the things you keep which are not yours

A little more on stuff…

…I just read THIS BOOK. In it, the author Corinne Grant explores the roots of her hoarding habits. I found this description of her intertia around organising her possessions interesting:

‘The fear of doing something I might later regret overruled any desire to throw something out. If I threw out an old placemat, I might all of a sudden find myself completely unmoored from my past. If I threw out a cardigan my mother had given me for my twenty-third birthday, I might destroy the family bond that held us to each other. We don’t call our possessions our ‘belongings’ for nothing and … it felt like my belongings were the only things holding me together.’

I understand her attachment to the thing which links you to the person it represents. I utterly understand it. I understand wanting to keep a thing out of some misguided sense of respect for the person who gave it to you. In the past, I’ve hung on to gifts for years, thinking I was honouring the friend who gave it to me, only to have, in one case, him mock the very object and when I protested that he had given it to me in the first place, he responded: ‘God, did I? For god’s sake get rid of it. It’s hideous.’

Once Corinne Grant begins to declutter and sort out her life, she catches the decluttering bug and becomes addicted to her new fixation, spending a whole winter going through her stuff:

‘I was an archaeologist excavating my own life, determined to dig myself out of the rubble.’

I found this sentence very poignant – possibly the most poignant thing I’ve read around decluttering. Doesn’t this one sentence get to the heart of what decluttering is all about? A sense of having lost oneself? A feeling the the way to find oneself again lies in dealing with belongings and trying to establish what they say about you?

As you know if you read my blog regularly, I spent the summer decluttering my house. It wasn’t that bad to start with – I’m no crazy cat-lady who can’t throw out an empty can or an old newspaper, but I was starting to feel like the cupboards and shelves were bulging and that I was hanging on to a lot of stuff for the wrong reasons – like nostalgia, ‘it might be useful one day’ and my need to be surrounded in creative materials.

I was very thorough and heaps of stuff went – to friends who would actually use it, to opshops, into our garage sale (and I still have a large pile of stuff to be listed on trademe – which I should probably be doing now instead of writing this….). I got rid of clothes I had emotional attachments to but no longer wore, I got rid of my record collection, I got rid of piles of art materials, books I knew I’d never get around to reading, unwanted gifts…I think I did really, really well. However…

there remain two stumbling blocks:

-family ‘heirlooms’ – things which have been passed down to me which used to belong to my grandparents, or great-grandparents – these items range from the useful (a gorgeous green jug that was my maternal grandmother’s, which I love and use most weeks to put flowers in) to the space-taking and useless (a musty fox fur coat, my grandmother’s debutante satin gloves – which don’t fit me, because she had tiny hands) to the precious (cameo rings, war medals) to the sublime (beautiful gilt-edged, leather-bound 140 year old family Bible) to the ridiculous (a small old cardboard box full of my grandfather’s pen nibs. He was a draughtsman and took great pride in his pens. The nibs are completely rusty and useless. The whole artefact is useless and not particularly beautiful. It is my favourite reminder of him, and I love it.) I also have my great-grandmother’s mantle clock. It is large! The key is long lost so I can’t wind it up, making it useless. I can’t throw it out. My great grandmother was not a wealthy woman. She didn’t have much. I feel, tangibly, if irrationally, that throwing out that mantle clock – the only thing of hers I have – would be like throwing HER out.

I don’t know what I think about the presence of these items in my life. Some of it makes sense (the green jug: beautiful, useful, translates to a contemporary setting) some not (the ridiculous attachment to a musty old box of rusting pen nibs, keeping old satin gloves which don’t fit me, worn to a ball by a grandmother I never met.)

The things I love the most from my ancestors are usually quirky things, rather than precious things. I hear from those who knew her that my grandmother loved to tell fortunes, read tea-leaves and cards, so for this reason, I love her tea-leaf-reading cup. It’s one of my favourite possessions. (That’s it above – I always have it on my mantlepiece.)

My grandfather went to India during World War 2 – I love the little wooden deities he bought back from India (below.) These speak to me of adventure and fear and being miles from home, and of thinking of those at home at the point of purchasing these little souvenirs – they speak to me of his war experience much more than his actual war artefacts: his medals and papers.

