MY GRANDFATHER always acted as if the storm of the century were coming: overstocked pantry, big red hurricane lamps, meticulous monitoring of the weather, hunkering down. So when a big blow did come—I think it was Hurricane Hazel, in 1954—he was ready.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say, and I was reminded of his preparations as I watched my own and others’ response to the coming of anticlimactic Hurricane Irene last August: Stores were stripped of milk, batteries, flashlights, bottled water. I guess that to stock up, to insulate with goods, is a natural human reaction to threat. Having a lot of things, period, has also been the motor of capitalism and an accepted emblem of success.
But in older age, shedding rather than adding seems more appropriate. I feel the beginnings of an impulse to clear out, pare down, and not get more. I’m not the only one. “I don’t want to buy hangers,” one friend said, “because then I’ll buy things to put on them. What I want to see is empty hangers.”
Not hoarding is at least an intermediate step toward a less acquisitive state of mind. Saving “good” things for “someday” is a habit that is, similarly, based on anxiety—I might run out. I have clothes with the tags still on, blank journals too perfect to write on, and many, many books yet unread. It’s almost like a bank account: something to fall back on, something to look forward to, a full rather than a bare cupboard to see me through leaner times.
Well, these are leaner times. As a thrifty friend put it, “Use what you have.” That’s another form of divesting.
DOING THE KIDS A FAVOR is part of the story: Downsizing our worldly goods makes it easier for them after our demise. My mother had an exhausting experience with her father’s complicated inheritance (yes, the same man who stocked up before hurricanes; you can imagine the accumulation). So before she was even ill, much less dead, she began to pass on her jewelry. Once she had a diagnosis of lung cancer, she accelerated, and to head off a Spoils of Poynton-type quarrel (though we’re hardly talking valuable antiques here), she made me and my brother choose what we wanted in her apartment and put color-coded stickers on them.
The point, I suppose, is that things acquire emotional content. An object that belonged to someone who is gone seems to offer a way to keep part of them in your heart and your house (or, in the case of jewelry, on your person). Fighting for part of an inheritance is like a grab for love, sometimes the love you didn’t have in real life. People remember decades later that their sister got the pearls and their brother the walnut sideboard. It seems part of the grieving process to want things that belonged to the dearly departed. It’s up to us, the older generation, to at least reduce the disputed legacy to manageable proportions.
But divesting isn’t just for our children. Perhaps it is also a way to make our own lives simpler and less cluttered. Does having less stuff clear the mind? Maybe.
When I spend two months or more in a rented apartment in another country, with one suitcase’s worth of clothes, somebody else’s kitchen supplies, and an iPod, Kindle, computer, and sketchpad for entertainment, I don’t feel impoverished or thwarted. In fact, it makes daily existence easier. If my life there were a pie chart, clothing decisions would shrink to a slim wedge. At home, they comprise a good, healthy chunk. Instead of spending an evening with the TV, I read (even a best-seller-type book seems to affect the brain more positively than staring at the tube). Fashion and effort-free entertainment are fun, but somehow in this more pristine state my mind becomes receptive to actual thought. I quiet down. I muse.
The incredible lightness of letting go has led some people to develop specific divestment strategies. Dominique Browning wrote in the New York Times (September 30, 2011) about the “numb relief” of burning 40 years’ worth of diaries, partly because she didn’t want her kids to read them, but also to free up space: literal space and mental, historical space. A friend says when she buys one book she gives another away (a system that some apply to clothing). I know of a woman who offers beloved possessions—as “real” presents, not hand-me-downs—to a friend or family member. One person’s pre-owned could be another’s cherished antique.
AT THIS TIME OF YEAR, with Christmas hawked on every corner, the gift and anti-gift contingents rise to the surface like scum on a bean soup, you’ll pardon the expression. I seem unable to kick the bestowing-and-receiving habit. I can remember the shivery pleasure of the December dawn: seeing my mother’s nylon stockings hung by the fireplace, stuffed with goodies—even if they were heavy on oranges—and resembling lumpy legs. Although I have any number of friends and family members who would be happy with a no-gift pact, there I am every year, making a list months in advance and glorying in my vast reserves of wrapping paper and ribbon (another consumer weakness).
It’s not just gifts; it’s a lust for stuff, plain and not so simple. Am I really so hollow that I need to fill up my life with compensatory geegaws? I think I become afraid of emptiness the way I fear silence or solitude…or death. Although we know that things have no power over mortality, the messages of a buying-and-owning culture imply nonetheless that the greater the number of people, words, and things that surround us, the happier and more secure we are. Nature, in other words, really does abhor a vacuum.
There is, of course, some legitimate truth to the comfort of buying new things or hanging on to old ones. Well-loved possessions give us continuity; novelties inspire surprise and delight. We don’t have to turn into icons of self-denial and spartan living. In fact, I suspect that most of us seesaw between a desire for some beautiful or useful thing, and a revulsion at how much we already have.
Work the ambivalence, I say. If I am feeling the least bit wimpy about giveaways, it’s no use even to try. I will simply wax covetous and protective, as if I were a dragon in a cave laden with treasure, snorting fire to keep thieves away. But if I seize those moments that I feel disgusted at the excess—and thus am able to comb ruthlessly through shelves, closets, and drawers—I may make some progress.
I JUST CAME BACK from Housing Works, which has opened a thrift shop down the street. It’s good to be able to donate to an organization I actually believe in (formerly the handiest was The Salvation Army, whose religious aspect does not engage my sympathy). It was raining, but I was determined (I have been known to pull things out of the giveaway pile if I delay). The clothes were in big plastic sacks in my grocery cart, and when it was done the cart was empty and I was buoyant, my step more lively. And it wasn’t just because I was thinking of the tax deduction.
I hope I can travel lighter through the rest of my life. Hurricane lamps are heavy. Canned goods, too. Those are figures of speech; the actual problems, for me, are closets and cupboards full of clothes and dead appliances and mementos of one kind or another. Some stuff I’ll never jettison: too painful, too precious. But the rest? Unnecessary weight. Once it’s gone, I’ll never miss it.