“You’re Keeping That?”

While nursing lately, I’ve been watching the sun move across the dusty piano. “I’ve got to dust that, the moment I get up,” I think, and then promptly forget, again. But I’ve also been wondering if that’s exactly why spring motivates us to some version of cleaning-tending-sorting-purging-reclaiming of space in our lives—is it simply because the sun comes out and shows us where the dust has gathered? Why is it that my whole neighborhood seems to engaging in some mostly-silent, totally-uncoordinated-yet-simultaneous ritual of cleaning up the corners and closets of our home spaces?

I have moved, have relocated “home” a lot in my life, far more times than I can even count right now. I’ve lived in six states and it feels like close to six places in each of those states. And, at the same time, I come from a family of readers and accumulators (not hoarders, no, not hoarders, not not not hoarders!), and so every time I move I feel like I’m moving, shlepping, hauling, lifting, lifting, lifting…well, more than is logical. Something irrational causes me to keep all this stuff. In some ways I think a lifetime of moving has contributed to my attachment to things–I don’t have the walls of a house to hold memories in, I have this photograph, that journal, that well-worn cookbook, that piece of art from my no-longer-living grandmother, and so on. I keep things that I know I couldn’t find again in a store or a library or on Ebay, because they’re meaningful to me. But too much stuff leads to a blur of things that clutter. Too much stuff leads to tripping in the night. Too much stuff leads to our soon-to-be-toddler not having enough room to jump in her jumparoo. And I know that the feeling of clutter makes me feel bogged down, less spacious in my mind and heart, less open to welcoming new things, new interests, new projects, new people into my life.

So we are gearing up for a May 11 Neighborhood-wide Yard Sale, and we keep adding things to the pile that we’ll be putting in The Sale. There are things that will be hard to part with that day, but I know it’s time for them to go. It will be interesting to see what-all people put out for sale; hopefully we won’t be inspired to come home with more than we put out. Last fall, my partner and I downsized from a 2-bedroom house with a bonus room, a garage, attic, and a basement, to a 1-bedroom apartment with a bonus room. With the addition of a baby to our lives, the theme of the stuff that gets strewn about our home has also shifted markedly. It takes me almost an hour some nights to do the sink full of dishes that has accumulated over the course of just one day. I know that if we had fewer dishes, fewer cutting boards, fewer knives, one less blender–there would be less dish-doing, too. But for each thing we’ve kept this long I’ve formed a reason—in some cases, a campaign!—for keeping it.

For years now I’ve been inspired by the Tiny House movement. There are whole families raising their kids in 400 square feet. I remember being particularly inspired by a woman who knew exactly how many things she had: two hundred; and how she made sure that for every new thing she acquired, she let go of something else. Her tiny house was far less cluttered than our apartment is now, and it looked light and bright. Freed up from days of housecleaning and home improvement projects, she spent more time with friends and out in her community. Motivated by such stories, the objective of having less of an impact on the environment, as well as the challenge of simply doing voluntarily with less, I spent at least 6 months in the high desert of Central Oregon living without a fridge—just a cooler on the back porch with a block of ice in it, which I could buy at the nearby market. It wasn’t much of a sacrifice, really, and it saved me the awful noise of that particular refrigerator rumbling all night long.

My very cleaned-up dining room in Oregon
as I prepared my house to be rented out

I was energized by the idea that this was a step towards living more “off the grid,” that if I could unplug this one fundamental contemporary appliance, I was on my way. But then I moved out of that rental and into a house of my own, and set aside for a time the idea of continually paring down. And just setting aside the idea for a time meant that inertia and entropy exuded their forces and stuff gradually came to fill every spare cabinet of my more spacious new home.

I fully recognize that the whole movement of “voluntary simplicity” is precisely and only that: voluntary. For people who don’t have enough of what they need, this is an entirely irrelevant and even painful conversation. But for a good many of the rest of us, stuff just seems to accumulate. Why do you keep the things you keep? How do you decide to let go of things, even things that you have moved multiple times, from one home to the next, or taken great care of?

I am getting better and better at letting go of things, I think. That Sale is coming up, it’s a week from now. That morning when I wake up, what will I feel that I actually need or genuinely want, and what will I be ready to let go of? We’ll see, we’ll just have to see. In the meantime, I’m going to at least clear off the dusty piano.

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