Ah, family heirlooms! The threads of attachment weaving down through generations…

The other area with decluttering where I have hit a wall, is with my writing papers.

I have writing papers – early drafts, submissions, correspondence, publications, course materials etc etc – dating back as far as high school. They start with my high-school poetry books and the punk ‘zine I wrote as a teenager and then they chart my progress as a writer from there….

All in all, including my journals, it comes to about five big boxes of stuff.

Is this a lot?

Why am I so very attached to it?

Is there any point in keeping it?

If I let it go, what does that mean for all those years of learning and struggle? While I am the sum of those parts – the writer who sits here today – does getting rid of the tangible evidence of my struggles, and travails and triumphs and experiments diminish them?

Does it diminish me?

I don’t know. I really don’t.

I feel very close to being able to let it all go – to be able to throw it all on our next bonfire – but should I? What should I keep, if any of it?

How much ‘rubble’ in the archeology of a life is too much?


11 thoughts on “the things you keep which are not yours

  1. I recall coming to a decision that I should go at once and burn all my diaries β€” about 35 years’ worth, on and off. I felt terrified and elated, imagining the imminent pain and liberation. Then I talked to a close friend and she said, Don’t. You’ll regret it. Hide them under my floorboards if you want to be rid of them for now. I did neither. The urge subsided. I wonder what does happen if you burn all your journals . . .


  2. Wow. I trashed a bunch of old writings finally when I realized that by hanging onto them I was actually holding myself back as a writer. I was thinking “Gosh, if only I could replicate that story…” when I should have been going “I can do better. I can go deeper.” It was nice.


  3. Thanks for this interesting post, Helen. It’s given me a lot to think about. We moved from NZ to the US 2 years ago and I got rid of a lot of stuff, including “family heirlooms” but I still feel like I have a lot of things that, if I hadn’t inherited them, I probably would not have gone out and acquired. Part of the reason I haven’t got rid of them I think is that sense of obligation, that I have been appointed their “guardian”. At the same time I destroyed most of my journals, and I have to say that I don’t miss them at all. About the gloves, and the nibs – I would say, if you have the room, keep them. They are interesting artifacts, with a story attached, and you can pass them on to the next generation when you/they are ready. Otherwise the local museum might like to have them.


    1. I’m interested that you don’t miss your journals, Mel. Looking back over mine, the early ones from my early twenties, I mainly find cringey and embarrasing, but the ones since I had kids I value a lot – there is a lot in there which helps me with now and shows me how much I’ve learned and grown. Maybe I should ditch the cringey ones? πŸ™‚


      1. Hmm, well I had the experience of clearing out a loved one’s estate a few years ago, and now, when I think about something like that, I ask myself, if something happened to me, would I want anyone else to read this?


  4. I have my grandmother’s ashes up in the attic. It’s ugly – made of mahogany veneer with a tacky brass name plate. But I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. Partly because my grandmother doesn’t have a grave marker – we scattered her ashes in the Karori rose gardens – and partly because I feel superstitious about it, as I do about a lot of family heirlooms, like part of my grandmother is still trapped inside it. I’m sure she’s in my writing box, the one with the broken hinges. But then I smashed her hairpin jar and nothing happened. I have been quite ruthless about getting rid of old design work when once I held onto it. I suppose you just have to have faith that you will be writing more, making more, and it will be better! I think you remember the good ideas, or at least the essence of them somehow infuses later work.


  5. I have a whole box of Roadslapper archives, S! Maybe I could release that to the universe via our next bonfire. lol! I have photographs and memories of that – surely I don’t need all the paperwork, too? πŸ˜‰


    1. What kind of archives? I sometimes wonder what precisely we said. I can’t remember – I know there was something about the Smiths. I can just remember the songs and the magazine. Also I reread my comment and I realised I should have said ‘urn’ not ‘ashes’. Duh.


  6. Everything! Even our rough drafts when we did writing exercises together to come up with the script.

    I got what you meant – urn not ashes.

    I always thought your family heirlooms were pretty cool, like frocks and handbags and jewellery.


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