Stuff and sense

My dad used to sell these. It still works, too!

Luggage tags from the 1996 presidential campaign. Cub Scout insignia from the early 1960s. An extremely cool-looking desk fan from the same era (pictured at right). CDs I’ve forgotten buying by bands I no longer know why I liked. 40th-birthday banners. Socks that are old enough to drink and vote.

These are just some of the things I’ve found as my wife and I begin, in earnest and with a vengeance, to declutter our home. And boy, have I got clutter.

A pair of AR-710 speakers (great treble, good bass, but big and heavy). Nesting dolls from the flea market in Moscow, plus others from Kiev, Ukraine, and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Trophies from playground chess tournaments. A framed Patti Smith concert poster from 1978.

We’re really not rattus keepeverythingus (pack rats) and are definitely not materialistic, having been raised by parents who lived through the Depression with the philosophy, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” Even today, when considering a purchase, I remember my mother’s frugality and her way of getting the maximum use out of everything (which is why I still have those socks).

But we’re not spring chickens either, and as we age, we unavoidably acquire stuff. We also have the material (as well as the spiritual) things that come from our parents, grandparents, and beyond. It adds up.

From Moscow in the 1990s. Probably worth more now.

Two boxes of files from my last job, which I may never touch again. A 1972 Kalamazoo Civic Youth Theatre program for “Kiss Me, Kate,” featuring Dave Swan as Harrison Howell. A box of very old photos of ancestors who I can’t identify.

Of course, a lot of this carries memories and other emotional attachments, from our families or from important moments in our own lives. But what about letters my mother saved, from people I knew only slightly or not at all, and are now long dead? Or my dad’s World War II Army discharge papers, which she kept in a safe deposit box forty years after the war just in case I ever needed them?

Twenty-six boxes of books, not counting three or four I’ve already given to the library. A few milk crates full of vinyl LPs, most of which I’ve either replaced with digital tracks or stopped caring about. $1.29 in pennies.

I know perfectly well I’ve got too many books, especially those freakin’ heavy hardcovers, yet the thought of not having them there on the shelf is a bit disconcerting. The same thing goes for all the CDs that are now on our own personal cloud. And what if one of my relatives ever wants to look at those letters?

I can see how this syndrome can cross the line into madness. But there’s something good at the end of the tunnel: an uncrowded home, with more room for the things that matter, like people, sunlight, and laughter.

All these “old” things also remind me of how lucky I’ve been, how far I’ve traveled, and all the wonderful friends I’ve encountered along the way. The “junk” reawakens parts of my soul and girds me for whatever lies ahead. Now: does anybody want to buy a few dozen or a few hundred really cool LPs?

One of the vintage “New Yorker” covers my mother saved (and I’m keeping).

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Originally published at on February 19, 2016.