“Tidying Up and Sparking Joy” by Mark W. Harris
March 31, 2019 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Opening Words – “Welcome Morning” by Anne Sexton
There is joy
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
Reading – from An American Childhoodby Annie Dillard
Loss came around with the seasons, blew into the house when you opened the windows, piled up in the bottom desk and dresser drawers, accumulated in the back of closets, heaped in the basement starting by the furnace, and came creeping up the basement stairs. Loss grew as you did, without your consent; your losses mounted beside you like earthworm castings. No willpower could prevent someone’s dying. And no willpower could restore someone dead, breathe life into that frame and set it going again in the room with you to meet your eyes. That was the fact of it. The strongest men and women who had ever lived had presumably tried to resist their own deaths, and now they were dead. It was on this fact that all stirring biographies coincided, concurred, and culminated.
Time itself bent you and cracked you on its wheel. We were getting ready to move again. I knew I could not forever keep riding my bike backward into ever-older neighborhoods to look the ever-older houses in the face. I tried to memorize the layout of this Richland Lane house, but I couldn’t force it into my mind while it was still in my bones.
I saw already that I could not in good faith renew the increasingly desperate series of vows by which I had always tried to direct my life. I had vowed to love Walther Milligan forever; now I could recall neither his face nor my feeling, but only this quondam (or former) urgent vow. I had vowed to keep exploring Pittsburgh by bicycle no matter how old I got, and planned an especially sweeping tour for my hundredth birthday in 2045. I had vowed to keep hating Amy in order to defy Mother, who kept prophesying I would someday not hate Amy. In short, I always vowed, one way or another, not to change. Not me. I needed the fierceness of vowing because I could scarcely help but notice, visiting the hatchling robins at school every day, that it was mighty unlikely.
As a life’s work, I would remember everything – everything, against loss. I would go through life like a plankton net. I would trap and keep every teacher’s funny remark, every face on the street, every microscopic alga’s sway, every conversation, configuration of leaves, every dream, and every scrap of overhead cloud. Who would remember Molly’s infancy if not me? (Unaccountably, I thought that only I had noticed – not Molly, but time itself. No one else, at least, seemed bugged by it. Children may believe that they alone have interior lives.)
Some days I felt an urgent responsibility to each change of light outside the sunporch windows. Who would remember any of it, any of this our time, and the wind thrashing the buckeye limbs outside? Somebody had to do it, somebody had to hang on to the days with teeth and fists, or the whole show had been in vain. That it was impossible never entered my reckoning. For work, for a task, I had never heard the word.
Getting ready to move to Maine has meant an ongoing purge of books, furniture, clothes and files. This has been a struggle for me because I am by nature what I would classify as someone who keeps things, rather than gets rid of them. I suppose I could say there is some genetic predisposition to this tendency to accumulate stuff. My mother collected books, Hummel figurines, antique furniture and dishware. We had stuff everywhere, but we also had a fifteen room house, and my mother was a neat housekeeper. This has not been the case with my sister, who inherited the house and developed into a hoarder, which as you know, can be a serious mental illness. Every piece of paper, food, and household item that came into her house never went out. I am not going to try to analyze the nature of this affliction.
I have known countless people who have it. Here in Watertown a neighbor of mine on Katherine Road completely filled her house with stuff, and eventually the health department condemned the house, and she lost it. I tried to help her, but it was fruitless to try to use reason where there was none. It’s sad. My ex-mother-in-law’s parents completely filled a beautiful old colonial house with an accumulation of newspapers, trash and decades of Christmas memorabilia and gifts. Spontaneous combustion took it all away, and the house , too when it burned down. They escaped with their lives. I remember seeing them crying over all their losses with no awareness that they had caused it with their hoarding.
We have sometimes called this a New England Disease. Yet it is clearly not confined to New England. Marie Kondo, the queen of decluttering has a series of Netflix shows where she is assisting families in greater Los Angeles with their quest to tidy up their homes and either find a place for or dispose of all their clutter. Many of you know that I am in the process of collecting all my sermons, lectures and published papers on the history of the First Parish of Watertown. One of those lectures was on Lydia Maria Child, who lived in the church parsonage in Watertown Square with her brother Convers Francis, who was the minister. She lived a poverty stricken life, but gained fame when she published The Frugal Housewife, which gave domestic advice on how you can make use of everything you have at hand. This went to the extreme of the usefulness of earwax, which was chronicled in a Yankee Magazine article some years ago. I have to say I draw the limit of usefulness with various kinds of bodily excretions, but she found it was a useful lip balm. I’ll stick with Chapstick, thank you.
In her book, Child wrote, “The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing is lost . . . Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it . . . Save everything” There is a thin line, so that while arguing against extravagance, she was also accumulating every last used nail, board, button and piece of yarn that crossed her threshold. How many times have you heard, “you’ll never know when you might need this.” Of course you will never find it when you need it, because, you have so much stuff.
