What We Hold Onto

Yesterday, my Mail program on my Macbook crashed, and kept crashing. While I pursue attempts to fix it, I am pondering how I have used email, and what those possibly lost emails hold for me. One thing they hold is memory and relationships. I have some old friends that I keep in touch with through email, maybe once a year or every few months. The emails between us hold the long conversation, the details of events in their lives that I might otherwise forget, the cherished connections we make to each other. My emails also hold networking on issues I care about, future possibilities for workshops or activism, relationship building in the here and now. My emails also hold a record of these writings I post on the blog, to save on my own laptop.

But in the meantime, the Mail program is also clogged with thousands of emails that I never bother to read, never bother to erase. Not all junk, per se, but reports from organizations, updates on political issues, daily inspirations that I once thought would be uplifting, but I’ve stopped caring about. And it was much easier to ignore them, rather than try to go through and unsubscribe or move to the trash. Since I can’t open the Mail, I don’t have exact numbers, but I am pretty sure that there are at least 20,000 unopened emails in there. I wish I could magically extract the important ones and abandon the rest.

Yesterday evening, after giving up for a while on the computer fixing, Margy and I watched the movie Nomadland, with Frances McDormand. She plays Fern, an older woman who has lost her husband and her home, and who sets out in a van equipped with mattress and cupboards and cooking options, to travel to seasonal jobs in the American west. Along the way she meets other similarly displaced people, and in the film these are actual “nomads” playing fictionalized versions of themselves. It was powerfully beautiful in its closeness to the natural world of deserts and mountains and rivers, achingly solitary yet full of community in surprising places, and deeply sad in its indictment of our society’s abandonment of aging people.

It also got me thinking about what we hold in our homes, and what I might carry with me, if I ever lost this home and had to set out with only a van full of what I needed, what I cherished. We see Fern looking through a tin box of old photos, listening to music on her little radio, carefully repairing a broken plate, eventually giving up the stuff in the storage unit back in her old town. What would I hold onto, what would I leave behind?

I like to watch Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Finding Your Roots. There are times when the paper trail runs out for people on the show, there are no more records to be found to show the names of their ancestors, or the places they were born and died. Sometimes the paper trail ends because of slavery or genocide or oppression. Sometimes it ends because most people didn’t document their lives in ages past, like we do today. But I wonder if future generations looking for their ancestors of today would have different problems. They might have the problem of technologies changed or lost, such that they could no longer access the online records we so carefully accumulate. But they might also have the problem of getting lost in the avalanche of “paper” we now compile, the over-accumulation of words. Will they no longer be able to follow the trail of what is most important amid the towering clutter of what is not?

And so I come back to my own life, remembering the times I set out with a backpack, or a little car, starting a new life with only what I could carry. I got pretty good at winnowing things down, valuing the simplicity of it, feeling the freedom of it. But in the last twenty years, I’ve been able to settle down and really root myself in home. So things accumulate, some things cherished and beautiful, others practical, necessary, and then the stuff that serves no purpose any longer, but won’t magically disappear unless I do that work of taking it away, giving it away, sorting and erasing. What do I want to hold on to, what do I want to let go?

And yet, eventually, we all leave this life with nothing we can hold onto, all that is left is what we have given away.

Tree stump design-traces of all the years of life

About Ads

It’s ironic: since I am using the “free” version of WordPress to publish, they occasionally place ads at the end of my posts.  I want to point out that I have no control over the content of any ads that appear, and sadly, they usually advertise products that are the very opposite of the values that I am writing about.

I apologize for these incongruities!  Isn’t that the position in which we find ourselves so often? We are embedded in systems that infiltrate all aspects of our lives, even as we imagine a better way of living.

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Freecycle

As part of our de-cluttering process, we have had such great fun passing along things we don’t need any more through Freecycle.org.  So far in the last week or so, we’ve gotten rid of:

1. A Sleep-Number mattress that didn’t really live up to its claims of better sleep for people with back troubles.

2. Old exercise equipment that was in our basement when we moved in:Exercise Equipment DSC09841

DSC03215And 3. A Training Toilet–that is actually for potty training a child on the big toilet, (and able to be used by grownups too). Why did we have one of those in the first place?  We thought it might help during my attempt to toilet train our cats four years ago. (Sadly, it didn’t work out.)

Each of the people who took our castaways were totally thrilled to get these free new things in their lives.  And we enjoyed meeting the folks who came by our house to disassemble them and take them away.  What a great way to ring out the old year, and welcome in the new!

 

Billie helps with the sorting

Billie helps sorting

This week we really got serious about decluttering and downsizing in preparation for selling our house.  One room at at time.  I started with the hall bathroom.  It has a huge closet in which, among other things, we store our many candle holders of all sorts. I dragged all of them out onto the counter, and Margy and I decided which ones to pack for the new house, and which ones to pack for Goodwill.  Our cat Billie, as you can see, was very interested in helping.  Or at least supervising. I am happy that more of them are going to Goodwill than are coming to our new house.

