The value of things that no longer fit
There are so many uses, reuses, associations, stories and memories attached to things
For some reason best known to him, my husband has been renovating our home for the last few months. Our bedroom and storeroom is being redesigned so that we have adequate and ergonomic storage spaces. He’s the boss of cupboards and I am the boss of what we keep in them.
As a result of this, everything that had once been huddled haphazardly into a small storeroom has been spread out in a sunny room that was once meant to be my office. Temporarily, this room also has all my clothes, shoes and books right now, so I walk into a display of varied remnants of different stages of my life many times a day.
There are photo albums from three decades of my pre-digital life. Pre-dating them is a slim suitcase full of colour transparencies that my father had shot during our early childhood. There is a school bag full of handwritten letters in envelopes. Slam books from my teenage years. Boxes of labelled video tapes with footage from various countries and interviews with celebrities I was once in awe of. There are baby clothes—a few that belonged to our own three children, and some that had been first worn by my brothers and me when we were infants.
A green vest as big as an adult’s palm, knitted by my grandmother. My mother’s third child and my third child, both had been born underweight. Both grew stronger, wrapped in this cosy vest. A tiny blue cap with flowers embroidered on it, also knitted by my grandmother.
Sometimes, I imagine that if we cut a cross-section of our home, we will see layers of civilizations built on top of each other. The home of the newly weds as bottom layer, and the subsequent arrival of children’s gifts, toys, shoes, blankets and other pink and obsolete things. Books, pens, stationery, toys and knick-knacks from various stages of growing up. Gifts we didn’t use and which didn’t seem to fit anyone else.
I am not a hoarder. I am a circulator—someone who is perfectly happy to keep things moving. I have learnt to revel in the idea of giving away things so that they can have a second life and become useful again. Send away things when they are still useful, so our own life can be light and airy.
And yet, it is so hard to take the decision to remove things from the home when one has a young family with children. There are so many uses, reuses, associations, stories and memories attached to things. We may feel the children have outgrown something because they haven’t touched it for six months, and just then they will rediscover and adopt it again for the next two years.
We are always striving to find an optimal way to keep one’s physical home as minimal as possible, and our lived experience as rich as it can be.
Separate emotion from things, we are taught. Stuff cannot fill emotional voids or be a substitute for human connections. As a parent, though, one learns to be patient and tactical about passing on this lesson to children. Removing things they may feel attached to doesn’t heal emotional voids either. Sometimes stuff does a fine job of being a local anaesthetic till one is ready to heal fully.
Like people, spaces also go through phases. Every now and then we find ourselves dragging along unsorted emotional baggage. We need to pause and let go, but we also need to give our feelings time to be recognized and named. In a rush and under pressure, we often end up denying the authentic and validating what may have been manipulative.
Similarly, we may find the physical spaces of our life overflowing with unwieldy clutter that seems to belong to everyone and no one. It overwhelms us and rattles our self-concept.
One of the lessons life has taught me is to make friends with the whole picture. It is a form of self-love to accept our messy, complicated realities. To coexist with it and allow it to be seen. It is truer than the version we create when we hide the mess behind a door that we are then afraid to open again for fear of what we might have to deal with eventually.
The second lesson is to relinquish my position as the person in charge of the aesthetic of the home or the design of everyone’s life. If the scene of our lives looks great, I tend to assume that it is my triumph. If it feels cluttered, I imagine that I will be judged for it. I need to unhook from this feeling. All I am doing is removing my own vanity from the equation.
Growing up is uncomfortable and messy. The process is never pretty. We stumble on things and accidentally step into dirt. Doing it with a love and tenderness that will eventually heal us all includes letting the mess and emptiness be there till a light washes over it all and restores clarity.
By the time the new cupboards become ready in our home, I need to decide what goes back into storage and what must find a new life somewhere else. Will I ring out all the old? Can I articulate why I still want to keep some of it, even though it doesn’t fit any of us any more?
Among the things that need sorting is a small cloth bag with baby shoes in it. Our daughters had learnt to walk in these tiny, brightly-coloured sandals that could well have been a doll’s accessories. Over the years, as the children’s feet sizes have grown, I have given away and handed over dozens of children’s shoes to other families.
But I am going to hold on to these baby shoes for a while longer. Perhaps this feeling will pass, but right now I am capable of imagining them being placed next to me when I am finally buried in my grave one day.
When I am looking for something else and chance upon these, they evoke the same tenderness that I felt when the children had first learnt to walk independently. A separation, as well as a coming closer to oneself. Seeing the shoes again makes me pause, reminding me of moments that symbolized both strength and vulnerability. I feel a renewed reverence for the journey.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar