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Cutting back

By Starfoxy
I am very adept at spotting when my kids need haircuts. I’m somewhat less adept at spotting when the grass needs cutting, or when trees need to be thinned. I do pretty well at culling old documents from the filing cabinet. Like hair, and grass, and trees it sometimes seems like the stuff in my closet, cabinets, shelves and drawers are growing and need to be cut back. I am engaged in a constant battle against my urges to hoard stuff. My closet keeps filling up with clothes I don’t wear. My house is full of furniture I don’t need or even like. My shelves are laden with trinkets, and trophies from things I can barely remember. My cabinets have dishes I have never once used. I will contend that it is not entirely my fault. I haven’t bought, or sought out many of these things. People offer them to us as gifts, or if not gifts then “hey, you want this? I’m just gonna get rid of it.”

I trace a lot my urges back to my Grandma. She raised my mom, and my mom raised me to not throw away useful things. Grandma lived through the depression, and she spent many years as a young single parent. In order to survive she learned how to be thrifty and frugal. She is very much of the ‘waste not want not’ school of thought. However, she has long since left her lean days behind her, and purchases new items freely. Her reluctance to part with her stuff means she has accumulated decades worth of detritus. She cannot bear to get rid of anything,* and at this point in her life it is driving her to distraction, ruining relationships, and destroying her quality of life.

She would love nothing more than to live year round with her friends in a retirement community where she already has a trailer home. She hasn’t made the move yet because she still has a house in another city. She doesn’t have the mental or emotional strength to make herself part with the stuff that she would have to get rid of in order to live in just one trailer home. So she’s living out her late 80’s divided between two cities. She can’t drive herself to and from these locations and relies heavily on friends and family to shuttle her back and forth. As her memory fails she leaves important things behind in one place or the other. However instead of blaming her memory she accuses those same friends and family members of stealing things. When the stolen items turn up ‘at the other house’ she denies making such accusations and those relationships suffer.

All of her children and grandchildren recognize the problem. We’ve helped her hold garage sales and watched her wander around the sale snatching things out of shoppers hands. We’ve all encouraged her to pick one place and stay there, and she admits that this is what she should do, but then insists that she just needs to finish sorting through things and that it’s something she has to do on her own. She doesn’t trust us to recognize what is valuable and what is not, so she refuses help. As she’s become more suspicious of her family members we’ve grown reluctant to offer her help sorting through her things. We don’t want to be accused of being thieves.

Many of us will freely admit that indulging our appetites for food, or sex, can be dangerous to both our physical and spiritual health. Looking at my Grandma I can see that sometimes our appetite for things can be just as spiritually, and ultimately physically damaging. The law of the fast, going without food and then donating the food we would have eaten (in money or in kind), can be readily applied to dealing with stuff too. “Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.”

Certainly there is value in ‘waste not, want not.’ But there is also value in ‘use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.’

*My sisters and I once found 5 or 6 shoeboxes filled with dried pens. Thousands upon thousands of useless pens.

Starfoxy

Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.

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11 Responses

  1. Two of Three says:

    I used to think of myself as a “thrower” until my sister in law peered into my unmatched sock basket and asked why I kept them. My reply was something like “they are perfectly good socks”. Somehow, the absurdity had escaped me that I was saving socks that had no match because they were in decent shape. The same blessed sister in law helped me go through my plastic ware and toss lids that had no container and containers that had no lids. I want to be a thrower. I aspire to be a thrower. I toss my kids old stuff out without a second thought. My DH, who is a keeper (in more ways than one!), loses his items to my housecleaning whims. I have a harder time getting rid of my items that I might need, might wear, might want somewhere down the road. I agree with you “that sometimes our appetite for things can be just as spiritually, and ultimately physically damaging.” A simpler, less cluttered life appeals to me, so I will continue to strive for the status of “thrower”.

  2. Sterling Fluharty says:

    Wow, that was quite the cautionary tale. I have been in a de-cluttering mode recently. Have you heard of this web site?

    http://www.flylady.net/

    I have heard good things about the author’s steps and strategies.

    Has your family considered assuming power of attorney over your grandma once her memory has disintegrated past a certain point? Then you could legally hold an estate sale and get rid of her stuff for once and for all. But if you pursue that option, make sure you think through all of the consequences.

