The lessons of a cluttered life

By Ellen Painter Dollar

In my 20s, I attended a church that embraced material simplicity and detachment from stuff long before it became trendy. We engaged regularly in soul-searching conversations about our attachment to possessions. One friend’s long-ago purchase of a $900 wing chair continued to haunt him as a symbol of material excess. He talked about that chair so often that it’s the only vivid detail I can recall of him. Another friend worried that his arrival at a school reunion driving a used Camry would shock his former roommates, who might recall how he had spoken out against the purchase of even mundane items like house paint in a call for solidarity with the poor. Now here he was, driving a car that practically defines suburban material comfort. And Christmas…oy, such an occasion of angst Christmas was, with all those excessive, unnecessary gifts in the name of a baby born into poverty.

Now that I am a mother of three who drives a Honda Odyssey minivan (the supersized symbol of suburban material comfort), the Christian simplicity ethic has gotten mixed up in my mind with the clutter-free living extolled in the pages of shelter magazines and on home-improvement shows, in which everything, from mail and sports equipment to craft supplies and kitchen staples, is sorted into color-coordinated storage systems, and anything that goes unused for a few months is thrown away, recycled, or repurposed. I am also naturally inclined to dislike clutter; I possess a writerly desire for a “clean well-lighted room” in which to work.

The simplicity ethic on top of cultural values extolling clutter-free living and my own predisposition has led to my quasi-spiritual certainty that God just doesn’t like stuff. When I spend the morning cleaning, toting several paper bags around with me in which to sort objects I come across (things to throw away, things to put back into their designated storage container, and things to recycle or give away), I sometimes have the sense that this work of de-cluttering is almost holy work. Jesus warned us against money and possessions, so God obviously hates the plastic junk taking over my kids’ rooms, gratuitous gifts of scented candles, stacks of old magazines, and knick-knacks gathering dust just as much as I do, right? How nice when my religious values and the values espoused by HGTV, Better Homes and Gardens and Oprah all line up so nicely!

My mother-in-law Ruby will be 87 years old in a few weeks. Her home—the home she lived in for most of her adult life and raised five children in—has been a source of much eye-rolling and heavy sighing on my part over the years. She kept everything, and my husband and I have teased her for it—gently in person, sometimes more harshly in private. Her telephone sits on a 40-year-old television that no longer works, but that she kept because it was housed in a heavy wooden cabinet and therefore qualified as a good piece of furniture. Pick up a magazine in one of the guest bedrooms or the den, and it’s likely to be decades old. On one recent visit, my bedtime reading was a 1970s People magazine with the Bee Gees on the cover. Whenever we visit, my husband randomly opens dresser drawers to find clothes that have sat unworn for years—his brother Jimmy’s shirts, still pressed and in their paper wrappers from the cleaners, his own shirts from Boy Scout events from his teens, his brother David’s athletic socks. Every surface in Ruby’s house, both horizontal (tables, bookshelves) and vertical (mirrors), is covered—with mementoes, photos, candlesticks, prayer cards, signed letters from past presidents. On the refrigerator are postcards and notes from her grandchildren, some of them written more than a decade ago.

Whenever we visit Ruby’s house, my hands practically itch with the desire to start cleaning up and cleaning out. I get annoyed that there’s no place to set down a glass of water because every surface is covered. I get annoyed when my kids go down into the basement to unearth old toys—a plastic Starship Enterprise, a stuffed panda that leaks plastic pellets (probably toxic, I’m thinking) from its split seams—and come back up with their hands and feet black with dirt, carrying treasures they insist on hauling back home. I get annoyed that we can barely move around in the guest bedroom, much less unpack some clothes into the closet or the drawers, because every square inch is occupied by stuff Ruby doesn’t need, doesn’t use, and should have trashed years ago.

My mother-in-law is a Christian woman. Does she not understand that God doesn’t like stuff?

Ruby is in a nursing home now, her body weakened by diabetes, kidney failure, and heart failure, and her mind sometimes overtaken by confusion. Her house stands empty of human life but full still of the evidence of her life, and the lives of those she nurtured. Some day soon my husband, his brother, and his sister will rent a dumpster and start cleaning it out, divvying up the furniture, storing away a few treasures that are particularly evocative, and dumping the rest. Ruby’s house will finally be clutter-free, but it will also be lifeless, empty in a way that is not merely physical.

I am realizing now that I failed to see something important about all of Ruby’s clutter. Yes, she held onto too much stuff for too long. But Ruby buried her husband and two of her children; her surviving children are busy with their jobs, their own kids and grandkids. Sometimes stuff is not just stuff. Sometimes stuff really is the stuff of life—the physical objects that bind us to each other, to our past, to the times and people we have lost and still mourn. Jimmy’s cleaned and pressed shirts and David’s socks take up space in the dresser drawers because Jimmy and David never returned to claim them before they died. How is a mother supposed to move on from that harsh fact? So she didn’t move on; she left her boys’ things just as they were. The Phillips 66 jackets and polyester shirts succumbing to mildew in the closets are reminders of the service station business that paid for this little brick house on Scott Street, the plastic toys strewn about the living room on long-gone Christmas mornings, the college educations that carried Ruby’s children away from her, and the laughing, flawed man who wore those jackets and shirts to work day after day for his family, before dying of colon cancer much too soon.

