The lesson of the dining room table

For decades it had been an avalanche of paper waiting to happen.

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My mother has a dining room table that no one has seen for nearly 20 years, though it sits right in the middle of her dining room. 

This is because for 20 years she’s used it as a cross between an archive and a landfill, burying it beneath ever-accumulating and occasionally landsliding heaps of paper – magazines, newsletters, bills, bank statements, coupons, concert stubs, birthday cards, articles, advertisements, copies of itineraries for vacations she took back in the 1990s, and baby pictures of grandchildren who are now paying off college loans. You could take a core sample from any quadrant of that table and have a complete geological record of the past two decades of my mother’s life. 

I can relate. I’ve moved 23 times in 38 years, and though you’d think this would teach me to travel light, each move has instead been a notch up on an ever-increasing gradient of complexity, especially as I transitioned from house-renter to homeowner, single to married. The sheer gross tonnage of my possessions has correspondingly increased. 

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Things simply have a way of piling up wherever they encounter a stationary object, like leaves blown against a fence, and a house is a stationary object, even if it’s a mobile home. Most wandering people travel light, living in tents and on saddles, and their primary possessions – herds – move by themselves.

My brother Ross and I recently flew to New York to pay my mother a visit – at the time I was preparing to move yet again – and I was confronted, once again, with the evidence that my mother is the block off which I am a chip. On our first night there, Ross and I couldn’t help noticing the heaving mounds of rummage where her dining room table used to be.

“Mom, why don’t we go through all that stuff and clear it out?” Ross said. 

“Oh, no no no no no no no...,” my mother said. “No. Uh-uh. Don’t touch it.” 

The next afternoon, when she couldn’t find a bill she may or may not have paid, Ross suggested it might be entombed somewhere in the dining room and that perhaps we should have a look at what’s there. “Besides,” he said, “all those piles are clearly stressing you out. Why suffer anymore?” My mother only let out a long worried groan, cast a cowed glance in the direction of the dining room, and shook her head. “Are you boys hungry?”

But on our last night there, my mother walked up to us with a small stack of unopened mail, which she had wrested from the glacial creep at the western edge of the dining room table, and said, “Help me go through this.” 

“Sure,” I said as nonchalantly as possible. When we’d succeeded in separating wheat from chaff, I said, “Well, that’s one less thing to worry about. Want to knock off another little stack? If it’s too upsetting, we can just stop.” 

My mother led the way, walking into the dining room the way an animal trainer might enter a cage with tigers in it. Ross and I came in behind her and, after a moment’s collective pause, he reached for a stack on one side of the table. 

“No!” my mother said sharply, then softened. “Let’s start at the other end. That’s where the older stuff is.” 

In exactly one hour, we made our way through that entire landscape of litter, my mother continually shaking her head and saying, “Why did I keep all this? What was I thinking?” We tossed 95 percent of it into paper shopping bags, a dozen of them, and when I asked what she wanted us to do with them, she surprised us all by saying, “Put it in the incinerator.” 

When I returned from that mission, I found her leaning reverently over the newly excavated dining room table, whose surface she had literally not seen in two decades. She had a bottle of glass cleaner in one hand and a paper towel in the other, and was massaging the tabletop. 

“I forgot how beautiful this table is,” she said. 

When I returned home, inspired if not sobered by the visit with my mother (and in preparation for moving, again), I waded through my own accumulated piles, garbage bags at the ready. I sold or gave away half my possessions, and moved into a smaller house. And though it was surprisingly untraumatic to downsize – and it certainly made moving cheaper and easier – the act of simplifying was still a kind of chaos for me, the same way slowing down can be boat-rocking for those used to living at fever-pitch. 

But if you’re standing at the edge of a cliff, progress can be defined as taking a step backward.

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