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Mar 11 2014

Getting Rid of Stuff is Hard, Especially When it Tells a Story

By at 12:28 pm

costumes

My husband and I have been in our house for almost seven years now. After moving houses (all on the island, which has a dearth of year-round rentals) a total of seven times in our first two years here and resisting the accumulation of a whole lot of stuff (besides the necessities, including a complete menagerie of musical instruments), we’ve been able to relax, spread out and acquire.

We sort through things annually and donate to Goodwill or bring things to our town transfer station, which functions as an on-going free swap meet as well as a dump and recycling station. My husband, who genuinely fears and dreads clutter, will suddenly cave to impulses requiring him to get rid of a lot of mugs at once. But still, the stuff has piled up, in the basement and especially in the office/guest room that will become the baby’s room.

Suddenly, we had to make room for a whole other human being in our house. And she comes with her own stuff.

Making the baby’s room her own space (which, granted, she won’t fully occupy for a while yet) meant consolidating a walk-in closet into our much smaller closet, as well as moving the more office-y elements out of her room. Clothes that didn’t get regular use but were too special to give away (wedding dress, ahem) would move to the basement.

But putting more things in the basement meant that my husband suddenly had to redo the entire basement. If you give a mouse a cookie, it’s going to ask for some milk, right? Or in this case, a new workbench and a rolling tool box. Which meant getting rid of a whole lot more stuff than I had originally pictured.

As we sorted through clothes, books, stored furniture and piles of electronics deciding what to keep and what to give away or throw away, our story – and pieces of our lives before we met – started to come together. Here was the coffee table I grew up with (soon to move to a good home with some friends just starting out together). Here was the wig I was wearing when I met my husband (who then didn’t recognize me when he saw me for the first time without it). Stamps from our trip to Japan. A Rock ‘n’ Bowl shirt from a trip taken to New Orleans with a previous boyfriend, but too cool to get rid of. I saw Sun Ra’s Arkestra at the Rock ‘n’ Bowl. I want to tell my kid about that, with visual aids. The dress my band mate made for me for our New Year’s Eve show–the night my sister and brother-in-law got together–I may never wear it again, but it helps to tell my story.

I heard a TED Radio Hour show about happiness in the middle of this process. One of the speakers was Graham Hill, of “Life Edited.” I can get behind a lot of his principles–my husband and I, our pets, and our worldly possessions happily occupy 1200 energy-efficient square feet of house. Ours is a relatively small space, though not as dramatic as some of the houses his group designs. But in his talk, he advocates using photographs of sentimental objects to replace the objects themselves.

I know that my childhood wouldn’t have been the same without playing with my grandmother’s costume jewelry, or playing mermaid in my cousin’s voluminous green velvet bridesmaid’s dress. I want my daughter to put on my wigs and my husband’s leather jacket and have a rock show. I want her to clump around in her father’s fabulous silver platform boots. I want her to have the full tactile dress-up experience and through it, experience moments from the story of her family. Pictures, at least of some of these precious objects, just wouldn’t cut it.

We filled three Goodwill bags, in the end, and a file cabinet and two desks went to the transfer station along with several bags of actual trash. The file cabinet and printer from the room formerly known as the office are in the basement, and my husband’s new workbench and rolling toolbox are gleaming and beautiful. We lost a lot of excess, gained two much more functional spaces, and preserved a lot of memories that my daughter will be able to touch, smell, wear and dance around in.

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