Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Sparsely decorated

When a friend who is also a professional organizer sent me her e-newsletter today, I wasn’t surprised to see that the topic was reducing clutter. That’s a professional organizer’s bread-and-butter, after all; no one calls an organizer because they don’t have enough stuff.

Clutter, or, put more gently, the accumulation of material goods, is a topic of great interest to me. Just yesterday, I dropped by the home of a new acquaintance here in town, and we fell into an almost philosophical discussion about what we own and why. Her house had the same sparse ambience that mine does – sometimes I facetiously use the word “barren” to describe our decorating style, but the fact is that I just don’t like having a lot of things around. Both our current house and the one we moved out of a year ago featured semi-rural settings and lots of windows, so I like to say we use natural décor: instead of knick-knacks, we keep the focus on the tree branches and cloud formations and shadows that form ever-changing nature-centric tableaux just beyond our walls.

At the moment, we’re in the midst of a rather interesting experiment regarding material possessions. When we moved into our current home, it was intended to be a one-year rental, although we’ve since extended our lease another year. Nonetheless, exhausted from the process of packing up our last house and moving, my husband and children and I agreed that we were going to be in no hurry to unload everything we owned into this new house, especially if we’d be packing it all up again in just a few short months. We agreed that we would unpack what we needed – kitchenware, clothing, linens, office supplies, the kids’ favorite toys and books, electronics – and hold off on the rest until we could see what we missed. After a year, we figured, anything we hadn’t unpacked from the boxes in the garage were items we didn’t care about much anyway and probably didn’t need to have around.

After a few months in our new home, I began to realize that there were several bare surfaces on which we could display some of our favorite keepsakes. Finally one Saturday afternoon, I started digging through the boxes in search of just a few decorative items to put out: colored glass vases, ceramic pitchers, a couple of objets d’art I’d inherited from my grandparents and particularly treasured.

I located the items I had in mind and found places to display them, but in doing so, I found a lot of items I’d forgotten about as well: more vases and pitchers and other decorative items than I ever remember owning. Seeing some of them brought me a sense of bittersweet nostalgia; it seemed somehow sad that these much-loved pieces with which I’d once decorated my home had slipped out of my mind altogether in a year’s time.

I’m not sure exactly what it says about the more philosophical issue of our relationship to our belongings. Definitely, we don’t have a clutter problem. But, I sometimes wonder, do we have a sentimentality problem, if it’s so easy for us to live without personal items around the house?

On balance, our experiment in leaving boxes packed feels successful to me. After a year, I do know what I miss, and from that mental list, I’ll dig around in the storage boxes this weekend until I find them. Yes, by the standards of most households, we’re impressively clutter-free. But once in a while, I’m absolutely willing to let sentimentality take over and compel me to unearth some long-buried personal treasure that I can once again display and enjoy.

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