27 January 2021


Maybe you should let be what has been, maybe you should let be what will be, maybe you should concentrate all your skills on what you have in front of you, on a few rust-red rocks, on a branch of that bush teeming with tiny lice that produce a bubbly, sweet sap? 

Peter Rosei

For the past couple of months I made attempts at decluttering, not in the fashionable sense, I am not a minimalist or whatever, no intentions of creating space for new clear design ideas - the gaps here and there look quite hideous in fact. But for the time being, this is a lockdown space anyway. Who cares, I am not entertaining interior designers.

No it's all a precautionary measure after I read the story of the married couple dying of covid within days of each other. Plus the memory of the day, the morning, it didn't even take a day, after the old man across the road had died and the container which was placed under the balcony and two guys threw all the stuff, everything, sheets and books and china and the tv, into it, showing off their muscles. Also, my only child far away. Also, the virus restrictions. And more.

As of now, I am still at the stage where I take every item into my hands before it goes. 

I sold a mountain of books I obviously will never read again, I immediately invested the money into food and wine, and just a few audio books. I donated another mountain of books to the various open access public libraries we have in parks and along the river promenades. 

There are so many books left. I decided I'll give them a rest for the time being. In other words, I have reached the shelves with the poetry and the Irish authors and the German history (crime and popular fiction was easy).

Instead I am now digging my way through two large old steamer trunks (from my grandparents) full of letters and calendars and diaries. I found the big sheet of cardboard where R timed the contractions during labour and my breastfeeding diary with the weight chart of my premature baby. It's not an accurate record, just a jumble of sheets of paper filled with the scratchy handwriting of a overly tired woman in the early hours of nights spent nursing. I found the big fat sign we made when I started labour, the one I would read over and over and over again for the next 33 hours: "Rain after all is only rain, not bad weather. So also, pain is only pain, unless we resist it, then it becomes torment".

I am trying to figure out what to do with all that. The premature baby is long grown up and gone, with her own birthing and nursing memories. 

This morning, I read a letter my brother wrote to me in the summer before my father did his disappearing act. I was far away on the other side of the equator then. He is not a man of many words, my brother, but there was that: "When she saw us arriving, she tried to walk out to the garden gate but tottered and fell on the way and my first thought was, run, but in the end, I put the kids back in the car and walked over to help her up. She stank of booze. Just be glad you are not here."

I put that letter back in the thick brown envelope where I had stuffed all his other letters, not many, but still. 

Where should this go to? Paper recycle bin? Rubbish? Compost? I asked him, he doesn't want to have any of it.


Anonymous said...

It really is an interesting thing to consider all the stuff we have collected over the years. In my dreams I would like family to come and take anything that interests them, the art on the walls, the books in the bookcase, the tools in the garage. The rest could be given away or tossed. My true treasures are old letters and my journals. I hope to read them one last time before I go, and then burn it all.

Ms. Moon said...

Do you have ordinances against burning paper trash? Probably. Do you have a fireplace or a wood stove? If so, I sometimes find that it feels more "right" to burn old letters and things like that which no longer need to be kept or which I no longer wish to keep. Say a few words over them if need be. Then whoosh!
I need to do this with family pictures from my childhood. None of my brothers want them. Neither do I. Why would any of my kids want them? I should let them go.

Linda said...

I hate the idea of my memories being lost but they are mine and only important to me and the few people who bother to listen or read. I don't think my kids will read my journals....burning sounds like an excellent idea.

How sad I felt when reading what your brother wrote. I could relate in a way except I was a child when that was happening, not an adult. I would have put the kids in the car too because kids shouldn't have to deal with that crap.

Joared said...

Have attended a few 'downsizing' sessions local retirement communities have offered people anticipating major life changes. They all say basically, "your children won't want any of your stuff so expect to dispose of it in other ways." I've always said the kindest thing we can do for our children is to pare down our possessions to minimal levels but I'm not doing a very good job of practicing what I preach. Seems each time I start the whole process slows to a snails pace as I examine things as you describe coming across, then somehow I come to a screeching halt. I am so off schedule doing this so envy your ability to proceed ahead. Some have said they take photographs of items before parting with them. Shredding can be the answer for some papers. Then there are the three boxes approach -- keep, trash, uncertain. Now it's even more complicated with recycle, rubbish and compost.

Roderick Robinson said...

I have a theory about memorabilia which has no cash value but which plays on our heart strings. Like the premier crus of Bordeaux they mature, but slowly. And the maturation yardstick is our own age - not how many years we've endured, but those we perceive we have left. At 85, even under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have long to go. But note the main obituaries in The Guardian; these are usually famous people who one might have expected to have led cosseted lives. Many have managed it into their eighties (I have a further theory that celebrities are all living longer) but then comes the little red light: "died through complications of covid-19".

A reminder of our vulnerability. My wife and I are obeying the rules. I occupy my time, inter alia, by writing embarrassingly long comments to others' blogs. The contents may be jejune but the syntactical discipline is the mental equivalent of going up and down stairs a dozen times. I'm reminded of the knight playing chess with Death in The Seventh Seal. (Does he deserve a capital letter? Indubitably.)

