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Subconcious Levels

Every so often, we gut our storage room, letting go of more of our past.  Back in college, a girl in my department lost everything she owned in an apartment fire.  I think about her whenever there is a need to go into the basement storage room because when she returned to class, telling us about the fire — which was a famous fire that engulfed the bar below the apartment so it had been in the newspaper daily while she was away, almost as if the articles were a placeholder for the lives displaced by the flames — she put everything into perspective for us.

Everyone in the department was a writer, therefore, we were absolutely sickened over the idea that her words had gone up in smoke.  But she said that there were plenty of copies of her stories in her departmental file or at friend’s apartments.  Most of her clothes were there to keep her warm; they didn’t really have sentimental value.  Her books, knickknacks she picked up from her travels, pictures — she realized from this fire that she could live without all of it, and the only thing she missed at all was something she received from the Dalai Lama which was irreplaceable.  And she mourned that item from the Dalai Lama, but could let the rest of it go.

I didn’t think I could ever have her overall attitude towards possessions — and I don’t — but every few years, I get to a place where I am absolutely at peace with the idea of getting rid of things.  And then it becomes a huge weight on me until it happens: from the time I get the idea that we need to clean until the time that everything is donated or given away or at the dump.

I came to pick up that weight recently when I had cause to go down into the storage room to find an old toy.  First of all, the storage room is unusable once again.  There are too many boxes and there’s nowhere to shift them around.  I managed to move a few into the laundry room and sift through some boxes, but I realized two things.  (1) I had saved much more than I needed to save.  There were a lot of things in those boxes that I would never use again such as random stuffed animals or puzzles that annoyed the crap out of me the first time around.  (2) Having my hands in those boxes was so emotionally painful that I felt like I was underwater the entire time I was down there.  I couldn’t breathe normally.

I hadn’t opened most of those boxes in many years.  I had carefully packed away all of the twins’ favourite toys from babyhood.  There was the plastic puppy who barked when you pulled him around on a string and sorting toys and two Noah’s Ark sets because people love to give those to twins.  I had packed them up so carefully both to save space and fit more in the box, but also because I thought we’d need them again soon.  I found myself throwing everything around in the boxes, and since I hadn’t removed the batteries from one toy, I heard a dog barking over and over again every time the depressed button shifted.  I literally was sifting around the toys as I stir cooking pasta, and the puzzle pieces were leaving their wooden cases and the trucks were getting scattered as I tossed them around.  I didn’t care.  I just jammed the tops back down on the boxes and went back upstairs even though I could still hear the dog toy barking every few seconds in his box.

Psychoanalysts believe the mind is like a house, with the basement being the subconscious; memories and thoughts we can access by walking down the stairs, which lay beneath our daily living space, but isn’t part of our hourly world.  And in many ways, I have treated our physical basement as a receptacle for everything from our past as well as things I’d like to tuck away and just not deal with for a moment.  If you ask me where the old toys are, I can tell you exactly where in the house they are stored.  But I don’t think about them on a daily basis.  I don’t go down there most of the time.

A therapist would have a field day discussing my toy search.

As you read this, we are gutting the basement.  I am selling a few things.  I have boxes that are going out to various people, and others that I am repacking neatly and writing the contents on the outside, intended either for my own future child or a sibling’s future child.  I won’t have to open them again if I don’t want to.  I’ll be able to send someone else downstairs to fetch something if we ever need to pull anything out.

I would like someone else to play with these things again.

I am trying to conjure up that attitude that the girl in my department had and stop feeling so sentimental about every small item.  They are just things.  I can let most of them go.  We don’t need to keep every book, every stuffed animal, every game.  If another child comes along, we don’t need to put out 100 toys.  We can put out 25, and they will still be happy.

I know in the past that I’ve treated cleaning like this as doing double duty of gutting my mental basement; of discarding the emotions that are boxed up down there.  I know that when we lived in our old apartment and I dumped all my research down the garbage chute, I thought I was also doing the hard work of closing up that unfinished degree.  I know that when we gutted the basement the last time in 2010, using the money for our first trip to Disney, I thought that I had made peace with those leftover baby items.