A few years ago, I became completely converted from the usefulness of everything when I participated in what was supposed to be a family clean out of a garage at a seaside cottage in Maine. The task was to have everyone sort all the items in the garage, and then either discard or recycle or sell the items that had no use or purpose and save the rest. We proceeded to spend the day moving items around, like nails and screws and boards, hammers and screw drivers and saws. The turning point for me was when six different non-working lawnmowers came out of the garage , and six different non-working lawn mowers went back in, even though none of these mowers had parts that were interchangeable.. I then realized that nearly everything was going back in from where it came. I was reminded of my sister, and how she used to go to yarn shops and purchase skein after skein of yarn for projects that were started and never completed. Our loved ones feel useless as a result, and overwhelmed, and we can either help them see that this situation must change by getting them to confront their issue, or by letting go of a situation we cannot alter.
Most of us do not have severe hoarding problems like these examples, nor are we poor like Lydia Maria Child. And yet some of us have lots of stuff, and some of us even have storage units for all out excess clutter. We sometimes believe that having things protects us from emotional loneliness, or emptiness. They are possessions to hold on to for seeming comfort, or stability or enduring memory in this fleeting life that is so full of loss. These can be good things, but sometimes these things bring so much comfort that our accumulation of them gets out of control, and we have much more than we need. We become the guardians of an empire of stuff. What then?
Marie Kondo is the Japanese expert at taking that empire of stuff and creating an ordered, decluttered, joyful home. One of her television episodes concerns a family of Japanese Americans, where the father collects baseball cards. He has mountains of cards, and so naturally I related to him. Baseball and the cards of my youth mean a lot to me, as they evoke memories of my father, the game we all loved, and the trips to the store with him to buy a few of these five cent, gum laced pictures of my heroes. My cards do bring joy, but the obvious questions becomes do I need all of these cards? When I first married Andrea I had some credit card debt, and no means to pay it off other than selling some cards. She asked me whether I wanted to accumulate mounting debt, or get rid of it, freeing me and us of this anxiety of an unpaid bill. For the first time I asked the question which cards mean the most to me, and it was a set from 1957. But I did not need every subsequent set from the 1950’s into the 1960’s and beyond. It was a lesson in discovering what was truly important to me, rather than having it all, and not appreciating any of it.
These sentimental items are among the last category of things Marie Kondo has people reflect upon in tidying up their possessions. Another significant category is books, and as you can imagine, this has been a difficult area for me, as I prepare to move to Maine. In my office, and at home you will see many empty shelves as I have boxed up hundreds of books to donate or give away to students and colleagues. Kondo’s realization of the importance of books in some of our lives rings true. She personalizes these relationships, and would have us take a book and tap it on its spine, waking it up and bringing us into intimate contact with it. This practice draws from Shintoism, with a degree of animism in it, as we give life to personal objects which we are in relationship with. All things have a spirit. Kondo essentially treats her clients’ houses as she treats the entrance of a shrine: like she’s entering a sacred space that she must treat with respect. We might do the same, as she suggests the home is a sacred space, and we might treat it as such, by greeting it respectfully each morning.
I have always said that books are my friends, and certainly over the years I have gained much from these relationships such as knowledge, entertainment, personal growth and meaning. And so, following Kondo’s lead with any clothes, books or other items we give away, she suggests that we first thank them for their service. It is gratifying to recall memories of certain books as I box them to say thank you and goodbye, realizing all they have given me, and how they have opened new horizons for me at one time, but now I must let them go. I am finished with them, and will never read them again, but if they occupy a spot on a shelf accumulating dust, I am not moving on from this gift from the past. Stopping and reflecting upon the gift of these books also reminds us all of the need for more gratitude in our lives for the gifts we receive.
As most of you know, many people in our denomination have graciously acknowledged my knowledge of and teaching of Unitarian Universalist history. Part of that quest to be a known historian of our tradition was also the accumulation of books about it. In fact as a young minister it was my goal to purchase every UU book I would come across. This manifested itself many years ago in countless trips to used bookstores across America and in England searching for the possession of all UU knowledge, and yet I neither had the means, the space, nor the patient spouse to sustain this quest. But the other question was, why? I think Annie Dillard gives some clue here in the reading from her childhood memoir. She says she pictured herself going through life protecting herself against loss. She would accumulate every memory, every face, and in this case, every thing to protect her. Someone, I think I felt, had to remember and hang on to all this knowledge, and I believed it should be me. In collecting every UU history book, I felt I was delegated to find and keep the largest collection of history books among ministers. Sometimes we think we are delegated to keep alive the memory of one we loved who has died, and so we keep all these tangible memories of them, but where does it end? I could not possess all the books, but moreover could not possibly keep them. With our loved ones, it does not keep them alive, and the weight of the memory becomes a burden. The archive of all UU books was an unachievable goal of desire, as I, like everone else will pass on. The possessions may substitute for a lack of emotional fulfilment, or an inability to let go, but there is also a dusty loneliness reflected in the tomes that line the shelves that I owned but mostly did not use, and their weight increasingly did not spark joy. (ACT OUT) And so now dear friend, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism, thank you for all the insights and knowledge you gave me, farewell, may some future historian be inspired by what you contain.
