The significance of personal things.

I find order comforting. To make my bed in the morning, to not leave clothes on the floor, to put things where they ‘belong.’ When I used to think about the word ‘order’, I associated it with something negative, like a military drill. Keeping things in order meant bowing down to someone else’s rules.

But this is changing.

When I bought my current condo, it was unliveable. I had to gut it and start over. At first, I was going to hire an interior designer because I wanted to get ‘the look’ just right. But after a few weeks, I decided to let myself be the designer. While this took a lot longer, in the end, I created a space that was exactly what ‘I’ wanted.

I have lived here a year and a half and am still not done. A few days ago, I put a lamp in the bedroom and immediately thought, “No, that’s not the right lamp.” Last weekend, I drove to a town 50 miles away and found the right lamp.

When I transitioned my mother from her apartment to a board and care home, I had to sell or throw away most of her stuff. The psychotherapist, Carl Rodgers, once said, “If you can’t destroy something that is holding you back, then destroy a symbol of it. By throwing away almost everything that symbolized ‘her sense of order’, I freed myself to create my own.

When I was living in a shared house a year ago, I met a 67-year-old woman who moved in with very few possessions. She had either sold or given away all of her heirlooms. While I wasn’t aware at first of the effect this had on her, it became clear soon afterwards that this loss was devastating. She was like a young animal separated from its mother, wandering around lost, confused and forlorn.

I bought my first home right after my mother sold the ‘family home.’ I needed to do this, in part, because I had no place to store my belongings. I also wanted to keep some of the things that held meaning for me, like her big dining room table.

Many years ago, I saw a movie with Meryl Streep where she played a homeless woman who carried around a little suitcase with memorabilia. Whenever she got enough money to rent a room for a night, she would carefully take all the items out of the suitcase and put them around her. By putting her things ‘in order’ she created a sense of place that was comforting.

More and more, I find myself trying to create a sense of place, both psychologically and physically. In order to feel whole. I have to weave a web around myself like a spider. Because I do not create the ‘world order’ in the sense of laws, government and militaries, I have to create a ‘personal order’ that holds my essence in place.

The mind is a kaleidoscope. As I pass through different stages – objects, both human and material, are shifted around, reprioritized, sent back or moved forward. I choose what to take with me into the future and what I surround myself with in the present.

On the long table in my dining room, there are now fourteen ceramic figurines that used to belong to my mother. She demanded that I ship these figurines to my home because they were ‘worth something.’ When I look at them I ask myself if they are worth something ‘to me.’ These figurines have a history that only she and I share. But, unlike her, I have no daughters to pass them on to. Do I create space in my home, and in my mind, for her ‘memorabilia’ or do I wrap them up and take them to the thrift store?

The new order I am creating is dependent on these kinds of decisions. What will I wake up looking at, what will I see while I am drinking my first cup of tea. What will I pass most often as I walk through my home, what will the objects say to me, what associations will they color my future with? When these object are gone, will I be sad or will I not care? To what extent will I let the past control the present?

Past, present and future are malleable substances I can play with. Do I put this before that, or do I add an entirely new element that mixes it all up? What significance do I give to an object, a memory, and does this ‘significance’ move and breathe or is it solid and static? Does it allow me to move forward or does it create a barrier?

Whether I realize it or not, time is moving past me, in me, through me. And on some elemental level, I am changed by it. I wake up with nothing to do, but at the end of the day, many things have happened.

As I was rearranging some things yesterday, I hung an antique art deco purse on the wall in the hallway. I bought this purse 46 years ago in Tennessee. Throughout the years, I never thought this purse was significant, but in every place I live, I hang it in a hallway where I walk past it several times a day. On some level, it represents ‘an order’ that I am completely unaware of. What little piece of me does this small, old purse hold?

I may never know.


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