I’ve got a rotten head cold. The best medicine for the post-holiday blues and a head cold is a box of books on your doorstep. Though this box seems to be holding an awful lot of paper products.
What do the things we choose to keep say about us?
I recently shared a mixed media piece I created using objects that had either been my mother’s or reminded me of my mother, a project directly related to the theme of my upcoming book, Called to Be Creative.
Most of the those small mementos had been stored away in drawers and boxes. I love having them displayed where I can see them now. Since then, I’ve been collecting items that remind me of my husband David; things like the last piece of jewelry he purchased for me, the tiger pin I wore when I was a waitress at Sambos, (where we met), and our 25th anniversary newspaper announcement. I’m planning an artist-facilitated “Memory Mixed Media” program at my workplace in February, when I’ll complete the project.
With all the talk today of the Kon-Mari method of decluttering and the value of simplifying our lives and homes, why save any memorabilia at all? These art pieces take me on a sentimental journey, reminding me of two very special people I loved, the mother who was the muse for my creativity, and the husband who encouraged me to spread my wings and fly in my endeavors.
What does it say about me that when I faced a move to a 760-square foot house in the summer of 2018, I easily parted with thousands of items; pieces of furniture, clothing, hundreds of books, home decorations small and large, but sifting through piles of paper, files, photos, and letters seemed an impossible task? At least two of the things I chose to keep, my mother’s cabinet and trunk, were with the intention of storing other things.
What does it mean that I saved every letter my mother had ever written me, the few my father did, and many I’ve received from siblings?
Until the winter of 2017, I hadn’t re-read Mom’s letters, but as I prepared to write a book chronicling the creative legacy she’d left behind, I did. In fact, I immersed myself in all things Mom, re-reading letters, her memory book, and notebooks, searching for nuggets of wisdom, like this, to share in the manuscript.
Much of Mom’s words that appear in the book will be shared in her own handwriting because of what I kept.
In downsizing, I did manage to dispose of hundreds of greeting cards that had no personal message, only a signature. Because I saved others, I still have my very first “fan letter,” sent to me care of my publisher in 1996, after the release of Homeschooling From Scratch. I also have the birthday card my pen friend and prayer warrior Pam Pierre sent me on the first birthday I celebrated without my mother, which also happened to be the anniversary of Mom’s death. That was the last note I received from Pam before she herself died unexpectedly.
I also chose to keep the ledger my mother utilized to keep track of her art sales. I’d flipped through those pages in 2017, marveling at her detailed notes and wondering how she kept track of the art work she’d done after the final listing of a courthouse carving in 1996. Surely an artist who’d carefully numbered her pieces, from the first wood carving at age 42 would have continued the tracking? Perhaps she’d done so elsewhere, in a notebook I didn’t have? I wrote about this in my book:
“If midlife means the mid-point of one’s lifespan, my mother hit hers at forty-one, a year before she’d picked up a hammer and chisel to create her first woodcarving. In the ensuing thirty years, Irma “Amy” Potter would produce 544 pieces of art, according to a ledger that tracked each piece. The entries are not dated, but begin with the first woodcarving in 1970 and end with the relief woodcarving that was commissioned for the Delaware County courthouse in 1996. Anything Mom had crafted before the age forty-two—the wall-hangings, pastel pictures, quilts, or homemade dolls—were not included in this tally. Neither was the body of work she continued to produce between 1996 and her death in 2010. That includes countless pillows, teddy bears, baby quilts, Christmas stockings, handmade ornaments, a painting that hangs in Breitbach’s restaurant in Balltown, Iowa, lavishly-designed walls my sister Pat commissioned Mom to paint in 2001 in the lower level of her Treasure Alley consignment store, along with numerous paintings and wood-carvings now displayed in homes of family members and strangers.
I could not begin to guess how many additional pieces of art my mother produced in those last fourteen years of her life, or why she stopped keeping the log, but suffice it to say, my mother was a prolific artist in the second half of her life.”
It was only yesterday, nine years after the death of my mother, as I searched the trunk for memorabilia to include in my next art project, I picked up the ledger again. Studying those pages of neat handwriting and record-keeping, I marveled at the low prices she charged for her work. Hours of toil on an owl carving amounted to a single ten dollar bill. Four small owls she sold to “David and Mary Kenyon” (me), less than that. I wondered again at that last notation. Why had she stopped keeping track? I flipped through the empty pages until something caught my eye; a lightly penciled notation on an otherwise empty page.
