all of the selves we Have ever been
Mick Jagger turns 78 today.
Poor guy. He just can’t get no satisfaction.
Mick does try. And he tries. And he tries. Mick may be more famous for his persistence than his rock ‘n roll. In the fifty-six years since Mick sang those words, sharing the pain of sexual frustration and American consumerism, Mick has had eight children with five different women, five grandchildren, and a great grandchild who is older than Mick’s youngest child. Jagger’s chronic dissatisfaction has resulted in a net worth estimated at $500 million. Maybe that helps to ease the pain.
I have a net worth of about $5.00, but I am more easily satisfied than Mick Jagger, and I don’t even try. Yesterday, I found a solid wood Ethan Allen side table sitting up pretty next to the dumpster. I live in a college town, and that’s what people do with good stuff when they move. Instead of taking the bulky items to Goodwill or another charity donation center, they set the items near, but slightly apart from, the regular trash as an offering to their neighbors. If passers-by spot the items before it rains or snows, they get a great deal. It troubles me that so much of this perfectly fine stuff ends up in the landfill. I try to recycle it by using it myself, passing it on, or taking it to a donation center.
When I was growing up, we were not so carefree with our belongings. Our homes were furnished with good quality hand-me-downs from the generations before us. Every item had a story, and we waited patiently to contribute our chapter. Furniture was sturdy and made of real wood and natural fabrics. Our clothes were sturdy, too. We got new clothes at the start of each school year and for the big holidays like Christmas and Easter, unless we had a growth spurt in between. Being the oldest or the only might mean new stuff--unless there were cousins. Being a younger sibling meant hand-me-downs. We had school shoes, Sunday shoes, and play shoes. Play shoes were often just our worn out old school shoes. We changed into our play clothes the MINUTE we came home from school or church, and we hung them up IMMEDIATELY.
There was no shame in patches or in mending, especially when the handiwork was skillfully done, and most moms were skillful. Girls endured life-long apprenticeships for their roles as mothers. They came to the mending game experienced. Most dads were tinkerers and fixed the other broken and weary stuff. They did not have to storm the legislature to demand right-to-repair laws. Not to repair was an insult to rugged individualism and American know-how. No one needed a special amendment to the constitution to carry a wrench. There was pride in making things last, an essential strategy in the pursuit of happiness.
When a spare part or something new was needed, we turned to the Sears catalog. While I have attributed my love of reading to Nancy Drew, I don’t think I gave Sears, Roebuck and Company enough credit for the growth of my mind. I have to acknowledge the Sears catalog for helping me to become a visual learner. The catalog was also a free course on how to write descriptions. That big catalog sold everything including houses. I dog-eared plenty of pages and starred many illustrations of the items I wanted, but I didn’t really expect to get them all. Dreaming was another American past time. It did not fill me with dissatisfaction; it fed my imagination. There was no keeping up with the Joneses. Not one of my friends would be getting that stuff either. Sure, we argued over who saw it first and who deserved to have it, but we easily tired of the competition and got back to Barbies, the sprinkler, and chasing fireflies.
The advertising industry has exploded since those days, and with ample supply, convenient access to shops, and on-line retailers with promises of two-hour delivery, we don’t give consumption the thought we once did. Back when Mick announced his dissatisfaction, there were just a couple of seasons in the fashion industry—warm and cold, and later, spring, summer, fall, and winter. I recently heard that some retailers change fashion styles weekly in order to drive up sales. Some of the prior “season’s” clothing is removed from the racks, shredded, and tossed into the landfill. There are no free lunches or leggings in America.
Someone said, “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” Well, the pandemic changed all of that for me. A year of social isolation showed me just how much I really do need. Turns out, it isn’t much. A little does go a long way toward satisfaction. And my little is so much more than many others have.
Mick Jagger, I think you may be trying too hard. Meet me at the dumpster.
I pick up a new book, Buy Nothing, Get Everything.
On page 21, I come to a shocking statistic: The average American home is filled with more than 300,000 items.
Confident that I am below average in yet another category, I read on: according to a study of possessions in homes, there is a correlation between the number of magnets on refrigerators and the amount of stuff in the household.
Those words tear through my storage unit of denial like a Florida hurricane. From my seat at the dining room table, I eye both the overflowing bookshelves in the living room and the layer of magnets covering my refrigerator door.