It doesn’t really work that way.  One thing doesn’t really solve the other.

I told the twins how we were going to spend the weekend.  That we’d be cleaning from the bottom up instead of our usual top down.  That we’d be boxing up things and giving things away and taking things to the dump, and I expected them to be helpful and generous and not make this any harder than it needs to be.  The ChickieNob immediately went into frantic mode thinking about her toys going to other people — she’s the sort who likes to save every tiny goody bag toy — but I promised that the things that mattered most, the things she’d mourn if she ever lost them, would remain in our basement.  She’d see them again when we had a new baby to play with them.

And she looked so hopeful, following after me to ask if I was going back to the doctor.  That she would be such a good big sister and help me.  She would play with the baby so I could get things done.  I would see this weekend how helpful she could be.  And there’s no way to explain to her that there is no level in which a person can be good enough, helpful enough, loving enough to ensure that they get the sibling they desire.  I told her that she should just be herself; that I knew already what a helpful person she was, and then I skittered on to talking about deflating her ball pit, making a work area in the living room, creating more spaces in the house that were for the twins to do with as they will.

You wonder, as someone who has her own filled basement, what sort of boxes your children are storing in theirs.  I can’t keep their mental basements neat any more than my mother can clean mine; but I do wonder what from this longing is going into boxes in her mental storage room.  What she’ll decide to toss when she goes through cleaning.  What will go up in the flames of forgetfulness as she ages, that she doesn’t miss at all.  That she has learned to let go of because it’s they’re just things, just thoughts.


1 gwinne { 01.15.12 at 10:02 am }

I can’t tell you how much I appreciated this post. In the seven years between my daughter’s birth and the conception of her sibling, I went through periods of gutting and periods of optimistic saving. It’s been wonderful, now, seeing this tiny baby in a few of the things his sister wore so long ago, but I don’t regret purging the rest of it. The part about ChickieNob asking about her potential future sibling…wow…how many times we had similar conversations here, though my daughter didn’t know I was undergoing treatment. And when her brother finally showed up? She was over the moon. (I’ve got a recent blog post that quotes a writing assignment in which she discusses his arrival) I think one of the worst things about secondary infertility is navigating older kids’ desires for a sibling. As if it weren’t difficult enough to want that for yourself…

2 Tigger { 01.15.12 at 11:06 am }

My mom used to clean by putting everything into boxes, and putting the boxes into the closet. She then couldn’t find anything, which would frustrate the hell out of my dad. He says he’s STILL finding boxes of stuff 3 years later! As such, I try to be mindful when I clean. When sorting through Cole’s stuff, though, it’s harder. When he outgrows something, I have to decide which box to put it in – the keep or the donate. I err on the side of caution, put things in the keep, and then when I’m ready to donate I go through the keep box again! He hasn’t grown out of any toys really, so I’m not sure what I’m going to do there. The advantage is that we don’t HAVE a basement or an attic, so I can only store things in the garage (which is full of stuff for a yard sale for my DAD!) or in one room of the house. It cuts down on saving things!

3 Daryl { 01.15.12 at 11:34 am }

We have very little storage in our little house, so it always feels crammed full of stuff. But I struggle with purging, not just from a sense of sentimentality but because I always think, I haven’t used/worn/thought about this particular item in months/years, but I might want to someday. I find myself living for someday (like, someday we’ll have kids, someday we’ll have a bigger house, someday I’m going to re-read all the stacks of books taking up valuable real estate all over the house). I know it’s not the ideal way to live, but at the same time, it gives me hope to think that some of these “somedays” will actually happen. So how can I get rid of something that might be useful to me then? One of these days, my house will be so choked with junk that I’ll have no choice!