So, Mom had noted her mural work on the walls of my sister’s shop, though without a date. I flipped through a few more empty pages amazed to discover there were further records at the back of the ledger!
This list, unlike the beginning of the ledger, was not in chronological order. Many were numbers from the previous list, but some were newer, including a piece numbered 1040 (suggesting she’d completed at least another 500). An ad from a South Dakota studio was paper-clipped to the page. Did the Eng studio owner order the “carved Eskimo Girl” my mother noted, or did she own a “carved Eskimo Girl” by the artist? I’m fascinated by either scenario. (I later searched the Internet and discovered that Marion Eng, the co-owner, had passed away within days of my mother)
This. This is why I keep these sorts of things; the letters, a ledger, a list. Pieces of paper to some, precious treasures to me. A rosary, a pencil, a penny dated 1978. My mother wrote this. She drew with this pencil, prayed on this rosary. My husband kept this receipt for my wedding ring, he cherished this Valentine from his grandson fighting cancer. He wrote this note proclaiming his love and chose that necklace for me. Each foray into the trunk or cabinet, a warm hug. Each letter re-read, a visit with the beloved mother.
And sometimes, a surprise… a few previously unread pages, a clipping, a question unanswered. Who carved “Eskimo girl” and where is she?
If I ever find her, I’ll probably keep her too.
“I tried that Japanese decluttering trend where you hold each thing you own, and throw it out if it doesn’t give you joy. I threw out all my vegetables and the electric bill.”- Mindy Kaling
“Does it spark joy?”
That’s what Marie Kondo asks in her book Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and in the Netflix show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. The KonMari Method, with a revolutionary category-by-category system, promises a calm and motivated mindset inspired by determining which items in your house “spark joy.” It is not merely a set of rules on how to sort, organize and put things away but a guide to acquire the right mind-set for creating order and becoming a tidy person. By the time the suggested course of action is complete, the person is surrounded only by the things they love, a concept I found helpful last year when I moved from a four-bedroom two-story home to a two-bedroom, 760-square-foot house.
It took me several weeks of sorting, dozens of trips to a donation center, and two garage sales, but eventually I’d sifted through nearly everything in my house to determine which possessions would accompany me in the move.
Kondo suggests beginning with clothing in the tidying-up process. I went through my closet with ruthless abandon, selling or donating half my wardrobe. I was also forced to deal with the last box of my late husband’s clothing I had hidden out-of-sight in an upper shelf of my daughter’s closet. When my sister Joan offered to create something from the material, I gladly surrendered the shirts. The resulting creation of beautiful hand-crafted Christmas stockings will be enjoyed for years.
After clothing, Kondo suggests dealing with books. Because my new job was program coordinator at a spirituality center, it made sense that the majority of my mother’s religious books ended up in my work office, leaving room in her cabinet for my own. Except, I had books all over the house; filling one shelf in my bedroom, two solid oak shelves in my office, and even spilling onto my desk.
Gulp. My daughter Rachel was a great help in this overwhelming endeavor, having weeded out her own book collection some time before. “Hold each book in your hands and ask yourself if it brings you joy,” she instructed in a soothing voice. “Will you read it again? Do you love it? Do you look at it and smile? If not, let it go.”
The first time I weeded my books, I made $150 from a haul to HalfPrice Books. That encouraged me to dig a little deeper, become more discerning. Unfortunately, there was no room in my future home for my two oak shelves or desk, even though they did, indeed, bring me joy. There was even a heartwarming story behind the desk. It was very difficult to part with a piece of furniture that seeped in memories of someone who loved me and believed in my writing. I posted this on my Facebook page the day the desk sold:
“It’s just a desk,” I remind myself. Just a desk. Just the oak shelves I’ve loved since I’ve acquired them. Just 1000 books. A recliner. In a few days, this house I have lived in since 2008 needs to be empty, and I’m moving to one less than half its size. I’ve been cleaning, sorting, and downsizing for weeks in anticipation of that move. “It’s just stuff,” I told myself. “There won’t be room for it.” And for the most part, it’s been less painful than I thought it would be. But the desk…there’s a story behind the desk. One that involves marriage, and love, and what it is to discover a renewed relationship through cancer. The desk has remained in the same spot since I purchased it, painfully obvious now that it is gone, since the wall was painted without moving the wooden beast, and now must be repainted. Solid oak, it served as a formidable symbol of a solid marriage.
