I presented this sermonette to the UU Fellowship of Dubuque on July 24, 2016:
Too Much Tenderness
“We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” J.D. Salinger, the writer who brought this quote to my attention years ago, was quick to point out the perils of sentimentality in his short stories. A man offers his girlfriend a handkerchief for her sweaty brow but she refuses because she loves it and doesn’t want to hurt it. A woman takes off a hat as she leaves a room and her son-in-law feels like it’s judging him in her place. A writer sends a chapter to his publisher while thinking, “I should just give it train fare, and maybe pack a sandwich for it and a little something hot in a thermos.”
Just a handkerchief, a hat, and a packet of mail. Just things, but what emotions we feel for them! We feel sad if we think we’ve let them down. Why is sentimentality so often mingled with sorrow? Sometimes things can stand in for people, and our response to them is just as conflicted. When a thing becomes too person-like, how can we throw it away? I know this feeling. I still have a piece of candy that I bought when I saw the Beatles fifty-one years ago. I couldn’t eat it because my mouth was full of screams, so I taped it into a scrapbook I have yet to get rid of.
And you thought I was going to help you clean out your attic.
Here is the thing about things, and our feelings for so many of our things. We cannot keep them all. But it’s hard, because so many of these things have some kind of meaning or memory as strong as a rope that guides us through a snowstorm. Only in this case, the object leads us back to a person, or a place we went to, or a time we thought we were deliriously happy.
I’m trying to think of some things that don’t fall into that category, things that are just things, easily given away or thrown out, but I have to tell you, it’s not easy. Just in the room where I wrote this are some things you might think are neutral. The calendar on the bulletin board?
Rescued from my workplace the day I lost my job. The lamp on the desk? A token from my family home, where I did my 4th-grade arithmetic by its light. The dictionary? Surely not the dictionary. But turn to the page when the letter K begins, and you will see my dad’s handwriting, where he filled in the RESS to make my name, so that if anyone in my college dorm stole it, I could prove it was mine. My dad had beautiful handwriting. Even if his writing had been a scrawl like mine, I would find anything he wrote on hard to let go.
You may think that because I’m a librarian, I never want to toss anything. While it’s true that libraries are repositories, the staff spends a lot of time on weeding. Out with the old; in with the new. Even e-books get culled from the collection, so online searching doesn’t become clogged with old titles. Good luck finding that book you loved in high school.
It’s archivists who hang onto things, but even they discriminate between the sentimental and the truly valuable. While I worked at the State Historical Society of Iowa, I processed a collection of one hundred personal scrapbooks assembled by ordinary Iowans. I removed each letter, each ticket stub, each faded, flattened rose with great care, slipping them into acid-free envelopes, and compiling meticulous inventories for each scrapbook. Now historians can learn what was treasured by everyday Iowans without getting their grubby hands on the letters, the tickets, the flowers. And the scrapbooks are out of their creators’ closets.
Here begins my list of Rules for Breaking Up With Your Things.
Rule #1: Beware of scrapbooks.
Like those other Iowans, I made scrapbooks, and by God, I saved them. That’s what they were for! By now they’re falling to dust or worse, because I saved degradable things like that piece of candy. Gross but meaningful. Will I donate my scrapbooks to the Historical Society? You bet,as long as I get a copy of the inventories.
Rule #2: Purge before you even think about moving
Don’t tell yourself, “Moving is a great time to sort this place out and get rid of the junk!” It is not. Moving is when you have to pack every paperclip and dish rag and cookie jar and floor lamp you own. Moving is when you have to scrounge for boxes, lug boxes out to an undersized vehicle, and haul boxes into the new place, where you open them and try to find what you need so you can eat a meal or brush your teeth. Having to make decisions about your kids’ kindergarten artwork, and the photos from your first marriage, and the quilts your favorite grandma made takes far too much emotional fortitude to even think about doing it just before you move. Moving is fraught enough. Do it long before that new house is even a twinkle in your realtor’s eye, when you can sort with a clear brain and a ruthless heart. Do it this afternoon!
Rule #3: Understand the 3 rules of sorting.
I know how to do this. I’ve moved from apartments and houses and I’ve helped helpless family members move. I had a system, nothing special, probably the same one many of you have used. Three categories: Discard, donate, keep. Discard, donate, keep. Over and over and over.