I immediately go to the kitchen and gaze into my personal magnetosphere. In this new state of enlightenment, I realize those small advertisements and souvenirs hold more power than meets the eye. If they can suck that much stuff into your house, surely, they can stop a pacemaker cold or wipe the memory from a desktop computer. I fear for my visitors with metal joint replacements. After wrapping some yellow caution tape around my front door, I don a hazmat suit and get to work. I commit to clearing magnets from my refrigerator door.
Step one? Self-examination. Why do I have so many magnets in the first place?
Some are so cute and well-crafted that they look like real strawberries, bananas, and cookies. Works of art they are. And speaking of art, some of the magnets are actual handcrafted artwork—projects made by my children as Mother’s Day gifts 25 years ago when the children were small. It is hard to part with sentiment. There also a few magnets spouting funny and inspirational sayings such as the one black and white photo of a woman in a 1950s’ era bathing suit: “I’m one stomach flu away from my goal weight.” It was a gift from a friend during one of my many weight loss attempts. Humor, sentiment, gift, and reminder. It is practically a medical device for overall well-being.
But the majority of the magnets are business advertisements. I have 12 copies of the same magnet from a bread company reminding me how to warm up a loaf of their bread. Most of the other magnets came to me as promotions from now defunct businesses.
I get to work removing magnets…except for the really cute ones…and the sentimental ones. I put the remaining extra magnets into a plastic bag. I walk them to the storage closet to add to my box of miscellaneous items where I find more sandwich bags filled with refrigerator magnets from previous but forgotten episodes of clean-off the refrigerator. Apparently, refrigerator magnets can also wipe the human memory clean.
Why can’t I just walk my bags full of magnets to the dumpster? I face a dilemma. With my new understanding of the power of refrigerator magnets, do I dare just toss them in the trash? What happens when all of those magnets get buried in the landfill? Will they suck passing automobiles into the rubble? Turn the world upside down? Pull Asia up by the roots? Airplanes out of the sky?
I go to the tree of knowledge to do some research. I Google “refrigerator magnets” and learn that collecting magnets can be a bona fide hobby. There is no recognized term for someone who collects refrigerator magnets, but there is a woman collector identified in the Guinness Book of World Records. Her name is Louise Greenfarb, and she lives in Henderson, Nevada. Back in 2015, Louise had 45,000 unduplicated magnets. Dear Lord, how many household items does she have?
I dig further to see if there is a known ratio of magnets to stuff. I do not find the formula, but I do find a magazine for refrigerator magnet collectors called Collector’s Lot Magazine. Perhaps you have to be a paid-subscriber to access that that kind of critical information.
As I tend to do when I am in a quandary, I get back to my book, and I discover a new term: nillionaire. A nillionaire is person who has bought nothing for months or years. The book does not say what nillionaires do with their old refrigerator magnets, but they must have some strategy for breaking the force field. Until I unravel this mystery of how to dispose of my refrigerator magnets, I wrap them in plastic, place them in a box, and bury them deep within my storage closet. I vow to become a nillionaire.
Now, with this major reduction in magnetic force, maybe I can let go of all of those twisty-ties.
A few years ago some friends of mine decided to give up shopping for traditional holiday gifts. Smart, hard-working, and successful, this couple had been fortunate in their lives and careers. Their home and those of their extended family members were bursting with “stuff.” My friends decided that instead of more stuff, they would give their children, grandchildren, and relatives the gift of “experiences” such as travel, wine tastings, and game nights. I applauded the idea--what a wonderful way to share time, build memories, and solidify relationships; and for children and young adults, a precious opportunity to see older adults and grandparents as smart, curious, vital, interesting, active, and FUN.
That conversation brought to my mind the first time I visited the RainForest Exhibit at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. I went to see the exhibit soon after its opening in 1992. The experience was every bit as exciting for the adults as it was for the children oohing and ahhing at the giant waterfall and interactive exhibits. As we made our way around the exhibit area, the lights went down, thunder began to rumble, and lightning lit up the “sky.” We experienced a tropical rainstorm.
It was a moment of enlightenment for me, not because of the lightning strike, but because I realized someone, some person, made this happen. It was someone’s actual job to make it rain in a building! I might as well have been struck by the lightning that day because I have never forgotten the feeling that new insight gave me. So much more is possible than I ever imagined.
