A Modern Viewpoint

January 18, 2018

Clutter—Let me free associate for a moment:

  • Stuff not being used, but someday I’ll need it;
  • Things once considered valuable because my parents treasured them;
  • Something someone could use but since I don’t know who, I’ll postpone doing anything about it;
  • Something I could get money for, but trying to navigate E-bay is way too much trouble;
  • My children’s toys saved for my grandchildren, except my children are too busy building their careers to build a family;
  • Clothes that no longer fit, but someday I am going to lose that weight;
  • Clothes no longer in style, but I paid a lot of money for that suit (I can’t just donate it!);
  • Papers I might need to prove who I am, what I’ve achieved or what is due me but are really of no value;
  • A hodgepodge of items I need to put into order, but, gosh, I just don’t have the time to do that…

You get the idea. Note the rationales used with each one.

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing Arthur Miller’s play “The Price” at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. So moved, I borrowed a copy from the library so I could delve into Miller’s deep-felt, profound yet simple words. Here’s one quotation that hit home for me:

Setting the Scene

Victor in his late forties is responsible for emptying his father’s brownstone apartment because the building is going to be demolished. Time is of the essence. The house must be emptied within the next day or so. His father died years ago, but Victor chose not to deal with the apartment or anything in it until the moment the play begins. The curtain opens to the living area filled with furniture and artifacts that represent his father and mother when they were alive. Victor is joined by 89-year old appraiser Solomon, whom he found in the Yellow Pages of the phone book (circa 1968). We learn as the play progresses that Solomon’s career in estate sales was over until Victor called him to buy his father’s estate.

At one point, Victor is afraid Solomon is going to cheat him. Solomon explains why much of the furniture probably won’t sell:

“I’m giving you the architectural facts! Listen—wiping his face, he seizes on the library table, going to it—You got there, for instance, a library table. That’s a solid beauty. But go find me a modern apartment with a library. If they would build old hotels, I could sell this, but they only build new hotels. People don’t live like this no more. This stuff is from another world. So I’m trying to give you a modern viewpoint, and if you wouldn’t understand the viewpoint, it’s impossible to understand the price.”

Old Hotels

Solomon makes a good point: They’re not building old hotels anymore, yet so many of us are attracted to “old hotels” and what filled them. Old hotels are our rosy memories—the romantic ideal that we aspire to recreate. The not-so-rosy memories attached to those items we’ve more than likely repressed and forgotten.

But guess what? If we take a moment to examine the items that evoke a rosy glow, we discover a dark side to them as well. For example, the exquisite wedding dress that symbolizes a marriage ended in divorce or the outrageously gorgeous and expensive Stuart Weitzman shoes that are a killer to walk in for more than five minutes.

We want to sit in the lobby of those old hotels, sipping tea and savoring the grandeur of it all, but how long can we sit there? How does sitting in that lobby enhance our present life? The same is true for those items and the rosy memories we attach to them. We  might be able to recreate the happy memory for a moment, but not for long.

It’s All about Viewpoint

Those memories are ephemeral, but the items are real. We can’t bring back your father sitting in his Lazy-Boy chair or your mother wearing her mink stole, yet we’ve decided to hold onto both the chair and the stole because we’re able to slip into a rosy reverie whenever we see them. Meanwhile your wife or roommate can’t stand the stodgy old Lazy-Boy and we discover the skin of the mink stole is dry and cracked. That dark side I mentioned above keeps popping up!

Perhaps we need to let go of our illusions—things that are or are likely to be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses. We perceive the items we are holding onto as valuable for whatever rationale we ascribe to them. When we crack the illusion, the items are just things—a dress, a pair of shoes, a chair or a mink stole. Do these items enhance our present life? If we were unabashedly honest, we would say, “No!”

It all comes back to viewpoint. Why hold onto something passed its prime? Why keep straddling the past and present? Our life is here now. Our power is in the present. We need a modern viewpoint.

Develop a Good Forgettery

August 11, 2014

My friend Lynn (not her real name) is strong-willed and whatever she sets her mind to, she does.  I have known her for 30 years.  About six years ago she had a fall, which confined her to a wheelchair.  In and out of assisted living and rehabilitation residences, she had had enough of residential living and set her sights on the house where she lived before the fall as her next and last destination.

