Life and the Concept of Clutter

Sounds like I’m writing a philosophical thesis, doesn’t it?  But, I’m not.  It’s just a few thoughts on a subject that bugs me — and millions of others, I suppose — the dreaded ‘c’ word, clutter.

My husband and I have fought many battles over what I call clutter and he calls history. It’s a collection of stuff that we’ve accumulated over our 35 years together.  Some of it’s good stuff, most of it is not.  There’s a lot of stuff we inherited from his parents and that is a particularly touchy area.  There is all the stuff of Landon’s, our son, that I’ve kept.  Our home is packed with bits and pieces of holidays, photographs, art (the kind we could afford), old toys, china teacups, pottery, glass, miniatures, cigar and cigarette cases, rocks, kitsch, junk.

Ah, and there it is: junk.  That’s what usually causes the fight.  (And just so I’m clear about this — no, Tim and I did not have a fight about our ‘junk’ — I woke up this morning thinking about clutter and what it means to each of us.)

Tim’s idea is that our clutter is a form of history.  And I’m beginning to see his side.  My idea is that it is a lot of useless stuff that needs to be gone through and gotten rid of in case we die in a fiery car wreck and our son gets stuck with the onerous job of dealing with it all.  I’ve tried pointing this out to Tim numerous times, because it is what he and his brothers had to do after their parents died (not in a fiery car wreck, though).  He says that although it was tough he was glad they did it.  It brought back a lot of memories of their lives as boys with their parents.

Landon won’t have that because he is an only child, and so, I guess, my reasoning is to protect him from the loneliness of such a task.  But, who knows?  Perhaps he would include his children and share with them some of the memories he had of growing up with us.  It’s impossible to know.

In thinking about my need to clean and purge I’ve come to the realization that it was born from the influence of magazines and television shows.  I love to pick up home decor magazines and leaf through them oohing and aahing over the gorgeous rooms and sparkling bare countertops.  I eye photos of polished wooden tables bare except for lavish bouquets of designer blossoms, and bedrooms with vast expanses of floors bare of anything save  hand-woven, rough-spun cotton throw rugs and I swoon with desire.

I read about ideas for taking treasured mementos and turning them into space-saving crafts — like making a collage of family photos on a wooden tea-tray, or decoupaging your children’s art onto a lamp base, or making mobiles out of old silver place settings handed down from Grandma or old Aunt Dottie.  These are fabulous ideas, and I tell myself that they would work, but then, I mention them to Tim and he gets a horrified look in his eyes.  You want to destroy our pictures?  And then, I get to thinking:  what happens if the project doesn’t turn out as nice as it should.  (This happens, trust me.)  Tim’s suggestion is to take the pictures, make copies and use them.  So, I’m then left with the prospect of still having the original photo clutter and a nice tea-tray that I won’t use, or having the original photo clutter and a tea-tray that gets shunted into a closet somewhere.

Which leads to my next big fear about clutter:  that we become hoarders.

I watch the television show, Hoarders.  It scares the bejeezus out of me.  It’s disturbing to see how out of control people can become when it comes to their stuff.  Could that happen to us, I wonder.  Already our basement is like a maze (even without the couple dozen boxes of my son’s family belongings, stored while they wait to move into their new home).  We have shelving units crammed to the rafters with junk, piles of wood and coffee cans filled with nails, screws, bits of this and bits of that.  Tim has at least a dozen different tool boxes and bags, none of which are full.  His workbench is a complete disarray of everything that just gets plunked there.

In the upstairs, just off our living room, is a closet where I keep my craft projects.  A couple of years ago I went through it and got rid of a bunch of stuff — but it is still crammed with projects I haven’t touched in years.  Beading, knitting, embroidery, calligraphy, painting, weaving, sewing, candle making — it’s all there in the dark, hidden beneath a dozen or so of our unworn coats.  Every year I say I’m going to get rid of those coats, but every year I hang them back up thinking there might be a need for them.  I do this with a heavy heart, knowing that there are plenty of people in our province who could use a nice warm, though slightly dated, coat come winter.  Still, I place them back on the hangers and close the closet door.  Out of sight. . .

