In a drawer of the handmade spice rack that Sis in Law gave us for a wedding present is a bird nest that my girls found almost twenty years after a Santa Ana (wind storm). The nest had blown from a tree somewhere in our neighborhood. Small, the nest is composed of pine needles, twigs and the fur from my friend’s dog, Sandy. The girls had placed the nest in the drawer so it would be like a museum where you could open a drawer and find something interesting. At the time the spice rack hung in the family room. After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, I hung it in my bedroom. I changed the knickknacks that I placed on the shelves, but I never opened the drawer. Just before moving, I opened that drawer to see what was in it. Suddenly the girls were ten, eight and four. My middle daughter and my friend’s daughter, now a mother herself, eight year old whirlwinds, have brought me the nest. “Look, it’s the fur from Sandy. We should keep this.” The girls are now women, with careers and families. Sandy has been gone for many years yet her blond fur is woven in this nest and memories are crammed in this drawer.
The detritus of our lives is in perception. What do we need to keep? What should we discard? The answer to these questions is really another question: what is important to us? Discarding is easy when we are not emotionally detached. When I left a job teaching middle school English, I purged my materials. I gave all my students a book from my classroom library, 160 books found new homes but I still had three more boxes. One went to my nephew, the other two went to new junior high teachers, one was a former student and one had been a member of my Girl Scout troop. Files went into trash bags; supplies were given to other teachers. I kept more boxes of lesson plan materials than I should have, but six months later I was in the classroom next door to mine. That spring I threw the rest away. Cleaning out my classroom was easy. Some of my high school teacher colleagues learned I was leaving last December when I brought them a poster they had admired. This time I tossed even more, leaving supplies in the cupboards and posters on the walls. Jettisoning the excess from my teaching supplies was easy. I knew I could create more handouts and buy more posters. Curriculum changes; heroes change. House is going off the air; who needs a Hugh Laurie ALA Read poster? Yet I did keep my collection of bears from different colleges. Each has a different story behind it, a reminder of one of my daughters, a student, a colleague or a friend. Jettisoning personal effects is not so easy.
Time helps one detach from objects. What was a favorite piece of furniture begins to look shabby or no longer fits the house. I had purged my home last year. Furniture that we no longer used was taken to Goodwill (and then replaced). Furniture was not the problem. The problem was clutter.
I was good at purging the clutter from the living room and family room (except for the magazines that I placed in a large basket in the family room, hoping that no one would notice. Any one of my dogs could have slept in that basket). I tried to keep the kitchen counters neat, but lurking in the pantry were stale crackers and expired granola bars. Tucked in plastic bags and jumbled in a container were half empty packages of rice. I had three bags of hard brown sugar. I had eight different types of green tea. Hanging above the doorway of the pantry was sister #1’s wedding bouquet, caught by my daughter. I always meant to do something artistic with it but instead it disappeared into the pantry where it languished. Unfortunately it fell apart after being removed from the rarified air of its pantry tomb. My freezer was almost as bad. To be truthful, I had two refrigerators so I had twice the number of freezer burn items that a normal person would have thrown out. The kitchen, even the magazine basket, was an easy purge. (All right, I admit it, my son-in-law had to purge the freezer or I might have put more of it in an ice chest and moved it to Connecticut.) The real problems were elsewhere.
I never meant for the clutter to take over the office. A few years ago I spent my winter break buying storage containers and organizing both the office and bedroom that had become a library/wrapping/hobby room. The latter stayed organized but papers grew in piles all over the office. Part of the problem may have been that the file cabinets were upstairs, but really the problem was a lack of communication between my husband and me. I would put mail in a bin to be looked at by both of us; he would remove the item from the bin, pay the bills and stack the rest. I would never look at the stack until I was cleaning during a school break. This was not the only clutter. I also had piles of coupons and gift cards. Books crammed the shelves. In several places they were double stacked. Dog leashes spilled out of a basket. The week before the movers came, I dealt with the latest incarnation of office clutter. I even managed to save the files we would need for our month long hotel stay. I was efficient because I knew the real clutter was hidden away in a storage unit.
Ten years ago, while renovating the kitchen and painting the house, I purged the house. All my excess kitchen items, all the girls’ stuffed animals, the Beyer horses, the Pleasant Company dolls and accessories—were packed into boxes and stored in a 5 X 10 storage unit. Anything I didn’t use but didn’t know what to do with went into this unit. When the girls came home from college, their stuff went into this unit. Not everything went back with them. It was a closet of excess. All of the things in this unit needed to be brought back to the house to be either discarded or moved to Connecticut.
We had brought some things back since we made the decision to move. Or rather we did not return boxes. The Halloween and Thanksgiving boxes had joined the mess in the garage. The twenty red and green Christmas ornament boxes and a small artificial Christmas tree lined the wall of a guest room. The twelve foot fake Christmas tree found a new home since we would soon have eight foot ceilings. In the beginning of January before my husband began his new job, we had brought back some things: a chest bound for Goodwill, old golf clubs, bank statements and tax files from the 1980s. I shredded. My husband made a dump run and a Goodwill visit. But boxes and boxes, piled to the ceiling, remained in the unit. And youngest daughter also had a storage unit for dishes and furniture left from her apartment. Some things she gave to friends. The rest went into the space left by the boxes already brought back to our house. The unit was still crammed with the remains of our youth. Now my husband was in Connecticut and I had to tackle this myself.