While women had been instrumental in the war effort, growing up in the post-WWII era, girls were still expected to stay within the boundaries of traditional roles. By the 1970s, the Women’s Movement was shaking things up, and more teenage girls were going off to college, but career advice remained traditional. A young lady could be a secretary, teacher, nurse, or if Catholic, a nun. That was the narrow range of typical options as I prepared for entry into the adult world.
Fast forward (really fast or it will take up your entire day)--2020 put all of our lives on pause as we tried to survive and wait-out a pandemic. It has been a time of upheaval and re-evaluation. The usual and the traditional were torn apart. Some folks lost their health, others their lives. Some people found they could work from home, and they liked it. Others realized they had been in need of more family togetherness. Some said the togetherness was too much. Many women homeschooled their children and discovered they did not want to be teachers or fulltime homemakers. People were forced into a new experience and many came to new insights about themselves, their lives, and possibilities.
With the coronavirus vaccine reaching more people, it is time to prepare for re-entry. What will life be like on this new earth? We’ve been away for a while.
When astronauts prepare for re-entry from outer space, they don’t just fall back to earth. NASA has planned for a controlled descent, a careful trajectory to bring them home. Adjustments are made to the “attitude” or orientation of the spacecraft and a heat shield protects the returning vessel from bursting into flames. Parachutes and balloons deploy for a safe landing, and fresh air enters the craft as the astronauts bob about on the ocean awaiting their ride to dry land.
It has been a time of re-evaluation for me. I grew older and crossed over the line into Medicare. It gave me an unanticipated sense of freedom that I no longer had to be tied to work in order to have health care. I began to think about the freedoms I had during the pandemic and the things I lost and missed. The pandemic turned out to be precious time to think about what it is that I care about and enjoy. What I can live with and what I can’t live without. I am seriously considering my new trajectory and my attitude, trying to adjust so that I don’t burst into flames. Bobbing around on the ocean might be fun. Maybe I will learn how to make it rain in a building or do something that has never been done before.
In the pandemic shift, there was a gift of experiences and possibilities.
Prepare for re-entry.
There are some stains we treat and scrub.
We want them OUT.
But there are others that become part of the fabric of our lives. Unexpected souvenirs of people, times, and experiences we cherish. We want them to remain FOREVER.
I began the day searching for my light gray sweatpants, the ones with the white paint stains on the knees. My Saturday clothes. I had things to do.
The paint stains are a happy reminder of living in Missouri and helping a friend to prepare his new home for move-in day. It was a different Saturday as we stirred paint, filled trays, and loaded the rollers. We worked across the room from each other sharing stories and anticipating the new life my friend would have in the freshly painted rooms. A year later, I would bring a little of my friend with me when I returned to my home in Ohio. The stains on my sweats remind me of that pleasant paint-filled Saturday and a kind and faithful friend.
As I prepare my breakfast, I see the blue and white enameled butter dish with the worn finish. A hint of rust hides under the lid. The loop of a handle has a dark spot where I place my thumb. I imagine my grandmother holding this butter dish in her hands and lifting the lid. It is her thumb that wore the spot on the handle. For a moment, my Sita is present with me in my kitchen.
I sit in my rocking chair to sip some morning tea. My bottom slides over the well-worn seat helping to erase the wood’s finish. The arms are worn as well. Rocking the chair back and forth, I remember the purchase of this chair from an Amish furniture store. It is the chair in which I rocked both of my babies to sleep each night. Worn as it is, I don’t care to have it refinished. I don’t want to disturb my memories of that tired mother or of those sleeping babies.
On the wall adjacent to my rocking chair is a plate rack that contains four angel plates. Each white plate is decorated with the colorful image of an angel in a distinctive pose. One angel is ringing a bell, another holding a star. A third is playing a harp. The last angel is releasing a dove. The last plate was broken into several pieces during a move. I glued it together. On close inspection, the repair can be seen, but I don’t care. The plate stays. It is part of a set--a set of plates, and a set of friends. Some of my dearest friends, godparents to my children, gave me those plates on a Christmas day long ago. The plate rack was a find during an adventure with a new friend who has entered the ranks of dearest friends.
I go to the storage cupboard for a box and spot a battered suitcase. It is very large. I never use it, but my baby girl, Emily, took it on a trip to Europe. She was in college and the first of our family to travel abroad. The suitcase still has the tags from her trip. Emily turned thirty this year, but I retain a piece of her youth in a suitcase in my closet.
