Friday, March 19, 2010

Unbearable lightness of stuff

Most days, this is the state of the kitchen. I posted this picture about a month ago, and here it is again. Because this is what the kitchen looks like. Again.

Cleaning has never been a big priority. For some years of my life this wasn't a big deal. I didn't have much stuff. Messes were slow to accumulate. But these days my life is full of stuff. My stuff, Brian's stuff, the kids' stuff. There is stuff freaking everywhere. And more stuff keeps coming in.

So I wrote about it for the newspaper. Here it is.....

I was having dinner with four wise friends the other night when the talk turned to stuff. Specifically, the stuff we accumulate through our kids' growing up years.

These friends are all a decade ahead of me in life experience. Their kids have either left or are preparing to leave home. This process of separation must occur naturally and gradually, because my friends were not screeching and rending their clothing. They were taking their children's departure in good stride.

My friends are empty nesters. They are going through their houses room by room and throwing stuff out. They are tossing the reams of yellowing worksheets, the old skates, the worn-out board games, the shelves of picture books, the puzzles.

These women are in the cleaning-out stage of life. They are paring down to what is essential. They are creating sleek, clean spaces at home.

I, of course, had nothing to add to this conversation. Our family is at the height of the piling-up stage of life. Our house is a museum of clutter.

But as I listened to my friends chat about filling dumpsters and Goodwill bins, my brain started to feel light and clear. I imagined a great and loving hand magically sweeping the piles of stuff out of the house.

This, it turned out, was quite a heady little fantasy: light-filled rooms with gleaming floors and empty spaces. A contemplative motif to replace the utter chaos. A monk's cell, perhaps: a bed, a desk, a single change of clothes.

I felt myself lifting off the chair. Oh, the lightness of the empty nesters!

But then, next morning, sitting quietly with my tea before the kids woke up, there among the mountains of books and art projects, sports equipment and toys, I felt the cold wind of decay.

There is no other way to put it. I saw all the carefully preserved piles of stuff as nothing but future dumpster fodder. All the beloved things, so well used, so carefully constructed, all tainted by these visions of mortality.

That very same morning, my mother-in-law called to say that she is moving from her 3-bedroom house to a much smaller apartment. Almost everything must be purged. She said Brian and I should come immediately and tag the stuff we want.

We would be fools to let this opportunity go by. My in-laws have very nice things. But where exactly are we going to put more stuff?

I know what you're thinking: There are people starving in the world, people with nothing, and here you are whining about an abundance of stuff. I hear you. It weighs on me.

And I don't have a good answer. My brain is as cluttered as the living room. The inside of my head is brightly decorated with half-baked pictures; there are puzzle pieces everywhere. I am inextricably rooted to this accumulated tonnage. It is the stuff of my life.

And so we'll keep bringing it in. Until, someday, the time comes to pass it all on.

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