I couldn’t help the buyers carry it outside, but could at least remove the drawers to make it lighter. The bottom drawer was stuck on something. I heard a crinkling noise as I tried to free it. Feeling behind it, I gripped a piece of paper. I pulled it free, and my breath caught in my throat. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe. It was a sheet of personalized stamps I’d purchased before David died in 2012. I suddenly wanted the couple, and the desk, out of my house as quickly as possible. I wanted to be alone, to cry.
But I don’t need the desk to remind me of what I once had. I hold that memory in my heart.
Despite having to give up some furniture I would rather have kept, there was never a doubt that my parent’s cabinet was coming with me, even if it had to be in my bedroom, which is exactly where it ended up.
The original contents of the cabinet were mostly things of my mother’s, very few of them sparking joy, outside of a few pieces of funky vintage dishes in a pattern I loved just as much as my mother had. I offered other pieces to family members. I eventually weeded my books down to those shelves in my office at work and this cabinet in my home. These books were the keepers out of thousands.
If you’re an author reading this and your book remains among my signed copies in either location, then count yourself blessed. Your work survived the great purge of 2018. What we won’t discuss is the growing pile of books next to my recliner. Old habits die hard and somehow, despite my good intentions, more books seem to be finding their way into my home.
Which brings us to Kondo’s last category, which happens to be my biggest downfall; that of paper. As I prepared for my move, it soon became obvious there was not going to be enough time to sort and organize all my paper “stuff.” I did manage to sift through years of report cards, greeting cards, letters, children’s drawings, and other miscellaneous paper items, shredding and burning many documents. Most of what I moved with me is neatly organized in the bottom shelves of my cabinet or a compactly filled trunk. The cabinet holds my journals, loose photographs, my mother’s Memory book, high-school annuals, five binders filled with clippings of thirty years of writing, candles, and a lovely decorated box with David-related memorabilia, what my children once called my “sad box.”
The trunk holds letters, children’s drawings, my mother’s original book manuscripts, greeting cards, and other paper paraphernalia I can’t bear to part with and I’d like to organize in a manner they can be enjoyed. It would have taken me weeks to give the letters the attention they deserve for de-cluttering and organizing purposes so most of them moved with me, though I did sort through some of the greeting cards, disposing of those that had no personal note inside. I have a box filled with letters my mother had written my grandmother in the 1960’s. Someday, I want to scan them and share them with siblings. Another box holds letters I’ve received from loved ones throughout the years, including my mother, and even a couple from my dad. My goal is to eventually sort them by year and file in binders.
One of my most first purchases for my new home was an addition that definitely sparked joy; a drastically reduced rack I spotted at Hobby Lobby, where I store my still-plentiful supply of stationery and greeting cards.
I wonder sometimes what this process would have been like if it hadn’t been done by necessity (a move to a smaller house), but by desire (for a more tidy space). I suspect it would have been more enjoyable and less stressful. I also suspect I would have kept more things, and had fewer regrets. Would the day-books have survived, and the decorated lab coat remnant from my high-school Advanced Science class have been burnt instead?
The daybooks were not journals. I’ve kept those. No, the daybooks detailed the minutiae of a busy mom’s day; 98-degrees and humid… went shopping and saved $48 in coupons… sent four letters…went out for breakfast with David… four more days until my due date…
And the reason behind the decided disposal of them; what I did not want to leave as a legacy, too many hastily-written entries along the lines of “I’ll go stark-raving mad if I don’t get one minute to myself. Is it too much to ask to be alone in the bathtub?”
The daybooks. My mother’s table. The desk. Those beautiful oak shelves and the leather-bound books I’d collected. Whenever I feel a pang of regret, I remind myself they were just things. Things that did not aways spark joy. The short matching chairs that came with my mother’s table caused leg cramps and my desk collected clutter. I did the majority of my writing in my recliner, which most definitely accompanied me to my smaller house. The shelves were extremely heavy and the leather bound classic books looked pretty, but I’d never even read the majority of them.
As for my vices of paper and books, I’ve discovered a bonus to living in a larger town. There are stores, like TJMaxx, that sell lovely legal pads, and a bounty of thrift stores where I discover things like this small shelf with three basket drawers, baskets that are just the right size for…
…you guessed it…paper.
Marie Kondo would not approve.