We just moved to a new house from the first house we ever bought 21 years ago. New House is only a mile from Old House, not far, but still…we made a move. I don’t make changes all that often. I don’t embrace change.
Specialists on cognitive development through the lifespan will tell you that new learning is good for the brain as we age. Changing your routine changes your brain. Doing new things, learning new processes, requires cognitive effort, and this sort of problem solving – more than doing a crossword puzzle or word search – helps generate new neural pathways. I was thinking this on my run the first morning we woke up in our new house. We’d been moving all weekend and I was in need of some exercise beyond bending and lifting. So, after some coffee, and before more bending and lifting, I hit the trail for a short run. Since New House is in the same neighborhood as Old House, I ran my same trail, but with a different entrance point and a slightly different route. It occurred to me that I am changing the neuropathways of my brain in the same way my running pathways are changing.
A new, slightly different, map for my morning run = a new map for my brain.
As that satisfying thought floated away, my mind wandered over to the topic of Stuff. The amount of stuff we have accumulated over the years is unbelievable to me. Why is it sometimes so difficult to part with the physical past?
My mother-in-law, Florence, was a saver. She obviously felt a responsibility to take on items, keep them, and pass them down, trusting others would do the same. Why else would she have kept these shoes belonging to no one in the immediate family? (evidently made for a witch baby.)
Or an ashtray of her uncle’s? (she never smoked a day in her life.) After she passed away, I found odd knickknacks throughout our house that I’d never seen before. Matt would smuggle them in after a day of sorting with his sisters—nestling tchotchkes in places around the house as if I would not notice. Florence attached notes to many of the items, …”this was so and so’s, please keep it in your care.” The notes were her ace in the hole. Hard for a son to ignore for sure. So we packed up and moved shells, and ceramic elves, and baby shoes, and vacation souvenir coasters with which we had no direct relationship.
I can’t put all the blame of our superabundant amount of stuff on Florence though. A few years ago, a lady I had never met drove through town and made a stop at our house to drop off belongings of my Uncle Bernie. The items had nothing to do with me: some expensive rustic looking silverware with wooden handles; a sterling silver tea server; and a wooden chair. Bernie was a beloved uncle, though, a sporadic part of my life growing up. He and my dad—brothers—went through alternating periods of estrangement and closeness for reasons which I will never be able to guess. When Bernie died, I hadn’t seen or talked to him since I was a child. His significant other, I think, had a hard time with his death and made a trek cross country on I-80 as a part of her healing. Having inherited all his things, she took advantage of the fact that a few of his relatives, (me, being one of them,) lived along the path of her intended journey. She contacted me, told me it was important to her to give these things a home, dropped off the stuff, stayed long enough for a glass of water and a chat, and went on her way – free as a bird. The items went in to my basement closet. And now I have moved them to my new house. What to do with them?
I might sound like it, but I’m not judging. I am as guilty as anyone else for all of our stuff. I have saved toys from my childhood I haven’t even looked at since our last move (remember, 21 years ago.) Ring-a-ma-Jigs I got with green-stamps my grandma gave me. These are plastic building pieces that were never a popular fad. Why do I still have them? Why is the memory of this uncool toy not enough?
A stuffed Kermit The Frog and a Cookie Monster puppet that can swallow cardboard cookies. (He can also barf them if you’re a talented enough puppeteer.) A Dressy Bessy and a Snoopy with a complete wardrobe. Am I afraid that someone else won’t love these toys as much as I did? Do I have some deep-lying suspicion that they have souls and am afraid to determine their future?
Do my old toys have living souls?
I have records I don’t (can’t) play. Clothing I never plan to wear again. I have items passed on to me from family members that have been sitting in a dark closet. While I have fond memories of them from my childhood, I have nothing else really to do with them.
A friend who is a professional organizer once told me she thinks people keep things as a testimony to their personality. “See? I earned 13 girl scout badges and went to Camp Pine and Dunes three summers in a row. Look at my Prince pins—I was cool. Check out my worn-out ‘Property of KKG’ sweatshirt.”
Jonathan Livingston Seagull on my right sleeve, a giant embroidered hotdog across the back of my shoulders.
I think there’s some truth to this theory. If you see me at different stages of my life, you’ll understand me now because I am now the sum of all these different mes: I am youngest sister of three girls, clarinet player, pet-lover, reader; I am also new kid at school, awkward tween, last place swimmer, fast food server, casual runner, weekend chef, speech therapist, road-tripper, non-traditional student…and so on.
These mementos I’ve collected and carried through life so far. And as I circle back to the topic of pathways, I am reminded that even a straw weighs heavy on a long journey. So I have vowed to shed some stuff to make my trek lighter. I’m starting with the “simply no longer functional or needed” and working my way up to the “sentimentally valued, but alas, also not needed.” I am making baby steps. So far, the Ring-a-ma-Jigs are with me no longer, but Kermit still claims some closet space.
I am trying to live by the words of the sage, Jack Handey:
“When I saw the old bum pushing his grocery cart down the street, at first I felt sorry for him. But then when I saw what was in his cart I thought, well, no wonder you’re a bum, look at all the dumb things you bought.”