The Lesson of the Keepsakes

In a previous post entitled Ten Random Things About Me, I mentioned a penchant for wandering through antique shops, looking and listening for things that seem to need me. Antique shops are, by nature, needy places. They’re full of things from other peoples’ pasts auditioning to become part of someone else’s life. They’re like the animal shelters of memorabilia. Everything in there needs a new home.

This year I read a book I really enjoyed. The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to be Perfect to be Beautiful, by Myquillyn “Nester” Smith, changed the way I look at my home and how I choose my surroundings. Even after I was done reading it, I kept dipping into it. I carried it with me because I felt better when it was nearby, like it was a constant, reassuring influence. I gave copies away as gifts.

And then…Nester herself invited me to participate in an online course that would help me put into practice what she’d written! I jumped on that immediately, along with about 200 of my (not-yet-met) newest friends. We mingled and chatted, introducing ourselves, and waited anxiously for our first assignment. (Yes! Homework! For our homes!) We got to interact personally with Nester! The glorious wonder of the digital age!

The course wasn’t exactly what any of us might have expected. If the book was enjoyable, the course took everything I thought I’d learned from the book and from life, put it in a box, shook it up, and dumped it out…in front of 200 complete strangers, no less. It was enlightening. It was revealing. It gently nudged us all to new places of accountability, but among friends who were also going through similar struggles, frustrations, and discoveries. (Most, if not all, of our husbands have giant recliners and even more giant big screen TVs. And they like them. A lot. Exactly where they are.) We listened to each other. We encouraged each other. We teased each other. We saw things outside the course and thought of each other. We studied each other’s Pinterest boards and saw things in our new friends they couldn’t see in themselves. (Pinterest! I showed up late to the party! But wow!)

The course lasted a very short four weeks. Those of us who participated have maintained a very strong connection. Some of us haven’t finished our first assignments. Some have and are moving on with new assignments. We all seem to thrive on the organic, reassuring dynamic that has become the group. We have invested in each other in ways that transcend our project rooms.

I’m not a “groupie.” I don’t like small groups, though I’ve seen them work well. I generally loathe group projects because (come on let’s be honest) there is always someone who overcommits and underdelivers. There are personality conflicts. There are topics that don’t inspire. There are bossy take-charge people who intimidate others that also have good ideas worth sharing. There are people with agendas, people with histories, people with no interest in doing more than the absolute minimum, people who just don’t get it and show up week after week and bring nothing and expect everything and eat all the good finger foods. First.

But this group! We put in our best effort, shared candidly from our hearts, and an amazing thing happened. We began overcoming obstacles (“lovely limitations”) and tackling things we’d been postponing or avoiding for, in some cases, years. Even decades. People began unpacking not just stuff, but ideas and convictions, and giving themselves permission to use stuff in new ways. Or get rid of stuff altogether. We rearranged. We painted. OH MY SOUL did we paint! If it didn’t move, chances are it got painted! I myself, solidly in the non-painter camp, painted walls and bookshelves and furniture! We hung our drapes correctly! We learned about lighting, and gallery walls, and shopping the house, and footballs! We spent a lot of time on pillows. A lot! We laughed about “boob lights,” wrestled with how best to hide the 1,000 cords and wires extending from our televisions, and began to grasp the concept of how the things with which we surround ourselves should relate to each other. And how we should feel when surrounded by them, which is how they should relate to us.

We probably single-handedly influenced the all-time high usage numbers on sites like Pinterest, Ikea, and Rugs USA. (No. I’m not advertising for any of them. I’m just saying.) We became our own trusted resource — everybody had experience with something, or at least an opinion, and just throwing out a question, or a photo, or both, was enough to get a lively conversation started.

In the very first week of the course, there was this simple question: “How much of your house and your life is dictated by other people’s expectations?”

I grew up in a parsonage. That means I spent most of my formative years in houses that didn’t belong to us. We could make them our own…to a point. Everything we did, or didn’t do, in our home was subject to someone else’s expectations, whether real or perceived. And if my dad changed churches, we changed homes. This was a possibility on a yearly basis.

I don’t remember being terribly upset by all this. I do remember loving visits to my grandparents’ homes, places where the people and things that mattered most to me stayed put and formed a rich, memorable, rock-solid backdrop for my favorite memories. When I haunt antiqueries (you knew I would eventually get back to my original point, right? If I even had an original point to start with?), it is almost as if I am looking for things that connect me to those memories. Or if not those specifically, to things that evoke a certain sense or feeling about a time or place.

What does all this mean? I hold on to a lot of memories. Which means, a lot of stuff has accumulated around the edges of my home and life, stuff from people I like and love, stuff that reminds me of times or places, stuff that looks like it relates or belongs together even if all it has in common is that it is not actually related but instead just showed up, grabbed a plate, and fell in line.

I work with museum exhibits, too, and there is that niggling occupational hazard of constantly curating my surroundings. A little tweak here, a door-size section of leaded glass from a long-forgotten English church there…it creeps in.

Then I read another book. In fact I’m still reading the book, because I get a few pages in and realize I have to stop, to think about this, to let the thought absorb or digest so I can fully appreciate it. Today’s nugget (excerpted) was this: “By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past. To put your things in order means to put your past in order, too. It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure. This is the lesson these keepsakes teach us when we sort them. The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” That’s Marie Kondo, in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

A gifted writer friend, Jonalyn Fincher, said this so beautifully in her thoughtful book/grief guide, Invitation to Tears: “We will feel a tension between honoring the world as our loved one made it and changing the world in honor of who we lost.” She’s so very right. So this year I’m learning the lesson of the keepsakes. Subtitle: It’s Not About The Stuff. And one of the most important things I’m learning: it’s not about the project. I thought I was just working on one not-very-large, not-very-inviting room. Instead, what I’m learning is working on ME. The most enduring changes don’t start on the outside and work their way in. They start inside and work their way out. I can shuffle my keepsakes around all I want and accomplish nothing. In the end, it’s not about enshrining things that represent who we used to be. It’s about embracing who we are, and who we’re becoming.