Downsizing – Wants versus Needs

I have been meaning to write this for a long time. What made me decide to write this now is my encounter with the blue glass dolphin.

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We are staying near Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Florida and it has a gift shop. The gift shop is packed full of lovely gifts items including many really nice blown glass ornaments. I have been so tempted to buy one but I haven’t done so.

I am a lover of lovely junk and of complete sets of things. It began in my childhood. As a young girl I never had dolls with clothing or accessories. Naked dolls with tangled hair collected in the bottom of the toy box never touched because, frankly, they frightened me with their nakedness and broken state. I was frequently accused of not taking care of my things. In fact my mother was a frantic and compulsive cleaner. Many times as a small child I saw the dollies’ shoes, socks, dresses or baby bottles, along with game pieces and parts of toys sucked up the vacuum cleaner or tossed in the garbage during a cleaning binge. I would silently mourn their loss but I knew better than to interfere or complain. Sometimes, if I acted discretely and quickly, precious items could be moved to a safe place or rescued from the garbage before the garbage man arrived but mostly they would just be gone. The vacuum cleaner was a monster that regularly blew through my childhood possessions like a tornado.

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My eldest with “peoples”. I spent hours finding lost “peoples” to ensure he always had a full set.

I developed an obsession with things. When my children were young I was obsessive about organizing their toys in boxes and making sure all the pieces were there. I was so determined to protect them from the sight of a precious item vanishing up the vacuum hose. I ordered extra dollies’ shoes. I gave presents of little Lego men to replace the ones that vanished. I spent hours searching for misplaced Fischer Price “peoples” in sofas and vents and I would write to toy companies for specific replacement parts from the toy kitchens and other play sets they had. Nothing pleased me more than being at a garage sale and finding spare parts for their toys. I also kept two old steamer trunks full of clothing my children had outgrown in order to preserve the precious memories. I kept mementos of everything. I also marked birthdays and special events with the purchase of more kitsch as mementos. I collected music boxes, matryoshka dolls, silver charms for a charm bracelet and Red Rose Tea ornaments.

In spite of this I was very proud of how I avoided clutter. Each spring and fall I would clean everything and anything not part of my collections and not used recently went into a box in the basement. If I didn’t go back down and fetch it from the box by the next year it went into a charity bin or a garage sale or the garbage. I had kitsch but only in its place. I had no problem. (Really I didn’t!)

One other thing that severely limited my collecting urge was that we were always struggling financially. Somedays coming up with $10 for another matryoshka doll meant my kids wouldn’t have milk and so I had several collections of 6 or 8 items and then I just gave up because money was tight and by the time I felt we could afford for me to add again, I was ready to move on to collecting something else. I finally reached a point where I had earned my PhD and we were a two income household and for a full year of my first regular salaried job I just bought anything I saw that I liked and wanted. Fortunately, I was too busy to shop much. The hospital gift shop became my joy and my bane because I couldn’t pass it without walking in and walking out with some ornament. One day I carried out a cute, squat ceramic bird for the garden. About a week later I looked it over and I thought how it was not the least bit realistic, I am not a bird lover, so why did I buy it? The endless daily kitsch fix stopped.

My house was perpetually cluttered and dirty because between work and my poor health I couldn’t keep up. Stir up the dust with cleaning and my asthma would flare and make me ill. The kindest thing I ever did for myself was bring in maid service. I tried Molly Maid first but the snooty person who arrived for an estimate told me she wouldn’t let “her girls” work for me because my place was too low class, too filthy and in a bad part of town. I cried bitterly when that horrible woman left my home. I found someone else and after they brought in a crew of four women for a couple of four hour sessions, the place was finally under control. They came again every other week and kept it that way. For the first time since leaving my mother’s immaculate home, I had cleanliness and order on a regular basis. I decided I liked cleanliness and order. There really is nothing like coming home after yet another work day that stretched into the late evening on slave-like postdoc time to find the house clean. Maid service was worth every penny. Now in my downsized trailer I can do a thorough cleaning of every surface and thing in an afternoon. My spring cleaning takes less than a day. I don’t need a maid and since my asthma is so improved, I don’t get sick.

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A stop on our trip to Texas.

We decided to begin a nomadic life living in a travel trailer after driving to Texas for my brother-in-law’s wedding. We had such a lovely time camping to save money and enjoying the peace and quiet of nature. Lack of internet and telephone was a blessing, not a curse. My health had been shot the winter before with multiple trips to the hospital suffocating with my asthma, extreme stress in my workplace and constant demands of family I loved but was always helping to my own detriment. I was wreck. I came back from the vacation refreshed but far from recovered. We bought a travel trailer and pick up truck and left the house in the care of my university student daughter and spent the winter in Arizona. It was the first winter of my adult life where I did not end up in hospital with my asthma even once. I had weeks of time when I didn’t even need my puffers. Good health, like lack of pain is something you never appreciate until you don’t have it. When good health returns, you’ll do almost anything to keep it.

In the midst of this my youngest son married and he and his wife were soon expecting and they needed a house. We sold it to them for a fair but generous price that allowed us to walk away with no debt and them to make a good start. However, before we could walk away we had to liquidate our “stuff” from what was now their home.

