Attics of My Life

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As published in Portico magazine

“DOES THIS SPARK JOY?” Katie Rogers, a decluttering expert, asked. She handed me a white shirt from the mountain of clothes towering beside me in my bedroom.

“How am I supposed to know?” I snapped. Surely it did since I had so many others just like it.

Before we started decluttering, Katie told me to hold each piece of clothing to feel if it “sparked joy,” then discard or return it to my now empty closet.

I threw the stained shirt on the donate pile. “What does that mean anyway? And whoever thought of such a stupid question?”

Marie Kondo, she replied, author of a slim book published in 2014, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which hit number one on the New York Times’ bestseller list in January this year, with her recently released second book, Spark Joy, close behind at number three.

At the beginning of 2015, overwhelmed by a tidal wave of technology gadgets, cords, chargers and more, I’d hired Katie to help me declutter, though truthfully, I thought I’d kept my household in fairly good order. But as Katie and I worked together in three hour increments over the next several months, I realized I was drowning in wretched excess, born not necessarily from greed or hoarding, but more often MY TURN stemming from love, fear, loyalty and even guilt— not to mention some mindless consumerism.

As we organized the chaos, I can’t tell you how many times I announced to Katie, an effervescent petite blonde, I was done sifting through the stuff of family life. Sometimes, I literally ran from the room, horrified by the ridiculous accumulation of things we inherit in the South—linen and lace doilies, antique tablecloths, fine china, collections of toothpick holders and teacups, silver cocktail stirrers and wide-pronged bacon servers, all remnants of a bygone era.

Initially, I thought I was embarking on a practical journey. I had no idea my relationship to material objects reflected an emotional issue. This journey, with its unexpected tears, buried resentment and a miraculous coincidence or two, soon became a spiritual transformation. As Anais Nin writes in her diary in 1944, “If one changes internally, one should not continue to live with the same objects.”

The day Katie arrived we sat in the dining room talking. It just so happened my mother stopped by. I introduced her to Katie and explained what we were doing. My mother bristled.

“Well, you’re not going to throw away anything important, are you?” my mother asked. “Don’t worry,” I said, hoping she would go soon.

She opened the china cabinet and grabbed a hand painted wooden Ukranian egg cup.

“You’re not going to get rid of this, are you?” She held it in front of me.

I shook my head. My mind flashed back to the time I was cleaning out the garage and the “Got Junk” truck was parked in the driveway. The guys loaded the “junk”—old paint cans, a dilapidated swing set, broken tools —onto the truck while my mother snuck around to the other side and unloaded “treasures,” such as my grandfather’s rusty plow, as fast as she could.

“I hope not. It was a gift from me,” she said.

Decluttering, or the conscious dismantling of your life, is most certainly a family affair. Most of the time, my husband Hugo was supportive, until he thought I’d donated some of his art books to Emmet O’Neal Library. My children, Clint and Frances, resented the process from the beginning, but begrudgingly complied.

As I agonized over keeping things like an ugly lamp I was given as a wedding gift, I started to see “my stuff” with fresh eyes. I realized the gift giver’s kind intention is enough. We’re not obligated to hold on to items out of guilt or a false sense of nostalgia. Eventually, I understood if I surrounded myself with only those objects evoking warm feelings about a particular person, place or memory as opposed to conjuring up negative associations, then joy is what I invited into my life.

Working with Katie, I learned to sift through categories, not rooms. Following the “KonMarie Method,” we decluttered in a specific order, beginning with clothes, as they reflect our most intimate connection to material objects, and moving next to books and paper. I also learned there’s prime real estate for what you use daily, secondary real estate for those items you need easy access to, and third tier space for mementoes and keepsakes. At one point, though, we veered off in our own direction following the rhythm and order unfolding for us.

In the kitchen, as in almost every category, I found too many of the same things when I needed only one. I confronted the bizarre reality in which I owned an olive depitter, a meat tenderizer though I’m a vegetarian and an elaborate Williams-Sonoma cupcake kit, the package never opened.

Going through my children’s mementoes and baby clothes was, by far, the hardest part. Reducing all their treasures into one big plastic box each made my heart ache. It felt like squeezing someone’s life into a few lines of copy in an obituary. An impossible task.

Sorting through baby clothes, stuffed animals, enough Thomas the Tank Engine toys to fund Clint’s college and American Girl dolls to donate to a toy museum, I had to accept the fact Clint’s and Frances’s childhoods were over. I had to accept they would never read my own childhood collection of Nancy Drew books and my brother’s Hardy Boy books I’d saved for them. When I packed up these books, I put them in the back of my car where they stayed for weeks before I had the courage to go to Jim Reed Books and Museum of Fond Memories on Third Avenue North downtown and donate them.

Once there, a store overflowing with rare books and memorabilia from people’s estates, I stayed a long time. I sat on the dusty floor, opening each book, finding inscriptions from my parents on Christmas Day or a birthday, and staring at my first attempts at cursive on my favorite turtle bookplate. It was a long good-bye.

The last area we tackled was my storage unit. The day we stood in front of a 10’ X 20’ space packed with furniture, baby beds, wedding and christening gowns, artwork, childhood trophies, rugs, ski clothes, photographs, financial papers, suitcases and clothes, 80s music blasting through the facility, Katie informed me this area represented the “hidden debris” in my life. In other words, what did I have tucked away in the dark corners of my mind I’d refused to face?

When I went to find a cart, I ran into a young man walking down the hallway.

“Ms. Scott?” he asked.

I hadn’t been called that in years. It turns out this young man, Drew Tucker, one of my former students, now owned an auction house, and he was gathering discards to sell that Friday. I showed him my stuff. He took it ALL. What I learned then, and during many smaller moments throughout this process, is when you do the hard work of letting go and creating space for a fresh identity, the universe responds with unexpected coincidences.

There was one item, though, I couldn’t let go of: my dollhouse, the one built for my mother when she was a little girl. I’d spent so many magical days of my childhood playing with it, but I finally made the decision to find a new home for it when I admitted to myself my daughter Frances was well past that stage, and it made no sense to hang on for that elusive day she may or may not have her own daughter.

But it wasn’t that simple. The dollhouse had to go to just the right person, and when I tried to contact a couple of relatives, we kept playing phone tag. Finally, one day when I went to a family party, my cousin asked about the dollhouse. He wanted to build one just like it for one of his grandchildren. I smiled. Sometimes this process orchestrates its own divine timing. He came and carried it off to refurbish the very next day.

A year after starting this project, my spending habits have shifted. Most of the time before I complete a transaction, I ask myself, do I really need a hard-boiled egg slicer? Can’t I just slice the egg myself?

In the end, when you face your stuff, you face your mortality. No matter how hard or long we hold onto the things that define us, our identities transform beyond a particular object, and the traces of our lives die with us. Our scribbles are lost. Our lives become artifacts in a dusty store, discards on a trash pile in a landfill, quaint relics on an antique collector’s shelf. There’s nothing I or anyone else can do to stop the passage of time, to stop ourselves from disappearing, to prevent the losses we must endure. In the meantime, if we surround ourselves with only those things that spark joy, that’s what we invite into our lives.


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