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We had new carpeting installed at our house this week, and somehow this led to me scrubbing out the cupboard under the kitchen sink. What does a gross, crusty, under-sink cupboard full of half-empty cleaner bottles have to do with new carpeting? Nothing. But you know how it is: you make one aspect of the house look nice and suddenly everything else looks like crap.

I did not realize that carpet replacement would be a spiritual experience, but it turned out to be a massive exercise in crap management. And crap management, of course, makes you wonder: Why am I dragging all this crap through life with me? Things get philosophical pretty quickly.

To prepare for the installer to move the big pieces of furniture, we had to remove all the framed photos and fake plants and tchochkes from the tops of dressers, all the books and papers and random baskets of reading glasses and binder clips from our desks, and all the books from several bookshelves. Oh and don’t forget all the shoes and dropped hangers and random boxes on the floors of closets. Yikes.

We are a cluttery, hoardy bunch at my house, so removing the stuff and piling it higgledy-piggledy in other rooms was one kind of task. But after the installer was finished, we faced the real reckoning: what do we put back? Here was an opportunity to thin out, pare down, organize—really get a handle on our relationship with stuff. And we found ourselves repeatedly wondering: at what point do we get rid of this?

So in an effort to organize even my soul-searching thoughts, here are some categories of stuff that presented dilemmas in our house.

Children’s memorabilia
At what point do we get rid of the stuffed animals the children adored when they were young? Said children are now all in their 20s. I have their precious fluffies in neat, labeled boxes now, but I can’t bear to part with them. And what about souvenir props from high school theater productions, or soccer trophies, or track medals—all the detritus of the achievement treadmill that is youth in America?

Hand over these items to the adult children to take into their own homes, you say? Ha! What homes? The oldest has a home but will move again in a year, the middle child lives in a small apartment, and the youngest just moved back in here, with his wife. And their stuff.

Move the boxes of childhood memories into your basement storage room, you say? You mean the room with moldering camping equipment, boxes of children’s art work, an impressive collection of Christmas cookie tins, old dressers full of curtains I made for our first apartment, a fake Christmas tree, several boxes of photos from my parents that landed at my house after they died, numerous boxes of memorabilia from mine and Ron’s youth, and the furniture the youngest child is now storing in there after moving back? That storage room?  

That storage room is already a shrine to stuff I can’t part with. I have a box of baby clothes down there from my first child (born 1993) carefully folded and packed in a plastic bin… for a grandchild? This will work beautifully if I do indeed someday have a grandchild and if that child is a girl born in the spring. What are the odds of that? Let’s not even talk about the fact that I have irrationally insisted on saving our children’s crib, a 1990s model that our babies survived just fine but is now considered instantly lethal to infants.

Skinny clothes
I’m actually pretty good at donating clothes that no longer fit me. One reaches a certain age and one naturally expands. I am personally resigned to a slightly more, shall we say, robust lifestyle. A certain other person in the house, however, is committed to keeping the skinny clothes as inspiration, motivation: maybe someday? Hope springs eternal, and I honor that. But at what point…? Nope, don’t even ask. Sensitive topic.

I’m actually getting better at letting go of books. We have a free book table outside the English Department at Calvin, so if I want to let go of a book I know where to put it where someone else will adopt it. Not sure why anyone would want a Norton Anthology of British Literature from the 1980s, but those naïve young students who browse the free book table have not yet realized what it’s like to drag 75 boxes of books through life (that number is not an exaggeration—it’s probably low, in fact). I, however, am starting to imagine books flowing through my life rather than sticking around forever.

Oh, who am I kidding? I’m a book hoarder, and so is my spouse. For instance, Ron and I cannot let go of our college philosophy texts, our Greek and Spanish language texts, and a whole collection of cheap sci-fi paperbacks from the 1970s. Can’t explain this nostalgia, really. After the carpet went down, those books all went right back on their shelves. Anyway, who would want them? Used book stores would scoff.

Antique Media
CDs of music we love that is now on Spotify, 3.5-inch floppy disks with drafts of grad school papers, VHS tapes of children’s birthday parties, a once-expensive digital camera at which our current phone cameras laugh in scorn, snakey tangles of cables with gadgets on each end that no longer fit into any current electronic item. At what point do we get rid of this stuff?

And let’s not forget boxes of drafts of books I’ve written. Am I ever going to look at these again? To check a footnote? Do I really think some graduate student in the year 2203 is going to find these fascinating? No, I do not. Why are they still here?

Sports equipment
Most of our old sports equipment is in the garage, to be fair and, like the kitchen sink cupboard, has nothing to do with carpeting the house, but we are nevertheless eyeing those basketballs and catcher’s mitts with a steely gaze. At what point do we get rid of the whiffle ball and bat? How many of grandpa’s bags of golf clubs do we need? Are we really ever going to play bocci ball in the yard? Fortunately, old sports equipment can easily be given away—once you remove the cobwebs.

This one is hard. We have drawers and shoe boxes and piles and envelopes full of old photos. I am not going to throw away any of them! These are photos of my children as chubby infants and feisty schoolkids and awkward teens. These are photos of beloved relatives sitting on couches together year after year at Christmastime. Am I going to put these photos in scrapbook-style albums? I am not. Am I going to frame them and hang them on the wall? There are not enough walls. Am I going to digitize them and cherish them forever in cyberspace? Eh. They will remain where they are, along with a random assortment of frames that may or may not fit, have proper mats, or frankly even hold together.  

What can’t I get rid of stuff?

Let’s ask the deep question now: why? Why hang on to this stuff? It’s not about monetary value or status, that’s for sure. Well, here are my proposed explanations.

  1. Time: It takes time to sort through stuff, organize it, dispose of it properly or find a new home for it. Other tasks are always more urgent. Our lives right now are characterized by constant deadlines. When I retire (warning: beware of sentences beginning with that phrase) I plan to spend the whole first year embarking on a determined crap management campaign. (I can hear you rolling your eyes.)
  2. Garbage guilt: I am reluctant to dump more stuff into a landfill somewhere. I do throw things away, I do recycle what my county will take, and I do give things away to the thrift stores, but of course thrift stores won’t take everything. No one else wants a ratty old stuffed doggie or that death-trap of a crib.
  3. Possible futures: Someday, my kids might need quilts and afghans and extra sheet sets. And I will have them! Problem solved before it even happens.
  4. Logistics: Some of this stuff I would be happy to part with, but I just can’t get to it. It’s behind other stuff in that storage room, packed in tight.
  5. Time: It all comes down, I think, to our human longing to remember, and by remembering, make sense of our lives. The photos, the memorabilia, the tchotchkes—they are tokens that help us hold on to fragments of a past that is always slipping away behind us. We cling to fragments in the hope that we can somehow fit the pieces of our lives together into a meaningful whole, make the pieces form a sensible picture.

And then, at some point, the picture dissolves. I remember managing all my parents’ stuff when they moved into assisted living: distribution to relatives, an estate sale, a dumpster. And then managing the little bit that was left when they died. How ephemeral life seems when you’re watching a lifetime’s worth of ballast floating away. Our days are but a breath, says the psalmist. Hevel, says the Teacher.

For now, I’m still sitting heavy in the water. We got rid of some things, but mostly we tidied and organized like crazy. Our dressers, desks, and closets are much neater. The basement storage room, however? Just keep the door closed, please.

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