Discards go into a series of black trash bags, the bigger the better, and isn’t it good they’re not clear plastic? Imagine seeing that smiling Barbie doll squashed under the autograph book you kept in junior high, both of them intermingled with all the letters your first real boyfriend wrote before he ditched you for Cindy Williams. Even worse, imagine your treasures coated with wet coffee grounds and gooey egg shells. I have had trash bags split open on the way to the curb, and let me tell you, no one should have to see their former keepsakes looking so grim. You need to be strong, and so do your garbage bags.
The donation pile is not so bad, as we know we’re giving our old jeans, bedspreads, mixers, and books a happy new home. Just don’t look behind Goodwill or St. Vinny’s. That pile of rejected donations represents all the things someone was too chicken to send to the dump, making the staff there do it. Those people are saints. They make hard decisions left and right, and while they don’t have the same sentimental connections to our junk as we do, it can’t be easy to throw out a pretty doll with matted hair, or a beautiful clock missing its hands. They could be fixed! They could be given a new life, a loving new owner! But that’s not what they do at those places. And I don’t know about you, but I have neither the skill nor the time to resurrect all my things in need of tender loving care.
And there’s that word again. Tender. We are giving our things more tenderness than we ought to. That’s why the “keep” pile can so quickly grow unmanageable.
Rule #4: Don’t save things just because they remind you of your dear departed.
Let me tell you a story about my dad. He worked long, hard hours at Alcoa, fixing things at his millwright’s station. His vacation time was always spent with Mom and me and my sister, up at a faraway Minnesota lake. But one year, when he got some extra weeks off, he and three friends drove Chick Marshall’s converted school bus to Utah, hunting deer and having the time of their lives. The two weeks he was away felt like years. He returned before sunrise, while I was so deeply asleep I had no idea he’d entered my room. When I awoke later, I spotted something new on my shelf and knew that Daddy was home. The doll was short and round and pink, with a ribbon at the bottom reading, “My heart cries for you.” His mouth was turned down in a frown, and a plastic tear hung from each eye. I mean, please.
I kept that doll forever. But when we started packing to move last month, I thrust him firmly into the garbage bag. It was time. I didn’t need to clutch the actual doll to remember it. How much worse to keep it in a cardboard box, its features fading, its stuffing getting stiff and crumbly. It was hours before I retrieved it, because, you know, it would make great prop for this reflection. So thank you! Now I get to throw away this cute little guy all over again.
Rule #5: Don’t second-guess yourself.
Of course dolls are the worst. I swear, you can sew a face on anything and people will fight to keep it. But I threw out lots of other dolls, one wearing clothes my Aunt Dorothy had crocheted, another that sat cross-legged on my dresser until, last January, her head and legs broke off simultaneously, as if she had quietly imploded. I even let Bob take to the landfill the life-size Patty doll I got for Christmas when I, too, was three feet tall. I had to remove the outfit she was wearing. My mom had sewn it for my daughter. I kept that to give to my son for his girls. He can dress them, take a picture, text it to me, and drop the outfit at the Goodwill in Omaha.
But the doll itself, the pink girl made to resemble a 5-year old, was now naked – “naked.” A plastic, manufactured product, yes, but we referred to it as “her”! How could I let her go like that? The choices were grim. Put her – no, put IT! — into an ill-fitting garbage bag with either her feet or her head sticking out? Wrap her in an old towel like a serial killer in a bad mystery? Bob helpfully offered to yank off a few limbs to make her fit in the trash bag. In the end, she went, and I did not ask any questions. I tried not to picture her in the landfill, buried except for her pink, outstretched hand, looking like something from “Tales from the Crypt.”
Rule #6: Never, ever, let yourself imagine your discards in the landfill. Out of sight, out of mind.
I read a poem here on Father’s Day, about my dad’s workroom. I described the things he fixed down there, including my mother’s butcher knife, how he could sharpen it on his grinder for Mom to cut up a chicken for dinner. That thing was wicked sharp, and it rested in a wood block Dad made to keep it, and Mom’s fingers, safe. One Christmas, I opened a present from them. I was floored when I found my own gorgeous knife, in its own wooden cradle, also hand-crafted by Dad.
After Mom died and I cleaned out the house, I found the old knife, sharpened so many times it was only half the size of my own. Did I have a hard time throwing the old one away? Well, what do you think? Do I wish I had done so back when I sold the house? You bet I do. Even my kids might not want something so sentimental if it can’t be used anymore.
Rule #7: Do not pawn your old stuff off on family members unless you know they really, really want it. No fair passing on the guilt.