. . .but not out of mind.  No, never out of mind.

Getting back to my slowly changing opinion about whether our stuff is history or junk.  I get where Tim is coming from.  Having a houseful of clutter is like having a houseful of interesting.  Those rooms that I so adore, the ones devoid of clutter?  Those would be boring after a while.  Especially to children.  With nothing to look at, touch or play with in such rooms, why would children even want to be in them.  Our rooms, though filled with clutter, and completely lacking any sense of design or decorating taste, are interesting.  When my grandkids come they always find something to ask about or to play with.  And Tim and I both enjoy sharing little stories with them about whatever it is they hold in their hands.

And, when we have visitors, people are always intrigued by some ‘thing’ we’ve got hanging around or sitting on a shelf.  It often amazes me what people notice, but I’m always happy to share a story with them.

And, so, that is why when I woke up this morning thinking with despair about having to dust my kitchen wall unit and the chore that it would be because there is so much junk in and on it, I remembered Tim holding Timothy up to the cupboard and taking out a small, painted metal horse that was part of a game he had when he was a little boy.  And I remembered the look of delight on Timothy’s face as Tim placed it in his hand, and how he listened so carefully while Tim explained how he used to play with it.

Someday, all of these things that have been a part of lives — the trivial, everyday bits and pieces — will be tiny reminders of who we were and that we were.  They are, in a sense, part of our history.

Still the question remains:   How do I achieve balance between history and clutter?  I’m going to leave it for a while; think about it while I dust and hold in my hands some of the past 35 years of my life.

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7:16 A.M. Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My lunch was made last night, so, hopefully, I can get this written and still be on time for work.

It’s a very busy time for me right now, big meeting coming up tomorrow, plus lots of other CUPE business to be taken care of before the end of June.  I’m doing my best to stay on top of it, but I have to be honest, I’d much rather just let it all go and spend my time outside in my yard or on working on jobs around this house.  There is just so much to do and never enough time to do it all.

I have, however, gotten better at not stressing about it.  I do what I can and tell myself to be satisfied that I’ve done the best I can.  The world is not going to fall apart, I am not going to be tarred and feathered if something slips, and,  in the end, I’m the only person who’s really going to care.  Everyone else is as busy with their lives as I am with mine.  Let’s face it — I’m just not that important.

Now, when I say that, I am not being self-deprecating.  I simply mean that in the big scheme of things, my little life — my worries, my failings and faults, my successes and strengths — these things are really only important to me and to a very select few family and friends.  And even then, the importance of my daily life is not uppermost in their lives.  It’s their lives and the lives of their children, spouses, and significant others that matter most.  And that is how it should be.

Each of us wants to be thought of as important.  We want to make an imprint on the world, we want, in the end, to be remembered.  But history books only have so much space, and that space has to be allotted for the truly important.

I think that we’ve been seduced by media, in all its forms, into seeking recognition for our individual self-importance.   And though I wholeheartedly believe that each of us must believe in our own self-worth and have a strong sense of who we are, I don’t believe that outside of our own little circle of family and friends, we should be concerned about what the rest of the world thinks.

Being present in your own life, making a difference to those who matter most in your life, and being, for the most part, happy in all that you do, that should be what is truly important.  Not whether your name is mentioned in a newspaper, or your face appears on a list of ‘volunteers of the year’, whether or not you are celebrated at a community event, or named as chair of some committee — though  these are all wonderful achievements, they shouldn’t be the driving force behind any good deed.

Shows like Secret Millionaire and  Undercover Boss  are just two examples of vehicles that promote people seeking the sort of recognition I’m talking about.  I can’t stand either of these shows simply because they are a showcase for people greedy for public recognition and a platform for them to promote their self-importance.  The real heroes of those shows are the unsung individuals who were doing all the hard work before the ‘celebrities’ appeared (in disguise).

