A Cluttered Life

As always, I have to start with this caveat: I am not a sentimental person. I don’t save things just for the memories. I think it may be part of my hard-wired personality. I’m kind of obtuse as to why people hang on to old birthday cards and ticket stubs. I was a museum curator for a couple of years, and finding boxes of junk dropped on my doorstep because someone else couldn’t bear to sort them or throw them out was a major stress point. I had to sort through it, decide if there was anything worth keeping, catalogue it, and list what I sent to the trash. Most certainly, someone would come in and ask, “What happened to Mama’s collection of Tropicana juice bottles? Some of those went all the way back to 1977!” This was a museum dedicated to the history of Swedish settlement in northern Maine. Tropicana had nothing to do with it. It didn’t help that one of the directors, now deceased (God grant him rest), was an out-and-out hoarder, who had filled at least two houses and attempted to hide his “collections” in various nooks and crannies of the museum. I would find cardboard boxes and old suitcases full of newspapers, postcards, letters and family photos in the closets and attics, haul them out, and once again explain to him that it was a non-profit organization, not a storage facility. I tossed the collection of phonebooks – none of them old, none of them local – into recycling and he sulked for a month. Now, I understand about ephemera – things saved that were meant to be disposed – because we can learn a lot about past patterns of behaviour and consumption from them, and some have artistic merit, which is usually why they were saved. We had collections of letters in Swedish, early local postcards, even a large collection of visiting cards from a “coming out” in Sweden more than a hundred years before. All of this had merit in our general collections. Stacks of year old newspapers didn’t, and I sure wasn’t going to go through them to clip out the local articles. That was not in my job description.

I think it made me a good curator. I cast a cold eye on objects, and didn’t get carried away with emotion. I don’t see any merit in useless things, in things merely decorative, in things meant to be attached to a sentiment. I don’t want to be given things that have strings – “Remember me!” Would it be all right if I just remember you for your warm friendship, your open heart, your loving smile? I can do that without a suncatcher angel figurine. (Sorry, Hallmark.)

Hoarders often attach sentimental value to valueless objects. No one else can see why they keep what they do, but each item has a story to them. This disorder seems to be about misapplying affection and memory – trying to hold onto a feeling, a person, a lost relationship, a part of the past when they were better, happier, more fulfilled. But holding onto the objects doesn’t help. It causes unbearable stress and often hardship. Hoarding is associated with depression, but it is hard to say if the depression caused the hoarding or the hoarding and its stresses caused the depression. Dealing with the horrendous clutter means coming out of the shell of that depression for some, or facing a traumatic time from the past with which they have not yet recovered.

I understand the need to hold onto things, at least for a while. I kept some of my late husband’s clothes for about a year. I had some strange idea that he might not be really dead, that he might come back. This is a common thought in the recently bereaved, that there was a mistake and the loved one will return. This was unreasonable in the face of the evidence – I had seen him after his death, I had death certificates, there had been a funeral and all of that. But it was necessary to my grieving that I didn’t let go too soon. It was a sudden, unexpected illness and death, and was a terrible shock to me. I needed to cling for a while.  When I was ready to move to the next stage of my life, the old clothes could go. Some other objects were harder to get rid of; some sort of stayed on too long, but the day came when I could throw them out with no regret. I could finally commit him entirely to the care of God.

Is it wrong to hold on to old things we don’t need? I think that is the big question for people who are trying to simplify. On one side of the question, no, if they are not causing harm, stress, or undue cost. I would not like to see someone keeping a big house they can’t afford anymore because it is full of sentimental objects. I have seen people completely devastated emotionally because a fire took all of Mama’s handmade quilts, and Mama isn’t around to make any more. It was sad, I was sorry that they had a major loss, but all the quilts she might have sewn can’t replace Mama. Their memories were intact, and who they are because of their mother’s influence and love was still there. The family itself was a tribute to their Mama, not the quilts. I’m afraid they had gotten to the point where they almost worshipped their late mother, kept her house as a shrine and venerated her handiwork as gifts of the divine. God does not tolerate the worship of other gods. Losing the shrine may have saved their souls.

God means us to focus our attention on Him. When we become too attached to the things of this world, we lose that focus. We focus on ourselves and our own fulfillment. We build cheap little kingdoms out of dust instead of living in His Kingdom. While we can’t live as birds and foxes, in nests and holes in the ground, we are called by God and the example of Jesus Christ to live lightly on this earth. And that simply means that we live simply.

I love an empty house. It’s probably an aesthetic thing for me, but it also means that it is clean and free of attachment. An empty house can be filled with people. They may have to sit on the floor or bring their own chairs, but that doesn’t bother good friends who want to be together. One of the saddest things about modern life is to hear people say they want a big house for entertaining, but then they never have friends over because the house is too cluttered or too hard to clean up. The house is cluttered, their schedules are cluttered, their minds ar cluttered with concern and worry. There’s no room to relax.

It’s reflected in those “let’s go RVing” ads on television or in magazines. The family, in their own home, is isolated from each other by the phone, the internet, the television or their work. They have homes with dining rooms, family rooms, living rooms, and each person is alone: They are not eating together, sitting together or living together. So Dad fires up the motor home and they head out to the campground in the mountains.

