Why it’s hard getting rid of things we identify with

dsc_0004I couldn’t imagine getting rid of the African robes. Dawn’s on this kick now from a book where you categorically go through things to determine what brings you joy and if it doesn’t, you get rid of it. We’re putting things in piles in the middle of the room and holding judgment. I did my clothes yesterday but the African robes, however impractical, survive another day.

There was a period of a few months I house-sat for my mom and John while they were living in France. They’d go back and forth every 90 days between the place in France and their ‘home-home,’ in Pennsylvania.

I left my job at Starbucks in 1997 so I could move to a condo on the Mediterranean they still owned, one village over from their new house in France. Before that, I house-sat so I could temp and earn some spending money.

I wasn’t fit to house sit, wasn’t as responsible as I’d like to think. The house was built by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and John gave the previous owner free guitar lessons for about 10 years, waiting for the moment they’d decide to sell, and John could be there to make an offer.

It was built in the side of a hill off route 100 in Pennsylvania Dutch country: real country, with farms, and towns with names like Kuhnsville, Fogeslville, New Tripoli.

It didn’t look like much from the outside because you couldn’t really see the house until you went inside, and then it opened a story down, with two floors of glass windows facing the valley east, all forest, state game lands, sometimes the pop of a rifle in the distance, two decks overlooking it: and any time I’d have male friends over and we’d get to drinking, they’d ask if they could go out and pee off the deck and I always said yes.

I threw a couple parties there and reconnected with an old classmate Pete Snyder, who was now a musician and tied in with others from Philly he jammed with, who all turned up one weekend with their gear, their thrift store hats and eyeglass frames, and I got out the African robes, said everyone needs to change into one of these: and then a snowstorm came, the power dipped, the dogs got nervous, and a couple guys came by real late I didn’t know, one of them trying to kick heroin, visibly uncomfortable doing so: and it got so late it was already morning, the sun coming up and just me and him, awake still—and I said I should go to bed, I showed him to a room where he could stay, but when I got into bed myself I remembered it was the room where I’d hidden John’s guns, and thought about him in there unable to sleep, getting restless, wondering if he’d start looking around.

John's kachina dollsGetting rid of the robes wasn’t as much the fact they were sentimental (some I’d bought in the souk, in Marrakesh), it was the possibility I could relive those memories in the future, recreate them.

Dawn talked more about the book, the fact the things we own want to help us, they want to be honored and respected. And it made me wonder if there’s a two-way interaction with our possessions, could they take on properties we assign to them, are they porous that way? Do they hold a charge from a previous owner, and can we sense that somehow?

There’s a story often with things we love most, or identify with. And when we’re gone and someone else goes through our things, they’ve lost their meaning, they’re just things, story-less.

My mother-in-law Beth told the story of a hair extension she had that was like a wig, that cost a lot and they got it when she and Dick were dirt poor, but never wore it, and can’t get rid of it now because it’s maybe getting rid of the possibility she’ll one day use it in the future and that’s hard to reconcile, it’s always easier to put off another day.

We had so much Christmas stuff we’ve accumulated over the years, I resigned to purge the unused things before we put the others away. But before Christmas I decided the unused things need to come out anyway, a kind of trial to judge their value once and for all: I lined them up in clumps along the window sills and mantel—and one, a stuffed snowman dated 2009, took Charlotte’s interest: she picked it up and squeezed it, talked to it, named it, and I could swear when she put it back down, the snowman smiled.

That’s why they’re so hard to get rid of I think, they’ve got us in them, all that we’ve loved and hope we will again, some day.


Categories: identity, Memoir, musings

Tags: , , , , , , ,

30 replies

  1. Yes, so hard to get rid of things when they hold memories we cherish – from when we were younger and fitter, when our kids were small and loved us unconditionally.
    When my dad died most of his estate was left to charity so solicitors took charge of his house, we were forbidden from touching anything because most of it belonged to a third party now. That was hard, seeing the stuff we had grown up with – especially our beloved nan’s things we remembered from being small – sized up and sold off, just things again, shorn of their history. I confess, as my brother still had a key to the house, we secretly let ourselves in and I took a silver serving spoon that had belonged to Nan. Not because it was silver, but because it was hers and she used to serve our rice pudding with it.
    Getting rid of stuff – harder than it should be.

    Liked by 3 people

    • “Shorn of their history.” Now that’s a story Lynn, thanks for sharing it. Really something.
      I can go way out there woo-woo on this stuff, but I think it’s a more interesting world to live in, to imagine that, that things are more than things. There’s something about the fluid nature of identity I wanted to work into this, but I think it’s too thick and muddies the topic. I guess it’s in part that we spill over the sides I think, we take in and imbue others with our own identity. I think that’s cool.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When we lived in Nairobi I remember chatting with our house steward, Sam, whom we rather inherited along with the house that went with Graham’s job. He was telling me about his own father who was very long lived, and in his 90s used to hoe his garden sitting on a stool. I asked about the house he lived in on the reserve (since the concept of native reserve/ancestral land still survives), and I wondered what he had in it. Sam looked surprised, and after some thought told me that his father had a coffee sack that he used as a sleeping mat on the earthen floor of his traditional mud and thatch house. For the first time in my life I was confronted with the notion of having NO possessions. NO things. It was shocking. And now I feel embarrassed about all our stuff, though, as you say, it’s not easy to chuck, and embarrassment is not enough to stop me acquiring more. Great piece. Peeing off the architect-designed deck indeed! Suitably cantilevered?


