Toss the junk, live like a turtle

Savannah Morning News

Oct. 8, 2017

 

If Matthew helped start the process, Irma sealed the deal.

We have too much stuff. Every one of us. It’s spilling out of drawers, jammed into closets, wedged into boxes, sandwiched into old suitcases, lodged under our beds, frozen beyond recognition in our freezer.

Even our parents – god bless them, the repository of our life’s detritus – can only put up with so much. A few decades ago when my mother was moving from one apartment to another she put her foot down. I would have to take charge of my own life. I would have to move my boxes, she wrote me (wrote – as in handwriting, envelopes, letters, stamps): papers from elementary school (cut out maps of Alaska and its main industries), notebooks from college (microbiology, history of art, historical interpretation of the Bible), letters on thin blue paper from Europe when I was a summer exchange student. I protested. I didn’t believe her. What are mothers for? What are basements for? (This is an “up north” activity: basements as the original storage units).  Then one day they all arrived at my house in Savannah. My boxes. She was serious.

That was then. This is now.  Irma was a powerhouse, a pending disruption. A sizable hurricane. This was serious. Even though I live inland, I live high, I live far away from a possible surge. Even though it was way too late to worry about falling limbs, weak trees, vulnerable cars with no protective garages.

The call came to me from a friend. I was on a train somewhere in the middle of nowhere, drifting off, spacing out, taking a nap.

“What do you want me to take?” she asked, preparing to evacuate. To my way of thinking I had everything I needed on my person: phone, computer, favorite clothes, checkbook, credit card. I was a turtle. I was self-sufficient.

“My passport,” I said first thing, revealing its secret hiding place in the house. Passports are precious these days and not all that easy to renew. After that came my grandfather’s ginormous Masonic ring. I can still see it on his hands and after “misplacing” it for years I didn’t want to lose it again. Then I thought of my mother’s handwritten notebook that listed all the books she read between 1928 and 1931.  How could I ever replace that? But then I was stuck. I couldn’t think of what else I had to save.

It reminded me of the time I moved to Pittsburgh for three years. To rent out my house I emptied the closets, the pantry, the dressers and my desk, looking for things that didn’t make the cut. Jeans (old, new, flared, straight-legged), long-sleeved black shirts (stained, tight, scoop-necked, three-quarter length), t-shirts (where to start?). I bit the bullet, made the decisions, packed them up in extra suitcases and stored them in my attic. The knickknacks, doodads, trinkets went next – into a box I labeled “precious things.”

It took a couple of years after I returned to town to even think about these boxes and suitcases and precious things. It was only when I had to go into the attic to deal with a critter who was making his home up there did I pull down the cord, climb up the retractable stairs, see my stuff and lug it all downstairs.

(And this from someone who bragged I never rented space in a storage unit). Wrong.

When I finally opened the suitcases to see what I couldn’t bear to throw away I was unmoved, unimpressed, dry-eyed. Fact: I didn’t miss anything – not the tchotchkes, the gifts, the t-shirts. Nothing.

Why is it so hard to get rid of stuff? Clothes that don’t fit, coats we’ll never wear, scarves by the dozens, bowls we have in triplicate, unmatched socks, broken lamps, scratched sunglasses, chairs waiting to be repaired.

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Alexander Pope said that in 1732. Was he talking about losing weight and fitting into certain clothes? Locating the missing sock? Finding the time to fix a chair? Gathering the courage to throw away a lamp with nostalgia value?

While some of us struggle with our junk, others – the entrepreneurs – know what to do, know how to seize an opportunity. They buy up land, cut down trees, put up boxy warehouses and rent out space to hoarders, deniers, quasi collectors. The last time I did a Google search I found 22 such opportunities in our county, from 24 Hour Storage to Stop N Stor and Life Storage. Uh-huh, that’s what they want – for us to store out stuff for life. Kaching, kaching.

Too many tchotchkes. Too much stuff. Time to edit.