This week my life flashed before my eyes. Generally when one says that, people respond with “Oh No! Did you have a bad accident? Did you get a terminal diagnosis? Did you have a clairvoyant episode outlining the details of your own death, and if so, do you know the date? (And by the way, can I have that painting I’ve always admired?)” I assure you, hopeful reader, that none of these things is true because none of these things is necessary for me to have my life flash quickly and alarmingly before my very eyes. All that is required is a trip to my attic.
Long time readers will know that part of our cunning plan is to get rid of most of our stuff and move aboard a sailboat. They will know, as well, that we have been married for 31 years. That we have two adult children, that our home is large and has large grounds. What they might not know is that cloistered in our attic is the considerable remains of that 31 year history. Our house has about 3000 square feet. Our attic covers the entire house. Easily 2/3 of that attic is crammed with boxes big and small. Oy vey. I have spent many hours since this blog’s inception going through ‘things’ in my house and toting them to Goodwill. We have the tax deductions to prove it, thanks be to God. But I have not yet touched the attic. Until now.
Over the years as children have outgrown special toys, graduated to new grades in school, or decided they wanted a room ‘remodel’, things got stuffed into the attic for storage because I’ve lived with kids long enough to know that the minute I get rid of something they intuitively know it and look for it. Likewise when my own mother downsized dramatically, I was the recipient of special things that were hers or my father’s. They currently reside in the attic. Then there are things from my own childhood that I have kept for decades. All in the attic. Mike’s home burned to the ground twice when he was growing up, so he has very little from his childhood. He knows what it’s like to lose everything and then be okay.
In our attic is a gazillion dollars worth of Legos, Playmobil, action figures, American Girl dolls and their accouterments, Christmas ornaments, old LP’s, Nancy Drew books, a huge collection of rubber animals (anatomically correct, don’t you know), wedding and baby momentos, dressup clothes… Seems like our kids’ entire childhoods are in that attic, safely tucked away for the grandchildren we may never have. If there were any young children in our lives just now, they would be having an amazing time in our attic if we could get them to put down the Nintendo DS.
Some of you more thrifty and organized readers may be echoing my own superego just about now, giving voice to the general tongue lashing that goes on in my head. You know the words, so sing right along with me: I am reaping what I sowed because I should have been getting rid of stuff all along and shouldn’t have collected so much stuff to begin with. Sure, you would have a good point because there is a lot of ‘sunk costs’ sitting up there in that space. But, by way of ‘walking a mile in my orthotics’, consider this: I grew up a military child. We moved a couple of times in early childhood, then in kindergarten; then again in grades 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, and 9. We then had three years where I had a stable high school experience, more or less. I’m not complaining, as there are many blessings that come from this kind of upbringing. But I am making the point that the only things that remained stable in our lives were our immediate family, and our stuff. I do not easily get attached to people, but I do get attached to things; the dirty little secret of this vagabond kind of childhood, at least for me.
Home may be where the heart is, but in my upbringing it was defined as where mom hung the portrait of me and my sister over the piano. When the big book cases (which currently grace my family room) were placed, and all the decorator items were in place in the living room, we were ‘home’, for however long it lasted. When the movers brought our stuff to our new digs, it was like Christmas. My brain and my body, and mostly my heart, developed around ‘stuff’ defining our space, and thus defining my feelings of ‘home’. So I guess part of my karmic learning is how to let go of things and still feel whole. I’m getting there but it’s a slow thing.
Anyway, this attic has been literally hanging over my head for years. It has been the huge elephant in the middle of the living room of my mind. I knew it was there, but I preferred to walk around it rather than try to tame it. Caught between a rock and a hard place, I have been wondering if this task of ridding ourselves of the stuff would ever end. And if it never ended, surely we would never get to go sailing down the coast to Mexico and beyond. We would never sail around the U.K. We toyed with the idea of renting out our house furnished, locking up the attic as our continued storage space. But on some level, that just felt like a cop out, like not really making a decision.
So this week Claire and I began with the attic. I pulled down as much stuff as I had space on the garage floor. We threw out a huge bag of trash, sent some stuff to Goodwill, put aside a few things for a friend’s garage sale, and packed up a box of treasures for Kitty down in Texas. Then I stared in horror at the collection of dolls, baby clothes, dress-up costumes and other assorted things that I just don’t have the heart to deal with. All I could think was “there are only about 200 more boxes upstairs”. The word ‘discouraged’ doesn’t even touch my feelings. Just thinking about it makes me want to go lie down in a dark room with a whiskey and soda. Large, please. This took an entire day, and I was not finished yet because it was only the easy part that we had accomplished. Only about 200 more boxes to go, and countless decisions to make. I walked away from it to prepare dinner.
I decided that this was just too much work, both physically and emotionally. There had to be another way. So I waited for the epiphany, and then it came: What if, instead of having to touch each thing and make the decision to keep or get rid of it, I touched only the things that were most important to me? What if I began to look at things in terms of what I would choose to take to a new house in the future? If I were building my dream home today, what would I take with me? What things give me that comfortable feeling of ‘home’? What things tell me that it is I who live here? If I could choose those things, I would hire an estate agent to come in and have a big estate sale and let go of the rest.
I cannot avoid going through the things in the attic forever. But I can let someone else do all the unpacking; laying things out on tables in an orderly way, then giving me the final say about what I will pull out to keep. Dear Lord, what a concept! I am almost breathless from the freedom of it. The thought of someone else coming in and doing all that work makes me positively giddy. The sale itself would probably feel about like chopping off an arm, but at least it would be fast and then I could get over it and get on with other things. This idea fills me with a sense of relief that is palpable and that makes me know that it’s the right direction to go. If the feeling is of relief, then the soul has spoken.
As the idea began to take shape, I found that removing the emotional and physical burden of the continual exercise in mourning that is stored in our attic allowed other ideas to take root. Selling the house and buying land we could leave to our children, for instance. I have always wanted to leave land for my children. Perhaps designing and building a small house on that land in the future, a house that would be easy to keep and that would take us safely into our old age when we are finished with the sailing. Removing the burden of the attic gives me room to dream again.
As I began thinking more about it, I discovered that aside from a select few pieces of furniture, most of the things that bring me comfort in my home are the decorator items that can easily be packed away. My mother’s Cottage Ware teapot, the piece of art pottery Claire brought me from the Scottish Highlands, the small paintings of our boats, the Native American fetishes I collected in the southwest, my father’s lithograph of the seven mortal sins. Specific stones. The cement maple leaf I made. The block print of Skimmers that Mike and I got when we were first married. These are things that will be put away, waiting to be placed in my next house so I can quickly call it ‘home’.
With the burden of constant purging removed I will be able to enjoy the time I have left in our house, this home we’ve created together, with all of the creative energy of our family’s youth still held firmly in its very bones. I will be able to focus now on what we will take with us from this place into the bold future, turning my face from what we are leaving behind.