I’m decluttering. I paw through rooms and rooms of things. A humidifier. An old table saw. A loading pallet. An easel. The bicycle I rode 50 miles a day in 1982. My Nancy Ann storybook doll, circa 1943. Seventeen pairs of scissors. A plaster-cast mold of my face, aged 22. Love letters from my exes. Journals. Autumn leaves from Vermont. Rocks from Mt. Fuji. The length of Bill’s hair from 1978. Annie’s baby teeth in a pink plastic carrying case, pulled out when they refused to leave on their own, roots gnarled and twisted. A drawer filled with nothing but extension cords. My long dead mother-in-law’s gun — a German starter pistol dating back to the 1950s, complete with instruction sheet, cleaning swabs, and ammunition. Souvenir coins from the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Thirteen vases left here from Bill’s wake. Four cheese pie makers. Three coffee makers. My grandpa’s dentures. Why do I have my dead grandpa’s dentures? Books, books, books, books, books. Bill’s divorce papers from his first wife, and his journals, and his sketches. Picture frames. T-shirts from Ubud and Borabadur and the island of Komodo, where a dragon almost ate Bill in 1991 when he opened the outhouse door too fast. My t-shirt from the Hotel de Nesle in Paris, picturing René, the fat concierge, who every morning told me, “Give me money, Chéri.” Old cell phones. Unset stones from India: Tiger’s Eye, Black Star, Lapis, Moonstone. Twister and Balderdash, and Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit. A rocking horse. Painted fragments of the Berlin wall. Rusted barbed wire and broken ceramic circuitry from Birkinau. Old tablecloths and stained cloth napkins. Dust. Rodent droppings. Dog hair.
For each thing I ask myself, “Is it beautiful? Is it useful? Do I love it?”
Inspiration: I sit alone at night and watch the TV show Hoarders, and get jacked up. It’s always the same format: profiles of sad people living in heaps of possessions they don’t need, though they want them. They want them. A woman, forced to choose between her son and a broken toilet seat, chooses the toilet seat. The show is over, so I attack a drawer. Why do I need all these pens? Eight staplers? White board markers and dry erasers when I don’t have a white board?
For years, my husband Bill and I gathered, our need to fill our home born from a sense of scarcity, years of being broke, of not having enough. I wanted a house bursting with welcome. I wanted to — and could — sleep eleven. Six beds and futons. Twenty-two pillows. And, too, we gathered because of the laziness, the daily craziness, of raising a family. No time to sort, easier to shove it away. The surfaces stayed manageable, but below the surfaces and behind the doors, every drawer, shelf, closet, and storage area, was stuffed with stuff.
Two years after becoming suddenly and unexpectedly widowed, one dog dead now too, my daughter 18 and about to leave home, I’ve closed the Ericka Inn, I’ve changed the rules. I want only beautiful things around me, only things I love, only my things. So I declutter the dead: Bill’s things, his father’s things, his mother’s things. I declutter the living: my things, Annie’s things. Each departing item frees me. Maybe this is a part of grieving, this reassessment, actively ridding and shedding. And sometimes I worry, superstitious: am I preparing myself to die? Well, if I do die, at least nobody will have to do this for me.
I want to travel lightly, I want light, I want less. So every item I keep — my old paintings, journals, letters — is a small defeat. “This is just the first pass,” I tell myself. At least I’ll have it contained, smaller, in drawers with no mice. It might matter to somebody later. Or, it might matter, later, to me, for though I am scraping away the crust of myself, I don’t want to scrape so deep as to injure; in five years, in ten years, I might want some of this. I can’t get carried away with this delicious, elating, denuding.
In the spice cabinet, I find four unopened jars of black peppercorns, plus red peppercorns, red pepper flakes, “lemon” pepper, ground white pepper, ground black pepper, and souvenir containers of hot and mild paprika from trips to Hungary in 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2010. Why do I buy pepper and never use it?
I fill bags and boxes with trash and donations, carload after carload to charity. I call Waste Management and arrange a bulky pickup. I freecycle. Backgammon boards. Snow chains. Hotel soaps. Lilikoi jam from Kaui. Tiny mustards from Air France. An unopened panettone, still in the box.
Every day I am a little lighter.
I’m getting there. “Is it beautiful? Is it useful? Do I love it?”