22 May 2012

You can't take it with you

Honestly, I would like to write deeper, more meaningful blogs. But then I'd have to lie about the pleasure I have found these past four days in emptying out, reorganising and refilling all my cupboards, wardrobes and storage chests!

The excuse was the need to get out our winter woollies. (We may live in the subtropics but the temp does get down to 10 degrees Centigrade on some nights!). Changing seasonal clothes requires me to pack away some of our summer shorts and Ts. Our small house doesn't have enough closet space to allow everything to be out at once. So even though we both have modest wardrobes – and like many stay-at-home retirees we usually only wear a fraction of what we own anyway – I have to pack and unpack a suitcase or two of off-season things twice a year to make room in our closets for all the current season's dags.

Poor Walle gets nervous whenever the cases come out, though. I don't know why because we've never left him home on our weekends away. But he had three years with his previous owners before we adopted him, so maybe his anxiety goes back to some earlier experiences with that former family. We adopted Walle from his original breeder after Walle's first owners returned him to her. (Part of the breeder's standard contract requires all dogs' first owners to let the breeder find a new home for any dog that an owner can't keep for any reason.) And the breeder did say the couple who'd owned Walle had split up in a difficult way. Maybe that entailed someone filling up suitcases and then leaving and not coming back? One can only speculate. Whatever the reason, Walle was taking no chances this time. So he spent much of the past few days occupying whatever open suitcase I left lying around.

My ulterior motive this week, while cleaning and reorganising closets, was simultaneously to prune and/or find new homes for some of the excess possessions I seem to have acquired over the years. I say 'I' because Allen long ago did this type of post-retirement pruning. Indeed, when he began discarding and giving away things, I remember being a bit miffed. I guess I was still in acquisition mode myself. And I felt he was somehow taking value away from our home. Not monetary value, but some other kind of value – sentimental value, perhaps. Now that I've reached that stage myself, with just a few exceptions (my first wedding veil, the nightie I wore when delivering my daughter, the outfit I made for taking her home from hospital and a few of her very favourite first toys) I don't find sentiment to be a suitable reason for retaining things. Sooner or later we are going to have to move from this 'acreage' to a more easily maintained environment. And our next (maybe final) home will probably be a two-bedroom unit or townhouse somewhere, with even less storage space. So every time I unpack and pack away a season's clothes and clean out closets and drawers, I keep an eye out for things I no longer need. (Truth be told, often these are things I never really needed in the first place, but at the time didn't realise that.)

I now get more pleasure from a sparsely stocked fridge or freezer than I once got from a laden pantry. I was about to buy a super-sized container of ketchup at the supermarket today, thinking how I could fill and refill my current bottle. But something stopped me. That would have made sense when we had one or two teenagers living at home still and ketchup was poured onto all sorts of meals in great dollops. But now the few cents I'd save by buying in bulk is nowhere near enough consolation for cluttering up my pantry with large containers that take months to use up. 'Less is best.' That's my new motto in shopping as in storage. (Olive oil is an exception, of course! We do use enough of that to warrant bulk buying.)

Last week I cleaned out my gardening bench and threw away all sorts of bits and pieces I'd been hording 'just in case' they could be useful. Out went the previous set of pruning and trimming utensils, not used for years since they were replaced with new ones. Out went assorted handles and even crooked old forks whose handles had broken off. I have two good forks and a few good shovels left. I don't need to keep the broken pieces of misshapen old ones, 'just in case'. I've got at least four broken wheelbarrows that need to go, too. Past attempts to grow flowers or plants in them have never been successful, as regular hand-watering no longer holds any appeal.

Buying just enough for us two (and knowing I'll use it all) – that gives me more pleasure now than bringing home mounds of extra foodstuff (and probably seeing 20 per cent or more go bad in the fridge). It's all quite a revolution in my thinking and acting. I was a pretty full-on consumer in my past lives. I still sometimes spend my fortnightly half-day-off-caring in a shopping centre. But now it's more for entertainment than anything else, except when I'm shopping for my new little grand-daughter (e.g. a one-metre toddlers' sleeping bag and several warm fleecy sleeping suits at Kathmandu last week, reduced by something like 75 per cent). But I rarely see things I'd like to buy for myself. And I don't look forward to receiving gifts any more either, as these are too likely to upset the balance in my plan for discarding frills and paring down to essentials. 

Hardest of all to prune are books! Allen got the ball rolling years ago by donating all his theatre books and his play collection to various individuals whom he thought would enjoy them. Now we are always on the look-out for similar opportunities. Knowing a book you've enjoyed will give someone else pleasure makes it easier to relinquish it. But as far as I'm concerned now, the only reasons that justify holding on to books are (1) you haven't found the right person to pass on an especially well-loved book to, (2) you think you might enjoy reading the book again – this holds for most of our small quality fiction collection (see photo), or (3) the book is too valuable to give away, so you feel you should sell it but you haven't found a buyer yet (or a really deserving fellow reader – back to (1) above!). Everything else is going OUT eventually. All the education books I kept from university days are right now sitting in a big bag in my car, about to be donated to the op-shop nearest the local teacher-training college. Or I might just drop them off in the college's entrance, with a sign saying: "Help youself to free books!" But are today's pragmatic teacher-trainees interested in reading Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, John Holt, Frank Smith, Jerome Bruner, Denys Thompson et al.? I doubt it.

