This is part one in a four-part series on what our contributors learned about themselves in 2020.
Remember that last line by Meryl Streep in the film “Doubt”? Streep’s character hesitates and then breaks into a full sob, saying only, “I have doubts. … I have such doubts.” Such has been my own dramatic cry in this time of self-quarantine as I look back on all the useful items that I “purged” in January 2019.
At the time, I had joined a number of online groups that were decluttering their way to a better, more focused, happier life. Filled with the optimism of a new year, I dumped my stuff with gusto while playing Marie Kondo’s Netflix series in the background. I had a revelation: It wasn’t my lack of time or organization skills; I just had too much stuff. If I got rid of the stuff, I’d have an easier time keeping everything clean. It wasn’t that I needed more containers; I just needed less to contain. Simple.
Members of the online groups shared photographs of their empty kitchen counters, barren living areas and beds with zero extra pillows. We encouraged each other with responses like, “So peaceful … love it!” Never mind that there were often follow-up posts highlighting new containers they’d just gone out and bought. We asked each other how to organize tea bags and Tupperware, where we could donate wedding gowns, and how many books we were allowed to keep. We proudly displayed reorganized spice racks, linen closets and streamlined entryways.
I scheduled pickups through the Vietnam Veterans of America and filled my porch with a strange array of belongings: an ironing board, bean bag chair, vases and candle holders, file cabinets and art supplies, cleaning supplies, board games and toys.
I searched in the comments of the decluttering groups for the best way to store wrapping paper and ended up getting rid of all of those gift bags I’d usually reuse. Brown paper packages tied up with string — that would be my new signature wrapping. I learned that horizontal surfaces were my enemy, and that I had placed way too many Amazon orders the previous year. I even tried to trim down my wardrobe to a uniform. Apparently all successful people have them. Mine was black tunics or dresses paired with leggings. “Okay … but you’re never going to keep up with this,” my 10-year-old daughter told me with a straight face while raising her eyebrows.
My mother, who has a basement filled with my childhood toys and artwork, numerous sets of dishes, and an exercise bike I bought on a fitness kick in high school, looked around our home and tried to be polite: “Wow … yeah, I can really see you got rid of a lot.”
But then the pandemic hit and I was home for the unforeseeable future. I found myself looking for the old yeast that I tossed because, “I’m never going to bake bread … that’s the ‘imaginary me.’” My daughter asked me for the art supplies I got rid of because she needed it for a remote learning project. I needed a rag but we only have proper white washcloths now and no old T-shirts because the rule was, “if you haven’t worn it in a year, toss it.” The grocery store shelves were empty and I was out of the cleaning supplies.
This year has helped me understand my late grandparents and my parents a lot more. I understand why my grandfather, usually a gentle man who played the ukulele, got legitimately angry when I left food on my plate. I understand why my grandmother had shelves of cleaned food jars on her enclosed porch and grew all of her own fruits and vegetables. I think I even understand why my mother prides herself in practically having a thrift shop in her basement. “You need a basket?” she’ll say. “I have plenty of baskets.”
My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. My parents raised their family during the recession of the 1980s. My generation’s detachment from all our “stuff” isn’t necessarily something to be proud of, I realized. It’s born out of privilege and comfort. Maybe my daughter’s future children will laugh at her for always having extra toilet paper in the house, but she will remember when the store shelves were empty during the coronavirus pandemic.
At the start of the pandemic, I went to drop food off at my mother’s and was surprised to find both my parents sitting outside in their 1960s woven lawn chairs wearing surgical masks. “I found them in my basement,” my mother said. “Who knows where I got them. I think I picked them up at a doctor’s office years ago,” she said.
Then I headed back home, to my house filled with things that only spark joy.
I have doubts. I have such doubts.