There are other scuffs, stains, cracks, and chips that fill my home—a child’s greasy hand prints, scuff marks from little feet. Blood stains from boo-boos. Chipped dishes from dropped spoons.
I cherish all of these reminders of a life lived and of people loved. Scuffed, stained, cracked, or chipped, I want them IN. FOREVER.
I have a few screws loose.
I know what you are thinking, but I am not talking about my head.
I am speaking about my pots and pans--a set of stainless steel Farberware that I received as a gift when I first set up housekeeping more than 40 years ago. With the help of some Bar Keeper’s Friend Cleanser, the collection still sparkles like new. Lately, about every two or three weeks, I tighten the screws that join the handles to the pots and pans, but within a few days, subtle wiggles return.
I am having trouble accepting this change in condition. These pots and pans have been with me most of my adult life. Every meal ever served in my home has come from inside these familiar vessels. The dutch oven has also served as a health aid at bedside when a stomach was upset. It has been a dish pan, a step stool for tiny feet, a helmet, and a container for Legos. Each pot has taken its turn as a musical instrument and a sorting bin. All have left the kitchen to come and go from the magical world of make believe. These kitchen tools have conjured up cleaning potions, medicinal tonics and Kool-Aid scented play dough.
We are a team my pots and me. We have our systems down. Without a measure, the smallest pot and I can fill a favorite tea cup to the brim without a drop of overflow. I know just how long the searing meat can sizzle in the skillet before the roast begins to stick. The bend in the bottom of the largest pot guides my pour of oil as I prepare to make the crunchiest popcorn.
We’ve been together a long time. These containers have outlasted countless apartments and two houses. They are well-traveled, moving in state and out. My pots and pans proved sturdier than a marriage, and more reliable than a Rolex. They helped me to feed and rear two children, sharing my memories of warming baby bottles and pancake breakfasts on sleep-over mornings. As one, we have simmered spaghetti sauce and soup to help fill stomachs in households where sorrow has been.
In the digital age, we have grown accustomed to constant updates. We no longer expect our things to last. We buy pre-fab furniture and leave it at the curb when we move. Fancy refrigerators and cars that talk to us last just a couple of years before they break down, require an update, or need a part so expensive that we might as well replace them.
I am a child of the mechanical age growing up in a household where a washing machine or a television might need a repair, but it lasted a lifetime. Families accumulated fine things not so much by shopping, but by handing down treasured heirlooms to the next generation. There is no bread machine that can replace the carved wooden bowl in which my grandmother kneaded the dough that became her signature raisin bread. There is no fine cabinetry that can replace the worn butcher block on which my grandfather cut meat in a small grocery store that helped feed a community during the Great Depression.
I love things that last--familiar things that share my memories and tell a story. Perhaps I will lose my mind on that day when the screws finally fall from the handles of my old pots and pans.
Today, I continued with my plan
to go from room to room tidying up some of the things I’ve been meaning to do for a long time.
I started with the coat closet. A paltry collection of two light jackets and one winter coat dangles on hangers from the long rod. They are barely perceptible in the large dark closet which also contains a tool box, large level, a drill, an upright vacuum cleaner, five empty cardboard boxes, my stash of paper supplies, and a big bag of bags.
I shift the coats, tools, paper products, and vacuum cleaner to the right and ponder my reasons for saving so many cardboard boxes. I kept each of them “just in case”—just in case I needed to return the items that came in them, or just in case I needed to mail a gift to someone, or just in case another box full of stuff becomes worn and needs replaced….It is the same story for the bag full of bags. In my mind’s eye, there is so much potential, I can’t let go—just in case.
How many things in my life have I accumulated “just in case?” It is good to be prepared, but generally, when I need something, I forget that I was accumulating items for just such a situation. Then I either buy something or go on a scavenger hunt to find something useful. Sometimes it is a nice surprise to find that I had a solution to my problem tucked away in some nook or cranny. More often, I am irritated by having to move the stuff around to get to what I need like the vacuum cleaner.
Today, I go bold. I flatten the boxes and move them to the recycling pile, but I weaken when I come to the bags. I save the sturdiest of the bunch. Who knows? In the current situation, I could end up homeless. I’ll hold onto to a few…just in case…
Feeling a sense of accomplishment, I move into my office. My eyes land on an old Rolodex that has sticky notes protruding from the M-P section. There is a stack of business cards hanging off to one side. I look at the mess and ask myself, “Do I really know this many people?”
