My mother’s home as we were growing up was always impeccable. I remember my best friend’s twin walking into our apartment one time, drawing a breath, and describing his instant feeling as, “It’s so white in here.”
I believe the lack of clutter, the norm and even expectation of “a place for everything and everything in its place” made an indelible mark on me. Although I’m sure I drove my mother nuts with my teenage messes and my sassy barbs (sorry Mom!!) about how cleaning out my closet wasn’t my idea of fun (I knew she used to do that as a kid), the setting she provided set the stage for what I feel, viscerally, should be my norm for my family now.
I appreciate the quotes I’ve seen about spending time with children rather than cleaning, etc. etc. and I try to glean from them the essence of those sentiments. Of course, I don’t want to miss the fleeting, fleeting (I’m painfully aware of this, always) moments of their tiny little childhoods.
But at the same time, I’ve found that in surroundings that aren’t at least harmonious enough, I’m not a pleasant mother or wife. The noise of clutter and uncleanliness around me, to put it simply, makes me grumpy. While I acknowledge I need to work on refusing to let my surroundings dictate my mood, I also realize the profound if subtle effect of ambient chaos on my psyche and behavior.
So much of keeping the balance of maintaining order while not letting this maintenance take over (i.e., not being controlled by things) I’ve found has to do with having less things. Obvious. But not necessarily intuitive.
In addition to coming from a line of women who always kept their homes spic and span, I inherited a streak of clinginess to things, a tendency to save something “just in case,” a well-intended waste-not-want-not mentality that serves its purpose when it comes to eating up leftovers but not when it comes to saving stacks of magazines for the recipes they contain.
I kept my beloved grandmother’s beautiful China, but the number of teacups she collected “in case” some broke is, frankly, excessive. I can’t help but wonder, without judgment and with some sadness, at the insecurity this may reveal. When going through my dear aunt’s house after she died, we were heartbroken to discover the things that she had, unbeknownst to any of us, hoarded. Neatly, primly, arrayed in stacks and stacks of perfectly organized bins, what she’d gathered spoke of a hole she couldn’t fill, and, more broadly, of how the things we surround ourselves with, in one way or another, bespeak our inward condition.
I want to be present. I want to be here and now. I don’t want to be bogged down by the past, and I don’t want to live in fear of the future. I want live in a state of having only what we need. My goal is to keep only what I “know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” This lets me keep cherished birthday cards from my mother throughout the years (beautiful), but also frees me to donate the curtain rods I might need someday (not useful now, nor beautiful).
Arrived I have not. I’m still navigating things like which baby clothes to keep for future children and what to do with the art I kept of my grandparents that doesn’t have a home in our house. And I do have regrets about trashing some things too hastily. (Strangely, the two things that come to mind in this category — the only two, actually — are my elementary and high school year books and my translations of Latin poetry. Neither fit my parameter of useful or beautiful, but I remember them and wish I had them to thumb through, whatever that means….)
Nevertheless, I’ve learned the pleasure of exchanging “security” for the lightening that comes from getting rid of things. I treasure the breathability of an uncrammed space more than an area so stocked with items that it’s impossible to even know what I have. I love the serenity of (some) emptiness and order.
It’s a battle. Accumulation and entropy don’t require any work. But for me, for our home, for my children, so that none of us are weighed down by things and their enervating effect, keeping clutter away is a constant, unglamorous, but necessary and very rewarding battle that I choose to learn to fight.