If you watch national television news, as we often do, (and/or read thoughtfully and listen carefully), every single North American broadcast now carries yet another enormous forest fire and devastating floods.
Add hurricanes and tornadoes, and the very human wish to remain in your home, surrounded by objects you enjoy, stands in growing opposition to the forces of implacable nature.
Culturally, there’s now, additionally, the cult of Marie Kondo, a Japanese woman whose fetish for de-cluttering has millions of (affluent) people studiously deciding what to keep and what to toss, donate or sell.
And then there are tiny houses, a trend that has some people sneering in derision at people who can afford much better choices deciding to live in 200 or 300 square feet, some with children or pets. These micro-homes are all the rage, but also, de facto, demand severe paring of all possessions. (Or renting a big storage locker!)
These are all privileged decisions, of course. Some people live with so very few possessions or don’t have a home, or the things they own are so worn out and broken they long to replace them — and cannot.
I often wonder what, if I had to make a snap decision as fire swept through the woods around my house, or flood waters started rising, (neither of which, thank heaven are likely), what I would try to grab.
(We live on the top floor of an apartment building, on top of a high hill, several miles from the Hudson River. Nor is New York a zone typically, historically, prone to hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes.)
Some of my most valued, (not all monetarily valuable), possessions:
— my Canadian passport and my green card, which allows me to live and work legally in the U.S.
— several battered stuffed animals from my childhood
— a pile of journals I kept in my 20s and 30s
— a dress I bought in L.A. years ago and later wore to marry Jose in
— my jewelry
— the paintings of my mother done by my father (small, easy to carry!)
— my framed National Magazine Award
— an original print of The Loneliest Job in the World, taken Feb. 10, 1961, an iconic portrait of the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy standing silhouetted in the Oval Office of the White House. Ours is signed by the late photographer George Tames, who Jose worked with at the Times.
No matter how minimalist our lives, we do choose and enjoy certain items, some of them markers or identity and status, some of them inherited or hard-won.
I’ve been following it for years, for which she’s won all sorts of awards. Fuss worked in Portland, Oregon for 14 years as a props stylist and lived like a nomad for a bit, (no husband or kids.) Now, at 37 — an age when some of us are deeply mired in conventional-if-bored-to-tears work and domesticity — is happily re-settled in, of all places, Lisbon.
I enjoy everything about her blog, and her spirit of adventure. She really has the perfect name for a woman who creates lovely images for a living!
I also share her values: a devotion to connection, to beauty, flowers, travel, quiet, making a pretty home, wherever you live, that welcomes you without spending a fortune.
When you spend your day driving around town in a cargo van buying $1000’s of dollars worth of props from Anthropologie and West Elm [NOTE: chic chain-store shops, for those who don’t know them] for photo shoots, those products start to mean very little. I am very detached (possibly to the extreme) from possessions! There are very few stores I walk into and find myself ooh-ing and aww-ing. As a prop stylist, after a while, you’ve seen it all. What’s really special are the one-off pieces, the heirlooms, the perfectly weathered linens, or the family postcard with old script that tells just the right story.
As I sort through my stuff, organizing/ditching/selling/donating/offering for consignment as much as I possibly can, it’s a powerful time to reflect on what we own, what we keep and why.
Even as I’m pitching, Jose and I are treating our home to a few nice new pieces: framing a lovely image by the talented pinhole photographer Michael Falco (a gift); a striking striped kilim we’re having shipped from Istanbul that I found online, rewiring and adding a fresh new white linen shade to an early pale grey ginger jar lamp we recently found in Ontario and a spectacular mirror, probably mid-Eastern in origin, I found dusty and grimy in an antique shop in North Hatley, Quebec.
So…how can I possibly advocate less stuff?
Because we live in a one-bedroom apartment, with very limited closet space. I’ve lived here for decades, and we both work at home now and don’t plan to move into a larger space any time soon, so a constant attention to add/pitch is crucial to our sanity and tidiness. (Yes, we do have a storage locker and keep some things in our garage as well: out of season clothing, luggage, ski equipment, etc.)
