Possession

Ann Patchett wrote about getting rid of possessions in The New Yorker. It’s not about minimalism, but about a kind of cherishing of things.

I have been trying to do this for most of my life, but after I retired, I realized I had to get serious about it. I have one child and it would be horrible for them to have to get rid of everything in the house. Also, I wanted to be mobile. I want to be even more mobile as an older person than I was as a young one.

A lot of what I was carrying around was other people’s, because my brother is a Foreign Service nomad and my sister lives too far away. Somehow I ended up with my stepfather’s and my mother’s possessions as a result.

I felt I owed my mom and stepfather the dignity of going through what they saved, even if they are long gone. The summer I spent going through, organizing, and selectively scanning all my mother’s photos, her letters, and her typed sermons (organized by ecclesiastical year) was a process of mourning her all over again, especially since I gritted my teeth and shredded most of it once I had looked at it.

I shared all the digital files with my brother and my sister, and when my brother said he’d like my mother’s sermons, by god I put them in a cardboard box, wrapped it all over with packing tape so it was waterproof (at that point he was in Delhi and it was the rainy season) and shipped it off (I don’t know if he ever got it). I mailed my sister my mother’s tooth with the enormous gold filling, which my mom had saved because she thought she could extract the gold.

Getting rid of most of my own stuff was easier but took a long time. Some of it I kept in the form of digital files. Thirty years of handwritten journals have been distilled into typed selections stored on my hard drive and in Dropbox. I went through all of my books and donated anything I wasn’t actually really truly going to re-read or use.

My house is spare and clean. I have nothing I don’t want, no fearful just-in-case clutched symbols or backup possibilities. My mantra, which I copy into every new journal, is, “I have enough. Put away. Pack. Plan. One thing at a time.”

I still have several crates of my own kid’s possessions in the basement. I don’t know what to do with them because my kid doesn’t have room for them.

My husband still says from time to time, “What happened to those stainless steel mixing bowls?” and he can’t bring himself to throw out all the cables from when he did a lot of wiring for his clients, but he’s actually less of an accumulator than I was.

Do I still accumulate new things? You betcha. A lifetime can’t be tossed aside just like that. But there’s a place for them now. Did I save a few things of my mother’s? Yes. The Navajo blackware bowl is over to my left right now, and her careful needlepoint of a squirrel in a frame that used to hold a mirror is to my right. But now they are warm memories, not burdens.

And I could pick up and go pretty much any time now. I don’t know where I would go, mind you, because this is a pretty nice place to live now that I’m not dragging such a load around with me.

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