Sunday, April 25, 2010

Objects of Accumulation NY Times Article

This article caught my eye yesterday in the NY Times Magazine backpage. It is always insightful as a social worker to hear people's stories and how they reflect back on them and grow from the experiences. Something that struck me was this line from the article:

"Or you could say the stuff doesn’t matter. It’s the lifetime that counts."

This idea resonates with my style of organizing, safe keeping, and decluttering. It's not about the stuff you collect but what you do with the stuff and what it means to you.

Enjoy the article below.

April 19, 2010

People spend the first half of their lives accumulating stuff and the last half getting rid of it. That’s the story of eBay. And of my parents — except for the getting-rid-of-it part. If their life were a Frank Capra movie, it would be called “You Can’t Throw It Away.” Or, in the language of reality TV: “Hoarders: Rubber-Band and Rotary-Phone Edition.” Which is great if you want to put your hands on that lifelike machine gun you had when you were 9. But not so great when it comes time to sell the house.

We’re talking 50 years’ worth of stuff. The prospect of clearing it out had been looming for a while. My mother hadn’t lived there in two years, after a fall sent her into a nursing home. My dad died in ’97. The place was empty, except for a student who rented the top floor for $400 a month and my occasional visits from L.A. Not the wisest use of a three-story Tudor in the heart of Toronto right now, with the city in the throes of an overheated real estate market.

My parents bought the house in 1960 and started filling it with furniture, art, books, LPs, photos, china, silver, crystal, keepsakes and, yes, black rotary phones as heavy as anvils. Memories attached to all of it. And all of it had to go somewhere.

This was on me, their only child. So in March, I gave myself a week. No wife. No kids. No boozing with high-school buddies. I was racing the clock from the minute I landed.

First, the kitchen. An entire drawer of rubber bands, twist ties and those plastic bread thingies. Two cabinets filled with glass jars of every shape and size. Junk I’d been desperate to throw out for years. Before I knew it, I’d filled 20 garbage and recycling bags. Then 40. And it didn’t look as if I’d done anything.

This was a waste of time. Anyone could toss the junk. The important thing was to separate what to keep from what we’d get rid of. I thought about my two boys, 5 and 3. Christmas decorations — definitely. My old toys — they’d already requested the machine gun. My Richmal Crompton “William” books. Thank God they saved all this!

Next, the closets. All jampacked. I started in my mother’s bedroom and lost an hour flipping through a Simpsons department store Christmas catalog from 1974. Every present I’d ever gotten was in here. My G.I. Joes with the kung-fu grip and Village People beards. That “Professional Hockey” game that let you change out all the N.H.L. teams. Ker Plunk! Of course the catalog was in here — this closet was where she used to hide those presents. Where I’d find them before Christmas, then pretend I hadn’t.

I dug deeper. Here was my groundbreaking Grade 5 project on whales, lifted largely from our Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia. My mother’s homework from the ’40s. In German, French, Spanish. A Moderns prodigy, she went on to teach high school. My father was a professor (Spanish literature and language). That kind of explained the saved homework. Certainly the books in every room. I knew those would be hard to unload. Some I shipped home to L.A. At the post office, I was filling out a customs form and asked the young clerk what I should put under “value.” She looked confused: “Used books? I don’t think they’re worth anything.”

I shuttled between the house and meals with my mother at the nursing home, where I’d wolf down a no-sodium, soft-food lunch or dinner to fuel my return to the personal museum I was dismantling. In the basement, I peeled off the poster from my father’s days in La Barraca, Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca’s traveling theater troupe. In the 20-foot-deep closet under the eaves, I found a backpack I think he used in the Spanish Civil War. I was in a nostalgia vortex — a very strange place. Ever look through 60 years of passport photos? It’s like a mortality flip-book.

Speaking of dust, I was covered in it. I washed my hands raw. At around 2 a.m., I’d try to sleep, to quiet the Proustian rush of memory and emotion set off by every object I touched. Finally, after five 15-hour days, I was done.

I met with a couple of estate-sale people, one of whom looked around the house unimpressed and said, “You don’t have that much here.” But she took the job. When the sale was over, she called me with the final tally. A few grand — for a lifetime of stuff.

Or you could say the stuff doesn’t matter. It’s the lifetime that counts.

Rick Marin is a television writer living in Los Angeles.

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