    • Suitably cantilevered, that’s marvelous — and I think, if I’m right, I recall reading about Sam maybe in one of your pieces from your times in Africa. And SO cool you and I had the chance to meet in person and talk a little about it. Makes all this more real, somehow.
      Possessions are a really interesting subject to me. The notion they start to possess us, and how we put ourselves in things, or lose ourselves in them, or use the acquisition of more things to fill the emptiness in us, how it only worsens that feeling.
      This is a stretch, but it reminds me of very dark detail when I visited Dachau, the concentration camps there, and they showed their living quarters for the prisoners, the fact they’d taken everything away from them but the Nazis took the time to construct a small shelf by their cot/’beds,’ and the shelf was designed to remind the prisoners they had nothing to put there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • No limit to human cruelty is there (re Dachau) – from the smallest touches to the absolutely horrendous. I’m also struck by your comments re possession: “The notion they start to possess us, and how we put ourselves in things, or lose ourselves in them, or use the acquisition of more things to fill the emptiness in us, how it only worsens that feeling.”
        Possession provides rich and scary layers for the artist to explore.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed, rich and scary. Masks…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Forgot to say that we’ve been thinking about your visit e.g. ‘Blimey it’s a whole year since Bill was here.’ It was a good time, and I do appreciate that you drove over from Stratford on that dark wintery day.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Funny you remember it dark and wintry! I don’t, but I did make it back just as the dark was coming on. ‘Twas good indeed, next time that toddy or beer, though. And some Pretenders.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think you’re right: somehow we get into these things and they become like extra limbs. I still have a Creeple Peeple from 1967. Why?!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What about peeing off the deck in the robes? Did you just leave out that part?

    Seriously though, the bit about the residual charge left in things could be true. Especially in homes. I don’t pick up on it, but my wife insists it’s real.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes. Many of these things represent the memories of who we once were. What mattered to us in those moments in our past. I find myself wanting to get rid of those things more and more these days. I have memories, I have forgotten even more, and what I want to do the most is move forwards uncluttered by those things and those events and those memories and do something that turns my past completely upside down. But I think I will always keep a few boxes of odds and ends from my years on this planet.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. i’ve become somewhat of a minimalist and know the book of which you speak, but i’ve chosen to go through the process in my own way. for years, i’ve naturally given away or donated what i no longer loved, and no one else can judge that for me. i looked at it as putting it back out into the universe and that perhaps it will hold meaning or value for someone else, now that my time with it was over. i feel lighter without so much stuff and everything i have, truly has meaning for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I read that book a couple months ago too – well, the first half anyway, it was enough to get me to clean out the closet! I thought it was a good exercise in mindfulness, and thanking old clothes for serving a purpose oddly helped to get rid them more easily! I associate de-cluttering with moving and since I do it so often, always means making room for new possibilities! Really enjoyed the story of the house and interesting guests, and the free guitar lessons for ten years. It must have been a very cool house!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Cali! That’s a popular book of course, glad you got something from it (and from my post, about that house). Yes it was something. Still is, I bet, though you can’t really go back–or you can, but that’s weird. Great to hear from you and hope you’re well! Bill


  8. This perfectly encapsulates my frustration at these books that tell me that my stuff is “clutter.” No it’s not. It’s me. My life. My story. Get your grubby hands off it, Obsessive Organizer Officer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The clutter thing is pretty subjective. I think as long as it’s not making you feel choked, like Vader-style, you’re OK.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I had to get rid of a lot of stuff when I moved to this smaller apartment, and now I certainly don’t acquire as much as I used to when I had a big house to fill up. But more often than not, I find myself wishing I had some old thing I’ve gotten rid of, and cursing myself for listening to the Clutter Mavens.


      • That’s the whole thing about having a big closet (as an analogy to your situation), you feel compelled to fill it even if you don’t need to. Down sizing is a good forcing function for the opposite, to keep things lean. I like that, like backpacking/going light.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. This is great. I remember the house from another story, and glad to see it again. The smiling snowman is my favorite part of this one.


    • Nice, I try to pull in old post threads in hopes it’s fun for long-term readers like you. Boomerang style. Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’….I like the snowman too 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Still working through your past writing as I delete emails on my phone. Smiled especially with this one. The ol Kon-Marie method. That’s the book that precipitated our whole move! Read it like six months ago, as a couple, started going through the process of our things. All that letting go felt good, so good we decided to let go of our house! Got to be careful when you start digging up things, analyzing their value, never know where it might end. As always a pleasure! Got a bunch of stuff to post but no internet besides phone and I haven’t figured out yet how to get the files on the phone and upload them. Soon tho! Hope all is well! That you’re not lost wondering the Microsoft campus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s super to hear from you man! I miss your writing and your totally freaking awesome comments. I hope you’re well and can’t wait to hear more. So glad and grateful for your reading man, glad to be there with you amid everything else you have (or don’t anymore), and have going on…thanks. — Bill


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