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Thursday, 14 July 2011


By Lyn Burnstine

In one of his essays, E. B. White speaks of the acquisition of things:

“A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow.”

That was on my mind often as I pared down to smaller quarters for the second time in a dozen years. The most dramatic of the moves - many years before - was from a five-bedroom house with an unusual amount of storage space to a one-bedroom apartment.

It took me a year to get rid of enough “stuff,” many years’ accumulation, to fit into that apartment. The saving grace there, besides its general spaciousness, was the presence of a large walk-in storeroom.

I’m not quite ready to live out of a backpack but I am getting down to basics, having carried out literally hundreds of bags of stuff with each move.

The first time, the cast-offs included many years’ issues of The Carolina Israelite, items left behind by my grown kids and 40 roomers, a garage full of tools and household supplies, boxes of sewing and crazy-quilt fabrics, crafts materials and rooms full of furniture.

Unfortunately, my limited space in the apartment did not allow me to enlist the kind of help that I had in clearing out the big house in 1984. Then, about 60 people came to my “house-cooling” under strict orders not to bring a gift but, rather, to be prepared to take something away with them when they left.

That they did, in great good spirits, after taking turns going through one room piled high with giveaways. Many years later, friends still talk about my house-cooling.

But a lot can accrue in 12 years, especially when one is addicted to thrift shops, garage sales and used-book stores. I often wondered, as I came in from the car laden with bags of groceries or weighed down with stuff, what must go through my neighbors’ minds: “Where does it all go? How can she fit it all in. How can one person consume that much food?”

The second time, in 1997, the sweep became more intense and I got rid of things dear to me but impossible to fit into my even-smaller space. Heirloom dishes, glassware and linens were given to my offspring; a large collection of antique hymnals went to a folk singer friend; and a huge assemblage of teaching aids - children’s music and craft books, puppets and musical instruments - found various loving homes.

I couldn’t bear to part with the stuffed toys so they live in the cubby under one side of my single captain's bed coming out only for Christmas.

There is a wonderful cleansing effect from simplification, from the weeding out of non-essential items. It reminds us which things are precious and important. The possessions left after this process seem more dear, somehow. The photo albums, music records and tapes, videos, quilts and sweaters handmade by my mother, an impressive egg collection, writing and photography gear and boxes of memorabilia - love letters, fan letters, newspaper clippings, my kids’ and friends’ love-notes - all document a long, vital life.

The proliferation of garage sales and flea markets leads me to believe that all we’re doing is exchanging our stuff. The proliferation of personal storage rental units suggests that the situation is out of hand; if you can’t get all your stuff in your own house, do you really need it?

Maybe I am turning into a curmudgeon from reading too much Andy Rooney, but I remember when an old Sears Roebuck catalog, to be cut up into paper dolls, provided an entire winter’s entertainment for a little girl. There was a sweetness to the simplicity of that life. The world may never be able to recapture it, but I’m trying.

Since writing this essay, reading it on radio and at readings, and publishing it in a memoir, I am once again re-visiting the topic. I am considering one last move to be nearer my family. In preparation for that possibility, I'm paring down again - you'd be surprised how much I can part with now that I couldn't imagine living without 13 years ago!

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


I know,Lyn,I know...

We just spoke the other day about clutter and how long we kept things. I mentioned then that I have the very bad habit of throwing things away too quickly and needing them later.

I still have to downsize this house one day and I am hoping that my children and grandchildren will want some of my things.

That is if I have anything left unless I can cure my "Throw away" mentality.

I love your brilliant idea of a house-cooling. Do you mind if I use the same technique? It's really an inspiration!

Lyn - Great "stuff"!

I wish I'd read this before we moved last year. A "House Cooling Party'. I agree with Nancy - what a terrific idea! - Sandy

Lyn - I understand for I have moved 15 times in the states; first from small places to bigger and bigger as the family grew, and then from bigger to smaller. I know the hardship of getting rid of precious, at least to you,things, but wish I'd thought about a House Cooling before some of my last moves. I will pass it on to anyone I know down-sizing. Johna

Great idea, a House Cooling Party! To pare down is a process sounds like you have it mastered.

Beautiful piece..I have been doing the task for 3 years now..luckily haven't had to move yet from large 45 year residence..what you can't live without, oh boy..whenever I see the aftermath of tornadoes and other weather related "wipeouts" of folks homes, I get all teared up and think oh god, how will they live...my children have already informed me they want "nada" from the House..and will just get dumpsters and trash it all if they have to do the task so I must cull out what I will actually give away so at least some dignity will be accorded my "treasures." Happy to see the words "paring down" as opposed to the now popular "decluttering." Thanks for the tips...

Thanks for all your comments. It is a universal subject, isn't it?

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