Just as the compulsive hoarder builds literal walls of things to keep out instrusion into their private world of pain, so we all acquire objects and attachements to build worlds of status, indulgence and sentiment. We shut out even those whose love we need. In our human brokenness, we move to isolation rather than hospitality.

When Jesus died on the cross, he was stripped near-naked.  All He had was taken away, and that was just His clothes. It was a sorry little haul for the Roman soldiers – seizure of property was one of the bonuses of being a soldier. The one thing He might have been left for His burial, His fine cloak, was gambled away. He was buried in a donated winding sheet. And yet He was king of all; all that was created, was made through Him.

In light of that, my own few possessions seem paltry. There is no glory in them, only in Him who has placed them into my hands for the time being so that I may use them to His glory. God keep that prayer in my heart!

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12 thoughts on “A Cluttered Life

  1. Funny I’m trying to get into museum work at the moment.

    I just saved some stuff yesterday.A fellow art student was throwing out good work which people may want to buy at our student degree show (which starts in about 10 days time) so I rescued it.

    I hoard and I like it. In fact I’m finishing off a quilt for my degree show with material I had for years.

    • I used to be a collage artist myself. So saving paper and old magazines wasn’t hoarding; my little stash of fabric scraps for the quilt I’m making this year isn’t hoarding. Compulsive hoarding is keeping stuff with no object in mind, just accumulating out of anxiety and displaced emotion. If you use it up, even a few years later, it’s not hoarding.

      Museum work is fascinating. I liked the preservation part, as well as the history. But dealing with compulsive hoarders isn’t fun! We would have needed two more barns to hold all the stuff they wanted to haul in! I had to leave the work and can’t return because of almost fatal mould allergies.

      • I got into it in a weird way. I don’t know if it will help at all. The local historic museum had a beautiful old blanket loom, and I wanted to start weaving again, so I asked if I could use it. That meant going to a board meeting, and in the course of the meeting they found out that I had a fine arts minor in university, was a professional artist, knew something about costume, and would willingly sit for hours spinning, weaving, cataloguing and occasionally would rise to my feet and show people about. They were ready to move on from amateur curators and high school students, so I got hired. I also wrote quite a few grant proposals while I was there and they were all approved, so we had an influx of funds for exhibits. My willingness to take on new work was a major factor, as was my art background. I am good at languages, and although I did not study Swedish, I could work through it and help people with research amongst old letters, newspaper clippings and magazine articles.

        I’d say if you play to your strengths, such as your art background, you will have a better chance of finding that job. Look at museums where your skills and interests especially fit. I doubt if I would have been hired to curate a museum of Asian porcelain, for instance. I went to every workshop and class on curacy and preservation I could, as well. That helped pad out my resume. If I had wanted, I probably could have found a better full-time job building on what I had done, but after a terrible, almost fatal exposure to penicillium mould (from a museum collection), I could no longer tolerate even mildew and black mould. Mould is a big problem in museums, so I am out of the business now!

        Blessings upon this work. I hope that is where you are being led, because passion and intelligence are needed in that field.

  2. Wonderful post. I am overly sentimental and really have to make myself let go of things. I will not let go of the few clothes of my mom’s and other sentimental stuff of hers mostly, I suppose, because i was only 9 when she passed away. I seem to get really caught up in the memories associated with things but I am trying to learn to let go of the things and just hang on to the memories.

    • As I’ve said before, I may be unnaturally unsentimental. Museum curacy may have scared it out of me. Would there be a good reason why you would get rid of the few things from your mother? If it is a box or a few items, then there’s nothing wrong with keeping it if you have the room and it’s in good enough shape. If you know you wouldn’t risk your life or someone else’s for that one box of sentimental objects, don’t worry about it. If the clothing is starting to fall apart, you might keep patches of it for a scrapbook page or if it is in usable shape, make it into a patchwork quilt or pillow top. If you should need to get rid of it, photograph it first and scrapbook that.

    • Keeping a few items is perfectly normal. I have some of my mom’s jewellry, her wedding dress and some other small things from her. The jewellry I could sell, everything but a ring with a blue stone and her engagement ring which I would keep as a memory. I don’t because I want to have it the day when I need the money and until then they are best kept as they are. The interesting thing is however, the one little thing I could not bare to lose from my mother is a shopping note she wrote that I found in a box with things she had packed for me before her death. It such an everyday thing that would normally not survive and it seems like she left it just yesterday although I know that it is at least 3 years maybe more since it fell into the box and that she is now in another place. It might be strange but that is my most loved thing from my mom.

      • Sometimes it is something quite simple, something we remember as uniquely theirs. Handwriting would be a good example of something we know we don’t want to lose. What could be more personal? Although I did not save any of my mother’s letters or notes, and even the letters from my late husband are gone now, I can vividly remember their handwriting, and their style of composition. My mother was all exclamation marks and a beautiful cursive hand, just like in school. When she was excited, she wrote bigger and bigger, until one sentence would take up a page. My late husband had a terrible hand, barely readable, with a heavy script. It looked like strange angular scribbling. He had a quirky sense of humour and called me the silliest endearments – “honey lamb” being the favourite. He was, in fact, a genius, one of the most intelligent men I have ever met.

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