Sentimental “Stuff,” Part 2

I’ve written about how I recently dealt with the sentimental paper clutter I’d been carting around for years.  Now I need to confess to some non-paper, large item, sentimental clutter that I struggle over.

The first involves a bit of back story.  I’d been helping my mom’s family clean out my grandmother’s home and garage, and I’d been able to select and keep a few furniture pieces that held loads of memories for me.  I was so glad to bring home these items; they put a smile on my face and made me think of her.  As the moving truck pulled up in our driveway, I gave directions on where I wanted the things to go.  We were the last stop on their list for the day; they’d dropped some things off at my sister’s house and my parent’s house and now were finishing their job at ours.

After getting things placed in the right rooms, I headed back into the garage, where I discovered them unloading a decrepit, broken-legged cedar chest onto the garage floor, complete with unattached lid (with holes in it).

I flipped.  “I said I didn’t want that!!” I hollered, in a joking-but-not-really-joking way.

One of the movers cracked up.  “Yeah, he said you’d say that,” he laughed, referring to my dad.

And why, you ask, would I not just cart the falling-apart cedar chest to the curb and pitch it?  Because my great-grandfather made it.  Those little words completely transform my view of that piece of furniture; it makes me responsible for it, in a way, and makes me feel the need to fix it, to mend it, to make it usable again, however that might be done.

The other piece of furniture is a beautiful chair that was in my other grandparents’ home.  It has an ornately carved back of dark wood, with hand-embroidered back and seat cushions done by my grandmother:  again, she made it, and now I feel responsible for it.  It actually hadn’t been a problem until our last move; up until now, the chair always had a place to “live,” even if it didn’t exactly match the rest of the house.  Here, though, there really was no place to put it; it was just sitting in the basement collecting dust, until my daughter needed a chair in her room.  I threw a bedsheet over it and cinched it with a big purple ribbon:  instant slipcover for a chair that would have otherwise never been used.  (My dad was teasing me about being so cheap that I didn’t want to buy a chair, but it’s hard to justify buying a chair when there’s a usable one stashed in the basement.)

I think this is my biggest struggle with some sentimental “stuff:”  that sense of responsibility toward it, the feeling that it’s my “job” to “take care” of it; that it’s been “entrusted” to me.  There are plenty of sentimental things that I’m happy to have, but some items have turned into burdens more than blessings.  In spite of that, I admit that I don’t know how to get past that idea of “responsibility” and finally let go of them.

Sentimental “Stuff”

Three houses ago, we moved for the “last time.”  (Haha.)  But three houses ago was when I cleaned out my bedroom at my parents’ house, and took everything I wanted to keep.  Most of that stuff was books; even back then, I knew I didn’t want to be moving books constantly.  I waited till we were settled, where we would be living “for good,” and then moved the books, along with more sentimental stuff like notes and letters from friends, papers I wrote in school….you get the idea.

Over the course of the next few years, I lost my grandparents, and gained more sentimental things:  this time, furniture related.  (I joke that our house is decorated in “acquired traditional.”)  Now, though, I was becoming more aware of how overwhelming all this “stuff” could be, because I was helping to clean out the houses, and I was becoming much more deliberate in the choices I was making.  Do I want my grandmother’s corner cabinets from her dining room?  Yes, please!  Do I want nine-tenths of the other furniture?  Absolutely not.

Two moves later, I was finally able to look at some of this “keepsake” stuff and be a bit more harsh in my evaluations:  our lugging it around so much had a lot to do with my change in attitude towards all of it.  One afternoon I forced myself to go through boxes of old photos and was able to pitch three-quarters of them.   I’d been taking pictures since middle school, and who wants pictures from middle school?  Ugh.  I read through old notes and letters, and was horrified at how obnoxiously self-centered I was:  trash it.  I went through my binders of papers written for school:  out.

One over-arching rule dictated my ruthlessness:  does this make me smile?  A few photos, a few notes and letters, yes, absolutely!  They brought a smile to my face every time I looked at them.  But after moving pounds and pounds of papers, over and over, I thought I was ready to let go.  Once they hit the recycling bin, I kept waiting for the sense of panic I sort of expected:  What have you done??  You got rid of that?!?  But it never came.  Instead, I was surprised to find that I felt more relief than panic.  We’re not planning on moving again, but that’s a lot less stuff to have to deal with if we do.

I think that rule is a good place to start when dealing with sentimental clutter:  does this make me smile?  Most of my paper stuff had been carried around for so long that lots of it meant very little to me anymore, and once I finally made myself go through it, it was remarkably easy to plow through quite quickly.

What if everything makes you smile?  What if you’re knee-deep in sentiment and all of it “makes you smile,” but you’re overwhelmed by the amount and know that you need to give some away?  Take a picture.  If you’re really crafty you could make a scrapbook full of “special” things, and write why they’re special–and then pass on the things.  If you’re not so creatively talented, keep the photos stored on your computer and look at them whenever you want a smile–and then pass on the things.  (A screen-saver of “special things” could be great–a continual scroll of things that make you smile.)