So, I guess what I’m saying is:  Be important, but be important to those who matter most in your life first, then be important without wanting or needing recognition.  If recognition comes, then, you’ve probably earned it through action, not self-promotion, and that will likely mark you as someone to be remembered.

Monday, March 8, 2010

It’s been a good day.  I took the day off to get some Union stuff done — and I got it done.  Yay, me!

Heather and I went for a walk in Gibbons this afternoon.  It’s lovely along the river path — slippery as hell in some spots, but very nice.  Spring really is just around the corner, but not before we get blasted with cold and snow one more time. 

March came in like a lamb, so you just know it’s going to go out like a lion, right? 

That old saying has stuck with me since Grade 3.  I remember doing some little craft in school with cotton balls.  One side of the picture was a lion roaring and blowing icy cold breath all over, and the other side was lambs and sunshine and flowers.  Why that’s stayed with me, I’ll never know, but when ever I think of March I think of that picture that tiny little me made all those years ago. 

Speaking of nostalgia. . .

I kept lots of Landon’s school work — something from every grade.  Every once in a while I pull it out and look through it, just to remind myself that once upon a time he was small and he made things that brightened my day, my life. 

Now he’s all grown up and he (and his lovely wife, Jennifer) have made me three beautiful grandchildren.  Like he once did, they make me smile and give my life purpose.  I’ve started collecting little things they make, tacking them to the fridge and putting them away in notebooks and albums.  Someday, not all that far from now, I’ll be able to look at those things and remember the joy they gave me.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to share them with them, and the things their daddy made, too. 

Having these little connections to the past, to who we were, who we believed ourselves to be, is so very important, I think.  My husband goes on about history, as it pertains to family, and sometimes I get frustrated with him, because he’s always lamenting that it’s dying. 

I don’t think that kind of history ever dies, as long as you hold on to the little things, the things that make you smile, make your heart ache when you think on them.  Whether it’s a tiny little hockey coat, or a Christmas card made of construction paper and coloured crayons, these are the real artifacts of the life we live, the life we share, the life we celebrate as family. 

Family, as if you couldn’t tell,  is it, as far as I’m concerned. 

Once upon a time, in my wilder, misguided days, I didn’t think so.  In fact, I was often heard repeating what a very good friend of mine often said:  Family is over-rated. 

I didn’t understand then, just how stupid that was.  Now, when I look at those words I can’t believe I ever said them.  Because, to me, my family is what defines me.  It places me in the world, gives me a reference point, it roots me, stabilizes me, makes me feel I matter. 

And mattering, that’s what life is really all about, isn’t it?  Some are lucky enough to matter on a grand scale — think the Olympics, or the Oscars, or Pulitzer prize winners.  But most of us, including them, matter on a much smaller, far more intimate scale. 

Knowing that there is a group of people to whom your existence matters is like winning a prize each and every day of your life.  And collecting all the tiny bits of stuff — the pictures, the handprints in plaster or play-dough, the scribbled pictures, the favorite story and the stained sleeper — all these are the very best kind of trophies. 

The history of family never dies as long as you keep it out, keep it visible.  We have a cupboard in our kitchen filled with a bunch of old toys, and bits and pieces of stuff that came from Tim’s parents’ house after they died.  Whenever the kids come to visit they always want to look at those old, faded, chipped and broken toys.  I take them out and let them hold them, tell them a little story to go along with each one. 

Or they go to my collection of miniatures that Landon and Tim have been buying for me since Landon was little.  “I want to hold the bird bath, Grandma.  Why did Daddy give you a bird bath?”  “I like the puppy.  Can I hold the puppy?  What was the puppy’s name Grandma?”  

I never get tired of showing them, or answering their questions.  I just hope they never get tired of asking them. 

History, family, it’s what you choose to make of it.