4 Her Royal Fabulousness { 01.15.12 at 11:53 am }

My mother is a near-hoarder. She saves things that have zero value (hello piles of magazines from 1987) and it drives me NUTS. She is also a compulsive shopper at times, so there are piles of new things around too. Ironically though, she did not save many things from my childhood and always wants me to get rid of any boxes I have left over from high school and college.
I think because of being surrounded by junk, I go the opposite direction and purge, purge, purge. We have very little in boxes (granted, we live in an apartment and have no children yet) and I go in spurts of getting rid of old clothes, knick knacks, and such. Sometimes I throw out things we do in fact need by mistake. I would rather error in that direction than the other.
That being said, when I have children (like how I said when and not if?) I will save the most important things for posterity and probably pass on or donate the rest. I can’t believe my mom has nothing but pictures of me from when I was little. Makes me sad actually.

5 a { 01.15.12 at 12:10 pm }

I have probably half of a decent-size apartment’s worth of storage in my basement, and I’m using less than a tenth of it (and that’s including my husband’s stuff). I hate clutter and my husband hates having stuff. When I go through the stuff on the main floor, I want to take it all downstairs and store it. But I know that my daughter won’t care about this stuff when she’s older, so I try to limit it.

One thing I did manage to think of was, when I was strongly encouraging her to get rid of some of her stuff (including every piece of artwork/coloring page/craft she’s ever done), to have her take pictures of the stuff she was getting rid of, so she would always have the picture and the memory even if she no longer had the item. She loved that idea. The benefits of digital cameras…

6 loribeth { 01.15.12 at 1:47 pm }

When I was growing up, we moved every 3-6 years. I lived in 11 different houses in 7 different towns before I left home. My surroundings changed, so I tended to cling to my stuff (although we would try to purge a bit before each move). Dh, on the other hand, lived in the same house for almost his entire life. His mother kept NOTHING, not even his high sc hool yearbooks. As you can imagine, we’ve had a few battles over my packrat tendencies.

The thing is, though, once you stay in one place and stuff starts to accumulate, you eventually realize that it’s impossible to keep everything. This was brought home to me, first when my grandparents died & we had to clear out their stuff, & then a couple of summers ago when my mother declared she was too old to be crawling around in the crawl space below their house & that we needed to purge & reorganize. Holy cow, the STUFF we found down there…! I blogged about it here


and here


I am still much more of a packrat than dh would like, but I’m trying… most of it IS just STUFF, & most of it hadn’t seen the light of day in 30 years anyway. People and the memories are what counts. (And I agree with A. — I took lots of pictures before I let the stuff go. They don’t take up anywhere near as much room…!)

7 Lori Lavender Luz { 01.15.12 at 4:13 pm }

Oh, Mel. I wish I could be there with you as you sort and decide what to part with. It can be about so much more than the past because sometimes it’s about a phantom future. XO.

You’ve made me wonder what memories my kids will store and which ones will evaporate, or already have evaporated.

Sigh….sometimes I am a memory holder and want to hang on to it ALL.

8 HereWeGoAJen { 01.15.12 at 7:57 pm }

I’ve been doing a lot of the same lately. I am going through the baby stuff and getting rid of a lot. I am trying to keep only the things I would be sad if I didn’t get to use for another child, not everything, like I kept when I was feeling all nostalgic. It’s hard. It does feel good to let it go though.

9 Cristy { 01.15.12 at 9:18 pm }

I’m also one who likes to save things. I have all the small stuffed animals that my siblings and I had from childhood, including a robotic cow that my sister loved. Why? Because I remember how much these toys were loved and I have a hard time parting with them as there are good memories there. I’ve started regrouping though and either gifting these toys to children I know will offer them a good home or sending them back to family as children are born. It’s freeing to purge when I’m in the right state of mind, but it’s also a bit traumatic too, as it finalizes a chapter from my life. Wishing you all the best as you and your family goes through the basement.

10 k { 01.15.12 at 10:11 pm }

I have two VERY large bins of the twins clothes and early “things”. Toys, blankets, etc… We’ve been actively trying to give them a sibling and will continue to try through the year. But after that. Well. I’m not quite sure what to do with those boxes. The thought is so difficult that I can’t even look at the boxes so I asked my wife to put them somewhere I wouldn’t see them so I wasn’t tempted to go through them.

I could easily save everything, and I have a whole different level of tolerance for clutter than my wife on most days. And then I get into a tizzy and purge all sorts of things. My daughter is a mini hoarder and I worry about the psychology of “stuff” that her and I both have.