We did it in stages. The first stage was to downsize so everything we owned could fit in one bedroom/storage room in the basement. Two years later they sold the house and everything had to go. My son and his wife made it much easier because they kept a lot of the furniture and dishes. We gave away a lot of things to our other kids. Each kid picked about one thing they really wanted. My kids didn’t want most of the things I had saved, like the big double trunks of their old clothes or the matryoshka doll collection.They had friends who were just setting up their own apartments and the shabbier stuff vanished to furnish student quarters. I had garage sales and a lot of stuff was carried off by happy shoppers. I drove truck loads full of stuff to the Salvation Army. One thing I noticed as I did was how the old battered furniture was, well old and battered. Somehow you don’t see the accumulate nicks and scratches and the old stuff remains in your mind like it is still new when you paid several hundreds dollars for it. Reality can bite.

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Some things did find good homes. This big brass bowl was from an old candy making factory and over he years it serves as merry-go-round, laundry bin, catchall, and snuggle bed. My husband’s eldest son took it. In the background you can also see where a basement flood meant we had to cut off drywall which we had not yet replaced. The flood meant hundreds of dollars and hours of work for a space the basically was used for storage and little else. We no longer need all that storage space.

I was dismayed to learn that most of the possessions we own are worth almost nothing after we acquire them. The only collectible “set” I got my money back on was a bunch of tall garden ornaments featuring Sesame Street characters. I had bought them one by one while our local Superstore had them for $9.99. I eventually sold all eight for $80 to a professional antique and curio dealer. He said people love sets like that and he would have no trouble reselling it at a profit. In other words he would profit from someone like me. All the other collectible “stuff” I was lucky to dispose of for even one tenth of what I paid. The $200 Inuit sculpture of a duck we got as a gift? I got a mere $25 in a shop that sold such things. My husband had a set of 43 bookcases full of books including many he paid well over $100 for. He got $3.00 a book from a collector and we were grateful to get that because the man hauled the old smelly dusty things away. My asthma improved markedly when they were gone. That stupid ceramic bird that ended my kitsch collecting wound up in the garbage. Not even the Salvation Army wanted it. What a waste of money!

I discovered that one woman’s treasure was another woman’s junk. One thing that really bothered me was that my daughter had no interest in taking the treasure of her preschool years, a “Princess” dress that she got as flower girl for my brother’s wedding. My daughter loved that dress when she was three and she wore it at every possible event she could as a little girl. She eventually outgrew it and it went into the chest. When I tried to give it back to her at age 27 she laughed at me. My daughter-in-law had a niece just the right age for that Princess dress and I got a picture of yet another happy little Princess instead of having my daughter pack it away somewhere. My daughter was right. If there is a choice between bringing joy to another child or letting a memento sit in a chest, it should bring joy.

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The little girl who became the second owner of the Princess Dress.

The photographs were a problem. I had two entire bookshelves full of carefully arranged photographs in albums. What to do with those? None of the kids wanted them and we had no room for them. So I scanned them all instead and then had a bonfire when I was done. Each picture became a bits and bytes and I had all the precious photographs in multiple places, backed up to “the cloud” and safe. I had always fretted about a fire or some disaster taking my precious photographs away. Now they were safe. I even had fun with them making myself combination photos like this collage of my daughter’s school pictures.

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A collage of scanned photographs showing my daughter’s school years.

We began our trailer life with a whole lot less “stuff” than we had before. Because of the weight limit in the trailer if we brought something in, we had to throw something else out. I began combining kitsch with practicality. Instead of glass ornaments I began collecting fridge magnets, pot holders and tea towels from the places we visited because they did double duty as something useful. When the tea towel wore out I was able to discard it with hardly any regret. When we had to run to a tornado shelter during an outbreak in Kentucky, I had my pets and my computer in the shelter (which doubled as a shower between outbreaks). I wasn’t particularly worried about losing all my stuff. The trailer and contents were insured and the important things, like my pictures, were safe no matter what and the only irreplaceable stuff, husband and pets, were with me in the shelter.

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We sit out a tornado warning. I had always been afraid of losing my precious photographs to such an event. Now they are safely stored digitally in multiple locations including “the cloud”.

My love of kitsch has not ended. It has just found a safe outlet where there is no weight limit to worry about. I spend time in the virtual world of Second Life where I can do, or be, or play at anything I choose to. I collect all kinds of kitsch in Second Life as well as unleash the artist in me, the builder and I always have a Jewish community to join in for Holidays no matter how far away the nearest synagogue is physically.

When we purchased our summer home in Alonsa I wasted some time fretting about the table I gave away that would have been perfect for this spot. If only I hadn’t sold it! Then I realized I could buy a new table that precisely fit and didn’t have a drop wing that didn’t work right. I knew that was much more enjoyable.

I only rarely have a little twinge, like when I saw that blue blown glass dolphin that I decided not to buy. It is better to have less and enjoy it more. It is better to share joy than to hoard it. And its certainly better to have time to be play Victorian skunk in a secret garden than to have to make time to dust ornaments you haven’t looked at since the last time you dusted them. And so decluttering and downsizing and reducing my earthly possessions has been almost entirely a freeing experience.

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Me in my tiny Avatar as a little skunk in a Victorian dress riding my pet pony in my garden and watching my favourite virtual hummingbird.

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