Her house is the one where she returned to live with her parents after her second divorce, approximately 40 years ago.  Not long after her return, her father was killed walking down a neighborhood street by a hit-and-run driver.  Years later, her mother battled cancer in a hospital bed in the dining room.  She later succumbed in a nearby hospital.  The house held a lot of sad energy.

It was not conducive for a wheelchair-bound person.  So, before she moved in, she had an extensive ramp installed at her back door and a lift from the first floor to the second floor.  There is no bathroom on the first floor and the washer and dryer are located in the basement, accessible only by stairs.  It is essential for her to have help if she is to live in a clean, healthy environment.

Welded to the Past

I know Lynn better than most.  We have shared our victories and vulnerabilities consistently throughout the years.  She listens with great understanding to the questions I grapple with. I listen to hers.  I respect her opinion and find comfort in the constancy of our friendship.  Lately, though, I am frustrated, at times even angry, with Lynn.  She has forgotten how powerful she is.  Instead of moving forward with life, she seems to be making a “too comfortable niche” for herself in the past.

During the past few months she requested my help by going through her papers, photos and clothes and advising her on what to keep.  I have worked with her for more than 20 hours, and in my estimation we’ve made little progress.  She remains firm in her choices:  Ten-year-old bank statements must be kept.  Books that haven’t been read in 20 years and more than likely never will be must be kept.  Gizmos and tchotchkes she doesn’t know what to do with must be kept.  The dining room has become a warehouse of bags and containers storing memorabilia she feels she must keep but doesn’t look at.  From my perspective, it feels like she has welded herself to the past.  To hell with the present!  The future be damned!

The Conundrum:  To Hold On or To Let Go?

I have thought long and hard about this conundrum:  Her hiring me to de-clutter and her vice-like grip on her clutter.  It’s not easy living in a wheelchair, and I have the utmost respect for her determination to live independently.  Working with another disabled client helped me understand Lynn better.  I started noticing his references to the past when we talked.  It gave me pause.

Both clients are in their eighties.  Both had successful careers.  Both were more able-bodied in the past.  Lynn traveled the world.  Even with “bad” knees, she climbed the Egyptian pyramids.  She ducked to safety when terrorists bombed the Rome airport.  She’s been in every state in the union except two.  She found great joy, excitement and freedom in her travels.  From today’s wheelchair perspective, the past looks rosy and the present grim.

What about Now?

If Lynn wanted, she could still travel.  She would need an aide and it would take an amazing amount of effort, but she could do it.  She keeps thinking someday she will make it to those two states she missed.  In the meantime, she chooses to surround herself with stuff of the past–her very own composition of clutter.

Clutter is dense, sticky energy–filled with memories that cloud the mind, fog our vision and suffocate our energy.  It slows us down.  It blocks our way.  It keeps us glued to those memories and averts our gaze away from the present moment, the only moment where our power resides.  Eric Butterworth in his book Spiritual Economics nailed it:

We should not try to get fulfillment from past successes nor be bound by past failures.  Consider people such as Lincoln, Churchill and Edison.  They respected their minds too much to clutter them with thoughts of failure or bitterness.  They had good ‘forgetteries.’  So if there be any virtue or praise, think on these things, file them in the memory mind and forget the rest.  Develop a good forgettery and you will find yourself with an amazingly good memory too, for the two conditions are indissolubly linked.

Our Power is in the Present

Lynn has forgotten her power is in the present–in her choices of how she spends her time, who she hangs out with, and where she chooses to go.  It’s not in all that dusty, musty stuff.  It’s not in those bittersweet memories she clings to.  What keeps her in this mode of stuckness?  Fear.  Fear of letting go of things she believes constitute her identity.  Fear of breaking the boundaries of her disabled life.  Fear of no longer claiming she is a victim.  Fear that she will be more alone than she is with all her clutter.

Stripping away the clutter makes her feel vulnerable.  The protection it gives her is an illusion.  She wants it because it’s tangible.  It’s something she can hold and tell herself, “Look, I accomplished this.  I had these friends.  My mother loved this ring.”  In contrast, what if she chose to make new friends by joining a group at her church?  What if she found a place where she could exercise with professional help?  What if she arranged for a drive in the country?  Her power is in the now–not in the paper, gizmos or clothes.  Only Lynn can decide what’s best for her.  Only Lynn can change how she sees her stuff and ultimately herself–a powerful woman who happens to use a wheelchair to get around.  Only Lynn can make these changes now.

