Possession #3: Loosing the Sentimental Chains

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20 July 2013 by thaliakr

Some of us just don’t get around to clearing out our junk. But most hoarders are shackled to mountains of stuff because of one of two sentences.

#1 ‘But it’s bound to come in handy one day!’
#2 ‘But it has a lot of sentimental value…’

If you’ve got the headspace and storage space, I do have some sympathy for #1. But as for the second one: I’ve been devoted to it for far too long, and I’m chasing it off the property with a pitchfork.

Here’s my replacement:

‘If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’

William Morris, artist, designer, socialist, in an 1880 lecture.

Note well that there is no exception here for objects we neither love nor need but which have ‘sentimental’ value. I’m going to go out on a reformed-hoarder’s limb here and say I think sentimental value is a sham that chains us to inanimate objects that then take up precious time and space. We need to ditch it if we’re going to make the most of our lives.

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Strawberry Thief, William Morris, 1883

Spending the last year and a half – almost all of SBJ’s life – with most of our possessions in storage has turned out to be wonderfully liberating. I know now just what objects are most useful to us and most enjoyable to rest our eyes on, and which don’t meet William Morris’ criteria.

When we moved half of our stuff into a small apartment for six months, we couldn’t find the box with our cutlery and core kitchen utensils in it. I can confirm that cutlery is handy to have around.

We made do with collecting takeaway plastic stuff and I bought a new chef’s knife and ergonomic vege peeler (my absolute essentials, which I take on holidays when appropriate). The only kitcheny box we could find yielded one serving spoon, one wooden cooking spoon and a three fish-slices (or whatever you call those flip-your-pancake spatula thingies). When we find that missing kitchen box I will make it a welcome home cake.

I wish I’d had that box instead of the one that contained my Grandma’s slightly broken crystal sherry decanter. When my auntie and I were sorting through her house after she died, I took some crystal things ‘to remember her by’ for me and my sisters. I was eighteen and they seemed classy. I also took three cushions for my flat (still in use, between my sister’s house and mine) and two of her hundreds of awesome cardigans.

The crystal decanter, which I’d never seen her use – it was presumably in the front room we never spent much time in – got cracked in one of my many moves, years ago, but I had the idea that this kind of item, owned by my Grandma, was something one ought to keep. So it moved from flat to flat to house to house with me, always a bit broken and never used. I’ve never drunk sherry in my life, for heaven’s sake.

In my year of Pinterest-based organisational coaching, I’ve come to agree with all the decluttering gurus who urge us to purge. Here’s one key lesson from them: whether or not I keep a broken, unused glass bottle has nothing to do with how much I love and remember my Grandma. I could smash it on the ground tomorrow and I would still love and miss her. That realisation was liberating! So the decanter has gone.

In the past I have deliberately tried to invest objects with significance, so that the necessary paraphernalia of life can remind me of people and experiences. Those are the Jane Austen oven mitts from my first trip to Bath with my future in-laws. That’s the oil burner Lorelle gave me for my seventeenth birthday. That’s the t-shirt (too big and ruined by lending it to a friend to wear in the spa) I was given for tutoring Maaori and Pasifika students at law school. I like buying useful souvenirs and receiving useful gifts for this reason.

I never threw out anything someone had given me as a present, because it reminded me of them. It felt like a betrayal of the friendship to admit I no longer needed the cute stuffed hedgehog from my sixteenth birthday or the candle-snuffer from university days. Even though I would bet Judy Bailey’s salary that none of the givers would now remember that they had given me those things.

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The fact that this is an unsustainable, unwieldy practice has become clear (to me) since SBJ was born. Almost everything he touches has been given to us by a kind friend. Almost everything he touches gets filthy (see illustration above). Are we to keep his stained bibs and onesies adorned with ducks and bears and tomato sauce, presents from family and friends, that we loved dressing him in? Forever? If not, then for how long? And if not, then why are we keeping everything else in our house that is no longer useful or beautiful?

I’m sure the generous people who have furnished us with all these helpful things never intended us to be chained to them, carrying them around on our backs like weary snails. When things – even presents – have passed their season of usefulness, I finally realise that it’s only sensible and wise to give them to someone else, or recycle or otherwise dispose of them. It doesn’t make us less grateful for our friends or their thoughtfulness.

One helpful tip I’ve enacted to make the wrench less painful is to take photos of things that have meaning, but need to leave our house. Thanks to the combination of digital cameras and my obsession with photographing SBJ, we have pictures of him wearing almost every lovely thing someone gave him when he was born. Usually before they were covered in smoothie, even.

We now own substantially less stuff than two years ago, and I feel spiritually lighter for it – really. When we get home I have plans for continuing the filtering by tackling the last bastion of sentimentality, my jewellery boxes, filled with trinkets and accessories I like but never use. If I haven’t worn it in years, then probably someone else will get more joy out of owning it, right?

