Sometimes life has to hit me over the head multiple times to get a point across. But as I head into my mid-fifties, I’m finally beginning to understand that most of the “stuff” I’m trying to drag along with me is absolutely worthless.
I’m not talking about mental stuff (although I’m dragging a lot of that around, too). I’m talking about actual physical things. Furniture. Books. Clothes. Art. Memorabilia. Chotchkies. Lots and lots of chotchkies. A chotchkie (I like that word!) is defined by the Urban Dictionary as “a small piece of worthless crap, a decorative knick knack with little or no purpose.” That, in my opinion, is the perfect definition for too many things currently in my possession.
I tend to personalize material things, and give them far more importance than they should ever have. I think I learned that from an early age (sorry, Mom, but you know it’s true!). Precious “things” have long been saved in our family, and used to decorate every nook and cranny. Mementoes from vacations, gifts, family heirlooms, clever finds, pretty things, collectibles and things we call collectibles that really aren’t. I have a hard time parting with any of these items, especially if I’ve had them “forever”. It feels cruel to me in some bizarre way to discard an item that has traveled through life with me, even if I know I’ll never, ever use it again. After all, “it’s still perfectly good”.
To be fair to Mom, it’s not really her fault. My grandparents on both sides were classic survivors of the Depression, and they frugally saved everything, used it up completely, and even then they wouldn’t part with it. My Iowa grandparents used bath towels so thin and worn you could literally read through them, while in their closet was a box of plush towels from the famous Marshall Fields department store, a gift from their daughter. A gift carefully put away for years, because “there was nothing wrong” with the old towels. They were perfectly good. When my New York grandmother passed away, we found similar boxes in her closet. Fancy gifts of bathrobes, towels, and purses, all carefully saved and labeled (“Christmas 1980 – Keith and Darlene”). Never opened because she hadn’t used up the old ones yet. This was the generation that didn’t throw anything away. Ever.
My first wake-up call about stuff was the death of my husband’s 2nd cousin. Mary was basically a second mother for Hubby, as his own mom passed away at an early age. Hubby was her sole heir, so we had the task of clearing out her humble 1-bedroom apartment. Every cubbyhole was filled with her treasures. While we kept a few things in her memory, most went summarily into boxes and headed off to the Good Will store. It struck me that all those things that were so valuable to her simply held no practical value for us, and I began to look at my own saved possessions with the realization that when I’m gone, they’d probably suffer the same fate.
The second wake-up call was the task of packing up my parent’s home of nearly sixty years after my father died. Mom was selling the house, and we spent months sorting and trying to prioritize stuff accumulated throughout a lifetime together. This one was much more personal – these mementoes were part of MY memories – the things I’d grown up with (and a lot more stuff stashed in the attic that I’d never even seen!). My first reaction was “save everything!” And then reality struck – I already had my own house that was filled to the brim with things from my husband’s and my life together. I simply couldn’t cling to and transfer everything from my parent’s home into mine (not to mention my brother might have something to say about it). And that’s when I had the epiphany – my memories didn’t live in those things. My memories lived in my heart, and I didn’t need a 30-year-old coffee mug to remember my dad, nor my old toys to remember my childhood. I did pretty well at staying true to that epiphany, but there were still way too many “exceptions”. After all, some of those things might have collectible value, so I had to keep them “just in case”.
I parted with even more chotchkies during our recent move. But as chronicled in my previous post, too much useless crap still moved with us. And then Hurricane Irene took aim at our new home last week, which was now filled with our most precious old and new belongings.
I spent that very long Saturday at our rental home up in New York, frantically watching The Weather Channel and surfing the internet for news on our North Carolina neighborhood. Nothing I saw was good, and it got worse as the day stretched on and Irene pounded our home for nearly 24 hours.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I started the day stressing over things. The oak heirloom from the mid-1800’s. The brand-spanking new entertainment center that spanned an entire wall. The Stickley dining room set. The nearly finished custom kitchen renovation. What if a window broke? What if the roof gave way? What if a tree crashed into the house? All of our STUFF would be ruined!
And then Stuff Lesson No. 3 kicked in. Houses were flooding. Trees were crashing down everywhere. The relentless wind and rain were changing the landscape entirely. And my friends and neighbors were living through it – riding out the storm inside their homes there. While I was worried about things, there were people swimming to safety, clinging to roofs and trees, watching their houses literally float away, or burn down, or fill with murky, slimy, muddy waters. I felt suddenly ashamed of myself. And again, developed a whole new attitude toward STUFF, and realized how inconsequential it all really is to my life.
Over the past week, thousands of people in the East are busy stacking ruined things at the curb to be discarded. And that is terribly sad. Many of those things can’t ever be truly replaced. But those people will live on, and they’ll do just fine without the things that a week ago seemed so important to them.
When my dear friend lost her home to a tornado earlier this year, she was shocked at how quickly she stopped caring about the things in her once-beautiful home. Dashing to the basement as the house disintegrated around them was a distinctly clarifying moment – her husband and children were the only priority for her. Nothing (and I mean NOTHING) else mattered to her. She didn’t mourn the loss of stuff. She was too busy celebrating the lives that had been saved.
My life would not have truly changed if all that stuff in North Carolina had been destroyed. Well, there’d be a lot of work and inconvenience for a little while, but fundamentally my life wouldn’t change as long as I still had my family and friends. Which makes me realize how totally unimportant stuff really is. Which makes it a lot easier to sort through it and start donating or selling it. Right now.
Let it be someone else’s treasure. In this phase of my life, I’d rather my treasures were of the human kind.