Clutter has always jangled my brain. While it’s a cliché that some writers can’t work until their desk is clear, this is very real for me. Don’t get me wrong, my desk is nothing like the one in the picture below and my office is an Aladdin’s cave of pictures, plants and knickknacks, but everything in there is deliberate. In fact, it’s the only room in the house that is closely curated to keep anything extraneous out. But minimalist in the Instagram sense of the word, it is most definitely not.
Stuff, stuff & more stuff
My relationship with stuff has always been difficult. My late mother was most definitely a maximalist and in her later years, her tiny house strained at the seams under the weight of craft materials, clothes and various collections. Just walking into the spare room would make my palms sweat and my pulse quicken.
It took me a long time to accept that her house was none of my business, but it was hard. For a long time, she had become synonymous with the house. It’s health, or otherwise, a reflection of her own and my inability to fix or heal either a source of longstanding frustration and pain.
Just weeks before she died, I was helping her put more bags into the already crammed loft space when she looked me in the eye and said quietly, “My god darling, I’m sorry but you’re going to have one hell of a job on your hands clearing this lot when I’m gone.”
I don’t remember exactly what I said, something about not being so silly I think; how we had years before we had to think about stuff like that. She added something about how I’d manage just fine without her and I snapped at her, saying that I couldn’t imagine ever living without her and then I abruptly changed the subject before I cried.
Her death, just a few weeks later, was sudden and unexpected, but that moment has stayed with me. Her words have pin-balled inside my head during the agonisingly long hours I’ve spent working through seven decades of her belongings.
At times I’ve felt like a prospector, sifting through the silt of old bills, folded neatly into yellowing envelopes, the date of their payment inked on the front and then filed in disintegrating carrier bags under the eaves. Tucked between the envelopes in one I found my grandfather’s service record from the war. In another, a precious unseen photograph of my father who died before I was two. Tiny specs of gold amongst the grit of ordinary life but nuggets enough for me to fashion into armour.
I was angry when I found them. Angry that such precious things, such artefacts from our lost family life, could so easily have ended up in the recycling bin had I taken the well-meaning advice of friends. But then I thought of my belongings. How casually I too treat things in the belief that there is always time. Luckily, I knew my mother like nobody else and so I knew I had to do it the hard way.
I cursed her hoarding on occasion. When grief and tiredness mingled with what felt like an overwhelming task, I screamed, I cried and on times, had full-blown panic attacks which rendered me incapable of even speaking without a severe stutter. I have a new appreciation of the terrible frustration people with permanent stutters have to endure. To have a coherent sentence ready in your mind but an apparent brick wall between it and your speech centre is just horrendous.
There were many days when I fled the house, physically and emotionally unable to even look at another box or carrier bag. But there is nobody else and so I always had to go back.
The unmaking of home
There is no gentle way to unmake a home. You have to dismantle it. You have to look every ghost of good intention past in the eye and tell them that they are redundant. That they have no place here now. Then you have to take it all apart. It’s both a desecration of our idea of home and a blunt reminder of our impermanence.
In the beginning, I wanted to keep everything exactly as it was, sweaty palms be damned. I understand now why bereaved parents sometimes keep their child’s bedroom untouched for years.
If our lives are paintings, I think our souls are the canvases and our belongings are the frames. Our things mark out a space for us to exist within.
When we lose someone we love, all we’re left with is the empty picture frame. The place they ought to be, but aren’t. I think that sometimes, in holding on to their things, we keep alive the hope that, like that long-lost jigsaw piece we once found down the back of the settee, we can one day slot them back into the picture where they belong, wipe away our tears, take a deep breath and begin to live again.
Deciding what matters
Letting go can take a long time. For me, it was a gradual unfurling of fingertips from frame. A slow surrender to the inevitability of a new reality and the fact that your life will forever have a vertical line through it – life before and life after.
When I began sorting, I found that the hardest part was deciding what to keep and what to let go. Do you keep the things that you love, or the things loved by the person you lost? In the end, it came down to one simple question: would the object in question make it into my office?
The process picked up pace from there but, eighteen months on and there is still a mountain to climb. Once I’m finally finished with Mum’s things, I’ll need to start on my own because I don’t want the people I love having to go through this one day.
In the meantime, I’m telling the stories of the objects I love in #MyOfficeObjects on Instagram. Find me & join the reflection @All_About_Being