable to rest our eyes on, and which don’t meet William Morris’ criteria.
When we moved half of our stuff into a small apartment for six months, we couldn’t find the box with our cutlery and core kitchen utensils in it. I can confirm that cutlery is handy to have around.
We made do with collecting takeaway plastic stuff and I bought a new chef’s knife and ergonomic vege peeler (my absolute essentials, which I take on holidays when appropriate). The only kitcheny box we could find yielded one serving spoon, one wooden cooking spoon and a three fish-slices (or whatever you call those flip-your-pancake spatula thingies). When we find that missing kitchen box I will make it a welcome home cake.
I wish I’d had that box instead of the one that contained my Grandma’s slightly broken crystal sherry decanter. When my auntie and I were sorting through her house after she died, I took some crystal things ‘to remember her by’ for me and my sisters. I was eighteen and they seemed classy. I also took three cushions for my flat (still in use, between my sister’s house and mine) and two of her hundreds of awesome cardigans.
The crystal decanter, which I’d never seen her use – it was presumably in the front room we never spent much time in – got cracked in one of my many moves, years ago, but I had the idea that this kind of item, owned by my Grandma, was something one ought to keep. So it moved from flat to flat to house to house with me, always a bit broken and never used. I’ve never drunk sherry in my life, for heaven’s sake.
In my year of Pinterest-based organisational coaching, I’ve come to agree with all the decluttering gurus who urge us to purge. Here’s one key lesson from them: whether or not I keep a broken, unused glass bottle has nothing to do with how much I love and remember my Grandma. I could smash it on the ground tomorrow and I would still love and miss her. That realisation was liberating! So the decanter has gone.
In the past I have deliberately tried to invest objects with significance, so that the necessary paraphernalia of life can remind me of people and experiences. Those are the Jane Austen oven mitts from my first trip to Bath with my future in-laws. That’s the oil burner Lorelle gave me for my seventeenth birthday. That’s the t-shirt (too big and ruined by lending it to a friend to wear in the spa) I was given for tutoring Maaori and Pasifika students at law school. I like buying useful souvenirs and receiving useful gifts for this reason.
I never threw out anything someone had given me as a present, because it reminded me of them. It felt like a betrayal of the friendship to admit I no longer needed the cute stuffed hedgehog from my sixteenth birthday or the candle-snuffer from university days. Even though I would bet Judy Bailey’s salary that none of the givers would now remember that they had given me those things.
The fact that this is an unsustainable, unwieldy practice has become clear (to me) since SBJ was born. Almost everything he touches has been given to us by a kind friend. Almost everything he touches gets filthy (see illustration above). Are we to keep his stained bibs and onesies adorned with ducks and bears and tomato sauce, presents from family and friends, that we loved dressing him in? Forever? If not, then for how long? And if not, then why are we keeping everything else in our house that is no longer useful or beautiful?
I’m sure the generous people who have furnished us with all these helpful things never intended us to be chained to them, carrying them around on our backs like weary snails. When things – even presents – have passed their season of usefulness, I finally realise that it’s only sensible and wise to give them to someone else, or recycle or otherwise dispose of them. It doesn’t make us less grateful for our friends or their thoughtfulness.
One helpful tip I’ve enacted to make the wrench less painful is to take photos of things that have meaning, but need to leave our house. Thanks to the combination of digital cameras and my obsession with photographing SBJ, we have pictures of him wearing almost every lovely thing someone gave him when he was born. Usually before they were covered in smoothie, even.
We now own substantially less stuff than two years ago, and I feel spiritually lighter for it – really. When we get home I have plans for continuing the filtering by tackling the last bastion of sentimentality, my jewellery boxes, filled with trinkets and accessories I like but never use. If I haven’t worn it in years, then probably someone else will get more joy out of owning it, right?
Oh, I’m so glad I’ve got this off my chest!
Now let the controversy rage. I know most of us will have exceptions to Morris’ ideal. What are yours? Or are you a Morris convert, too?
This is part of an occasional series on property and possessions. You can see the series list here, and the next post in the series, following up on book-ownership, here. Have a look around!
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