Along with the exhortations to ‘lose weight’, ‘dry out’, ‘get fit’, ‘save up’, which assail us from every direction at this time of year, come the calls to ‘clear out’. Declutter. Spring clean. To paraphrase William Morris, if it’s not beautiful or useful, dispense with it. If you haven’t worn it for a year, pass it on. The prosaic sound of the spring clean has been given more gravitas recently by conversations in the media about ‘Swedish death cleansing’, which is a sophisticated and literally mortifying name for gradually sorting your house out before you finally leave the task to someone else.
Hopefully, I have quite some time before I leave it to my children to play the ‘chuck it’ or ‘charity it’ game with my carefully curated possessions. However, this week I have been forced to confront the amount of useless and far from beautiful stuff in my house. And the extent to which much of it is weighed down with emotional significance, at least for me. My youngest child is nearly twelve and, quite reasonably, has requested a bed which doesn’t require a ladder to get into and doesn’t house underneath it all of the discarded toys which have been ‘passed on’ to her by her older siblings since she arrived.
Having dismantled the old bed, I attempted to move the wardrobe and book case, which both promptly buckled under the weight of too small clothes and dusty books. So began a process of sorting and deciding, which moved like a very slow avalanche through the house, with piles of soon to be discarded or rehomed items shuffled from room, to hall, to stairway. And with them went my ability to avoid the feelings I seem to have stored in every item related to my children. Some things were relatively easy wins and prompted only mild shame about domestic slovenliness: sticky lolly sticks, broken necklaces, single socks, crayons, loom bands, DS game cases. On to the more complex stuff. In the face of my children’s indifference about every item I wafted in front of them (they now have phones, which is all they want and need), it was left to me to surf the waves of nostalgia and to anticipate future regret about a too hasty decision about everything else. At risk of paralysis (metaphorical and literal, given the volume of stuff which could at any moment topple on me) I found some calm by allowing myself some definite keepers :
• The outfits that each of them wore as soon as they’d been cleaned up after birth
• A collection of ‘first shoes’, whose number suggests that each of my children have at least eight feet
• A box of ‘special’ baby and toddler books, which each of them ‘loved’ (but actually don’t really remember)
• Everything related to Sylvanian families (do I have to explain?)
• Every stuffed toy (as above)
• Every school book and diary with a key they scrawled in (on one page) until the end of primary school. After that, diaries aren’t left lying around and the contents of school books are so predetermined by learning objectives that they could belong to any child.
I avoided another complete cull of everything else by deciding that ‘small world’ toys (anything tiny with a face) could be passed on to the local primary school for their next fundraising fayre, which isn’t until July. For now, these and other escapees (perfectly and entirely untouched decent craft kits and wooden musical instruments) are being held in the limbo of the cellar cupboard, so the loss is deferred. When I braved the tip with the non-recyclables, I held my breath as I launched them into the chasm. A mouldy little plastic rescue boat (red and yellow, whose driver is now languishing in the small world box) caught my eye as it descended and I had a slightly teary walk back to the car. I still wish I’d kept it.
I know what this is (as I’m a counsellor, you’d hope so). Our youngest child is moving towards adolescence and this inanimate tat stands for a stage of my life which is passing. But that benign nostalgia is tinged with something more fearful. The loss of members of my extended family many years too young have left me sensitive to and fearful of the possibility of something that I can’t actually write. It’s as if I’m trying to distil some essence of my children into things; things which, by and large, they could take or leave. I want to join them in this indifference to a curated past, and to live without the fear of loss which keep me attached to and weighed down by so much stuff. To do that I need to feel rather than defer the loss, to grieve for the people I’ve lost, not the things which stand in their place. This is something I know but which oddly and comically I really felt at the sight of that plastic boat sailing beyond my reach. So maybe I’ll keep this decluttering up, until my house resembles a death cleansed Swedish pad. But I’m not ready to let go of the Sylvanian hedgehogs just yet. They’re beautiful and I’m sure, one day, will be very useful.