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The Art of Shedding Possessions

Getting rid of things involves careful deliberation along with emotional insight

By Akiko Busch

Once an adjective reserved for scholarly work, “curatorial” has come to be applied to the discrimination with which we acquire everything from doorknobs, toasters and digital devices to baskets from Bali, pillows from Portugal and who knows what else.
It’s as though all of these fall into that category of decorative arts that need to be sorted out and arranged for display. As often used today — divorced from museum scholarship — the term mostly serves to offer a creative veneer to our ordinary consumer excesses.
What strikes me as odd is that there is no like terminology for the process of de-accessioning one’s belongings. And we could really use one. Because when it comes to the art of selection, I find myself more interested in what to give up than what to collect.
Maybe it just has to do with the natural balance of things — after spending much of my adult life bringing things into the house, I am now more preoccupied with getting them out. I am not alone — there are many of us who are passionate not about taking possession but about relinquishing it. And surely the latter is more difficult.
Thoreau knew something about this, noting in his chapter on “Economy” in Walden our natural and inevitable servitude to those things we own: “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.”
One may be forced to downsize space due to economic dictate in recessionary times or might simply choose to live more simply and sustainably. But even if the mandate to cede one’s belongings is clear, one still needs insight and judgment to do so — and that can pose some complex challenges.
I developed the requisite skill to be a connoisseur of object surrender on a recent renovation project — turning my adult son’s room into one for guests. After he had gone off to college, the room became an improvisational storage unit for all kinds of excess belongings; along with his camera, guitar, books and sports equipment were my grandmother’s linen tablecloths, a rice steamer, an antique beaded handbag, some gardening tools, a teak desk from Thailand, a pile of old sweaters, a birdhouse. The list goes on.
But how to start weeding through this overcrowded museum of domestic life? Things come into our lives for any number of reasons: need, desire, taste, inheritance or simply the human impulse to fill some space in our lives that has been left empty. And if “curation” plays a part in acquisition, such selectivity necessarily involves some convergence of knowledge, discernment and diligence. All of which, I find, are every bit as vital in de-accessioning.
There are many factors ruling our choices about what to surrender. A force equal and opposite to the impulse buy is the precipitous urge to give something up, which can spring from some combination of regret, disenchantment, a sense of failure, even fatigue.
But beyond such hasty and impetuous housecleaning are the simple facts that we outgrow things, our tastes change, and, maybe most of all, our desire for material belongings wanes. Parting with them may only be a matter of recognizing that we need to end certain relationships and understand how the physical objects around us have served as their emotional accomplices.
I have found that what I am ready to relinquish generally falls into one of two categories: things that resonate with past experience and those that hold out promise for a future enterprise that is unlikely to materialize. Which is to say, the stuff can be purely evocative or insanely aspirational. 
The soccer shoes fall into the first category: We are done with the early Saturday wake-up calls, the windy mornings at the field, the throat-clenching goals and misses. The beaded handbag is more aspirational, though after years of harboring such delusions, I have come to accept the fact that the glittering parties where it might be useful play little role in my rural life. Facing such facts squarely can be liberating, as well as helpful in the effort to part with these things.

The bird house was moved to a hemlock tree in the yard where it had belonged all along. Sometimes, relocation is a better option than relinquishment; one must know the proper place for things.

What I have come to find, though, is that what has gone leaves behind its own negative space. When I look at the now-vacant room, emptied and repainted, with its polished pine floors and pristine linen walls, I realize that the shoes and the handbag, along with the rice steamer, the garden tools, and all the rest of it continue to exist as small, domestic erasures, outlines of things that once were.
The Swiss typographer Jan Tschihold once noted that “white space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background,” and that says something about how I’ve come to see the blank walls and empty spots in these rooms once occupied by objects. The relinquished items manage to compose a series of absences that have their own particular elegance. The room is not full, but it remains inhabited.
And perhaps it makes sense I have not yet found the word to describe a process that is the opposite of "curate." “Edit,” “refine,” “reduce” — none of these is quite right either. All of which may be a good place to begin. Not having the word, I realize with satisfaction, may be the prelude to not having the things.

Akiko Busch writes about design, culture and the natural world for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science, was published by Yale University Press in April 2013. Read More
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