Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
The Things and Joy Question
I’ve been reading about this young woman, Marie Kondo, who’s devised a system for decluttering your life. You’re supposed to hold an object that you own in your hands and determine if said object sparks joy. If it doesn’t you can dump it. What you’re left with is only those things that have true meaning to you. The Konmari method, which now is accessible through four books and a Netflix show, supposedly helps create an environment which promotes introspection, mindfulness and “forward” thinking. Peace and clarity. I’ve seen people speak about this process with awe, calling the method a life-changing experience. Sounds almost like a new religion. I am fascinated by these testimonies – people on the hunt for a more meaningful life who feel they’ve finally found an answer. The simplicity of this surprises me. Kondo isn’t the first person to espouse the concept of learning to minimize, to get rid of the clutter in life. Given the positive responses of so many people, it’s clear that there are nerves to be struck regarding the worth of their stuff, which feels like rocks around their necks. And what is clear is that this focus on their things means objects have a great deal of power. Hmmm…
I’m surprised by the simplicity of this idea. Some say that streamlining has been a game changer. They are much happier. What objects they’d accumulated were confusing and chaos-inducing elements in their lives. Now, having cleared away so much, they can focus on what’s really important. The people who find peace and relief in these methods are just fine with me. Everyone is entitled to imbue different ideas with their own special meaning. But I can’t seem to get this life choice to resonate for myself. My reaction is complex.
The idea that minimalism is anything other than a first world problem is my initial response. Do poor people who are clawing for housing, food, clothing and other life necessities face the issue of decluttering? Do their things stress them emotionally? I think not. Rather, the inability to acquire them is likely their problem. And aside from people who may have an underlying psychological dimension which causes the hoarding of things, is the issue of drowning in possessions really the number one problem first world people are facing? I’m thinking climate change or health issues can bounce messy, crowded rooms any day.
I’m not defending the acquisition of, or the retention of stuff. I know that if you have enough discretionary income and time, you can thoughtlessly begin to impulsively accumulate things you don’t ultimately need, or even want, in the long run. I don’t espouse that mindless accruing. Aside from a weakness for books, I can’t say that I’ve ever thought piling up material goods has ever been a priority for me. Nor can I say that what I do have, even my favorite things, spark joy. I don’t understand what that means. I’ve tried to see what this popular idea felt like, wanting to know what sparks joy. I picked up some of the items I’ve collected over time, held them, stared at them and for the life of me, couldn’t sense joy or the lack of it, no matter what I did.
For instance, I have some decorative boxes that I’ve gathered throughout my life. I find them attractive. They look nice and make for an eye-catching display. But I could lose them all and except for a temporary dismay, I don’t think I’d dwell on them at all. Nor do I think that they’re currently interfering with my psyche by cluttering my space. Should I dispose of them? The truth is I believe that none of the things we own has much to do with joy as I understand it. My joy in life has primarily been about my people and the beauty of nature.
I’ve found joy in discovering new ideas and learning. My material goods often stimulate my memories, my history and the history of those I love. And then of course, some objects simply fulfill a comfort need. I’m glad I have a chair rather than having to sit on the floor. I wouldn’t go so far as to call that joy. Perhaps if I’d spent my life feeling sore because I’d never had a chair, I suppose I could feel joy when I got one, at least temporarily. To me, stuff is just stuff. I’ve lost things I loved and wanted, but I got over those losses. After a time, I just forgot about them. After all, they weren’t what I truly loved. Additionally, I lived with people who didn’t seem particularly obsessed by their things either. If anything, as I watched my most intimate family members leave this life, none of them ever discussed any physical objects at all. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t love anything. My mom loved a few rings and charms that my dad gave her. And there was that one pair of pale green shoes that no longer fit – my sister and I laughed at her as she carted them from place to place. But what was most significant about those items she treasured was the love that brought them to her in the first place. They evoked her cherished memories of the life that she shared with her partner. I feel the same way about special gifts my husband gave me. Remembrance and love, not joy. When my dad died, for awhile my mom had a hard time giving his clothes away. When she looked at his suits and ties, she remembered how he looked in them and tried holding on to her memories which were hanging there in a closet. Eventually she let them go. They didn’t fulfill any longing she had for seeing him one more time. She understood they would better serve someone else in need. I was able to part with my husband’s clothes very quickly. They weren’t him and he wasn’t them. I startled myself by the ease with which I emptied his closet and dresser.
When I sat by my parents’ deathbeds, there was no talk about what they’d owned. And when I sat with my husband, all he longed for was more life because he felt he still had so much left to do. He’d parted with his beloved record collection and his motorcycle. We never discussed them. He wanted time.
Whatever we emotionally invest in what surrounds us, is for me, a way to preserve the history of who we loved, what they meant to us, what legacies we hope to pass on to our children and grandchildren. The traditions of leaving certain special objects that our families understand were significant to us is a way of staying alive. A way of not disappearing. I know that unloading all that a family member has acquired over a lifetime can be a burden to the people who are left with that task. I went through that with my mom and dad. But there is middle ground between overload and stark minimalism.
Aside from letters and a few documents, I have very few things left from my parents’ lives. A wedding band, a watch, a bookshelf built by my grandfather, my mom’s favorite house dress and her sister’s treasured braid are with me. But what she thought would be desirable to us, wasn’t, and dispensing with it all was tough and a lot of work. I hate the idea of loading my belongings onto my children after I’m gone. I don’t want them to have to do that labor of elimination. But my history, along with my husband’s, still surrounds me every day. I imagine that as I continue to weed through the accumulations of our years, the amount of our things will diminish. I’ve already begun some of that. But I don’t feel the complex emotional burden that’s supposed to be eased by this trend toward minimizing. I think quite the opposite is true for me. My surroundings provide emotional sustenance as opposed to being an oppressive drain. One basic example sums up my feelings.
I still sleep on a platform bed my husband built in 1976. Some of the oak trim has disappeared. A part of it is duct taped together. I don’t intend to replace it. I can’t say it brings me joy. But I’m steeped in its history. A lot of my life happened in this bed. Both of my kids were conceived in it. The whole family was happy, sad, sick and thoughtful in it. We read books while tucked into it, wrote notes and letters on it, recuperated under its covers and laughed conspiratorially in it. Our kids came to us as we lay in it late at night after their dates and parties, and it was there that they shared their stories and confidences with us. We lay in our family pile, happy to feel how close we were. Not to mention the years of lovemaking shared by Michael and me as time rolled forward in our relationship.
Joy is too simple a notion for such a thing, thing being the operative word. This bed is not just a piece of furniture. When I settle in for the night, I sink into my history and feel content. We had a family bed. When I’m gone it will be given away. That’s ok. I want my kids to make their own histories which will include the bits and pieces of our little family of origin. That won’t include much of what is currently in my space. I’ll do my best to make things easy for them but I’ve learned that part of life is having to face dispensing with the trappings of those who came before us. I’ll try to simplify. But I’m not ready to buy into this popular dumping stuff trend. I don’t think that makes me a materialist. I think it makes me a person whose surroundings still evoke the warmth, love and intimacy of my family life. If they vanished tomorrow, I know I’d be alright. But I don’t need to make that happen for my mental well-being. When people come into my space, they feel what was built here. I need the feeling of what was built here. I’m going to let that comfort stick around for as long as I can. Whatever works for other people is okay. My way is what works for me.