No matter how much I cull my packing when I go on holiday, I always bring too much. I’m getting better, but I am slow to learn that three weeks away does not mean three times the clothes; really it doesn’t (emphasis for my own sake). And, since I’ve been abroad, not once have I thought, “I wish I had brought that top, or those trousers, or that throw.” Instead, I will leave with a small pile of untouched clean clothes having lived off a few basics.
Living off the basics has reminded me (how quickly one adjusts) that most of my life possessions have been packed up in boxes and stored away – somewhere – for the last two years. I am surprised by how little I think about these boxes and their contents. Just the other day, S. was thinking aloud and wondering where the family copy of ‘The Indian in the Cupboard’ was; keen to find it so she could read it to her new granddaughter when she’s old enough. It will be boxed away somewhere – she told herself, hopefully. This, of course, made me think of my boxes, and the very many of them that are filled with books. Sometimes I miss a particular poetry book, but, for the most part, I can’t remember what books the boxes hold. I rack my brains to try and think what else I’ve tangibly missed over the last 2+ years. I’m certain that when everything was being packed away I felt that I had passionate, emotional and durable attachments to many items; that I would struggle to live without these things. Yet, for the life of me, I can no longer remember to what. Besides the odd poetry book, there is little else springing to mind. I wouldn’t mind retrieving some decent wine glasses so I can ditch the ones with the pink smoked stem that came with the flat I moved into. And, now I’m mentally rummaging and unpacking, there are some nice bubble wrapped vases that I wouldn’t mind having so that I don’t have to put the flowers in those horrible moulded glassware jugs from the 1980s. Even if I was brave enough to venture into the container where it’s all stored, I wouldn’t know where to start. Maybe they would be in the box marked ‘living room’. Maybe in the one marked ‘glassware’. Maybe in one just marked ‘even more stuff’! For that is all it is, stuff; stuff that we build layers of meaning around and then form deep attachments to so that we feel pain when we lose it.
Here is one of those questions you often see on the back page of magazines where they have quick-fire celebrity interviews: Apart from people and pets, what would you run back into your house to retrieve if it were burning down? Photographs – that seems to be what most people say. The answer tends not to speak of expensive objects of beauty – art or jewellery – but of tokens that cannot be replaced, small things that trigger memories. The issue of de-cluttering was discussed in my book group recently and one solution offered to managing the pain of de-cluttering old stuff was to take photographs of it. For example, you would take a photograph of your unbroken collection of Beano annuals from 1956 – 1988; you’re never going to read them, but you can look at the photo and know you once owned them. And now you have £15.67 (after postage) from having sold them to a collector on eBay. I’m not so sure… I think best to go cold turkey and just get rid.
There are many horrifying stories of people who have lost all of their material possessions – their house really has burned down – and, after the initial dismay and trauma, some declare the forced detachment from life’s material trappings as a liberating experience. Those who are left in only the clothes in which they stand up say they have lost nothing because they still have their life. I never want to have to learn that lesson, and please God I won’t. I’d rather adhere to Rumi’s wisdom and find how to live so that, ‘life is a balance between holding on and letting go.’ May I learn to live with what I need and relinquish the add-ons. In the meantime, the boxes may stay where they are for another year or two and next year I will pack a little less, I promise.