Last year my big brother, Randy, and I met in south Louisiana for the shared task of preparing our mother’s home for sale. Mom had died early on Valentine’s Day, and we agreed to let our grief settle for a few months before we took on the big dig. I had dreaded this work for decades, picturing myself locked in months of indecision while sorting through deep stacks of swing music, family photos, report cards, video cassettes, stuffed animals, Tupperware, and whatever else Mom, a child of the Great Depression, thought might come in handy someday.
Randy’s wife, Katie, and their two college-age sons worked with us, which provided both organizing skills and raw power for heavy lifting. I remember how my body finally relaxed as I drove away from Baton Rouge and realized that our labor was complete. Mom’s treasures were dispersed to my brother’s home, homeless shelters, recycling centers, and — when all else failed — garbage collectors. I carried home only what fit in the trunk of my car.
Keeping my share light was less a matter of righteousness than of practicality. I have enough clutter in my life, and that’s been true for decades. I could blame it on advertising or capitalism, but this is the greater truth: every object in my home is there because I bought it or accepted it as a gift. Every item is there because I have agreed, in ways small or large, that I am entitled to it. Each time I read or hear Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and Dives (Luke 16:19-31), I squirm a bit.
But I try to do more than squirm. I know the energy and liberation that burst forth each time I donate heavy boxes of books to the public library, or fill our 96-gallon recycling bin, or give a recording to a friend who will be a better steward of it than I have been. Week after week, I am striving to lighten the load.
My clutter is more compressed than Mom’s. Her music was on heavy black vinyl; mine is on CDs, but it’s still a weight. She had hundreds of VHS tapes; I have too many DVDs. She hated to discard any paper of sentimental value; I stand guilty on that count by at least ten pounds. Even the increased popularity of digital music and video does not leave me innocent. When I survey iTunes, the majority of what I see is there more because of nostalgia than any significant connection to the music. Even if music can provide a soundtrack for our lives, is music for every possible mood necessary?
The very pop culture that contributes to this accumulation sometimes acknowledges the problem. Delbert McClinton’s catchy “Too Much Stuff” is among the wittier notes on what a PBS series has called Affluenza. The late stand-up comedian George Carlin described the American home as serving the primary purpose of a storehouse for all of our stuff (Carlin used an earthier description).
Carlin lived in Santa Monica, and I do not think he was pretending to have achieved a secularist’s version of monastic simplicity, but let’s grant his point. Too many of the square feet in any American home are devoted to storage. Folk wisdom holds that our perceived level of need expands both with our income and with the space available to fill. Combine that with a culture that measures worth by income and we soon have a hamster’s wheel of misplaced identity, ennui, and consumerism.
Lately I have turned to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo (10 Speed Press, 2014), in hope that she might help me. Some of her advice is too radical for book-lovers (keep only about 30), but her general method brims with folk wisdom: hold each item and ask if it gives you happiness or joy. Most of the joy in my life has little to do with objects, so I have a lot of work to do.
As I hold each item that gives me any doubt, I hope to think as well about who (if anyone) will benefit from having it. I’m not helping my neighbor by passing along a DVD of The End, one of the sillier comedies by Burt Reynolds. I bought it for research while writing my book on tithing, as I had a vague memory of the film’s protagonist, Wendell Sonny Lawson, attempting to kill himself by swimming far into the ocean, only to change his mind and bargain with God for his life. At his deepest moment of fear, he cries out: “Fifty percent, Lord. I’m talking gross!”
I did not work that joke into my book, but it makes for an amusing spur to action in the Holy Week of 2015, while I try to lighten my load on the path to eternity.
The featured image is by melschmitz, via morgueFile.