Oh, I’m so glad I’ve got this off my chest!

Now let the controversy rage. I know most of us will have exceptions to Morris’ ideal. What are yours? Or are you a Morris convert, too?

This is part of an occasional series on property and possessions. You can see the series list here, and the next post in the series, following up on book-ownership, here. Have a look around!

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23 thoughts on “Possession #3: Loosing the Sentimental Chains

  1. Miriam J says:

    Thali, I’ve loved the Morris quote for years (not that I knew it was him) – and I also love that fabric (if you’re getting rid of it, send it to ME please!)

    I’ve moved lots and lots of times, and have purged lots and lots of times for that reason. And although I’m sure there are many things I’ve completely forgotten about and never needed in the first place, there are still items whose absence I mourn, that were given away or disposed of in fits of tidying and rationalising.

    My barkers trackpants, for example, that were only cool when we were 16, but never stopped being the most comfortable thing I ever wore. Gone in a fit of “I can never wear these out of the house, so what’s the point in having them anymore.” So sad.

    Moving overseas brings things to a head even more forcefully. I wish, now, I’d kept those dozen or so old facecloths and couple of tatty old bathmats I had – I can’t find a simple inexpensive facecloth, or ordinary towelling bathmat to replace them with here anywhere! Scraps of fabric. Paperclips. Ratty old bags for swimming things. The throw my parents’ neighbours gave me for my 21st which would have gone over the nasty old couch I’ve got here PERfectly. So many books. So MANY books. All things I wish I’d brought with me!

    I guess the knack is to figure out which things you’re going to need, and which you’ll really miss, and which are really just taking up physical space/headspace, BEFORE you do the purging.

    • Thanks for these beautifully articulated thoughts. I share your barkers trackpants pain!

      That fabric is at the V&A I think, so you can go and visit it :)

      Lots of decluttering people advocate putting the things you are throwing out but not quite sure about in a bag for six months. Open it up, see if you’d missed anything. If not, chuck. A good compromise, I think, and it has worked well for me, particularly with clothes.

  2. Tracey Prevost says:

    Definately a William Morris convert here! Before we left for NZ in 2010 for our 5 month stay, I did what I thought was a fairly thorough spring clean out of our house. However, when we came back, I looked through at all this STUFF I was storing, and thought “why on earth am I keeping all this?” and filled up several more rubbish bags, and I don’t regret getting rid of any of it. We’d lived in a much smaller house in NZ, and because we were only staying temporarily, we had so much less STUFF, and guess what, we survived quite well without it!

    We have an extended family member, who is a compulsive shopper, and periodically sends us big boxes of STUFF, and probably about half to three quarters of it is frankly neither beautiful nor useful. But because it was a gift, and from a family member, it gets squirreled away somewhere until several months later I stumble over it and bag it up for donation. The problem is I don’t know how to get her to stop sending us STUFF (bless her!), and we have to write her nice notes saying how lovely and useful, thank you very much for your thoughtfulness, while at the same time I really wish she’d just stop, and save her money!

    There a few items that I’ve held on to, I will confess to a box of favourite baby clothes that the girls wore that I’ve kept, and I’ve stashed a few of Matthew’s clothes also…and there is a 9 year old baby bouncy seat that I’m struggling with letting go. But I try to keep these types of items to a minimum, otherwise we would be overwhelmed by clutter.

    Just wait until SBJ starts bringing home art, and projects and all that from school…kids generate a myriad of paper once they start school. Heidi’s teacher in NZ took photos of her larger artworks for us, which was a great idea, since we couldn’t bring it all back with us. A lot of what my kids do at school ends up in the recycling, with the exceptional work having its own designated box for keeping. Sometimes its difficult to recycle their work, but we can’t keep all of it.

    • Thanks, Tracey. Yes, that is our experience too. It’s amazing what you can do without!

      I try to be conscious of what we are doing without because we’re using someone else’s – in which case it’s actually a necessary thing so we shouldn’t throw our one out after all :)

      I’m already thinking ahead about artwork! Nightmare! I think having a display wall that lasts for a number of weeks at a time, is photographed and then recycled, is my starting point. Maybe keep one or two things a year in a special place for posterity.

  3. Rachael W says:

    I hadn’t heard that quote before, but makes a lot of sense. I was just looking at my jewellery collection the other day and deciding it needed a drastic overhaul- the only way I wear it is if I put something on and never take it off, which means 1 necklace and set of earrings are about all that is useful! When we traveled overseas for 4 months with only a suitcase each we somehow survived with the contents and we came back and moved to a smaller, furnished house, which meant getting rid of all our big items of furniture in the trade me storage system. I wish I’d had more time during the move to go over everything else, because now that we’ve found a place for everything the motivation to get rid of more stuff just isn’t there.