  3. gina says:

    I work as a nanny for a family headed by two packrats and it drives me nuts! they keep everything: plastic take-out containers, plastic drive-thru cutlery, greeting cards, old magazines, outdated toys/clothes/CRAP! I was raised VERY unattachment; my mom would have us go through our closets every six months and thin out what we weren’t using to be sent to the goodwill. I’ve made such a habit of parting with my posessions that I was able to move across the country in two checked bags, a carry-on, and a backpack. Sure, I’ve accumulated things in the 3 years I’ve been here, but most of that will be given away/sold/tossed when I eventually move on. There just things and can all be replaced. I think we neglect to realize how much life we miss when we allow what we own to tie us down!

  4. gina says:

    *they’re

    sorry… the crazy wouldn’t allow me to leave that unfixed… lol

  5. Moriah Jovan says:

    Somehow, the absurdity had escaped me that I was saving socks that had no match because they were in decent shape.

    No! They’re DUST RAGS!!! (Stick ’em on your hand…)

  6. Caroline says:

    My Grandma had the same inclinations. She even saved old empty orange juice cans! But she eventually died and left my mom and her siblings to sort through all the junk. It took nearly a year to get it done, seeing as they all lived hours away from my grandma’s house.

    This post has inspired me to go through my junk and get rid of it!

  7. Margaret says:

    My husband and I both have mothers who are keepers and it has driven us both to be throwers. I love de-cluttering. Getting rid of stuff is the best part of moving for me. And yet it still builds up. Every once in a while I remind myself of what Thoreau said in Walden (I’m sorry I don’t have a pg reference or an exact quote): that when we accumulate stuff, we end up spending all our time taking care of our stuff. I don’t want my life to revolve around maintaining things.

  8. Starfoxy says:

    One thing I meant to include in the original post was a conversation I had with my Dad about my Grandma. We were discussing her unhealthy relationship with stuff, it’s likely origins, and whatnot. He then asked what “what do you do to avoid getting like that?” The first thought that popped into my mind was tithing. In order to pay tithing one has to do away with, or at least weaken the emotional attachments to their money. And as we continued to discuss it we came to the conclusion that charitable giving, especially giving away your *stuff* is important to maintaining a healthy relationship to it.
    I think it is largely because when you throw something away it is because it no longer has value to you, it is trash. On the other hand the things we give away should still have recognizable value. Making yourself part with something of value and receiving no compensation is an act that requires an emotional separation.
    And I agree with Moriah- use the socks up! Wear them out! The goal shouldn’t be just to get rid of stuff, but to get to a healthy balance. Being good at throwing things out isn’t the answer if you’re just turning around and purchasing more. My Grandma’s problem is obvious to observers because she can’t throw things out, but the real probelm is her relationship to her stuff- not how much stuff she has. I think lots of people have similarly dysfunctional relationships to their things, but they manage to fly under the radar because they don’t have so much clutter about.

  9. EBrown says:

    Letting go of attachment to possessions is something I’ve been working on. I have now reduced my clothing by 75%. It’s wonderful to have lots of space in my closet, although I admit to saving some high heeled shoes that I will NEVER wear again for my shrine to Imelda Marcos. Paper (books, magazines, mail, etc.) is my bête noir. But even there I’m making progress.

    I think it’s a question of being here now. Not saving something I have no use for until I do have a use for it. If I receive a charitable appeal, unless I’m prepared to write the check now, it goes in the recycle bin. Ruthless tossing of magazines (yes, someone at the hospital, café, dentist, etc. might enjoy the but it I’m not taking it there today, I’m not saving it). I would vote for throwing the unmatched socks away, because it lightens the load practically as well as psychologically.

    If we live in the now rather than in the past (often associated with sentimentality) or the future (often associated with fear) we can strive to be authentically ourselves.

  10. Ziff says:

    Great points, Starfoxy, particularly the one about getting emotional distance from stuff you made in your comment #8. I’ve struggled with being a pack rat. It’s helped, though, that my wife is pretty determined not to allow unused stuff to accumulate in our house. She’s very good at getting our boys to give away toys that they no longer use, for example. And since marrying her, I’ve cut back dramatically on how many books I buy; mostly I just get them from the library now and only buy the ones I truly love.

    But it’s a hard thing, as the example of your grandmother shows, when this issue is mixed with beginnings of memory loss. I hope she or your family are able to solve the issue with as little pain as possible.

  1. December 17, 2010

    […] this.” and “My dad was always saving things.” I’ve written before about my Grandma, and how her stuff is ruining her life. My Mom is similar, but not so bad. I also am similar, but […]

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