I’m definitely not one of those people who thinks you should get rid of everything.  There comes a point, though, where it really is too much, and I think we know it when we get there.  That is the time to do something about it.  Preferably before your sixth move.

Merry Christmas!

If ever there was a sign that Christmas is too excessive around here, I just had it.  A ridiculous sign.  A completely embarrassing sign.  A sign that I’m mortified to write about, but because I feel that way, I know I should.  So here we go…..

My children’s school is holding their book fair next week, and my son got a “sneak preview” at his library time yesterday.  After school he sat, poring over the flyer with all the titles listed, thinking about what he wanted to get.  At some point, he informed me that there was a really cool amusement park DS game.

I stopped what I was doing and stood there a moment.  “Yeah, but didn’t you get that for Christmas?”

He looked at me, eyes wide.  “No.”

“Are you sure?  I’m almost positive I bought that for you at the last book fair, as a Christmas gift.”

“No, Mom, I don’t have it.  Do we have it?” He was getting excited now.  “Because I don’t have it.”

That started an evening full of me second guessing myself (Am I losing my mind?  Did I change my mind, put it back, and not buy it?  Did I never get it out to wrap?) and my son hounding me to look for it.  I told him I would look first thing after they went to school the next day, because I’m not disassembling the laundry room closet in front of my kids.

So this morning, yes, there it was, laying down flat on the very top shelf, well out of my line of vision.  The stupid DS game I’d gotten him for Christmas and forgotten to give to him.

What bothers me in this instance is not my absent-mindedness, although that’s admittedly a little distressing.  It’s the idea that we had so much stuff to unwrap, so many gifts given and received, that I didn’t even notice it was missing.  The really unfortunate part, for me, is that I thought we’d done a better job this season of not being so excessive in our….um…. “celebration.”  I truly thought we’d scaled back, and had been much more reasonable this year.

A thought proven wrong by one small game.



Left behind

We were halfway through a nine-hour drive home from our family vacation when my husband’s cell phone rang.  It was the hotel, informing us that we’d “left an item” behind.

“What?”  I asked, as in, what the heck was it?  We’d scoured that room repeatedly before we left; I was pretty sure it was empty.

She couldn’t tell me over the phone; my husband would have to figure out the missing item and call her back to identify it, and then we could make arrangements to pick it up.  (Um…..did you notice the area code you just dialed?  We’re not exactly next door.)

My husband and I spent the next five to ten minutes running through every possible item we could have possibly left behind.  My immediate response was to turn to the kids in the backseat and start an inventory of “loveys:”  “Do you have Blanket?  Do you have your Blanket?” and on down the line of stuffed animals that just had to come with us.  Finally, eventually, we realized we’d left a pair of my husband’s jeans hanging in the hotel closet.  Oops.

I tell this story because of two observations I made in that scramble of “what’s missing?”

First, the most important things to us, the “oh, no, we left that?” things, the things that would be truly heartbreaking to lose, are things that look like total garbage to other people.  Aside from my camera (photos) and our phones (photos and information), all the important stuff doesn’t look important.  Things like stuffed animals worn gray from so much love, and blankets that are–in the words of my son–no longer blankets, but “a wad of yarn.”  These are the things that no amount of money could ever replace; the things that, while we might not drive back for them, we would absolutely pay to ship home into the waiting arms of their owners.

Second, I wondered how many people have so much stuff that if they left something behind, they might never figure out what it was.  It took us a long time to walk through what we’d brought and what we possibly could have left, and we’d only been away for four nights.  I wondered how often the hotel would call people informing them of an “item left behind,” and people would never call back, because they didn’t ever really notice it was gone, they didn’t ever really miss it.  I’m beginning to look around my home, now, wondering:  would I miss that?  If that item went away, would I want it back?  Would I pay to retrieve it?  It’s been an interesting exercise.

If nothing else, I’ve learned to check hotel closets.  🙂

Moving Up

I struck up a conversation with a mom in the park one day.  She was one of those really easy-to-talk-to people; one of those people where one question—“So, you just moved?”—unleashes the entire backstory of the entire event, and all you need to do is nod and smile.

The (condensed) story went something like this:

“Yes, we weren’t even looking to move, but then we found out about this foreclosure, this woman was telling me all about how her house was going to be foreclosed on and we started really talking and I talked to my husband and we went to take a look at it, and it’s SO much bigger than our other house, with all this space, and the kids wouldn’t even have to change schools [it was in a neighboring subdivision], so we totally jumped on it.  It’s got FIVE bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths; it’s SO much bigger than the other house we were in….”

At this point, I admit, I laughed.  “I wouldn’t want to clean three-and-a-half baths,” I joked.  “I can barely stay on top of the two-and-a-half we have.  Or have to clean five bedrooms.”

“Oh, it’s not a problem,” she assured me.  “We just keep the doors closed and don’t ever go in those rooms.”  And the story continued….

