No-one could possibly accuse me of minimalism. For a good part of my life, my idea of beautiful home decoration has been shabby chic combined with heavy doses of Victoriana sprinkled over with the contents of a thrift shop. A very cluttered thrift shop. Of course the fact that I more or less accumulated my possessions from thrift shops and hand-me-downs, and had little money and probably not much talent to spare for home decoration probably contributed to the general effect. The last time I was able to move from one house to another with everything I owned in my car (including an ironing board, one of which I no longer possess) was when I left Wyoming and that was so long ago, the main economic problem the United States had was runaway inflation. I won’t even tell you which president was presiding over that political disaster. Except he was a Republican. Just saying . . . .
Since those (obviously not) halcyon days, my household possessions have accumulated to a point that whenever I now move from one house to the next, I feel rather like a domestic version of Marley’s Ghost, dragging sofas and bedsteads and antiques and tchatchkes and pots and pans and paintings and books and books and books behind me. Or like a snail whose shell is never big enough, requiring a trail of shells stuffed with, well, stuff, behind me. And each time I move, there is more. More stuff, more aggravation, more feelings of dragging the world behind me.
I have moved, child and woman, 21 times, not including going back and forth to college, and each time I had more possessions to wrangle. (A weird tangential connection to this fact occurred to me when I realized that in terms of continuous residence, the place I inhabited longest was an apartment I never really liked in Los Angeles where I lived for eight years. Even when I was growing up in Estes Park, I lived with my folks for six years and then began college residence, jobs, returning home when the jobs disappeared, and whatnot.) When I was little, of course, all the family’s possessions were not my problem, although dealing with them seemed to exhilarate my dad and drive my mother into a frenzy. And wherever we ended up, the decanting of those possessions from the moving truck, the finding of a place for them all to fit (as I recall, we had the largest sofa ever made, although possibly my own size relative to it may be influencing my memory), the hanging of pictures and shelving of books, the filling of the refrigerator, all combined to make what was a strange new box with a roof into our much loved home. I still feel that way, realizing a great satisfaction when some piece of furniture looks just right in a new alcove in a new house.
I feel now that the process we used when I was a child of making a new space into our home by arranging our things in it was reinforced when my father died and the centerpiece of a loving family became not a person but the things he’d left behind. I have spent my adulthood dragging things with me because they represented the people I had lost. It has taken me a long, long time to realize that and to tentatively move toward a sense that the those people are still with me even though things are lost (and some of them have been) or given away (ditto).
Since right now I’m happily ensconced in my pretty house in Estes Park, with no plans or worries about moving, this topic may seem a bit superfluous. And some, even many, of my things I deeply love. I am fortunate to have have some real antique furniture (an inherited Eastlake secretary is one of my great treasures, as is a quarter-sawn oak trestle table with hand-carved dolphin legs found at an auction), some gifts given to me over the years that are priceless (a wedding gift of 200-year-old Limoges china is the standout here), and books old and new that are precious to me. But this year and last, spring or the promise of spring has found me wanting to sort through and discard some pieces out of this huge amount of stuff. This surprised the heck out of me, but I did it. I donated over 20 boxes of books to our local library, at least eight huge trash bags stuffed with clothing, linens and other cloth goods to the hospital thrift shop, and furniture, china, silver, glassware, and objets d’art (actually, most of them were more objets than d’art) to the other charity thrift shop in town. The work was spread over weeks, but it was still quite a process, in which a professional de-clutterer and I dug through cupboards and sorted through books. After it was done, I no longer had any bookshelves with books double-shelved, my bedroom closet had nothing on the floor except a laundry basket, I could close all the drawers in my house without stuffing the contents back down to get the drawer to fit properly, and I knew where every single one of my possessions was.
But that doesn’t seem to be enough for me. Yesterday, the same de-clutterer helped me to weed all the pretty things (some of them not so pretty, when I really looked at them) that festooned every flat surface in my home. Some, not really a lot, went to the thrift shop, but others are packed away until I can sever the (sometimes deep) emotional connection I have with them. Or, alternatively, discover that I miss them too much and want them back. But to give an example, the double pie-crust table in my living room used to hold at least 20 objects, to a point where there was no place to set down a cup of coffee or even see the surface of the wood. Now, it has a small stack of pretty books, a candy dish, and a coaster. I’m not used to it yet and it looks quite bare to me, but serene. I did the same thing with the library table, which now shows off my treasured lily lamp, a bronze sculpture of the clasped hands of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and two Lladro figurines, souvenirs of a long-ago Caribbean cruise. I can see each one of them. And so can you, as I’ve just discovered how to take pictures on my iPhone (I’m a Luddite about these things) and have uploaded a picture of the piecrust table and the library table for you. See below.
We filled two big boxes with stuff (and not so incidentally found several Christmas ornaments I’d completely stopped seeing and put them away for next year).
Do I love it yet? I’m not sure. Bare counters and tabletops and shelves are not really my style, never have been. No, I’m not a minimalist. But the house feels more light and airy, there seem to be places to put things, and I can really see the pretty things I’ve got out. Of course, with fewer things hiding the surfaces or fooling the eye, my old chairs and sofa look a lot more shabby chic than I actually intended, but after all there’s always a snake in paradise.