Are We Owners or Stewards?

November 22, 2012

‘… But we never really own anything, do we?’ he (Vianello) asked, looking directly at Brunetti.

‘I’m not sure what you mean, Vianello.’

‘Think about it, sir. We buy things. We wear them or put them on our walls, or sit on them, but anyone who wants to can take them away from us. Or break them.’ Vianello shook his head, frustrated by the difficulty he had in explaining what he thought was a relatively simple idea. ‘Just think of da Prè. Long after he is dead, someone else will own those stupid little boxes, and then someone after him, just as someone owned them before he did. But no one thinks of that: objects survive us and go on living. It’s stupid to believe we own them. And it’s sinful for them to be so important.’

–From the novel Quietly in Their Sleep by Donna Leon

I recently got hooked on Donna Leon mysteries. They take place in Venice with Commissario Guido Brunetti as the protagonist aided by his sergeant-assistant Vianello. In the above excerpt, the two sleuths have just emerged from visiting Mr. da Prè, “a horrid little man” who lives and breathes his collection of snuff boxes. Vianello is commenting on da Prè’s obsession. This brief exchange between Brunetti and Vianello made me wonder, “Are we owners or stewards of our things?”

So much emphasis in this twenty-first century society of ours is placed on ownership.  If we don’t own a car, we strive to own one, at least in areas where public transportation can’t get us to where we want or need to go. The mark of a successful, middle class American is ownership of his/her own home. And what about our clothes, furniture, businesses, and investments?

Who is Responsible?

I’ve grown up thinking the items I possess are items I own. I am responsible for housing, using and disposing of them, but maybe this discussion about ownership is limited to people over sixty, people who have had to dispose of their deceased parents’, spouse’s, relatives’ or friends’ possessions. When my mother died, I simply assumed ownership of her possessions. I was 42 and didn’t think beyond this point.

After her death, I held a yard sale for many of the items she had and I couldn’t use. Who are those people who bought her linen tablecloth and napkins, her chafing dish, or her cookbooks? What are they doing with them now? Are they taking good care of them? Have they relegated them to boxes in the back of a closet—or, worse yet, ended their life by throwing them away?

When I was younger, in my thirties and forties, I would never have admitted I am a serial owner of things. So focused on my own life, why would I think about who would take ownership of my stuff after I am gone or that my stuff has a life beyond me? I know that’s why wills and last testaments exist. They perpetuate the illusion we are all owners of our stuff, but the more I think about it, I see myself as a steward. I am simply the overseer of my possessions.

The Leadership Metaphor

The metaphor of leadership comes to mind. For me, the mark of a good leader is a smooth transition. He or She plans for the next person to assume the role of leader-successor, so business can continue as usual. Changes do occur with new leadership, and under good leadership they are usually accepted and not resisted. Without a plan or good leadership, breakdown can devolve into chaos.

I see a parallel when it comes to my stuff. Do I identify who I want handling my stuff? Are there certain items like my car or condo I want particular people to have? Do I inform my designated heirs while I am around or do I wait until the will is read? It comes down to whether I am willing to relinquish my sense of ownership.

And if I don’t have a plan? Relatives I haven’t designated or disinterested parties like the State come in and deal with my stuff. What does it matter? I am gone. Actually I believe it matters. Being a good steward, I need to let people know the plan—my plan on who gets what and how stuff is best handled. The more decisions I make, the fewer decisions others have to make. A definitive plan reduces conflict.

A Subtle Shift

Since this owner-steward distinction is new for me, I haven’t tested it out. When I engage in my next de-cluttering project, will I make different decisions being a steward, rather than an owner?

For example, I have been struggling with letting go of a doll and her wardrobe for years. It was a gift from my father, who died when I was 10. Operating under the illusion that it holds a special tie to him, I remain locked in indecision. If I let it go, I fear I will lose that special tie. It’s a false belief, I know. Nonetheless I use it as my excuse to keep holding on to the doll and all her dresses. Ever since I received the doll, I considered myself its owner.