My mental basement is extremely cluttered. I have a very hard time letting go of things, and this next year will put a very big strain on my basement and I can only hope that I don’t accidentally transfer anything to my kids own basements. Thank you for reminding me to be conscious of this.

11 Justine { 01.15.12 at 10:17 pm }

Mel, what amazing timing you have … and have I ever mentioned how much I love your writing?

This weekend I went to a friend’s house with my son and daughter. She has a little boy, and she’d invited my son to play, and me to sort through some of her son’s old toys to see if any might be appropriate for N. It was a welcome thought, because we don’t have a lot of baby toys: I was working full time when I. was born, and he spent long hours at day care.

When we got there, we found a mountain of things that she’d piled for us in her basement. Though I knew I’d told her I’d love to have some other things for N., there was something sad about looking through them, for me, because I suddenly thought about the fact that she may have been saving them for the “phantom future” that Lori mentions. And hell if I don’t know what *that*’s like. After my son was born, we saved clothes, bins of them, and after unsuccessfully TTC for a few years, I couldn’t go down to our basement, either. I felt like maybe we should get rid of them all, purge ourselves of them like my body had purged pregnancies. In the end we ended up passing on a lot of it, or “loaning it out” … which made me feel a bit better about not having it. It wasn’t that we were getting rid of it, per se … we were just letting it live somewhere else for a while.

I haven’t ever asked my friend if they wanted another child, because I know what that question is like, too, if you do want another and can’t, for whatever reason, and she hasn’t volunteered that information. We did take a few things from my friend’s basement, but I tried to treat the pile as if it were filled with treasures. Because I suspect that for her, every last piece of plastic was a piece of her heart.

12 Eve { 01.16.12 at 3:25 am }

So melancholy, your post. I can really feel your aching, and I’m truly sorry that there is such bittersweetness to your storage closet. We have a large half of our basement unfinished, so we have plenty of storage…but I find that saving too much makes me overwhelmed and out-of-sorts. Whenever we wade through it I feel as if the weight of all those things (useless stuff to us mostly) has been lifted from around my neck. My mom keeps a minimal of things…my dh’s mom keeps everything down to the paper napkins (and entire case of them) leftover from his high school graduation. I’ve tried to find a balance between those extremes. Sam has a box we put his special papers and drawings…if it gets far too full, I sort through some of the ones that really aren’t forever-keepers. I have kept a few pieces of clothing from the kids for them to have. My hardest is this: I have a small bag full of preemie boy clothes meant for our lost Will. Though I had gotten rid of most of the things we were to use for him (car seat, crib, sleepers, etc)…I keep those 6 or so tiny little sleepers. It’s a compromise to my heart. I cried and cried my first garage sale after knowing we would be having no more children and seeing things get pawed at and nickled and dimed. It’s easier now than it was. Makes me think of what my hubby says about every Pixar movie I see (cue tissues and ugly crying face)…”It’s really about loss you know.” He’s freakin’ philopher, that one.

13 Manapan { 01.16.12 at 4:16 am }

Oh goodness, that had to hurt. (((hugs)))

Your post got me thinking and I started to comment but it got long and I turned it into a post of my own instead. http://manapan.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/giving-it-up/

14 Kir { 01.19.12 at 3:55 pm }

I can’t comment, because I am crying. That was such a gorgeous post filled with so many beautiful lessons in it that I just need to sit and think about it…again.

I need to clean out our basement again, normally I call my mom for times like that…I know that if John and I do it ourselves, we’ll save too much, we’ll take too long, we’ll not see the end..and get lazy. So I call her and she comes and helps me “Clean Out” .

I think about my mind being the same…and it is…I need someone else to help me unclutter it. I’m no good on my own sometimes.

15 Emily { 01.19.12 at 7:29 pm }

I used to be a pack rat. Over the years of moving so much and right before I got married I went through and got rid of a lot of stuff. I used to have tons of nicknacks and now I can’t stand the clutter. I have learned to hold onto memories instead of stuff.

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