Material Matters

The Substance of Stuff

I’ve been meaning to clean out my closets, metaphorically and literally, for the past twenty years, give or take a decade. I admit my cupboards and drawers are cram-jammed. My closets overflow-eth. As I approached this topic, I imagined writing a lighthearted piece, you know the kind — a dose of self-deprecating humor, roll-up-your-sleeves and get to work gumption. However, my journey took an unexpected, dark turn.

Most of us in the so-called developed countries can relate to the quandary of excess stuff. When our dwellings can hold no more, rather than paring down, we house our precious stuff in storage units. In the United States, the self-storage industry is booming, with an annual industry revenue of $38 billion (Alexander Harris, sparefoot.com 3/2018). Individual storage lockers rent for about $1200 per year, so per capita, that’s one hell of a math problem. I blame Amazon’s one-click feature.

Like me, perhaps you’ve vowed to de-clutter. You fully intend to create a tidier, more minimalist existence — some day. Perhaps you’ve consulted books, such as Marie Kondo’s acclaimed KonMari method. Kondo urges us to keep only cherished belongings and discard the rest. Her advice is logical, her writing lovely, poetic and compelling in its simplicity. She provides a step-by-step recipe to envision and create a tranquil, energizing home. For the effort, converts find lasting contentment.

I adore her. I am convinced. I’m ready to begin anew.

Why then, am I paralyzed?

I know the drill. Clutter is a kind of sickness, the outward manifestation of a troubled, disordered inner life. On a larger scale, a visit to any refuse disposal site reveals our beloved planet overburdened by senseless waste — we are literally burying ourselves alive. We have become a mindless, addicted-to-stuff consumer culture gone haywire. The problem is, this knowledge does not help me. I know I am sick. While my symptoms may be obvious, when it comes to a remedy, I am at a loss.

As I stare into the abyss of my closet, I become uneasy. All children know about the existence of the monster that dwells within. Lately I have become reacquainted with that monster, keeper of the closet, guardian of unseen ooze beneath the surface, the skeletons I’ve been avoiding. Like a kid, I promptly shut that door. Damn you, monster.

With a sigh, I admit I am no longer a child, not ancient perhaps, but vintage. For those of us who have turned the page out of midlife into late-life, time is not our friend. Time begins to shrink, along with the freedom to fail, to make mistakes and put things off. Let’s face it. We are running out of do-overs. At last, it dawns on me — this isn’t about cleaning my closets. Putting my “house in order,” is about sorting out my life, and ultimately confronting my own mortality. It means being a grown-up.

If you’ve ever been tasked with the sorting and disbursement of a departed loved one’s possessions, you know the emotional charge of “stuff,” the irrational attachment and anguish of letting go. We may find ourselves clinging to grandma’s moth-eaten, threadbare scarves because she loved them so. Only a heartless person would trash them. We fill a box. Stack it on top of the other boxes. But what will become of grandma’s old scarves after we are gone? Who will recognize her face in those worn, dog-eared photos?

As a child, I didn’t listen to my parents, tuning out their “old people’s” advice. But lately, certain words of wisdom have resonated with me. My dad’s fallback line for any daunting job: Just dig in. It’s like eating an elephant — do it one bite at a time. When confronted with hard choices and life’s complexity, my mom advised us to approach every challenge big or small, decently and in order. These little nuggets, I realize now, epitomize how my parents lived, and relevantly, how they died. They were practical people who accepted life’s impermanence, the inevitability of death.

Mom, never sentimental about stuff, did not abide clutter. Sometimes this hurt our feelings, like the time she gave away our Christmas ornaments. But in the end, her organization and tidy closets made it a little easier to navigate losing her. Before our father’s passing, he made certain his finances were transparent, documents in order, eliminating red tape or legal entanglement. In the depths of profound loss, my sisters and I felt taken care of. We will forever miss our humorous, intelligent, imperfect, exceptionally devoted parents. Only time has lessened our grief. But unlike many of our peers, we did not inherit legal struggles, money knots or heaps of unwanted stuff. Why? Our parents prepared for death. They made considerate decisions, like grown-ups.

I take a deep breath. Once again, I peer into my closet.

I shut the door, flip on my laptop, tuning into another Seinfeld rerun on Hulu, though I’ve already seen it six times. Don’t judge me. It sucks to be a grownup. If only I had an official roadmap.

Truth time:

Nobody has a roadmap for this life. We learn by fire, negotiating all the bumps, twists and forks in the road, as we grow. Traversing new territory at the end-of-life is a sobering task, with few do-overs allowed. Where to begin? Taking stock, as usual, I have more questions than answers. There are no shortcuts, no roadmap, but I do have a few breadcrumbs along the path, guidance to help me find my way. When I’m ready, I hope to take it slow, mindfully, one bite at a time, decently and in order.