Now, five decades later, maybe I can shift my role from owner to steward. If I am a good steward, I can exercise authority on how to get it to the right and perfect next steward. My term as doll-steward has expired. Someone else who can love the doll and her outfits needs to assume the steward role. Perhaps this subtle shift from seeing myself as an owner to a steward will allow me to let go. I am hopeful it will.

Is Your Trunk Unlocked?

March 15, 2012

I love reading novels.  They introduce me to ways of thinking I hadn’t yet explored or probed deeply enough.  Why characters act the way they do broadens my understanding of human behavior.  They—authors and their characters—help me to be more compassionate.  In certain situations I catch myself being judgmental.  That catch allows me shift my perspective from anger or hurt to appreciation.  I am not always successful in the moment, but I find myself arriving at a place of greater understanding sooner than in the past. 

Thoughts about Strength, Security and Things

Recently I finished reading The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.  Early on in the novel Blake introduces Emma, a newlywed married to an up-and-coming doctor in the small Massachusetts town of Franklin in the early 1940s.  Blake shares Emma’s reflections now that she is married.  One passage caught my attention because my work with ALIGN, A Unique & Integrative Approach to Clutter & Balance, is all about why we keep the stuff we feel we must to feel secure.  Here are Emma’s thoughts about strength, security and things:

She had always thought that having a house would be a source of great strength, like a trunkful of memories one never unlocked.  Her own family’s house had been sold along with all its contents, except for some photographs and the child’s christening set of silver and her mother’s little seed-pearl wedding ring, which hung loosely off the third finger on Emma’s right hand.  She had wondered sometimes where the things had ended up.  She didn’t begrudge her great-aunts’ decision—she had lived off the proceeds, as they reminded her, after all—but sometimes she wondered whether she might feel less lonely, somehow less anonymous, if, when she woke in the morning, she opened her eyes and saw the same bureau her father had, for instance.  Or, even less grand, used the kettle her mother used to boil water for their junket. 

I suspect Emma’s reflections mirror many of our own.  Think back to the house or houses you grew up in.  Did those homes give you a sense of security?  Not all of us can claim they did, especially if family dysfunction overwhelmed us, but many of us can. 

A Trunkful of Memories

Blake’s simile—having a house is “like having a trunkful of memories one never unlocked”—spoke volumes to me.  Emma’s family’s house was inhabited by her and her parents, people (I’ll assume) who loved Emma.  The house was a structure that held the many items they used and perhaps treasured. 

Since her parents were no longer alive, Emma’s memories of what transpired in her family’s home held meaning.  The illusion of having a house and her parents’ possessions inspired feelings of comfort, safety, and a sense of family.  Blake underscores this point by suggesting Emma might not feel so lonely if she could wake up to her father’s bureau or see her mother’s kettle.  She believes those items could comfort her.  They might resurrect a feeling of security within her. 

The Illusion of Security

Those feelings, however, are an illusion.  My own story supports this fact.  When my mother died, I carted a huge truck load of her stuff from Florida to Virginia and put it in storage.  I thought I could keep her alive by holding onto all that stuff.  Like Emma, I thought I wouldn’t be so lonely, now that I had her stuff.  But, my resistance to “unlock the trunk” overshadowed any comfort I could gather from holding onto my mother’s possessions.  I visited the storage unit twice in the nine years I rented the unit. 

For years I didn’t understand why I couldn’t address my mother’s stuff.  My storage unit had become a “trunkload of memories I never unlocked.”  If I unlocked it, I might have to confront my mother’s death and the loneliness it inspired.  No one ever loved me the way my mother did, and no one will ever again.  Her death meant I had to learn how to mother myself.  The grief that her death caused was swimming in and among all of her items I so neatly locked in storage.  Emptying the unit meant rupturing its containment.

Only after nine years—a number that means completion—was I able to unlock the trunk.  Somehow I knew I could face the grief and finally take the necessary action of deciding what to do with all the stuff I had stored. It meant touching each and every item and placing them in the appropriate pile—keep, donate or discard.  Many of those items held a memory I had to say goodbye to.  In some cases, I relived an experience, which I often found exhausting.  Sibling rivalries, adolescent struggles, and childhood achievements became the stew I stirred as I worked my way through her stuff.  This was my way of dealing with my grief—piece by piece.

