This post is part of the #Purge365 series about a midlife journey through a year of purging a house – and a life – of unnecessary things. Click here to see all previous posts.
In recent days I’ve struggled with Project #Purge365. Not that I’ve lost any zeal. Or any material to work with. My house holds a seemingly endless supply of drawers ripe for the purging. It’s the moral aspect of it all that gives me pause.
Here I am, almost giddy – ok, actually giddy – every time I haul a trunkful of stuff to Goodwill. It makes me happy to shed stuff, much like I imagine it makes a snake happy to shed that old crusty skin. It’s like my possessions are this huge burden I am schlepping through life, and pecking away at them one by one lightens the load, lending an extra spring to my step so that I can speed up on the path to… where, exactly?
But even though the where is a valid question, it’s not what troubles my mind, at least not yet. What bothers me right now is that it should make me so happy to part ways with things less fortunate souls no doubt would love to own. So many clothes to choose from. Clean sheets and pillows for all those beds. Spices in my cupboard. A lacy garter belt for a wedding. I’ve discarded so many possessions in the last month and a half, but not one of them made me think of the person whose hands might one day hold and cherish it. Yes, I’m careful to donate what I can instead of taking the easier route of just throwing it away, giving myself a moralistic pat on the back each time. But I’m not giving it away because I know other people need it. I’m casting it away because it makes me happy.
Giving someone something that is dear to you, because they need it more, now that would be the thing. Like St. Martin did with his coat. Or, as I recently learned, the father of Stacy Abrams (the almost-Governor of Georgia). And this is where I know my own moral failings. I could never give someone my coat or blanket if I was cold. Well, maybe my kids, but certainly not a stranger. If you’ve read Kilimanjaro Diaries, you’ll know that freezing is my biggest fear in life. And you should also know that my definition of freezing might not be the same as yours. I freeze when my husband turns the thermostat down from 70 to 69, which I will inevitably notice just a few minutes later, and rectify by turning it up again. We have had this silent battle over the definition of freezing – he calls it my very narrow temperature bandwidth – for as long as we’ve been married.
But getting back to the point: Here I am gleefully talking about all the things I’m getting rid of, not running out of material for an entire year, while there are so many people out there who don’t have that luxury. People who can’t spare a single one of their meager possessions because each is essential to their survival. It feels like a slap in the face to the less fortunate, so tone-deaf, to be so invested in this new project of mine. I suppose that’s just what I’ve always done. Blogging about the vagaries of expat life – the “hardship” of standing in line when registering your car (a big black luxury SUV no less) or of not finding your favorite cereal in the supermarket – in a country where there is so much poverty all around you, was probably very tone-deaf too. Could I not have started giving away stuff while living in South Africa? Why am I only doing it now that I have decided, out of the blue, that I no longer want it? Instead of seeing need and giving it away then and there?
Last week I wrote about my books and how I can’t get myself to part with them. But couldn’t I, if given the right cause? I now remember that my friend and fellow blogger Heather recently blogged about “Pick-a-Book boxes” in Johannesburg. They have been put up by a reading enthusiast named Derek Smith who conceived this brilliant idea to get Joburgers to share books with one another. There are people out there who put their surplus possessions to better use than me.
Maybe, while I’m at it, I should engage in some moral housekeeping too. Maybe I should examine my thoughts more closely, my dearly held beliefs about who I am as a person or who I’d like to be. Maybe my worldview, my Weltanschauung, is in need of its very own purging project.
I wonder, though. Does true altruism exist? If it makes you feel good to help others, is it not still selfish? But does it even matter so long as it’s for a good cause?
For now, I put these thoughts aside because another drawer is calling. Thankfully, it’s an easy one. No moral qualms about getting rid of 31 bottle corks. Yes, those toppers you get with each liquor bottle. I’m pretty sure they’re not useful for anyone. When I’ve piled them all up on the counter, it sure looks like we have an alcohol problem. But in reality it’s more like a hoarding problem. What on Earth compels Noisette to collect these corks? Like it’s an accomplishment to finish a whiskey bottle, and the cork must be saved as a token of conquest. And what has compelled me to keep these in a succession of houses as if they are a rare coin collection?
The only two items I really care about in this drawer are the shot glass to measure margarita ingredients, and the wine bottle opener. But if you think this was going to be a quick and easy one by throwing everything else away, you are wrong. You see, it also contains two silver bottle cap openers and a silver corkscrew. Like all the silver in my house, these are severely tarnished. And once I’ve donned gloves and gotten the tarnish remover out and gotten a rag dirty, it makes sense to find more silver to polish, making it instantly into a major project. There are picture frames, there is a tea set, a platter. It’s a never-ending task to keep the silver tarnish-free. I wonder: Why do we attach value to silver? It does the opposite of sparking joy. Because it hardly ever sparks at all when it’s black and dull. Not one of the silver items we own is something I ever bought, or ever really wanted. And yet we have these heirlooms handed down to us over generations, some of it carefully shepherded through a hyperinflation and two world wars, with the sole purpose, it seems, to condemn its future owners to polish it forevermore.
And here I’ve come full circle. Once more I loudly complain about owning something I should be grateful we have.
On the bright side, the polishing is weirdly gratifying. It makes me think of Downton Abbey for some reason. Except there an army of servants was doing the polishing, not the lady of the house. From what my mother has told me of her childhood, I know that they also had a kitchen maid and other domestic help. Perhaps my forebears wouldn’t have hoarded so much silver if they’d had to polish it themselves!
When I’m done, the silver coffee pot gleams so brightly that I can see my own reflection in it.
This does, for now, spark joy.