All of our stuff can distract and overwhelm us, but it can also provide context. Our clutter can remind us that matter matters, that the bodies we inhabit and tend, the food we make and eat, the clothes and toys and mementoes made or given or used with love can bind us to each other, and to those who came before and come after. Our clutter and all that it evokes in us can even, perhaps, help us guard against that old heresy of Gnosticism, which insists on the separation of the spiritual and the material, and the elevation of the former over the latter. Matter matters.

As I write this, I can look up and see photos of my children as babies, but nothing brings back their infancies more vividly than coming across a tiny newborn-sized diaper in the back of my son’s sock drawer, its smell and texture bringing me back to days marked by an endless cycle of feeding and changing, and the unmatched pleasure of falling asleep with a sated infant curled on my chest. As I gather books for the church rummage sale, I stop to read our tattered copy of “Goodnight Moon.” That book, and a few others, I can’t bear to give away. They provide too strong a connection to those earliest bedtime routines, when my babies couldn’t understand a word of the stories I read but understood my voice, and the cradling arms and full breasts that accompanied it, as indispensable.

Jesus warned us not to care too much about our possessions. Jesus wanted us to share. Our modern obsession with what we want, buy, and have poses a danger to our spiritual life, but so can our modern obsession with de-cluttered showplaces, as we sever connections to things in the name of cleanliness, efficiency, and order. As a mother, I will continue to push back against our modern tendency to ply our children with stuff—goody bags and obscene piles of gifts and material rewards for every desired behavior. As a Christian, I will continue to confess that my desire for a comfortable home, nice clothes, and convenient take-out meals limits the money we have left over to share with those who have so little.

But I will no longer see de-cluttering as a spiritual act. I will no longer be quite so certain that God doesn’t like stuff. And when it comes time for my husband and his siblings to go through their mother’s house, I won’t sigh and roll my eyes at the dusty, unwieldy, useless objects my husband plucks out of the clutter and carries home.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

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6 Comments
  1. Tina K.

    Ellen–

    I enjoy the depth and complexity of your writing. Thank you for making me think.

    [Editor’s note: thanks for the comment Tina. We need your full name next time.]

  2. I have such an attachment to things like my grandmother’s cooking fork, my sweatshirt from summers as a camp counselor, things that symbolize times and people and places of meaning. At the same time I love the clean uncluttered life of our house that is set up for sale. Thanks for exploring this with us.

  3. Beautiful. Incarnational. Sacramental.

    Marshall Scott

  4. Ellen,

    Some wonderful thoughts here – so wonderful!

    I often think about our own clutter – and my own “packrat-ness” and I think of the ways that my own grandparents would keep everything- but that this was part of their own sense of poverty – that there might be some use for any object, and that they didn’t want to have to spend on new “stuff.”

    I both want to get rid of clutter, and also feel some kind of an urge to keep things, just in case…a good example is that I have 3 dying laptops – 2 of which are more than 5 years old and 2 of which are hand-me-downs from family, and I just really want to get something new – but don’t want to spend the $…

    Thank you, once again, for getting me thinking, and praying, that I might walk the way of Jesus with less clutter!

    Peter Carey+

    http://santospopsicles.blogspot.com

  5. Kathy Staudt

    Ellen – thanks for this – I too have meditated a lot on clutter – when to clear it — sometimes a spiritual activity — and when to let it “talk back”to me about my life. You have captured this beautifully in this writing. Thank you!

  6. This was very meaningful to me, especially as my family has recently had to clean out the house my folks built and lived in since 1944. I too share the same attachment to things that actually were touched/used/given by someone very dear and now gone on to Heaven or by my babies, now grown up mothers themselves.

    I would rather have a hand sewn gift or a poem than another trinket item; why do we give in to the commercialism that says every child at a birthday party has to also go home with loot? Isn’t the party itself enough of a gift? Why are Christians so blind to their manipulated state?

    In Europe, most cities don’t even have a thrift shop or charity shop to recycle unused clothing or household items: they just go in the bin. I’m thankful every time I can find someone who needs what I no longer do. It’s a lifetime dilemma, isn’t it, how much importance to attach to things vs. living life in artificial poverty, without useful tools or comforts, such as any poor African would laugh at. How does that help them? And don’t the magazines who purport to uphold higher values in a clutter free existence really just hiding away in massive storage areas the “stuff” that they still sell us?

    It’s a challenge!

    Thank you so much, Ellen, for your insights and walking us through some of your conclusions.

    –Sue

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