11 Aug

Several weeks ago, Matthew Gilbert, the Boston Globe’s excellent TV critic, published an essay called, “Sorry, Marie Kondo types, I’m not chucking my stuff.” 

In it, he describes how, while preparing for a move, he went through his possessions to prune them down and came across a phone message cassette tape circa 1985 on which he could hear the younger voices of many of his friends, some now gone. The tape evoked memories that otherwise might have remained buried. 

He found the same to be true handling other objects from his past—a lighter, a letter, a chipped coffee mug he made as a youngster, books, with their “odors and handwriting smudges and rust.”  For him, no photo or scan would serve the same purpose as keeping these objects. 

Interestingly, he moved into his mother’s house, itself filled with her own assorted collections, offering a time capsule into her life. Although he said he had done some tossing, he was “holding out and holding on.” Sound familiar? Almost all the reader comments to the essay were supportive, with the couple of people knocking his approach getting a severe thumbs down from the audience. 

I was struck by the writer’s and his respondents’ passionate defense of hanging onto possessions. As someone squarely in the saver camp, the essay prompted me to explore the complexity and the individuality of the downsizing process. Do we have to a align ourselves so squarely with the savers and the tossers, like two warring political parties? Can the tossers lighten up a little and give us a break, and can we savers step back for some perspective? 

But since the savers are my likely audience for this post, let me address you and lay out four considerations. 

Level of Urgency: I don’t know how old Matthew Gilbert is, although I am sure he somewhat younger than I am, but it sounds as though he has moved to a home of a reasonable size with room for both his mother’s and his own treasures. Maybe downsizing doesn’t need to be a priority for him now, just because some people claim that living with fewer things it is the better way to live.  Those of us who are older and either anticipating a move to somewhere smaller and/or farther away (consider moving costs) or just wanting to avoid passing on the burden of dismantling our lives to others may feel a greater sense of urgency to make some decisions about our things. 

Novelty: The moment of rediscovery of a long-forgotten item can trigger the most joy. Once seen and handled, the item’s joy quotient may lessen over time or even immediately. Will other means of preserving the memory then suffice? A cassette tape requires having a machine that can play it—yet another object. Would digitized version of the tape serve to remind Gilbert of all those old friends? Will the lighter continue to spark joy? This consideration requires one to revisit one’s collected items from time to time to see if feelings change.  

Grief and attachment: I have a friend who says she can’t throw away anything with her mother’s handwriting on it, and another who feels the same about anything her mother touched. (Our mother’s things seem to hold a higher degree of reverence than even our own—I know that’s been true for me.) When the loss of a person is too fresh, each item that was theirs feels so important. They chose to keep that item. How can part with it? When we had to disband my parents’ home of 30 years, my sister and I shipped to the USA from London scores of items with the idea we would start a new house with them. The joint household never happened; my husband and I adopted some of the furniture, books, kitchen items, and decorative accessories; and the rest languished in storage for many years until I had the time and emotional distance to deal with it. At the moment, Gilbert has the luxury of immersing himself in the house his mother curated. 

Quantity and accessibility: I couldn’t get the sense from Gilbert’s essay just how much he was consigning to the keepsake category. Was it just a box of treasures, or a household full? Is practically everything a keeper at this point? I wonder whether the value of our stuff diminishes in proportion to the amount we are keeping. It’s one thing to have a couple of boxes of mementoes one pulls out from time to time, and quite another to have shelves full of boxes we never touch or items on the shelves we never use or pay attention to.  But as I hope I’ve shown in my posts, some creative curation can tame even a large number of items so that they are accessible and continue to spark joy.   

So, Matthew Gilbert, enjoy your bits and pieces for now. That is certainly your right. I get it. I’ve certainly been there. But before you dismiss out of hand the whole concept of downsizing, appreciate that not everyone has the space or time ahead of them to say to heck with it.  For those of us with a penchant for saving, necessary downsizing can be done thoughtfully, with minimal regret, and without gloating when the time is right. And I advocate slow downsizing to reduce the sting.

Who knows, maybe one day you will pull out that chipped mug (along with its assorted contents), snap a photo or two, thank it for its service, consign it to the dustbin, and never look back.

Image: a piece of an assemblage by artist Hans Pundt

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