One room done, many more to go… I went to bed exhausted, but it feels really good.

the not so big house

One of my friends (thanks, Deb!) pointed me in the direction of a great book to add my search for beauty to our search for greener housing. Sarah Susanka’s the not so big house: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live is not a new book, but it is new to me. (By the way, I bought the book with credits from turning in used books to my local independent bookstore, Longfellow Books. Isn’t that great!)

Susanka also has a website–the book and the website are both on the theme of how to reimagine our homes so that they feel like home–with comfort and usefulness and beauty–without being as big as we might think they need to be. (Her website also has resources and links to green housing as well. The two ideas share a lot of resonance.)

She is responding to the tendency in American culture to expand the sizes of our houses so that they have turned into almost mansions. Now, her not so big house is a little bigger than the one we are looking for–in fact our current house would fit her definition, too. But what I liked most is that she talks about particular strategies that can contribute to a feeling of homeyness.

Simple things, like creating a sense of containment around certain spaces by lowering a ceiling, or putting in some sort of molding around an area that gives it a focus.  She also suggests most of us would do well with a more open living plan, where our public spaces are joined together–in a living, cooking and eating area. We then also can create private spaces. Something I had never thought about was the importance of the entryway for making a home feel hospitable and a joy to enter. It all makes sense to me.

It is the details that make a home beautiful. I find I like the details I have seen in Craftsman Style homes, like in this picture below–the simple wood molding around the upper part of the wall ties the room together. Poring over Susanka’s photos and ideas, gives me a better sense of how to imagine renovating houses that we might see that don’t seem to be what we are looking for, but have the potential to be turned into what we want. My imagination has been lit up!

Craftsman Style Interior Photo by Emack2020JPEG Via Creative Commons.

Craftsman Style Interior
Photo by Emack2020JPEG Via Creative Commons.

I Wish There Was a TV Show Called “Downsizing”

Lately, we’ve been watching house buying and selling shows on Netflix. We’ve picked up a few good tips on de-cluttering as an important step in selling a house. But it is unbelievable to watch these reality show folks looking for new houses. It seems everyone is looking for bigger and better and more “in style.” No one likes houses with decor from the 90’s or 80’s or 70’s. They all want granite countertops in the kitchen, huge walk-in closets, several bathrooms, cathedral ceilings, and thousands of square feet.

Our house’s kitchen has not been updated. We have lovely custom maple cabinets, and the original built in two ovens and stove top. But our reality show hosts would likely have a field day–they’d pull out all the counters and flooring and appliances and upgrade to granite and new tile and probably paint the cabinets, and put in stainless steel appliances.  I’m not sure what they would do with the brick wall–we’ve learned from these shows that exposed brick is so “seventies.”Brick DSC00849

I wish there was a show we could watch in which every episode follows people who are downsizing from a big house to a small efficient home. Even better, the people would be adding insulation, and putting solar panels on the roof, and exploring renewable sources for heating and cooling. They wouldn’t care about the latest in style, but would look for classic and ecological features. They’d have the latest ideas in how to make the most of small space.

Are you listening HGTV?

Stuff

Vase on Mantel DSC00542Today was one of those days when the idea of actually sorting through and giving away or packing our stuff seemed pretty overwhelming. Part of our search for greener housing includes this process of dealing with our stuff. How did I get so much stuff? I remember being able to put almost everything I owned into a backpack, along with a tent, and carrying it on a bus when I went to join the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice in 1985. I must have had a few boxes of stuff stored with a friend back in Chicago, but not much. Now, our stuff fills a house.

Maybe some people feel happy having lots of stuff, but I often feel uneasy about it. I grew up with St. Francis of Assisi as a role model, the patron saint of voluntary simplicity. I had to learn to appreciate the value of creating a beautiful and welcoming household. I was reminding of that value when a friend visited this weekend and remarked about how wonderful it was to be in such beauty. And I do love our home, and the stuff that helps to bring it alive. Some of it is practical–a kitchen table, chairs, beds, desks, bookcases, dishes. Some of it is sentimental–gifts from friends or a few cherished pieces from family. Some of it is just for beauty–the pitcher and cups on our mantel, a wall hanging of the tree of life.

But when I think about having to move it all from one place to another, it feels daunting. Today we were cleaning up some of our clutter in preparation for a visit from an appraiser. Not quite as daunting as preparing the house for showing to prospective buyers, but that will be coming up too. It is funny that as Americans have become more mobile, we have also accumulated more and more stuff. Is our attachment to our stuff trying to make up for our loss of attachment to land and community?

There are a lot of guides out there for helping to get rid of excess stuff. Common questions to help in the process include these: Have you used it within the last year? Does it give you joy? I have added another: Is this worth saving for my permanent personal archives? That one covers the fact that as a writer I am attached to keeping all of my personal journals. The last time we moved I even purchased archival quality boxes to store them in. I understand the process we need to go through. I just can’t imagine how we’re going to find the time to get it all done.

I am reminded of a quote by Wendell Berry. It isn’t really about stuff, but about anything that feels daunting or too big. I have it posted on the bulletin board next to my desk:

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Or perhaps it would be helpful to take the advice of Dory in Finding Nemo:  “Just keep swimming.”