Monday, 4 February 2019

Objects and things

Decluttering seems to be a new religion. I am in support because I am a passionate anti-consumerist and find it painful to watch or read about people spending thousands of pounds, dollars or whatever on items they don't really need or want, and giving gifts for the sake of giving a gift.

It may be strange coming from someone with a background in a culture where everything was in short supply or simply non-existent, from toilet paper to ball-point pens to tights to baking powder to T-shirts to books, and where every item, obtained through unimaginable effort was cherished and passed on and mended over and over again. To own something generally desirable, whether a pack of chewing gum or a tape recorder, was a matter of status. If you were privileged to travel abroad you were expected to bring presents to family, friends and colleagues; and even from domestic holidays you would bring souvenirs. A chocolate wrap or a bottle label would make a welcome gift.

When I moved to Sweden and gained access to unlimited supply of anything, my lust for purposeful or purposeless objects could not be fully satisfied for a very simple reason: money. In Russia, if you were lucky to know someone who knew someone who sold book shelves or wall sconces or wall-to-wall carpets on the black market at ridiculous prices, all your friends would contribute, and you would pay them back some time when you could. Capitalism doesn't work like that.

We had Russian friends visiting in neverending lines, and all of them brought presents, because that's what you did. Some were nice, some were ugly, but all were given with love. It is hard to get rid of objects given to you with love, but every now and then your home begins to feel like a dump. We decluttered before we moved to California in 1999, then decluttered again when we came back. After my mother-in-law died, I inherited a lot of nice stuff, which interestingly enough made me declutter more, because the nice stuff made my old less-nice stuff too conspicuous.

Obviously, we decluttered massively when we moved to Cambridge. The children were given a chance to choose what they wanted, and they didn't want much because by then they all had their own households and had perhaps even started decluttering themselves. I remember selling dozens of rather valuable objects to an antique dealer for almost nothing, just to get rid of it. Everything else went to charity shops that probably sent half to recycling. Every now and then I remember an object with some regret, but immediately change my mind: why would I need that gigantic cut-glass drinking horn?

Now that I am forced to mass-declutter again, I wonder how all this stuff has accumulated again. It was only last year that – I thought – I gave away everything I didn't use. And I regularly take bags of stuff to charity shops.

There is one major flaw in this article. It does not distinguish between mess and clutter. If you come home and there are clothes all over the floor and dirty dishes in the sink, it's not clutter, it's mess. The anxiety reasons stated in the article are relevant for mess. There are two simple ways to deal with mess: you ignore it or you tidy up (or better still, don't allow it to pile up). I am not a supertidy person, but I wouldn't be able to live with a mess.This is why I have Gatehouse rules

Clutter is something different, and only point 3 in the list of advice deals with it. The rest is dealing with mess on a day to day basis. 

In dealing with clutter, it is important to differentiate between objects and things. Thing theory – yes, it's a thing! - claims that objects only become things when they are filled with significance, with immaterial value. Sometimes we say “of sentimental value” meaning that an object is more than an object: it is a memory, a souvenir in the original meaning of the word; also something that makes you glad. Few of us are privileged to be exclusively surrounded with objects that make us glad, but in decluttering it should be the guiding principle: only keep objects that make you glad, objects that have become things. They will not necessarily be the prettiest of your possessions, or the most expensive, or the most desirable. They will not necessarily be gifts from your closest friends. For some reason, I will never part with a wooden bench from my mother-in-law's home, or a banal dream-catcher I got from a children's author, or a miniature Japanese garden I impulse-bought at a spa.

Decluttering is good for your mind, declutter prophets say. What they don't say (because they are, unlike me, good citizens and know that the capitalist wheels must turn) is: stop buying. Don't be tempted by trinkets. Don't be tempted by objects that you will never use and that will never become things.

That said: who knows what object might suddenly become a thing? 

Some of my favourite things 

Saturday, 2 February 2019


It took me a very long time to finish this post, because of all the recent changes in my life this one hurts most.

Mortality is a deep issue to contemplate, and when a pet dies, grief is no less than with a loved human, and guilt probably stronger. I wrote about it when Miso died, and every time Facebook shows me a picture of happy and healthy Miso, I want to cry. Miranda died a year ago, quite unexpectedly and quickly, so hopefully she only suffered a short time. 

I know it sounds horrible, but even before I was told that Miranda would not make it, I started looking on cat shelter sites. And when I saw the twins, my heart melted. Sobbing, I called the shelter, and after a thorough inspection, we were approved as suitable staff (you know: dog have owners, cats have staff). And even before we got them home, we decided that their names were Castor and Pollux, Dioscuri, the celestial twins.

We had never had two cats, and we had never had kittens. Dioscuri had been captured from a pack of stray cats and had been in a foster home for a few months. They had only been adoptable for a couple of days when I saw them – it was just meant to be.

They were very shy. The first week we were told to keep them in just one room with access to food and sand. I hung blankets over chairs, and they hid under them, only coming out for short moments to play. I made toys for them. They liked my toys better than the toys I bought. By the end of the week they would allow me to touch them. Castor was bolder than Pollux. 

By and by we opened more space for them, and they were fascinated by the large glass door leading to the garden, and also by ventilation form which, I suppose, plenty of interesting information arrived. When we allowed them in the bedroom, they immediately started sleeping by my feet. How did stray cats know that they should sleep in their human's bed? 

And then came the disaster. One morning I opened the glass door before giving them breakfast, expecting them to go out cautiously and return to their bowls. No way! Within seconds they vanished, and they didn't come back. I must have been off balance for something else because my reaction was inadequate. I went hysterical. I don't remember when I cried that hard. I hated the whole world, starting with myself. I felt worthless and defeated.

When I pulled myself together a bit, I posted in local facebook groups, and someone told me that they had possibly seen one of the cats. I printed posters and put them on telephone poles and by the entrance to the country park. I went around calling. I came back home and cried a bit more. The glass door was open, the bowls just by it. It was February and very cold outside. It was getting dark. I sat in an armchair by the open glass door. I could not read or do anything. I could not eat.

Of course they came back eventually, first Castor, then an hour later Pollux. I didn't let them out for another week, but sooner or later they had to go out and then go and come as they pleased. Young, inquisitive cats with plenty of exciting things to discover and explore. They turned out to be skillful hunters. They would stay away for hours, but always came to sleep in my bed. In the dusk, they got particularly playful, staging mock fights. They were the source of much joy. Just telling someone about them made me smile. 

When I moved to Gatehouse, I had to leave them behind. First, pets are not allowed on campus. But even if they were, it is impossible to keep cats who are used to freedom in a tiny flat. I wouldn't be able to let them go out because of the traffic.

I started asking around, but nobody seemed to want or knew someone who might want two lovely cats. Every time I thought about them I started crying. I could not bring myself to call the cat shelter, so a friend did it for me, while I wasn't just sobbing, I was weeping. The shelter said they didn't have space and would get back.

Each time I had to go back to Milton, the cats would come and want a cuddle. My heart was permanently broken.

Then – a miracle I had been hoping for. A new home! A good home. Someone who would give them all care and love they needed. My heart was still broken, but at least I knew that my wonderful twins would have a good life.  

The first time their new staff came to collect them, I didn't manage to catch them both, because of a misunderstanding. Two weeks later, I sat there with two unhappy cats in a basket, crying floods again. The new staff spoke to them gently. I felt better.

Do you want to hear the rest of the story? No, you don't. It is not a story with a happy ending.