Stuff of LIfe

Stuff of Life

That “tidying” could become a topic of popular discourse strains the imagination but this has come about thanks to Japanese writer Marie Kondo. She expanded her simple thesis – if a possession doesn’t “spark” joy, it’s toast – into a catechism of organizing precepts and a full-length New York Times best-seller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way. Its mandate is to de-clutter your life, preferably in one fell swoop.

This reminded me of the admonition of the Swarthmore College Dean to incoming freshman girls – so we were then – in 1963: “If you’re tidy on the outside, you’re tidy on the inside.” Like my classmates, I rolled my eyes. Fifty-two years later, my life seems to validate the obverse of Dean Cobb’s advice. It also gives the lie to Ms. Kondo’s premise that life can be de-cluttered by fiat. For if you are untidy on the inside, it’s impossible to know what possessions give you joy. It is barely possible to appreciate the essentiality of a can opener.

I am untidy on the inside. Seven months after my husband’s sudden death, I cannot untangle memories that hurt from those that help. That is not the sole reason I’m untidy on the outside – downsizing my living quarters by 50% has a lot to do with it too. Internal disarray does, however, exacerbate the difficulty of sorting through stuff. After 30 years with my partner in marriage, law practice, philanthropy, travel, investing and farming potatoes, I have few possessions that aren’t profoundly connected with him. What to save? To display? To use? To dispose of? How to discern what sparks a flight of joy, what triggers an arc of pain; what I can’t let go of, what I must rub out.

Layers of old grief and loss superimpose their own tangles on this emotional maze. There are garish afghans my maternal grandmother crocheted and a porcelain tea set her mother carried from India in 1900. My mother’s quilted sewing basket and silver jewelry box; my father’s crumbling historic newspapers and first edition of The Common Law. And the remnants of childhoods now outgrown – the white fur muff of a toddler, the karate belt of the 7 year old. Are they sad or sweet reminders? Without them, would I be liberated or lost?

Aging in place sidesteps these issues. Dust forms a gray outline around pictures that hang on the walls. Recent novels pile on top of college texts. Handmade mugs stack precariously on top of chipped china. Old coats hang on as extras in case. I opted out of this stasis by moving, but the clarity I seek still eludes me, as witnessed by unopened cartons of uncertain contents..

I tell my granddaughter teasingly that I will calamari my clothes. KonMari, Grandma, she corrects me and rolls her eyes. I think of myself 52 years ago. I had already begun accumulating stuff. I’ll get it all sorted out when I’ve tidied up inside.

5 Comments on “Stuff of LIfe”

  1. Bathes in Milk says:

    My grandfather passed at 93 years. Ageing in place. The house was full. We learned he excelled in violin. The signed copy of a book by Amelia Earhart. No one had known he had played violin. Antique books with money slipped into them. Collectors books, things past. The dust obscuring everything with its gray outline. Cookbooks to the 1880s. Museum quality art produced by a relative. Native American art, that I could identify from my travels & from our great grandparents trip to Seattle (1905) just prior to their heading south to greet the Great SF Earthquake. That burden of cleaning out has been so heavy on his 3 daughters (3 years). I started reading every de-cluttering books I could find. Jessica mention KonMari. I read, and read, and downsized, and downsized to the point that I fear I may someday float away once unencumbered by my possessions. I am weak for books, and I have 10 boxes that never seem to go away (my Master’s notes, unopened since my comps) I want no one to have the pain of sorting through my life and I remain messy on the inside. I wish you luck & strength, and it is just fine to be a little complicated & messy on the inside. ❤


  2. Stephen Lang says:

    Really incisive piece. Speaking for myself, well, I’m not sure how cluttered I am on the inside. Probably more than I am aware of or admit to, but at least my day to day mod-op, inside and out, is fairly tidy and stable. As far as objects go my current thinking is this, if in doubt put it back in the box because you never really know the value that someone who comes after you will put on it. This has it’s roots in the timeless example of everyone’s mom throwing out their comic book collection – which my Ma actually did do, and which I have forgiven but not forgotten! I think a good purge now and then is very liberating, but attics were created for a reason. I know that when you downsize push comes to shove and decisions have to be made. Things that are to be discarded are pretty clear as in a bunch of that stuff in the basement locker at 912. Other things, a quilted sewing box, are different. That is a box of memories which can not be fully appreciated by Grace or Erin, but may represent a link. Or not, and maybe they will discard it. That’s fine. I’ll tell you one – the Swarthmore waste basket in the den at 912. We have had that my entire life, and it also has a picture of a very early memory – I was probably 2 years old on the Ivy island at the Clothier end of Parrish. I was there with Dad, I don’t think I could even walk yet, but I remember it, and that waste basket reminds me of it every time I see it.

    I enjoyed The Millwrights Epiphany as well. You gonna post some of your poetry? Hope so.

    Sent from my iPad



  3. Kristina Lang says:

    J, sorry to be so slow in responding, but I am so enjoying reading you thoughts and reminiscing on some things that affect us all.


  4. Randy Richter says:

    Dear Jane, Our hearts go out to you reading this. It’s been so sudden and we think it is hard enough to make these decisions when everything is stable. Be kind to yourself and let it take the form it will take at its own pace. The KonMari method worked beautifully for us recently, but you have said so much when you talk about being untidy on the inside. We wish you peace and love. Randy and Dan


    • cassandrasee says:

      Willyou nillyou, the dimensions of your inner “closet” have been changed forever, so it’s no wonder it feels untidy in there. Some narrowing of familiar corners, some dizzying expansion into spaces you never knew were there. And all those hooks on which to hang the familiar — where did they go? – oh! they’re over there now. Hunh! Where do I start? What’s important? Is anything?

      How often, in these transitions, do we find ourselves ankle-deep in physical objects trying to make sense of once-familiar, now confusing things? The micro-decisions finally overwhelm and dissolve into those haunting moments when one looks down at the shoe or cup or clock in one’s hand, frozen and paralyzed by the cross-currents of past, future, disorder, and illogic.

      As my mother moved into her latest year, she often said in dismay “I want to see how things are going to turn out, but I won’t know the end of your story, Chickie, or your sister’s or brothers’!” The disarray of that bothered her. She, like most of us, grew up in a world where everything had a beginning, a middle, an upshot, and a conclusion. Exceptions were mainly those sad stories of young people whose lives were cut off too soon, and we all thought they were entitled to the same playing-out of their full story that we assumed we’d get.

      But as time sped my mother toward her end, she began to talk about how life is, it turns out, ragged and unkempt. We enter and leave without the complete picture, ever. We don’t get to tie things up. She would understand entirely what you are saying about inner untidiness. She lost her Charlie at age 34, her Wendell in her 40s, and her Ben in her 60s. None of them got to see a tidy end to their own life, let alone their family’s. Nor did she.

      Not a bang, not a whisper, but a rustle of old newspapers, falling books, and a sighing, coughing gust of wind.

      But may I add that your father’s current life is remarkably orderly despite its own untidiness over the arc of the Alzheimer’s. Because he has not been tied by memory to expectation for a while, he cannot be painfully disappointed. One could wish that kind of twilight anaesthesia for you as surviving wife and daughter, at least for a little while yet.

      The only thing we finally know is that we did not live their lives, we seem to have one of our own — and there’s probably still more to your own story, Jane. Just give it time. As if you had any choice.



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