I need to buy new things for the house. I need to buy new curtains, new bed sheets, a large skillet, something (framed art? fabric? decorative mirror?) to cover unsightly patched-on holes on the wall, made when the insulation was replaced a few years ago.
I should’ve bought this hole-covering something when the holes were made and patched. But what happens to me is this: a purchase of any kind brings about full-blown existential drama, with meaning and purpose and identity scrutinized, analyzed, and questioned. Do I really need framed art? If so, what kind? Why this one and not that one? And do I really need new bed sheets? Is it a need or a want? If I just want new bed sheets, why? Shouldn’t I be paring down things in the house instead of adding to them?
Almost always, it is a want instead of a need. We are, after all, using bed sheets – I’m not making my family loll around on naked beds like a pack of wild dogs (which, now that I think about it, suddenly seems appealing). Our sheets, however, have permanent stains, discolorations, and, to my tired eyes, a general look of dullness. They’ve been in regular use for five years, but the sheets are fine and sturdy, with not a single tear or hole or even fraying edge. Still soft and comfortable, they’re insanely good quality sheets – 800-thread-count long-staple Egyptian cotton bought on sale at Macy’s. Even the cheap Martha Stewart sheets I bought from Target, much older at twelve years, are holding up well.
So here’s the dilemma – and it’s a dilemma that I know I’m only able to experience because of my privileges as a member of the middle-class with some disposable income: I don’t like the bed sheets anymore. In Marie Kondo’s celebrated phrase, they don’t “spark joy” and perhaps I should replace them.
But joy, I’m finding out, is a tricky emotion. I have other things similar to the bed sheets – they’re old, shabby, totally un-chic: a pair of sneakers that I’m surprised to realize, when the ground felt harder than usual as I walked, that I’ve been using every single day for six years; a blue down jacket that I’ve been wearing every single day this winter (and the last one, and the winter before the last one); a leather handbag so beaten up that the lining has separated and is now held together with three safety pins, its weathered condition way past the “character” that leather handbags are supposed to acquire and is now merely frayed, grimy, and old.
These things don’t spark joy; most of the time, they don’t even make me feel or look good. I feel, and probably look, disheveled when I use them. Yet they convey meanings and memories to me that seem more important than joy and my bruised vanity: the ongoing project of my life, the places I’ve been to, the young person I used to be, activities with my children when they were younger, this house when we just moved in, the passing of seasons, the worthy attempt to minimize one’s possessions, the Buddhist practice of detachment, a curiosity as to how long exactly (eight years? ten years?) I can keep using these things, a small contribution to preventing the Pacific Ocean garbage patch from growing bigger.
Like most of the privileged middle-class of the world, I have too many things. Full disclosure: I actually have four pairs of sneakers, but two are only used at the gym and one is a pair of canvas ones that I only use in the summer.
Like many, I have anxiety about having too many things and I find myself in a perpetual state of cleaning, purging, organizing. Marie Kondo doesn’t recommend this, proposing instead one marathon phase of discarding old and unloved possessions, after which, ideally, one enjoys the nirvana of a clean, minimalist, and organized house.
But I’m suspicious of such a process and I know it’s not going to work in my house. What seems more doable is dostadning or Swedish death cleaning, the latest decluttering trend. The phrase means what it says: cleaning in preparation for your death. It seems like a morbid version of all the decluttering methods from Martha Stewart to Marie Kondo, but it’s appealing because, in the words of a Swede who was interviewed by The Guardian, “it is very, very rational and unsentimental.” People who have gone through the process – and many people in their thirties and forties have done it: we don’t know when death will come for us, after all – report feelings of freedom and relief.
So I’ve been going through my things and donating or discarding items like unused clothes, old journals, books and art materials. I’m realizing that (despite the four sneakers!) I don’t have a lot of personal possessions.
My house is filled with things, but they’re things that are communal, utilitarian, and used every day by and for the family – pots and pans, tables and chairs, clocks, lamps, towels, and, yes, bed sheets. I have an adequate number of these things, but I’m always tempted to buy more than necessary: there’s always a shiny new thing out there, there’s always a sale, there’s always a want.
And there’s one big category of items that survive every purge of household clutter I’ve done through the years – my kids’ toys. I have a fantasy of creating a sculpture out of them, one of those conceptual art pieces. I will glue them all together – the plastic dinosaurs, the thousands of Lego pieces, rubber balls and plastic balls and magnetic metal balls, pricey battery-operated ones that chime and beep and play music, cheap plastic animals and games, big cars and small cars, board games, rainbow loom bands, plastic dolls and cloth dolls, stuffed animals, and on and on and on.
I will probably never do this sculpture, but the sliver of possibility that I will, when the children have left and I have time on my hands – the nightmarish monstrosity of such a towering heap of plastic, the bittersweet wonder of remembering how small my children were a long time ago – makes me hold on to them.
Our things tell the story of our lives. Our things are that important. On the other hand – please, enough of this – I just want new bed sheets.