The Melancholy of Clutter

We set aside the month of January to do it, and jotted down each task; we estimated the required amount of time for every action (in hours, or days, depending on complexity) and, most importantly, we negotiated and agreed upon the areas of our respective responsibilities, inscribing each with an A or a V, and sometimes with A and V, where cooperation seemed necessary.

It is the removal of accumulated stuff I am talking about, an activity some well organized households perform on a regular basis. That’s unless one is lazy, or likes hoarding, or both.

You see, I agree with the concept. Over the years I often and gallantly told my wife that I don’t have a problem with her buying anything new, as long as whatever she is replacing gets thrown away or donated. “You be the one to throw things away,” she said. So, things piled up. Everywhere: on the bookshelves, in the closets, in the garage, in the utility room, and under the basement stairs. I remember how years ago, when we moved into this house from a much smaller townhouse, we marveled at all the available space. And now every corner is stuffed. It’s not visible to the innocent visitor, but we, who reside in the house, know better.

My daughter’s idealistic belief used to be that one must possess no more than a hundred items, a pair of shoes counting as two (how to count the shoe laces?). She made this minimalistic commitment while hiking the Appalachian Trail — the entire trail. I agreed with her and I still do, sort of. (Now my daughter owns a four-bedroom house in the suburbs of Denver, and the clutter in her basement might exceed ours. Oh well, the romanticism of the young!)

Think about it. Our children left the house more than a decade ago, but their remnants are everywhere: old sweaters and hiking boots, high school year books, VHS tapes, music CD’s, text books, diplomas. After all, this is their home, too. Looking through their things we understand that their departure is permanent; and that, as painful as it is, it’s high time for these vestiges of their former existence to be relocated to their new homes. Luckily, we have UPS.

And alas, our parents are gone. With dread in our hearts and a feeling of the inevitable we cleaned out their apartments. We gave what we could give, threw away a lot, and in the end brought home small collections of items that meant something to us — old letters, passports, photographs, cigarette lighters, and combs. My father’s glasses are still on the shelf in my study. My wife’s grandfather’s ivory letter opener shines behind a window in the display cabinet in our dining room. But most of these personal items are in boxes, long forgotten and hidden and we must look through them.

We have many books — hundreds, more than a thousand, I think. They fill our built in bookshelves in the large room of our finished basement. I remember a few years ago we reviewed all our books, the really old ones (including a row of leather bound 19th century volumes printed in hard to read Gothic German characters, inherited from my wife’s grandfather, and paperbacks from a collection of classic writers translated into Romanian, which we studied in high school and shipped here) and the newer books, purchased over our forty years of American existence. We alphabetized the books by author, segregating them by language and content, and got rid of the riffraff. But books have a way of popping up like mushrooms after a rainfall. The ones we read recently we placed on our nightstand shelves and stacked in multicolored piles on the floor, and on the built in bench in the basement. Kindle didn’t help. Accumulation continues.

Then there are the many knick-knacks. They are beautiful — most of them. All have a pedigree and a story to tell. They remind us of people we love and places we’ve seen. Yet some of the knick-knacks are hidden away because we don’t like them, but we didn’t have the heart to throw them out. Parting is difficult: the ugly vase my mother gave us; the wooden sculpture my father-in-law fashioned out of a dead tree branch; my dad’s anatomy book. They’ll all go into a box for Goodwill to decide if useful or not. No emotions included.

They say you should keep tax returns, bills and receipts seven years — just in case. There are people who methodically file away their documents by category: Visa, Master Card. My method is simpler: I throw them all in a box identified with the word ‘Current,’ and when it’s full, I write the year on it and I stash it away. I have many boxes in different closets from before 2010. “Easy,” I said. “We’ll recycle.” “Wrong,” my wife said. “It’s not safe. Need to shred them instead.”

My wife, who is a passionate photographer, has 13,500 digital pictures to go through. Our albums from the times when photos were printed, i.e. the fifties, the sixties, the seventies, and on and on, wait on shelves and the photos are fading. We look young and beautiful in these photos, and our children look happy and cute. Our parents are younger than we are today. We have slides, and dozens of videotapes. I read that when you clean out you should organize the photos and videos last. Reviewing them brings back too many memories and it does take a long time to decide what to keep and what to jettison. We must lighten the load. What remains will be stored in the cloud — fewer boxes for our kids to go through. More passwords.

I think of all these objects that come from the past. Most of them are just that — inanimate objects. But some have a life of their own. It’s unjust that things outlive their creators — buildings, furniture, books, paintings. When I take my father’s glasses and I balance them in between my fingers I see his image in front of my eyes. I could almost sense his scent. Yes, his glasses are here, but my father is gone.

The start of the year is not a good time for reflection. Enough of this literary clutter, and foot dragging forever. No feeling sorry of any kind.

Don your gloves, and…to work!

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