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What Matters Most

What Matters Most

The Korean-language edition of my mother’s 1960 debut The Thinking Book was what finally did me in. I sat on the floor with various foreign versions of her books heaped all around me and stared at it for a count of five, then looked up at Karen and announced “I need a break.”

Like so many others, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, we said “Hey! We’ve been meaning to clean out the closets!” We even watched a couple of Marie Kondo videos before returning to shows that actually did “spark joy.”

And then life happened and we couldn’t face the enormity of the task and we did one of the things humans do best—we procrastinated. A year and nine months passed. Major milestones and hurdles appeared and then receded again in our rearview mirror.

The pivotal moment arrived when we were standing in our kitchen getting ready to put away the kitschy Christmas plates Mom sent us unsolicited 30 years ago, that we dutifully drag out for one or two meals every holiday season. At some point in the process of emptying the cabinet in the back of which said plates reside 364 days a year, clearing away a barricade of leftover florist vases that have arrived in our house over the years carrying flower arrangements, some lever inside both of our brains tripped from the sheer weight of all the—there’s really no other word for it—crap we have accumulated.

That was ten days ago and we’ve been working our way through the house methodically ever since. There’s a growing pile in the garage designated for either garage sale or giveaway and there have been multiple texts to our grown children (Could you use this? Do you want us to keep storing that?).

There has also been some stress. As we worked through making decisions about hundreds—oh hell, we just went through both my music collection and the bookshelves—thousands upon thousands of individual items, I found myself getting increasingly wound up. Part of it is that clutter irritates me and every day now, room by room, we’re creating and then (mostly) resolving great masses of clutter.

Certainly one part of my agitation has to do with the task that I’m saving for last—the spare bedroom that holds most of the family history, photos, and odds and ends that we salvaged from Mom’s and Dad’s houses in 2018 and 2019. That’s going to be a big job all by itself, and will inevitably roil the emotions as we again sift through the debris of two long and complicated lives.

The other part, I’ve come to realize in recent days, is a kind of low-grade PTSD manifesting itself. In The Remembering I talked about having moved 24 times in my first 29 years, and how that influenced choices I’ve made in my writing. What I hadn’t fully appreciated until now was the chronic decision fatigue those experiences created in me. Twenty-four times I was forced to decide what to keep and what to let go of. As a child, anything I parted with was most likely gone for good, with little margin for error or room for regrets. We’re not moving this time, just getting rid of things we no longer need, but the emotional hangover still looms at times.

There is a weight to decisions about some individual items—especially the ones I’ve held the longest—that feels out of proportion with these objects’ actual significance. But is it, really? I don’t have many physical possessions left from my childhood, which finished with me sleeping on the couch in my mother’s one-bedroom apartment. As the census of items has shrunk, the emotional mass and density of each remaining one has increased.

With that said, the process has overall been a cleansing one. There is deep satisfaction to be found in clearing away the clutter in our lives and distilling our focus down to what matters most. And what matters most has always been people and experiences and the emotions we associate with them. Objects only matter to the degree that they serve as vessels capable of carrying us back inside these memories, moments rich with meaning, perhaps even—okay, fine, you win, Marie—joy. With few exceptions, the rest of it is just stuff.

Comment (1)

  • Lenore Genovese Perez

    Hello Mr. Warburg, I just shot you an e-mail a few minutes ago. I just read What Matters Most and my husband & I could have written the same exact blurb. Looking forward to hearing from you. Forevermore Lenore Genovese Perez

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