There is much to be said for throwing or giving things away. The culling of my bookshelves for volumes that are other than old friends; the disposal of the paper-bag collection; the ushering out of LPs (remember them?) that have been scratched beyond redemption or replaced with CDs. These are all ways of reasserting control over my home environment, of pushing the tidal wave of "stuff" back out to sea or wherever it is it came from. When I run off to the community thrift shop with a donation of clothing, I feel as if I am saving the world - or at least creating breathing space in my corner of it.
I discovered relatively early in my life that I didn't want to be encumbered by a lot of "things." This became evident to me some years ago, when I traveled to Iceland to visit a farmer I had once labored for during an idyllic summer at the top of the world. I departed Reykjavík, the capital, by bus and a couple of hours later was left off at the appointed meeting place - a deserted gravel crossroads in the middle of nowhere. But my friend wasn't waiting for me. So I put my backpack down in a grassy field, leaned back against it, and took out a book. I was suddenly awash in bliss as I considered: Everything I need is in my backpack. I could recline here reading forever. Then the farmer showed up and broke my reverie.
The important thing to remember about striving for an uncluttered existence is that it is a personal virtue. The challenge is to try not to make it prescriptive for others. However, this generous point of view is put to the test once children enter the picture.
Ten years ago, I took the momentous step of adopting a 7-year-old boy from Russia. Coming from the Spartan environment of an orphanage, where he owned absolutely nothing, not even the clothes on his back, Alyosha had little trouble adapting to his new home in Maine. In fact, compared with what he had before, he was suddenly confronted with a veritable cornucopia of gleanings: everything from toys to books to the astonishing gift of a (used) bike. Still, these items existed only in modest quantities and I flattered myself into thinking that I had on my hands a boy whose material needs were few and would remain so.
Teenagerhood changed all that. Who could have known that Alyosha would develop a taste for clothing, clothing, and more clothing that seemed more like an entitlement than a preference? In time, the bulk of his wardrobe exceeded the available storage space in his room, whereupon any surface in the house became fair game. If I asked him to take his clothes from the sofa, he'd dutifully comply, but such cooperation usually meant simply displacing the pile to another uncolonized surface.
"Why do you need all these clothes?" I once erupted in frustration. Alyosha had a ready reply: "You should see my friends' rooms!"
The thing is, I never saw this coming. Alyosha's cache of clothes arrived insidiously, like fungus: At first you don't notice it, and suddenly it's all over the place. My son had become a pack rat with specialties in shirts, pants, and sneakers. Such behavior is not without its minor dramas.
Recently, in a fit of spring cleaning, I attempted to move Alyosha's Everest of clothing from his room to the laundry and discovered a little mouse living in a tangle of socks. It looked up at me, squeaked, and skittered off to another pile.
The moral here is that I am up against something that is clearly bigger than I, and I have found that the best policy is one of containment and learning to accept some of the things I cannot change (although I did manage to catch the mouse and escort it out of the house).
My experience with Alyosha counseled a different approach with his little brother Anton, now 7. My vigilance and encouragement (as well as quarters deposited in his piggy bank) have produced a child who makes his own bed, folds his clothes and puts them away, and makes good use of the laundry hamper. I recently noticed, however, that some of the toys in his room, for want of space, were hanging onto the shelves for dear life.
In an effort to stay ahead of the wave, I recently told Anton that we were going to go through his shelves and tidy up a bit. Then came the great disillusionment. I took a preschool ABC puzzle from the shelf and asked him, "Should we give this away?" Anton's eyes welled up with tears.
"What's the matter?" I asked him.
"You don't understand," he said, running his small hand over the puzzle. "I remember this from when I was little. I love this puzzle."
Needless to say, I returned the puzzle to its place. In fact, one by one we took things from the shelves, and one by one Anton constructed arguments for their retention - everything from the arm of a Spiderman puppet ("I need this!") to a broken crayon ("It's my favorite color!") to the instructions for a plastic car model that didn't seem to be anywhere on the premises ("But I can find it!").
How do such retentive needs develop? I thought about this long and hard, and then, one day, I spied Anton lingering on the threshold of his brother's room, eyeing the hilly landscape of jeans and T-shirts with something resembling wonder.
Aha. So that's it. How do pack rats develop? The answer, in my home, is clear.