“Buy experiences, not things. Spending on experiences makes people happier than spending on things. Things get broken and go out of style. Experiences get better every time you talk about them.” ~ Jean Chatzky
So much is unsettled right now. So much is unbound and unclear and uncertain.
At night, I am restless and dreaming of seeds sprouting. My joints ache from moving boxes around in my mother’s house as she sorts and culls and throws out the material things she has spent decades collecting. What was all this for? What is the meaning of all this mess and loss?
Right now, I admit, I do not know.
I am just trudging through the days, organizing, sorting – trying my best to help her navigate the grief of the changes she’s going through.
She imagined a different sort of ending. She imagined that she would live in this tiny, crooked, cramped little house until she died. She paid for that to be so. It hasn’t worked out.
Instead, it created a rift, a tear in the fabric of our family that we cannot seem to mend.
Life is Messy.
So now, Mom’s got the dry heaves. She can’t eat. She’s sick with sadness.
Packing to make the move to Arizona where I live, she’s consolidating her two bedroom house into a small guest room and bathroom. 75% of what she owns cannot make the journey with her. There simply is not room for it in my home, and I don’t see the point in keeping things that you are not actually using on a regular basis.
Choices and Still More Choices.
We stand together and sort, discuss, pack and cull.
“Which of the Santas do you want to keep?”
She is torn. She wants them all, but in the end, I sort it down to five.
We sort the Easter ornaments, the Halloween ornaments, the linens, the dolls, the dishes and pots and pans. We sort books and cloth napkins and baskets and clothes. We choose a few pieces of art and a few of the items that make her feel like she has a nest. We pack the seashells my father gave her and the cloth dolls she has had since her girlhood. We choose some of the videos and coffee table books, some of the spiritual books. I sort books, looking for anything I already own. We set those duplicates aside, to give away, sell or donate.
I know this process is different for me than it is for her.
For her, this is a death.
I am a witness, but these are not my things, my dreams, my sense of myself.
Each Thing Represents a Memory of a Person or a Place, Long Gone.
To my mother, these things are a source of pain, of solace, of remembrance. She handles each item with nostalgia, remembering what prompted her to purchase it, save it, put it away. For years, she collected and saved baby clothes for the child I never gave birth to. She only recently let those go, despite the fact that I am in my fifties.
I imagine it was bittersweet for her to realize that the daughter she imagined I would become, was not the person who showed up.
Instead, my writing became my creative life. My essays and poems spilled out, bloodied and squalling, wondering what the hell had happened to them, how they’d arrived in all this burning light and clamor. However, I produced no human babies for her to dandle, dress in little sleepers, or watch as they sucked their thumbs. My mom still feels disappointment over that loss.
She doesn’t know that I was inconsolable about it at one point, too. That I resigned myself to it by the time I finished graduate school at the age of 38. It gutted me to realize it was unlikely that I’d be a mother. However, to be a mother, you must have a father handy.
I didn’t meet any father material while I was actually fertile. Instead, I met divorced men who’d had vasectomies. I met men wrecked by other women. I met men with unresolved sexual abuse issues. I met men who needed mothering, rescue.
And, the thing is, I didn’t want to be a single parent. I wanted a partner who was whole and ready. Otherwise, children were not an option.
So, that aspect of life whipped past, searing me with dust and grit. I know now, we trade off – one sort of life experience for another. There are no gilded choices in life. There are always costs.
Closing One Door, Opens Another.
While I work, box and clean, to clear and shutter my Mom’s house – I see her grief, up close. I see her pride and her sense of the unfairness of this.
It’s a sobering lesson in letting go. It isn’t fair. It isn’t right.
Still, the fact of the matter is, we can’t take our crap with us when we leave this life.
And our attachment to those things that belonged to our Nana or Granddaddy or father only lives in us. The things themselves are just things. They are meant to be enjoyed, but held lightly.
Unpacking Shame and Re-imagining What’s Next.
“You think you are the biggest crap collector ever, Mom? You are total bush league in comparison to most people in this country,” I tell her as we eat salads at the picnic table in the front yard. “You don’t have a tenth of what many people do. And they just keep buying more and renting larger and larger storage lockers in order to keep it.”
Then I relate the story of a mutual friend who was featured on Hoarders.
“They took away 25 garbage trucks full of stuff from her house. 25 truck loads. You have nothing, in comparison.”
I see it’s dawning on her that she will live through this process and, perhaps, even see something better on the other side of it.
Learning to Travel Light.
When I left Seattle two months ago, I’d set up a schedule for her so she could just pack and sort and worry less about the end game. I set up donation pick-ups and took pictures of her furniture. I listed and sold what we could. In the intervening weeks, she’s donated or given away the rest.
I came home from that trip and immediately started to go through my books and clothes and dishes, searching for things I no longer use, love, or need. I filled four boxes effortlessly. My plan is to do monthly donations of four boxes until next June. After that, I will make donations twice a year for the rest of my life.
I look forward to streamlining my possessions and living in a home that is clutter-free.
When my mom arrives in Phoenix, I believe she’ll see the value of living without all that stuff. The people and moments and memories that matter, live inside of her. She carries them in her blood, her DNA, her cells.
I hope that eventually my mom will remember this process as the beginning of something good. I hope she’ll see this smoothing and sanding of her soul as a benefit, a gift.
Experiences, not stuff.
I never want to mortgage my life again to buy stuff.
Instead, I want to make memories. I want to eat wonderful meals, drink lovely bottles of wine, or take unforgettable trips to Africa or Japan or Australia.
Those are things to savor. Once in a lifetime things.
We can’t take any of it with us, so we’d best learn to travel light.
Shavawn M. Berry’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Huffington Post, elephant journal, Journey of the Heart: Women’s Spiritual Poetry, Olentangy Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Vagina – The Zine, Rebelle Society, The Cancer Poetry Project 2, Kinema Poetics, Kalliope, Poet Lore, Westview – A Journal of Western Oklahoma, Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Concho River Review, North Atlantic Review, Synapse, Living Buddhism, Blue Mountain Arts/SPS, and Poetry Seattle. Her technique essay on the dramatic monologue/persona poem is featured in a poetry database published in 2013 by Ebsco Publishing. In 1998, she received her MPW in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where she specialized in Creative Nonfiction and Memoir.
Ms. Berry teaches writing at Arizona State University where she just completed a 2013 Lincoln Ethics Teaching Fellowship. You can follow her on Facebook or read more of her work on her blog. A portfolio featuring a selection of her essays, blog postings, and prose is available at Shavawnberry.contently.com.