I made sure Dan genuinely wanted the set of dishes I was ready to give up. I’ll admit, had he said, “No thanks, Mom,” I would have been disappointed. But he wanted them. Russel Wright dishes are special, made in the fifties by an industrial designer with an eye for elegance and unusual colors. My first mother-in-law impressed upon me their great show-off potential, and over the years I managed to snag quite a lot at charity shops with no idea of their value. I lost them in the divorce, but reclaimed them from my first husband’s storage unit after he died. The last one to have the dishes wins, right? I now realize I was competing with his mother, but I did grow to love them for themselves.
Rule #8: Don’t save anything because you “might do something with it someday.” I knew a woman who kept every last button and broken earring because she was an artist and might use them in a collage at some future time. Just so, I might someday want to quote from a 35-year-old letter from my cousin in an essay – or, you never know, my memoirs. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you might learn to use that loom your sister left behind. If I ever learn to weave, knit, make pressed cookies, or play the guitar again, I may regret giving away Bonnie’s loom and knitting needles, Mom’s cookie press, and my old guitar. It’s a chance I’m willing to take.
Rule #9: Be careful about becoming a collector. My mom collected a few little mouse figurines in her youth, and from then on everyone gave her more mice – crystal mice, porcelain mice, felt mice. Now I have them, or rather, Allison does. Mom may not have really loved mice, but Allison loved her grandmother. (But did I guilt her into taking them? See rule 7.)
My sister, Bonnie, collects stuffed animals, and everyone gives them to her because she’s so tickled to get them. It’s a sure thing. She gives each one a name, though after she passed 500, I wonder how she kept them straight. She doesn’t know this, but when Bob and I cleared out her storage unit this summer, they all went to the landfill. Whether covered with cat hair or just too well-loved, they were not suitable for donation. I kept only Punkin, the little bear entrusted to me after she moved to the nursing home. He comes with us for visits, and she covers him in kisses. I have instructions to place him close at hand in her casket someday, and I will.
Rule # 10: Be selective in taking the advice of “experts.” Sort advice into three piles, too – keep, ignore, pass along to someone else.
Books about simplifying are a cottage industry, and yes, when I weeded 452 books from my own bookshelves this spring, there were a few “How to Simplify” books among them. The only one I kept is the new bible of decluttering, or, as the author calls it, tidying. You may have heard of this charming Japanese woman, Marie Kondo, whose “Konmari” technique has taken the world by storm – a neat and tidy storm. She claims tidying is “magical,” and she advises strong discipline for letting go of mementos.
Her advice is simple. Pile all of your books, or your clothes, or your diaries, or your whatever, into a big pile. Do everything in one category at once. Now touch each item, and if it does not “spark joy,” in her adorable words, out it goes. Donate when possible; discard if not. But first, express your gratitude. There are videos on YouTube showing her making a little bow to the t-shirts she’s discarding. It’s sweet. It may work for you.
Rule 11: When necessary, use whatever crutch works.
Marie Kondo doesn’t suggest photographing things, but it’s not a bad idea. A social worker taught my sister to take a picture of things she needed to get rid of, a task she found paralyzing. I came upon a small collection of these photos, mostly of dented pots and pans she had to bid farewell. It made me sad. And now, yeah, now I have those pictures! What do I do with them?
Another thing I came upon was Bonnie’s collection of prescription bottles. After laboriously removing the labels, she used them to collect other things, like little bells and agates and padlocks. The most precious bottle holds a thin piece of black yarn, with a note explaining it is “Punkin’s original mouth.” Not to be too morbid, but this will probably go into her casket, too, along with Punkin himself. Some people think that when we die, we’re reunited with any body parts removed earlier – that lost appendix, say, or a big toe. So Punkin may be reunited with his original mouth. Far be it from me to stand in the way of that happy reunion.
Let’s pause before my final rule, and listen to the Austin Lounge Lizards’ reassuring song for people who don’t want to let go.
Last rule. Keep weeding. Think of it as spiritual housekeeping.
Even after we moved, I’ve continued winnowing our belongings. I feel better about keeping only the family heirlooms I can find a use for. A too-small pie holder from my mother’s kitchen can hold a plate of cookies. The knife rack my father made might hold tools in the garage. Anything I feel torn about, I put on Facebook. It’s amazing the things my friends are utterly thrilled with. Angie took the loom! Colleen took the crystal stemware! Crowd sourcing your stuff makes everyone happy. It’s a win-win.
Finally, remember this. The seventh Unitarian Universalist principle urges us to show “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” That web isn’t an attic full of things. Our interdependence is with people, not their possessions, or ours. So put down that junk. Take someone’s hand. Go for a walk, carrying nothing with you but your smile, your voice, and your open, tidy heart.