  4. Daina says:

    Ugh we have acres of that fabric and I hate it – curtains in the place we are renting. The owner loves them and I tried (unsuccessfully) to get her to take them with her since she loved them so much.

  5. Laura says:

    Yes to this blog. But what about books, TKR? I read (or listened as it was audio) this great book recently about excessive generosity which gave an illustration of hand picking a recipient for each loved book once you’d read it. Like the idea, haven’t tried yet.
    But I have been challenged by another idea in the same book about clothes that I’m hoarding (“oh, I’ll wear that when I go to a Parisian cocktail party/disco themed do/double denim date” etc). Clothes seem easier to part with though! I have so many books that I loved and so kept, but I won’t actually read them again…

    • Alex says:

      Ah, books. My achilles heel when it comes to decluttering (actually, that’s not true, I have several – letters, CDs, photographs, theatre programmes from years gone by… I am a hoarder!) But books are really hard to get rid of for me. We have a house full. Some have been read several times over, others only once and some not yet at all, but I promise myself they will be one day. I have reconciled myself to this and am happy that we are creating a home library for our children. The other stuff might need more thought.

      • Ditto to your multiple heels! You just need to move house repeatedly so your tolerance of keeping and moving each thing goes down :)

        I have all my letters from pre-email days (is there an official abbreviation for that yet?) – I’m assuming that historians will be interested in them one day :)

    • Andrew says:

      have to agree on books. loads that i’d love to read but have yet to crack the spine of. many i’ll likely never read again. and yet it gives comfort to have them. we have finite shelf space which acts as a limit on hoarding, so getting a book requires getting rid of one.

      having a big hard drive makes hoarding of photos and old documents easier than is probably good for having a head and (electronic) living space free of clutter.

    • Books! I started replying, then wrote an entire new blog post on the subject, so stay tuned!

      Yes to Laura’s clothing hoarding. The brand-new seventies suit I was going to wear for an Abba dance routine at youth group: surely one day it’ll be the perfect thing! I am slowly (one house move at a time) letting go of these things… The one item I feel sure I won’t part with is the pair of size 10 hotpants, as proof of teenage glory (or something) :)

  6. Rebekah N says:

    Very helpful post! Thank you!

    My husband (son of Salvation Army Officers and thus required to move house approx. every 4 years) brought to our marriage: less than 4 draws worth of clothing, a base guitar, TV Noah may have owned, a DVD player, 1 set of bed linen, 1 bed held up with bricks, fishing gear, a dinghy with outboard and a framed photo of his daughter. On the other hand I still have my exercise books from J1! We’ve learnt a lot from each other. He now has a whole man cave full of very useful tools and kept our tickets from “Phantom of the Opera” I, on the other hand, recently burnt all my notes from University…. I may work my way down to J1 eventually.

    I looked at my jewelery box the other day and thought “wish there wasn’t so much stuff in here!” Now I’m intending to go and sort it as soon as I’ve finished this post!

    Our solution to the books problem is firstly to never pay much for books in the first place – our church has a book fair several times a year, so that’s easy! And secondly to send books I want to keep but don’t want to own to the “library” at our family’s beach house which is used as a retreat by lots of people.

    The photos idea is fabulous, but I’m not sure I will ever part with the clothes I brought Isaiah home from the hospital in, or the piece of fabric they gave him as a hat moments after they took him out of me. Holding it still makes me cry.

    The idea of buying useful things that remind you of people and places is great. I have Christmas decorations from all sorts of places… lovely way to remember without having “keep sakes”

    • It seems that we are living the same life, Rebekah :)

      My husband’s possessions fitted in his car. And half of that space was papers that needed to be sorted and shredded. I have my primary school exercise books and have ditched about half of my uni notes.

      I’m with you on the baby clothes. We’ll see how I feel about them if/when another child has puked over them, though :)

      I’m glad you like the idea of buying useful things – though I was actually confessing to creating meaning in inanimate objects, which I suspect is inherently dangerous! But I’m definitely not a keepsaker – I have nothing at all that is designed merely to sit on a shelf. Too much dusting, for one thing!

      • Alex says:

        We had a similar husband/wife split on possessions too. I did, however, manage to get rid of my remaining uni and school notes in a recent-ish purge. Apart from my very recent translation ones, which I still hope will be genuinely useful soon, and some of my PhD ones. I keep those to remind myself how clever I used to be ;-)

        I must confess to the possession of some nick-nacks, though far fewer ow than in years gone by. I think I have a box upstairs of that sort of thing that hasn’t been unpacked since we moved in 5 years ago…. Probably time to get rid!

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  9. Lou says:

    Thanks for passing on one of your two precious grandmas cardigans to me – I’m wearing it now – and to me it is very useful! 😊

  10. […] wrote, a while ago, about my gradual journey towards loosing the sentimental chains that attach us to objects we may not even like that […]

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