I grew up in homes where my parents’ primary interests were travel and owning fewer/better quality objects than piles ‘o stuff. My family home, and ours today, was filled with original art, (prints, paintings and photos, some of them made by us, Eskimo sculpture, a Japanese mask and scroll) and a few good antiques.
I’m typing this blog post atop a table my father gave us last year, which is 18th.century English oak.
It boggles my mind to enjoy and use every day in 2015 an object that’s given elegant service for multiple centuries. I prefer, for a variety of reasons, using older things (pre-1900, even 1800, when possible) to new/plastic/Formica/mass-produced.
Many people inherit things from their families and cherish them for their beauty and sentimental attachment. Not me.
I own nothing from either grandfather, and only a vintage watch and a few gifts from one grandmother — she was a terrible spendthrift who simply never bothered to pay three levels of tax on her inherited fortune. Her things were sold to pay debt; if I want to see a nice armoire she once owned, it’s now in a Toronto museum.
So…no big emotional draaaaaaama for me over stuff. I’ve bought 99% of what I own, as has my husband.
I’m also of an age now when too many of my friends, even some of them decades younger, face the exhausting, time-sucking, emotionally-draining task of emptying out a parent’s home and disposing of (keeping?) their possessions. One friend is even flying to various American cities from Canada to hand-deliver some willed pieces of jewelry, so complicated is it to ship them across the border.
When my mother had to enter a nursing home on barely a week’s notice four years ago, we had to clear out and dispose of a life’s acquisitions within a week or so. Most went to a local auction house.
It was sad, painful and highly instructive.
Today I’m lucky enough to enjoy a few of her things: a pretty wool rug by my bedside and several exquisite pieces of early/Indian textiles; she lived in a one-bedroom apartment so there wasn’t a lot to deal with.
But if we’re lucky enough to acquire some items we really enjoy, parting with them can feel difficult.
Have you ever gone through all your stuff: in the attic, in the basement, in the garage, in your storage locker(s)?
Jose and I have ruined spent the past few weekends, for two to four hours each time, cleaning out the dozens of boxes containing the detritus memorabilia of our shared and separate lives.
We live in, and I work in, a one-bedroom apartment with few closets, so we need additional storage space for out-of-season clothing, sports and camping gear, luggage.
But you know the deal — when you don’t know quite what to do with something, you tend to postpone a decision, instead tossing it (if you have space) into the attic, basement, garage or extra bedroom(s.)
Then one day you actually notice how many boxes and tubs there are — enough! Time to sort through it it all.
It’s exhausting, both physically and mentally: sort, decide, dump, donate, sell, keep, give away. Then photograph, measure and list it on Craigslist, Freecycle or Ebay, or drive it to the thrift store or consignment shop.
Or, if it really has potential monetary value, calling in an appraiser and/or dealer.
It’s hard to let go of things if, as many do, they also carry strong, happy emotional memories — your baby’s clothes, your wedding dress, notes for your thesis. It’s who we are, or once were.
It felt very weird to throw my hard-won early New York magazine clips into the garbage, (none of them on-line), but I’m not that person anymore. And no one is going to look at a story from 1995 or 1997!
We were dealing with/deciding about stuff like:
The box filled with all the gorgeous textiles my mother collected in her solo world travels: silk saris, embroidered cotton molas, exquisite woven wool mantas from Peru, all of which have value to a collector or dealer. (Kept them.)
All the wedding photos from my first wedding, filled with a blond, naive, hopeful 35-year-old pretending it was all going to be OK when I knew I was not. (Kept them.)
Huge, heavy piles of yellowed newsprint and tattered magazine pages, some of the hundreds of articles I’ve produced since I began working as a writer 30+ years ago. (Tossed them all. Gulp.)
The research notes for my two books. (Tossed.)
But we also made some happy re-discoveries, like my very first professional business card from the journalism job I loved most, as a feature writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s then only national newspaper.
And my sketches, paintings and journals from my trips to Kenya and Tanzania and New Zealand and Australia.
Jose found a signed note on heavy white card stock — The President — from George HW Bush, whom he photographed many times while in the White House Press Corps. I found a signed thank-you letter from the late great American choreographer Bob Fosse, to whom I had written a fan letter.
I still have the small, battered trunk I first took to summer camp when I was eight years old. Yes, I do, dammit!