How Little Are We Without Our Stuff?

Blake’s next paragraph gives us clue as to why we don’t unlock our trunks.  Emma’s husband has gone to volunteer his medical services in London in 1941, the height of the German blitz.  She finds herself alone in her husband’s and now her house.  She had just heard a radio report from London about a boy in the blitz.  Here is what Emma thinks:                   

But here—she sighed—out there and upstairs, there was nothing of hers.  She felt for the first time in her life the danger of other people’s things—how they might erase her if she weren’t careful.  A sob caught at the bottom of her throat.  It was that report on the boy in the blitz; she leaned toward the coffee table to get her cigarette case.  The report had reminded her of being little, that was all.  She lit the cigarette and drew in a deep, long drag. 

The question that comes to my mind is “How little are we without our stuff?”  Do we need to keep it to secure our sense of identity?  It’s easy to say, “Oh, no!” but then take a peek inside your home.  How much stuff do we need to conjure up the past?  Aren’t the memories inside—not outside—us?  A T-shirt, teacup, or textbook won’t bring the past back.  In fact, all that stuff weighs us down and keeps us from opening fully to the present.

Unlocking a trunkful of memories might feel scary and not worth the trouble.  I beg to differ.  All that stuff from the past—physical and mental—keeps us from tapping into our deeper, more creative self.  There’s a goldmine down there inside us, but it’s probably buried under our past.  It’s time we unlocked our trunks.  I’ve opened mine and I don’t regret it!  You won’t either!

Imagine a beautiful wedding dress—a floor-length ivory silk organza gown with sweet pink rosettes dotting the skirt here and there, a lovely soft scooped neckline with a finely gathered bodice, and beaded capped sleeves.  One of my students brought this awesome item to my “Consciously Clearing Clutter” class.  I ask all my students to bring an item they consider clutter but can’t let go of.  This exercise allows them to dig at the deeper reasons for holding onto a particularly troublesome piece of clutter.

After doing the exercise this student carried the dress sans carrying bag to the front of the class to share what she discovered.  We all gasped at its magnificence, yet she carried it haphazardly—bunched in her arms, like a pile of clothes you would give to charity or take to the dry cleaners.  It seemed heretical to treat such an awesome item with such nonchalance.  Here is what she told us:

A Storybook Wedding

She wore this gown to her first wedding.  She was on her third marriage when she stood before us.  When she married for the first time, she thought she was on her way to becoming a princess.  Husband #1 was undoubtedly her prince.  The dress represented the fantasy she had been nurturing as she prepared for marriage and probably well before that.  It was a storybook dress for a storybook wedding.

For a brief moment in time her fantasy seemed real.  The gown symbolized how she would live—happily ever after—pampered, taken care of, tended to.  Somewhere along the way the fantasy cracked and shattered.  Poof!  The prince went off to seek his fortune.  The princess vanished.  Real life set in.  

I can’t imagine how heartbroken she must have been once she discovered that marriage, and life for that matter, are no tea party.  Owning the gown allowed her to hold onto that fantasy—if only when she goes to the back of her closet to find it.  Now a remnant of her past, it evoked ambivalence.  In one moment it could whisk her away to that storybook life and in the next slap her in the face with the pain of a shattered dream—a marriage that couldn’t continue. 

Clutter:  A Catalyst for Clarity

She stood in front of all of us that night and told us the gown was a symbol of what she imagined her marriage would be.  Her insight was more magnificent than the gown itself.  What mattered more than this gown or any gown was how she saw herself.  Being a princess wasn’t going to get her very far.  It comes with so many expectations along with an equal number of disappointments.   Seeing herself for who she really was—a young woman learning about and experiencing her own growth—would take her much farther.   

She could have chosen to bring anything other than the gown that night, but she knew on some level she was poised to let it go.  Her princess fantasy seemed to evaporate before us.   She couldn’t give me an unequivocal yes when I asked if she would let it go, but we all knew she saw herself differently.  We had witnessed her transformation, and she had gotten clarity from an item she called “clutter.”

Bev Hitchins © 2011