One of comedian George Carlin’s funniest routines (and he had many) was one where he talked about people’s stuff. The routine was, and still is, side-splittingly hilarious, mainly because much of what he said is true. Carlin is no longer with us, but you can still catch his act on YouTube. It’s well worth five minutes of your time.
I thought of Carlin today because my wife and I are downsizing. That’s where you move from a large home with rooms you haven’t dusted in months to a more appropriately-sized dwelling. Unlike the lifelong practice of gathering and managing more and more stuff, downsizing is not a natural process. It’s hard to reverse course after 35 or more years where success was measured by the size of your home and the possessions inside.
The main resistance to downsizing is the act of purging. The longer you keep something, the harder it is to discard, even if it lacks value or a useful purpose. While you were paying little attention, your home and attic somehow became a museum. The only problem is, unlike the Smithsonian, no one wants a tour—not your kids, not even your grandkids. It’s a museum where only the curator finds value in its artifacts, and there are rooms and rooms, and boxes and boxes filled with artifacts.
A good rule of thumb would be if a box hasn’t been opened, or you haven’t used an item in more than ten years, then it goes directly to charity or to the dump. This rule would work great except for one thing—generational sentimentality. Personal items get passed down generation to generation. As an example, my wife’s first baby shoes were NOT in our attic because my wife saved them. By the time she was three, she wouldn’t have missed them. Her mother saved them, and now the shoes are in our museum. Goodwill doesn’t want 61-year-old baby shoes, and you sure as hell don’t throw them in the dump at this point. They are destined for our kids’ museum along with boxes of similar items.
It takes a strong-willed neat-nick in the family tree to break the chain. My mother is such a person. In my late 30s, I remember stopping by my parents’ home and finding my high school letter jacket atop a pile of clothes headed for the Salvation Army. By that point, the jacket fit me like the leather gloves fit O.J. Still, I couldn’t believe she was pitching it. I grabbed the jacket, and it now resides in my museum. Because of my mother’s assertiveness, many artifacts were spared years in my attic. Mom didn’t want to pass along the burden of sorting through boxes of stuff, having me think that if she saved it, I must also. For the most part, I appreciate her approach.
The purging has been a tough process for my wife--and for me. It hurts to see the pain in her face as she analyzes each item. While I make light of the situation, years of putting off what to do with all this stuff is finally at an end. My wife has bravely reduced a mountain of boxes to twenty and then to ten—tough choices and tears along the way. For the more difficult decisions, she calls to ask the kids who live far away if they want the items. Surprisingly, they do agree to save a few, so back into our museum they go.
I just hope our children realize that one day they, too, will be curators.