I unshackle the loft ladder, climb up into the pyramidical cavity (once wasp-ridden) and approach the battered suitcase, dotted with romantic stickers, that my maternal grandparents took with them on a Mediterranean cruise not long after WW1. And there's my logbook of the month I spent at Outward Bound Mountain School in the Lake District in 1952. Am I really the same person that did those stressful things seventy years ago? Yes and no. I am the physical husk but better equipped for introspection. And, as long as I may reflect, there are new nuggets to be mined; the passage of time was necessary to arrive at this point, a new competence. And the time ahead may be devoted to fashioning appropriate sentences. The logbook becomes my own Rosetta Stone; I touch it and there's tomorrow afternoon allocated to the sifting process.

The bits and pieces of our past life have become far more than physical entities. Perhaps trapdoors into new/old territory that we may, if we wish, explore again. Occupying the future.

am said...

Have been thinking about all you wrote, especially the scene with your brother, his children and your mother. So many feelings coming up. So many memories coming up.

Having no children and having not seen my only nephew since he was 10 years old or his 7-year-old son due to what seems to be a permanent family estrangement, I have given some belongings of family interest to the children of two of my cousins. My executors are a local first cousin and local friends of mine. My condominium is less than 700 square feet and fairly uncluttered but still contains a substantial amount of belongings for someone to deal with after I die. I hope to live here until the day I die. I've gone through and let go of pretty much everything that I no longer need, including hundreds of books. There is art work by friends on my walls and books I wish to keep. I have a cedar chest in my bedroom and a small closet where I keep old letters, a small box of things that belonged to my German grandfather including items from World War I, his typesetter days, and his medical school days, a box of things that belonged to my mother, and a box of things that belonged to my father and his father ...

I'll stop writing along those lines. I am reminded that one of my cousins invited his siblings to come to his small town Montana to take anything they wanted that their mother had saved from her life and their father's life and their family life. When that was done, he did what I would call a ritual burning of all that was left. I am guessing that he got a burning permit.

Coincidentally, Peter Rosei looks very much as if he is from my German grandfather's side of my family.

ellen abbott said...

We got rid of most of our books (and abandoned other stuff) when we moved from the city house to the country house. we no longer needed to have them with us, books we read once and never again, decades worth of accumulation. we no longer even buy books, the library here being 5 minutes away. my sister has far more stuff than I even after she winnowed some of it out when she moved into the smaller house last summer. her two daughters have been after her for years to a. quit acquiring stuff and b. get rid of some of the stuff she has. it is a selfish wish on their part because eventually they will have to deal with it. but I say, too fucking bad. same with my stuff. yes we both have stuff later generations don't want but so what. we like out stuff, it's what makes our homes home. we like to look at it. the kids will just have to deal when the time comes. for my part I hope that my daughter, I know my son won't because his wife won't want anything that comes from his family, has already made him get rid of just about everything he had that came from my folks, will want the family heirlooms, things that have been in the family for generations, or the grandgirls. maybe in another decade I'll be ready to pass on some things to them if they want it. if not, after I'm dead, I won't know or care what happens to it all. I am shocked though by the neighbor's kin (I assume kin, perhaps he didn't have any) that just tossed everything into a container.

My sister is the family historian and has all the old papers and photo albums and scrapbooks and slides from our parents' lives although that was some of the stuff she got rid of. my mother had kept every letter I ever wrote to her and my sister had given them to me a year or so before the flood and they along with all the other memorabilia from my own life of growing up and boyfriends and having kids and raising kids was all dealt with when the house flooded, all in boxes or bookcase or chest and ruined. out it went without a second glance. I had slowly been going through those old letters from old boyfriends, most of whom I couldn't even remember and tossing them. so the rest was done in one fell swoop.

Colette said...

I have been scanning as much as I can, and creating electronic folders and steamer trunks to hold the memories. I just scanned all the letters two of my dear nieces sent me when they were tweens and teens. Then I sent them the originals. Now we both have them. They claim they are too embarrassed by their youthful exuberance to read them. Their choice.

Secret Agent Woman said...

Swedish Death Cleaning is what your doing. It's what we should all be doing.

I've been working on scanning and discarding as much paper as I can. The letters, cards and other paper memorabilia I'm keeping now fit in one small box. I guess my kids can chuck that when I die. And I'm working on paring down books and other possessions as well.

Steve Reed said...

My mom had a giant suitcase of letters from her parents spanning the '60s and early '70s. I read through many of them and made a blog post about some of the newsworthy events they discussed -- but the fact is, the rest was just family news and not all that interesting. (I remember my grandmother chiding my mom for not brushing her teeth correctly.) When my mom moved out of her house she burned the whole suitcase.

I'm not necessarily recommending that course of action, but you can't save everything, right? And communications nowadays are so transient anyway.

I think it makes sense to save/scan a representative selection and clear out the rest.

37paddington said...

you have given me so much food for thought. I would not want my children to find my journals. It would show them a mother they did not know, one I left behind before I had them. Plus, it would be a one sided view, because I only wrote in those journals when I was in the depths of hell. So should I toss, shred, burn them? I don't know.

Elizabeth said...

This is so beautiful. I wish that it were a letter I could open and read.

Anonymous said...

We get old, we move on and can take nothing with us. For some things we can find a place where they will be used, and if you are lucky like I was, a bonfire in a field at dawn can be the best way to say goodbye to other things.