Even more amazing than letting go the education books I read and studied, I'm about to donate 1.5 shelf-metres of educational publications I either edited or supervised as manager of this state's education department publishing unit for 10 years. The local university library has said they'd welcome this collection, as it represents a decade of syllabi, teachers' guides and other publications issued to our state's primary and secondary schools over a tumultuous period during which the curricula for most subjects were totally revised. I once thought it would be hard to let these go. But beautiful as many of the publications are – and our unit was probably the country's best and most prolific state educational publishing unit at that time – the fact is few of these books have any meaning for me any more. A couple of exceptions I'll keep, either because the content or the experience of developing and producing them was somehow out of the ordinary. But so much in education changes so fast, even if you're still interested in the subject (which, frankly, I'm not), publications from the 80s and 90s are now mainly of historical interest.

My mother (r.) says goodbye to her sister Viola
the day before Mum came to Australia.
The sisters never saw each other again.
Well, there you are. I think I always felt in some ways that my possessions told the story of my life. That feeling is gone now. Maybe my time as a volunteer in a nursing home had something to do with making me realise what few things we'll bother with once life gets reduced to the limits of a small room, as most of our lives probably will. I remember, too, my aged mother walking out of her apartment in America to come to Australia with me, taking only two suitcases and leaving my brother and sister to dispose of everything else. She knew she'd never see any of her things again, no matter what happened, as she could no longer live alone. I found that hard at the time to witness, but she said she no longer cared about 'things', and only cared about being with family. I am only now beginning to understand what she meant. "You can't take it with you" may sound trite. The fact is, we probably won't want to take it, or much of it, with us anyway. I'm pretty sure I won't.


Anonymous said...

You have been a ball of fire! So hard to part with the books. I love your organization and we are just beginning to pare down. Ship Walle this way! He's all packed and ready to come! gin

Chartreuse said...

Gin, I'm surprised that I don't find it hard to part with many of the books. Of course, all my writing books are still on the shelf. But I have two shelves of e classic feminist texts and will soon be looking for a new home for those. I'd like to give them as a set to some young woman who's interested in the origins and development of modern feminism. But I haven't yet found her.

Red said...

We are in a similar situation. You've given some good points on how to think about getting rid of things. We are too sentimental about things.

Chartreuse said...

You know, Red, I think pruning possessions is a lot like giving up smoking. There comes a time when it just feels like the right time to do it. And when that time comes, it's a lot easier than trying to take the plunge when you're not yet ready or committed to the idea.

Stafford Ray said...

It is sad for me to read this. As we age it seems we must prune our lives and the shrinking of possession is just the peripheral bit. As I wrote about my mother following her stroke and was helpless, her loss of relevance was the hardest for her. I really feel for people who have lost their families or never had one. At least you have that, and what a source of joy they are!
Are you afraid of robots?
I got the letters wrong the first time, so I am trying again. The are so difficult to read.

Chartreuse said...

I’m not sure why the thought of pruning possessions makes you sad – especially since you live on a boat! Or do you have hordes of things stashed on land here and there? I was much sadder when I first realised that my life, which had always felt like it was following a line with an upward slant toward some mysterious apex, at some point had turned in the opposite direction and was heading downhill, toward.....the end! It took me years to come to terms with what felt like a dreadful change of direction in my life’s trajectory. I no longer had a future, only a past. Now I can better accept that my future, like all our futures, is necessarily limited. And as a result, I seem finally to be learning how to live in the present, and not always be thinking about the future. Maybe being raised a strict Catholic had something to do with expecting a future reward for good behaviour (eternal life, perhaps?). Now (finally) I realise that good living should be its own reward. Desiring and acquiring more ‘things’ – even things like a better job or more professional respect – seem somehow synonymous with aspiring to an idealised future life. Now all I need to be happy are family, garden, sewing, reading and writing. And my most valuable recent ‘acquisition’, without a doubt, is my wonderful grand-child, the best thing to have happened to me in years. With her, it does feel as if I’ve secured a real future. Maybe I should be exploring Buddhism

Anonymous said...

Dear Chartreuse, what a wonderful response above. A continued thought process to this blog. Today we will be paring down...again! I even have medications I can't or won't take but I keep them just in case. With our memory problems...not wise. The Life Skills, Speech program instructor, is going to showup at 11:30 with a huge garbage bag to get rid of things we no longer REALLY need. That is ok. We are doing this to help Bill with his aphasia. Less is definitely more for him when dealing with inability to identify words he is hearing. I fear it is getting worse this past 2 moths. His EEG sleep study had to be rescheduled. I know he is not getting enough oxygen. It will make both of our lives easier.

Now on to your comments about life and future. With our memories slipping, the present is really all we have. That and what memories are triggered by visual things. You little granddaughter is a tremendous gift. Enjoy today, as I know in your position, you go a day at a time, if that long. gin

Chartreuse said...

Yes, you're so right: one day at a time. I, too, kept old meds (e.g. anti-malaria meds I had for Asian work and other 'just in case' meds I took on my travels). And Allen had various pre-op meds. I even had things my mother left here in 2007! Only quite recently did I throw all those different things away. In fact, I think that was the beginning of my current clean-out phase.

Anonymous said...

We had too toss a lot of drugs last year because when I was hospitalized the aides were into the good ones...poor Bill was very drugged up and four empty containers of Lorazepam on the counter when I walked in and surprised them. Luckily a nurse arrived when I did, put me to bed and she cleaned them all out. Lesson learned.

I did a silly blog of squirrels today if you take a look at what I WANT TO CLEAN OUT!

About me

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I started this blog in 2009 when I became a full-time caregiver. My husband had been diagnosed a few years earlier with primary progressive aphasia. Over the next four years until his death in 2013, we went on a journey of discovery about this rare condition. My blog is about what I learned, how we both coped and how the journey deepened our love and appreciation of each other. Allen’s journey is over, but mine goes on.