I generally rely upon the contact list in my phone or on my computer, but I still keep some info on the small paper cards of the Rolodex as a back-up system. You know, just in case…
I start with A-D and card-by-card, work my way through the entire Rolodex. I’ve had this system for more years than I can remember. Studying each card becomes a game of trivial pursuit. Who is this person? How do I know them? I search for clues. Do I recognize the zip code from one of the many cities in which I’ve lived? How about the area code? I can place most of the names, but there are some that draw nothing but blanks. I discard a few of the unrecognized names, and I hang onto a few...just in case.
I do enjoy looking through the cards that contain names of friends, family members and colleagues. I look at the addressees that have been crossed off and the new ones added. I can trace a friend from her childhood home, to college, to her first marriage, her first big job, her move to a new city, a remarriage, and on into retirement. I see my children’s names in the file. There are various college addresses and first apartments. In this tiny file cabinet is my medical history in brief with the names and contact information for past physicians, dentists, and physical therapists. I see the names and former addresses of old co-workers. One moved to Virginia, another to Seattle. I enjoy reminiscing about our work days together, and I wonder how they are. Maybe I will use this shelter-in-place time to look them up and see what they are doing now.
I make quick work of the thick stack of business cards. I have no idea who most of the people are. I must have picked up the bulk of the cards at various conferences and business meetings over the years. I can’t think of any case in which I would be giving them a call. I run the cards through the shredder.
I add a few more cards to the file, information from scraps of paper littering my desk top. When I finish tidying up, the Rolodex looks so neat and professional. I feel a sense of accomplishment, and I vow to keep the Rolodex up-to-date and in order. Mm, hmm.
Tomorrow I will tackle that stack of bulging file folders that has followed me from place to place. I will try to decipher what it is that I was preparing for…the just in case that never happened.
That’s what the experts say.
What do they know? They carry their memories on microchips--hidden and convenient, password-protected.
“Take a picture,” they say. But a picture is not always worth a thousand words. My stuff is talking to me!
Be ruthless? Ruthless people don’t accumulate enormous vaults of sentiment and attachment. They can let go of that shirt that carries the scent of a beloved child or toss to the curb the worn chair where a father sat to read the newspaper each night for fifty years. Ruthless people have no need to downsize. They live their entire lives downsized—people, things, memories mean nothing to the ruthless.
I cannot identify with ruthlessness. I travel among the merciful. That old stuff calls out to me in the voices of people I have loved. I am a listener by nature and by trade. I just can’t cut off those voices mid-sentence. Telling me to be ruthless about my treasures is like telling a preacher to stop believing.
Full reveal: it doesn’t even have to be my own stuff! When I go to a flea market or antique store, I always see something that I remember from long ago, perhaps in my grandmother’s house or in my first grade classroom. I see photographs of people I never knew, and yet I have the feeling that if I stand there long enough, the people pictured will begin to speak to me and tell me their story. Somehow, I will find out that, hey, we’re related!
Our old furnishings know things about us. That chip in the glass, the sag in the armchair, the scratch on the dining room table--our stuff remembers how it all happened. I feel a friendship with the pieces as though they might remember me, too. Do they feel a comfort in an old familiar touch? Can they share an objective view of who I was, of the former selves I have been and, perhaps forgotten?
Our stuff matters not so much for its material value, but because we fear that if we let it all go, our memories and our history will vanish into the back of rental truck never to be found again. We fear that we will remove the ties that bind us to our people and our places, the ones that make us who we are.
But a time may come when the sheer volume of stuff threatens to overtake our space, or it is time to move. Maybe the care needed by our things exceeds our energy level and our time. And so it happens that we must say goodbye, or risk that someone will later say goodbye to all of it for us, perhaps someone ruthless.
So, do not be ruthless. Be merciful—to yourself and to your stuff. Be courageous. Be generous. Let your treasures live along with the stories inside them. Find someone to tell the stories to, give away the items or re-purpose the parts. It’s good for the earth and good for the soul. Even out of sight, those items will carry us into the future. There are more of the merciful out there, people who will admire our old treasures, long to own them, and patiently wait for the pieces to tell them our stories.