Our house is full of stuff we collect. Our home is not yet material for a show about hoarders, but things do continue to accumulate. The culprits are books, photos, seashells, curios, art projects, cool bags, newspaper clippings, magazines, emails, hamsas, spices, teas, chocolates, etc. The piles of books are teetering with more appearing each week. Bowls of interesting seashells sit on shelves and windowsills. Souvenirs from our travels are featured in every room. Articles await my perusal and painted canvases lean against walls. We used to collect records, now cd’s, concert t-shirts, and Playbills, then and now. Our kids collected Beanie Babies, Legos, Pokemon cards, and comic books.
I get motivated to do “spring” cleaning for Pesach, on a rainy day, before a voyage. What I think will take an hour ends up becoming a full day project. Getting rid of junk entails making a bigger mess first, as I go through our belongings and make piles to give away, throw away and put away. My daughter just accomplished organizing her room in anticipation of leaving home in September. After separating her stuff into categories, a bunch of bags await the next step, disposal and dispersal. Meanwhile, my mom is emptying her own closets and passing some things on to me, so there’s no net gain of space.
Unless you’re a minimalist, you probably collect things, too. I do know exactly two people whose counters are clear and closets are neat. I don’t dare open my linen closet or pantry for a visitor. I consider it a big accomplishment when my computer desk has an open spot available. Neatening up my desk requires effort since I need all the items on it: address and reference books, files, cards and receipts.
I’m not disorganized; other than forgetting where my keys, cell phone and glasses are when I’m about to leave the house, I know exactly where to look for papers I need. I can even describe it in detail to my husband or kids, though they don’t manage to see what’s right in front of them. They try to help me by searching the pantry or refrigerator for something I need while cooking, but inevitably I end up grabbing it from the shelf they are staring at.
When I’m fed up with living around the piles, it weighs on me until I make the time for the business of clearing up. This happens on Fridays when we’re having guests for Shabbos. Laundry piles disappear from the sofa and week-old newspapers I haven’t yet read are recycled. The week’s junk mail residing on the dining room table is finally thrown out.
I feel virtuous when I finally roll up my sleeves to begin the sorting process. It is so liberating when the job is done and I think my desk, the couches and table will stay clear forever, but it usually only lasts until Sunday. Cleaning up requires discipline and non-sentimentality. I’ve heard that when considering a clothes closet, anything unworn for a year should be removed. Of course, it’s not as simple as that; I may have gained some weight I plan to lose, or have an item I truly love and can’t part with, so I won’t, I can’t give it away, yet… Finding something in decent condition to donate is reassuring, since I imagine the item having a new life in another home.
Perhaps part of this issue has to do with being a child of refugees. I take home hotel soaps and stick wedding bentschers in my handbag. Like making sure to eat everything on my plate, I’ve been ingrained with holding on to things until they disintegrate. It goes along with the necessity to always have my passport valid and accessible so I may leave/flee immediately, if need be. This was actually put to the test once years ago, when we couldn’t travel abroad for a family emergency until we retrieved our passports out of a bank vault and got visas. Since then I’ve kept our passports close and ready, renewing way in advance and paying extra fees for speedier service. Maybe it’s overkill, but better safe than sorry.
My husband would prefer fewer things lying around, but I’m attached to most of them; what I call homey, he calls messy. Each object is associated with a time, a place, a person, reminiscence. I recall details about my life when a photo was taken, where we picked up a particular tchotchka, which grade my child was in when he/she painted this picture, which beach we walked when I picked up that beautiful shell.
Magazines and self help books about minimizing abound and helping to un-clutter other’s lives is a lucrative profession. I get a daily email from Real Simple to encourage this behavior. I’m amazed by those who embrace this lifestyle, discarding things immediately, allowing for clear counters and empty space. Simplicity is a sensible, attainable, desirable goal, but I guess I’m just not that enlightened yet. In the meantime, I’ll thumb through our photo albums, hang up hamsas and admire seashells, all the while smiling at the memories.
Miriam Bradman Abrahams is Cuban born, Brooklyn bred and lives in Woodmere. She organizes author events for Hadassah, reviews books for Jewish Book World and is very slowly writing her father’s immigration story. She can be reached at email@example.com