Life here on Earth presents an astonishing array of abundance. There’s so much stuff that we can gather to fulfill not only our basic needs but also our more frivolous desires and, perhaps, our need to feel prepared for meeting future needs.
Many years during Lent, I’ve given up some category of material things in order to gain perspective on my relationship to the dust that makes up our physical world. Two of the most informative have been giving up meat and giving up buying things from outside North America.
This year, I felt called to give up buying plastic, and I knew I couldn’t.
Well, I mean, I could. If I were to devote myself full-time to avoiding new plastic by working around every single situation in which plastic comes into our lives, probably I could avoid buying any for six weeks–by drastically curtailing my family’s diet. The main thing we really have to buy regularly is food, and a lot of food packaging is plastic. Even the local milk in returnable, refillable glass bottles has a plastic cap with a tear-off plastic safety seal–and although we put those caps back onto the rinsed bottles we return to the food co-op, I’m pretty sure the milk company discards them and puts new ones of the refilled bottles.
So my focus this Lent has been on reducing plastic and being more conscious of plastic. I’ve made some purchasing decisions based on this, like resisting packaged produce in favor of putting loose produce into washable produce bags. Drops in the bucket, but every drop counts, right?
Catching a few more drops makes it easier to hear the dripping.
This is not the first time a half-fast Lenten discipline led me to deal with more stuff than I thought I would. Just a few extra “Do we really need that?” nudges in my brain help me to see a lot of things we might not need, to feel more able to cope with sorting stuff, to remember how lucky I am to have choices about what to buy and to have a home already filled with stuff, much of which belonged to my ancestors before me.
This brings us to another guest post from my past self!
“The skeleton in the closet seldom has the sense to stay there.”
October 12, 1989
I don’t know about skeletons, but everyone in my family has tons of junk in the closets that I hope will stay there and not crowd out of its own accord before we have a chance to sort through it. Once in a while, someone gets the urge to become organized and digs out all the clutter, sorts it into piles, and puts about half of it back. Of the other half, a little bit gets thrown away, and the rest is stored somewhere else or given to relatives, who put it away reverently in a closet. My grandfather has 18 closets in his house, and every one of them is full of stuff. It’s interesting to go through it and guess who saved what.
Hey, wait! I do have a skeleton in my closet! My mother cleaned out her closet last weekend and wanted to throw away the Visible Woman she got when she was teaching college biology. I couldn’t bear to part with her, even though she’s got a crack in her arm and her guts won’t stay in and her right arm bones fell apart. I put the gory thing in a nice box at the back of my closet shelf. I may never find a use for her, but she’s too important to throw away.
I don’t know whether the Visible Woman is still boxed up in my closet in my parents’ house, or not. Having the physical object is no longer important to me, but the memory of the Visible Woman sustained me through pregnancy: “I’m not fat or deformed; I’m just in my other mode, wearing the other tummy panel and the other intestine that fits around the uterus, just like it’s meant to do. Everything is clicked into place.”
Lent this year is a transitional season for me: I’m between jobs, seeking the next phase in my career. Although theoretically I have some extra time while I’m unemployed, it hardly seems that way–it’s easy to feel constantly busy! (And it’s important not to put all of my time toward avoiding plastic by doing more housework, because then I’ll never have time to get a new job!) But I managed to make myself sort through the pile of stuff on top of my filing cabinet.
I had thought that those papers piled up when I was pregnant with Lydia (who is now approaching 4 years old) because I’d failed to heed my own warning about not starting a To Be Filed pile. It’s true that the pile included the handouts from childbirth class and things like that. But I also found some papers from my term on the vestry in 2010-2012, the very same season in which I wrote about my half-fast Lent decluttering my life! Had I really not learned anything at all?!
Well, clearly I hadn’t learned the secret to not accumulating clutter. But sorting through that stuff put me in touch with past versions of myself, with details I’d forgotten or just hadn’t touched in years. I was inspired to pull out the two folders labeled “Vestry” in my file cabinet and go through everything in them. At the time, it was all so important. Now I can recycle a lot of that paper, keeping just the things I know to be enduringly important reminders of that season.
I also found two German cookbooks, more than a century old, that had been stored by at least 5 members of my extended family before being presented to me as a wrapped Christmas gift “from Mamu” (a great-grandmother who died before I was born, the one who froze that grape juice for me) in 2013 when I was pregnant with Lydia. I can read German well enough to read recipes…but I don’t much care for German food aside from Christmas cookies, and Mamu’s personal favorite recipes were all typed up by my mother and shared with the family years ago. I looked at the cookbooks and the many handwritten recipes that fell out of them. I thought about all the other ways I can touch Mamu’s legacy that are more important to me, and about how these books had come to me after nobody else in the family wanted them. And then I took them to Amazing Books and sold them.
It’s a luxury to have these choices. It reminds me to be grateful for a life on Earth in which I’ve consistently had a home and, as an adult, also had things from my past that are still stored in my parents’ home. Accumulated clutter isn’t all useless! It can put us in touch with our past selves and the people we’ve known.
It’s never too late to start over. We can sort the clutter and choose what to keep, what still “sparks joy” (as a recently popular decluttering guide puts it) and what is no longer useful. In the process, we make space for new things in our lives.
Have you been thinking you need an extra freezer to make space for more healthy food in your life? Maybe you do…or maybe you could use your existing freezer more effectively. This Lent, my son and I cleaned out our freezer and took Before and After photos. We found some things we’d hung onto years longer than we meant to, for no real reason. We made space for new things–like frozen fish that’s on sale during Lent! And I wrote this guide to organizing your freezer and deciding whether or not you really need more freezer space.
I’m not good at this decluttering stuff. But when I make myself do it, I always learn something, shake some dust out of my life, make some progress!
If you’re not ready to declutter your old papers, books, or clothes, start with your food. Unlike the other stuff, food doesn’t last forever in storage. Make wise use of God’s gifts by sorting out your freezer!
…and a few weeks later, you may find that the kid who used to save every scrap from every craft project is now begging to take charge of cleaning out that kitchen cupboard that he just knows could be used more efficiently to make room on the counter for that classy-looking utensil jar he really wants to have!
Visit the Hearth & Soul Link Party for more great home-management tips!