First I had to clean the garage. The storage unit items had to fit in the garage, but the garage was full of sports equipment (skis, snowboards, golf clubs, kayaks, bicycles, fishing poles, duck decoys), camping equipment that I might want to use at the house (a portable grill, a wagon, generators, duck decoys for the dogs), tools, things displaced by the Christmas trees and never returned to the house, a crib, a rocking chair (presents for the baby) and what remained of my classroom. (And to think, we parked a car in the garage until the middle of December.) This all had to be arranged neatly so that things hanging from the ceilings and clutter on shelves could be packed. Some items like the bicycles and kayaks were hanging out of the way and really not part of the equation. Cleaning the garage was not that difficult. I even got rid of five more boxes of teaching stuff (three boxes of lesson plans by units went to a neighbor subbing at my old high school; the other two went into the trash). I found more things for the dump. I made room but I wasn’t sure how all the things in the storage unit were going to fit in the garage.
I was able to get everything into the garage by putting furniture in the house. A beautiful full length mirror handmade for Sis in Law by some guy I don’t remember went upstairs. A futon chair that belonged to Middle Daughter (given to us in exchange for the piano) went in the piano’s former spot. A bookcase given to Youngest Daughter by Sister # 3 went into a corner. It looked good there but I had to wonder: did I need it? These were things that others had discarded. Why did I have them now?
The storage unit held surprises. I knew I had some cookie jars, toys, a doll house, an easel, and a paint sprayer. A few boxes held cute projects the girls had done in preschool and elementary school. After that, I had no idea. And I had no concept of how I was going to manage all those boxes.
Even though I drive a huge diesel truck, I wasn’t looking forward to hauling all this home alone. Youngest Daughter’s Ex-Boyfriend (yes, the guy I kicked out of the house) volunteered to help me empty the storage unit. I didn’t say no. The Ex-Boyfriend had moved my daughter home from college; he had moved my teaching materials from one high school to my garage to another high school; he had helped move my parents. He was good at maneuvering my truck and loading boxes. He could get more in the bed of the truck than I could. And carry more to the truck. It took us four trips over four hours. It would have taken me much longer without him—three times as long. Maybe four. I was thankful for his help.
We had mystery boxes. Some were clearly labeled. I had bank statements from the 1970s. I had credit card bills from the 1990s. I had thirty years of tax files. Who needed this stuff? Out came the shredder. I had hours of shows recorded on our DVR. I turned the volume up and watched every one of them, annoyed that I was spending time on material that should have been destroyed years ago. This made me remember that much of what was in our file cabinets upstairs could be shredded as well.
I began to open boxes. Some were notebooks from high school left behind by our eldest daughter. Since she was the first to leave the nest and her sister wanted her room, I boxed everything, everything, evaluating none of it. At least her name was on the boxes. Some things I kept; some things I discarded; a few little things I took over to her house. Middle Daughter somehow had added to the storage unit a large collection of Winnie the Poohs and Tiggers that she did not have in high school. Toss or keep? It’s easy to keep the small purple dragon that my eldest kept on her bed, the floppy cat the middle daughter liked to take to naptime at her preschool, the brown and white dog—Molly—that the youngest got when she was in the hospital. But who owned the Ernie doll? Should I care about the collection of gorillas collected from Planet Hollywoods if the child who collected them no longer cared? Was I supposed to decide this on my own? Indecision paralyzed me.
I found I couldn’t just toss boxes. When I was shredding financial documents, a photo of my eldest daughter, a good friend’s son and their elementary school principal fell out of a bank envelope. What if I threw out something that I wanted? (Of course, the logical question is: would I know that I threw it out?)
I did manage to fill up the bed of the truck with more flotsam and jetsam for the Ex-Boyfriend to take to the dump. But I suspect I should have discarded more. Two decrepit boxes were labeled apartment 204. We lived in Apt 204 in San Francisco thirty years ago. These boxes were filled with papers from graduate school and hadn’t been opened since then. I opened one, saw that I had support materials for graduate applications and then set the entire box aside because if I wanted to teach in Connecticut, I needed to produce SAT or GRE scores. They might be in the box, and I couldn’t sort through it now. I was running out of time. These boxes made it on the truck along with a box of sample shampoos from under my bathroom sink that I meant to discard, financial papers from the last decade, a three foot shelf of classic vinyl, and boxes of hard drives that I should have smashed with a hammer and then taken to an electronic waste day somewhere. My trash can was full. I arranged for six bags of excess garbage to be picked up on trash day but still filled the trash can as soon as it was empty.
Every spring home magazines publish articles on how to reduce clutter, how to live a simple life, how to discard. I read; I purge the surface areas; I organize papers but I never dig deeply into the places where I regulate the things I don’t want to think about. Decluttering your life takes time. So does grading essays, writing lesson plans, grocery shopping, and spending time with your family. It is easy to discard the small things. It’s harder to remember that you have to go back and toss the things you no longer need (old tax files). You have to let go of the clutter in your life. Letting go of objects is like letting go of a relationship. You have nothing left in common but memories. But the memories make you feel like you have to hold on. Like relationships, dealing with things you no longer need can be painful. I know that I am hoarding toys and rubbish from the girls’ lives. Much of this should go. I have to steel myself to remember and let go. I have to sort and discard. I’ll be going to the dump with bags of papers I no longer need and to Good Will with the toys that someone might want after I unpack next month.
If you are wondering about the bird’s nest in the first paragraph, the nest is still in the drawer. I have a grandson on the way. Don’t little boys like looking at cool things like a bird’s nest?