Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sorting Things Out


Photo courtesy Flickr

Recently I spent a few hours discussing inventory problems with an acquaintance. She’s living in a generous, now empty, family nest and everybody’s everything is still in the house. She’s a road warrior on the go four out of five days of the work week and is no kid anymore. Not only is she knee-deep in bulk, but much of it is antique bulk that is fragile and culturally significant. Her kids don’t care about the Mayflower cradle, and she is barely witting about the worth of the Asian antiquities her missionary forebears accumulated.

I listened to Susan much as someone concerned about child abuse listens to tales of domestic difficulty. Raised with righteous Yankee modesty, she barely comprehends the significance of her cultural legacy or how seriously at risk are the irreplaceable artifacts she was describing.

It’s time to get real. A medical or environmental emergency can strike anyone at any age, but the odds get shorter over time. It greatly reduces stress to know that the treasures in one’s care will be safeguarded by knowing hands.

This is not an area in which I'm expert, but I suggested Susan visit the Seattle’s Asian Art Museum library to find ways of managing her collection. Collection it is, although inadvertent. Finding out what she has will give her leverage about what to keep and what to find homes for. A little research will also allow her to educate those offspring about what they are declining.

At the end of her life, my grandmother perched comfortably in one elegantly furnished room in a dignified retirement home. She was surrounded by the best of the family’s best, and the space was very satisfying. Were Susan to high grade her inventory and corral it into a defined space, she could educate the family, put things up for grabs, and then responsibly dispose of what is left. A copy of The National Manual Of Housekeeping will keep daily maintenance from degrading the value of the keepers. For starters, move porcelain in a padded wicker basket, preferably on a rolling cart. I don't know specifics, but I think there are insurance companies that specialize in collections.

Making decisions about inventory is the hard work of housekeeping. Cognition is the core of organizing, and the heavy lifting that accompanies a sort demolishes the brain. Life became sweeter and the house better organized after I bought a bold marker, stationer’s green and red stick-on dots, and a huge roll of trash bags. Choosing to behave as if the family knew how to read and write, I labelled bags and boxes with rough indications of the contents and destination, adding a green dot for things to go or a red one for things to stay.

Putting dozens of petty decisions in writing meant not having to make dozens of petty decisions more than once. I could then save what remained of my cognitive capacity for the pizza order while strong backs decided what they wanted to do with the stuff.

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