When I opened my 3 year old’s backpack after school the other day, I found a folded piece of paper and two paper plates that had been glued together and decorated with colored paper and glitter. I could feel my heart rate pick up a bit and for a moment I was paralyzed. Again. I’m sure hidden between the folds of paper is a masterpiece. The paper plates are evidence of pure genius. But really? Again? So I zipped up the bag and walked away.
I can be a bit of a hoarder. Not scary hoarder, more sentimental hoarder. Throwing away birthday cards just seems…wasteful or sad or ungrateful. (Or maybe I’m just overly-sentimental?) I have a lifetime of stuff boxed in basements where I do not live because someday, I’ll want to look back. Someday I may want to see the time I got straight As in 8th grade. (I really am a genius!) All those old letters meant something way back when and what would I do if I didn’t have those reminders of an adolescence awkwardly lived?
So I get having, and being attached to, a lot of stuff. We are conditioned to believe we need, and should want, stuff. The more the better. Old and new. Stuff from our past and for our homes and our bodies and our kids and our spouses and our pets and our leisure time. And more and more and still more. The more we accumulate, the happier we’ll be. And while everyone seems to accept that “you can’t take it with you when you go,” there is this underlying assumption that lack of an adequate amount of stuff will suggest a lonely and sad existence.
When you live in a big house with lots of closets and drawers and space to collect, you keep and store and expand and organize. Even if, like me, organizing means dumping everything in a “to be organized” bin. And then when I’m feeling unusually non-nostalgic (like once every couple of years…), I put my big girl pants on, open the bin and purge. And then the next day I weep big salty tears for my callous behavior and start filling the drawer again.
But here in China, I don’t live a big house. I don’t have room for oversized bins storing future garbage and I know I won’t be here for a long time. When you move around a lot, or live in small spaces, or both, all your essential, sentimental, stuff to be organized, can start to feel heavy and unnecessary. I’m being forced to think about what I’m holding onto and it’s actually not that scary. The gadgets and tools designed to make life easier and better start to seem complicated and non-essential. And so, perhaps the same holds true for my more sentimental must-keeps?
When I open that tiny black backpack and see pieces of my son’s future history, I panic. The genius in me knows that I can’t (and probably shouldn’t) keep all of it. But how do you decide? I have no system for keeping vs. chucking either with my kids stuff or my own. And often it seems as though the universe is (or savvy marketing executives are) working against me – convincing me I need lotions and appliances and gadgets and tools to make my life better, easier. I can’t tell you where or when but I swear I heard someone crying in a therapist’s chair because their mother didn’t save their school work.
Less is not bad. Less is manageable. Less actually IS more! (Unless my overly sentimental heart is growing grey and frosty.) Here I own I big skillet, a small frying pan and a large pot. I can make a three course meal. (Not that I often do, but I can…) We own four adult plates and four adult bowls and a handful of plastic dishes for the kids and it’s enough. We have two sets of sheets and I can’t recall ever thinking, “gee, I wish I had my fifth grade report card right about now.” And, living in one of the most polluted places in the world, I can’t help but think of the environmental impact of all our stuff: the packaging, the needless waste, the energy to create, transport, and store all this fun but useless stuff.
Still, I daydream of throwing a lavish holiday dinner with multiple forks and spoons and water glasses and wine glasses and serving dishes perfectly sized for each course and a closet full of shoes. A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook various goodies from a trip back home to go through her lifetime of stuff – pictures of prom dresses and school work – priceless, sentimental stuff – and my frosty, grey heart warmed back to red. It IS important! Save it all! The confusion and panic set back in.
So I’m working on a system. Stuff is just stuff. We’re not meant to keep it all. I remember exactly what my prom dress looked like, and really, not only do I not need to see it again but I don’t want to. We remember (or create some idealized memory of) the things in our past that made an impression and that should be enough. Most of the actual stuff is just weighing us down. Until we assign meaning and memories to it, there is no need to keep it. Right?
I went back to the back pack. When I unfolded the paper, I found a layers of colors painted in one giant blob. Much like the painting we have hanging on the wall. I couldn’t make out what the paper plates were, but I’m told it is a drum. I threw them both out and I don’t feel bad about it (yet). The paper plates will never transport well and I have a dozen or so paintings that look exactly like this most recent one (which is probably 11 too many). I will keep one. The painting that’s been hanging on the wall for months now, now has meaning. It will always remind me of our Shanghai high rise and luckily will transport easily. In 20 years, Hunter can look back and see one of his first real “school” projects. And it will be enough. I hope.
My kids will make thousands of masterpieces in there lifetime. Most, I will throw away. And it’s ok. They will still be happy and know they are loved. I know a closet full of shoes won’t add to my happiness (but a half a closet full so I have the perfect pair to wear to my elaborate dinner party does sound like fun).
But seriously, do I really just throw away greeting cards?