Perhaps I bring joy to someone else with a gift of this book. That is exactly what happened to me with my newest sweater. It came from a second hand shop in Rockland, Maine. Someone else had thanked it for its service, and now it brings me joy to wear it. Are we in some way living out the spirit of Christianity by clothing the naked? When Marie Kondo visits your house to begin the process of decluttering, the first group of items she addresses are your clothes. Her method of seeing what you have is to create one giant pile. How much is excess? How much do you never wear? How much is too small, like this soccer shirt, but you keep for sentiment alone, as I did for years because I am a raging Anglophile? Excess clothes easily add to a cluttered environment. Does your closet contain a full assortment of coats? Do you need them all? Do you wear them all? Why do you have so many? Is buying clothes recreational for you? Is it preventing you from doing something else in your life that might be more fulfilling? Kondo believes that putting things in order will help you with anxiety. Sure we all have things that we are attached to and love, but sometimes they keep us attached to the past, and prevent us from moving into the future. When I was hit by an ocean wave years ago and rescued from the turbulent waters, the EMTs had to cut off my favorite shirt to attend to my broken arm. I thought to myself, No, I love this gold shirt, but guess what? Life and health and well-being are more important than things. I let the shirt go, and now have new shirts that bring joy. If we keep them all, our closets become full and cluttered, we begin to feel badly about ourselves. We think I cannot get anything done. All I do is procrastinate. When you cherish the things you love, it is a sign that you cherish yourself, but when you are overwhelmed with stuff, you can’t cherish anything.
A big part of Marie Kondo’s Kon Mari method of organizing is looking at each possession and asking yourself whether or not it sparks joy, and if its time has passed, then you thank it for its usefulness and let it go. But how do you organize what you keep? I must admit I have been fascinated by the solution, but unsure if I can carry it out. I have sometimes said that I have a folding disability. When I try to fold a shirt or a fitted sheet, the shirt ends up wrinkled beyond belief, and the sheet looks like I had a wrestling match with it. Yet for most of my life I have looked into my underwear drawer, and seen a unsorted mass of cotton briefs, and now in recent years in attractive colors, but still a chaotic mess. What happens is that the pairs I wear each week, are laundered and then returned to the top of the pile. This means the same underwear, socks, shirts, etc. are worn week after week, and the ones at the bottom of the pile are never used. Marie Kondo’s way of folding them into little tents and then arranging them so you can see each pair is revelatory. Yet can I replicate this is another question? What it does do is give me a vision for everything ordered, and in its place. We all grew up with the phrase “A place for everything and everything in its place.” Everything should have somewhere to be stored and it should be tidily returned there when not in use, a lesson I am still trying to impart to my children. This may date back to an Enlightenment era proverb that affirms the scientific clock like universe they believed in: “The Lord hath set every thing in its place and order.” It is also possible that it has a nautical origin as sailors had limited space to store their gear, and thus, conserving space was important.
What is also true is that turning towards tidiness and cleaning up our excess stuff seems to emanate from times in which humanity has reacted against excessive periods of accumulation of possessions or consumerism. In America, the Progressive movement with its efforts in social hygiene tried to counter the excesses of the Victorian Gilded Age, and Industrialization. Historians tells us this began in the period of a new consumerism in the early 20thcentury, as evidenced by the Sears catalogs. The message was you could move up in social class through acquiring. Among those who advocated for adopting greater cleanliness was a Unitarian minister, Caroline Bartlett Crane. In 1925 this suffragist and reformer wrote: “Are our houses cluttered with disguised liabilities, rooms we don’t effectively use, pictures we don’t see (or are not worth seeing) useless furniture and bric-a-brac we haven’t the courage to get rid of?” Now a century later Marie Kondo has become popular in our era of excessive wealth and conspicuous consumption. Putting things in order will help us, we believe, cope with the terrible anxiety we feel from excessive accumulation.. Do your things define who you are? Would tidying, as Marie Kondo would have us believe, be an act of confronting yourself?
We know that things that exist in our outer life distract us from the inner things that we’re avoiding. When you honestly look at a layer of distraction, you question the thing, and say, I don’t need this. And we let it go, and realizing what’s underneath is most important. “Looking directly at something has the power of a magnifying glass in the sun. The sun is you; the glass, your attention.” Marie Kondo would have us look at what is most important in our lives. ” Find what you truly cherish in life,” she says. “Cherish who you are and what brings you the most joy and fulfillment. Don’t let stuff, or worries, get in the way or distract you from the life you want!”
We may think our stuff protects us, and provides a degree of certainty in our lives because we can hold on to it, and yet stuff only makes us feel more disorganized, more cluttered, and more under assault. Looking at what is truly valuable clears our minds and souls and let us see what is important, and then in the end we can love it and let it go. Anne Sexton reminds us that experiencing God does not come with surrounding ourselves with more and more things, but that God appears in our gratefulness, in a life of simplicity and nearness to earth, and in the joy we express and feel in being alive.
Closing Words from Ray Bradbury, Farewell Summer
“Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled. You’ve got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it. It’s like boats. You keep your motor on so you can steer with the current. And when you hear the sound of the waterfall coming nearer and nearer, tidy up the boat, put on your best tie and hat, and smoke a cigar right up till the moment you go over. That’s a triumph.”