But I got kind of stuck there.

I’m not even going to comment on that statement.  I’m just going to let it stand, by itself, in all its ridiculous glory.  (Okay, I guess that was a comment.)

The rest of the “conversation,” all I could think was, what’s the point??  Why on earth subject yourself to the hassle of a move, to the sorting and packing and cleaning and unpacking and having to sell your house (in a terrible market, I might add), to get a bigger home that you weren’t even going to use??  I realize that as a Christian, my perspective is vastly different from some people’s; but this is one situation where even just logically, it doesn’t seem to make sense.  Am I the only one to see the unbelievable futility in this?

Unintended consequences

I’ve been thinking about the unintended consequences of the choices we make ever since I wrote the post about the banker and his $350K pay.  At that point, I focused on the biggest choice we make:  our attitude about our money; whether we treat it as a gift from God, or something we did ourselves.

Since then, though, I’ve been thinking more about the domino effect of our choices:  how one choice automatically leads to another, and another, and so on.    To use the banker as an example:  by deciding to become an investment banker on Wall Street, he (by default) chose an incredibly high cost of living.  While he could move to a cheaper area, (though probably not in this housing market), a move would result in a much, much longer commute.  His choice of occupation dictates much of the trouble he’s dealing with now.

We went through our own version of this a few years ago.  When my husband and I originally moved back to this area, we took his place of work and drew a “twenty-minute” radius around it.  Twenty minutes seemed like a reasonable commute, and we only looked for houses within that area.  Job change after job change would alter the commute, but never terribly far from that twenty minutes we started with.

Until his last job.  The twenty-minute commute turned into a forty-five minute commute (on a good day).  Sometimes, if traffic was exceptionally bad, we were looking at over an hour.  During overtime season (which would coincide with winter) he would be setting his alarm for 4:00 in the morning, to get to work early for OT, driving on snowy, icy highways.  It was getting really, really ugly.  So we decided to go back to our twenty-minute idea, and move; especially before the kids started school.

Keep in mind this was supposed to be a lateral move–we were not looking to “move up,” not going bigger and better, just closer to work (though I was shooting for a four-bedroom instead of a three).  But the definition of “closer to work” meant, we discovered, a more expensive house.  Not bigger or better or fancier (actually, most rooms are smaller); but still a bit more expensive.

Even now I think about “if we’d just moved a little farther west…..”  A few miles further and we would have paid a little less for housing–but it would have completely defeated the purpose of moving.  The goal was to save time (and get my husband his life back); a forty-five minute commute from the west instead of the east wouldn’t have gained us a thing.

(One other observation:  what we pay for in mortgage payments is MORE than made up for in what we save on gas.  So actually, we’re still coming out ahead.)

Think about choices and consequences, though, the next time you get tied up in knots about a problem.  What choices were made that lead up to this?  Is it something that can be changed?  I know that the housing market is a disaster right now, so harping about poor choices in housing is pointless.  But try to think back–really think back–to where the dominoes started to fall.  Is there a choice I can change to help simplify my life?  To help in my finances?  Is there something I thought was a “need” that’s actually a “want?”  Follow that trail of dominoes back to the beginning.  That is where the most effective change will be made.

Trash Day

I drive down our neighborhood streets after dropping the kids off at school and am in awe of trash day.  Every Friday, we pull our bins to the curb, and every Friday, it’s a learning experience.  Some houses will occasionally have stuffed-to-the-rim bins–you can tell they’ve just tackled a basement or a garage.  Other people have clearly moved in or out; large cardboard boxes stacked next to the recycling bins and lots of extra garbage for the week.  And there are a few houses–maybe one or two–who constantly, consistently, have trash bins overflowing, week after week after week.

Those are the houses that get me.  I’m amazed by the amount of waste generated by an “average” family in an “average” area of an “average” city.  I actually wonder how they do it.  Do they just have a really big family?  Do they not recycle at all?  Do they just buy that much stuff?  Are they cleaning out years worth of accumulation?  (This neighborhood is not that old.)  How do they do that?

So there I am, on my high horse, with my family that generates one bag of trash a week (though definitely a full recycling bin every two).  I consider it a successful birthday party if we can still throw away one bag of trash on party week; it’s actually something I really work toward.  (Silly, I know.)  I hate the idea that there are people who are piling on in landfills without a care in the world.

And now…..

Now we are tearing apart our decrepit deck, and there is a dumpster sitting in our driveway.  No more high horse for me.  We are about to generate, in two days worth of demolition, more trash that we’ve probably put out in our entire time living here.  Now I will take my self-inflated ego, newly punctured and deflated, and admit that yes, we make trash, too.  Sometimes, we make lots of it.  There comes a time, though, when I have to recognize that something just isn’t usable.  It isn’t recyclable, or donatable, or–in this case–even safe.  Sometimes, things have to get thrown away.  Hopefully, next week, we’ll be back to one bag of trash.  But it will take a lot of “one bag” trash days to make up for this morning.