There are nineteen plastic grocery bags, bulging full, lined up in the hallway and I am ecstatic. After two days of soul-searching, discussing and praying, the Escobar parents (that would be Alfredo and me) and their youngest child (that would be Isabel) were able to come to a reasonable agreement about the amount of clothing that should be considered acceptable for a single person in this house. After reaching that agreement, we were able to successfully go through closet, drawers, and (the place that started it all) under the bed, to find that magic balance of “enough.” I’d estimate that she chose to give away about two-thirds of what she owned, and I am really, really proud of her. Don’t get me wrong, what’s left is still a lot – and if I gave it too much thought, I might get downhearted about it because what’s left could outfit an entire classroom of 10-year-old girls in some other parts of the world. But in the part of the world where we live, this was a major “paring-down.” Even Lydia, who is normally very organized and logical about her things, was inspired enough to begin a paring down of her own. We’re very much looking forward to taking their bags of gently-used items to one of our favorite charities, who will put them to good use.
The timing of this experience is important. We’ve just been through some pretty significant loss as a family: Alfredo lost his mom in August and his stepdad in November. That means the girls lost half their grandparents within three months, and we all went through Thanksgiving and Christmas without them. For us, it was all the things that losing parents usually is: a very worried period during which all you think about is how the sick person is doing today and what you can do to alleviate their suffering, followed by a period of being numb and having to make extremely important decisions while you search for your sanity, followed by a sense of relief that this huge thing is over for you and for them, followed by a weird mix of every feeling, including guilt for the sense of relief. Followed by the task of settling the estate and attempting to be sure your mom and dad’s last wishes are honored. For the girls, it was a tough time also, with mixed emotions of worry, anger and loss, too many hours spent in hospital and nursing home rooms, and too much putting aside personal needs in order to help meet the incredible needs of a dying loved one and their extended family.
We have all dealt with our loss – are dealing with our loss – in our own, different ways. It will get better. In many ways it is already much better. But it still comes up, and it still affects us in our everyday living, sometimes in surprising ways. Part of the conversation we had to have as a family this weekend, before those nineteen bags could be filled up and tied, was about how healthy it is to clear things out from time to time. We had to talk about the fact that loving and holding on to people and memories is different, and better, than loving and holding on to every one of your belongings, no matter how insignificant or unusable, because you’re afraid to deal with loss at all.
I remember once, when we were visiting Alfredo’s mom and stepdad at their house, his mom told me that she never, ever threw anything away anymore. She told me that when she was very small, and living with her grandparents, they had lost everything in a fire. When she left Columbia and fled to Venezuela, she had taken very little with her, and when she fled with her six children from Chile to Kentucky, she had taken even less. Now, she said, she had a stable marriage and a solid house, and she wasn’t going to let go of anything ever again.
I recalled that conversation multiple times over the Christmas holidays as we sorted through the piles and piles of items stuck in closets and drawers, pushed under beds, hidden in corners, stashed in the attic and stored in the basement of their house. Sure, some of it was nice to find because it brought back a special memory, but the vast majority of our time was spent separating the things that went into the trash from the things that will go to sale. We agreed that what matters about things is how they get used in this life.
We’re building a house at Happiness Hills, and I’ll probably blog plenty about that as it takes more shape. One of the things we have done on purpose with our design is create a very small bedroom for ourselves, with adjacent walk-in closets that are also (by American standards) rather small. When those closets are full, we’ve agreed that nothing else goes in unless something else comes out. Enough. is. enough. The girls’ suite is upstairs from ours, with a shared bath and shared closet for the two of them, along with ample room for playing and sleeping. It’s not a small house at all – there is plenty of space for guests, plans for a rec room downstairs, three layers of porches each large enough to serve dinner on, and a great room big enough for a social dance. Why? Because what matters to us is people being together, and we want to create a space where that happens regularly and easily. We want what we have to be of benefit to the people we care about… while we’re still here with them. We’re investing space in that shared value, rather than in a castle-sized space for us to sleep, dress, and brush our teeth.
I’m proud of Isabel for paring down, and for growing into the understanding that she – the amazing, inspiring Isabel – controls and defines her belongings, not the other way around. Most of us could stand to learn a little more of that lesson every day.