Friday, June 22, 2007

You Can't Take It With You

I'm not sure what it is, but there seems to be a blogging mommy zeitgeist out there right now that's zeroed in on the problem of clutter, the constant war against Too Much Stuff, the need to find areas of simplification, the ever-present problem of the child who has outgrown two drawers full of slacks before you've finished giving away the last sack of clothing he recently outgrew, and related issues.

I've enjoyed reading them, seeing helpful hints, being motivated by a successful decluttering or two, and sharing in the angst and humor that seems to accompany the process of pruning, paring, and purging. It has been especially nice since I'm in 'clean-out' mode myself; there's nothing like seeing what a clever mom has done to solve a persistent area of clutter magnetism to encourage me or give me direction.

All of these things seem to me to be a normal and expected result of living the life of a lay married Catholic mother with children. Children grow, their clothing and shoe sizes change, their interests develop, their creativity demands appropriate stimulation, their reading explodes from the simple picture books to complex novels in such a short time that it's almost dizzying; in short, children are surrounded by things they're swiftly moving past or beyond throughout the tiny window of freedom and joy we call childhood.

Dealing with the aftermath of a growth spurt or a dramatic shift in the materials required by a budding painter to those required by a budding crochet wizard (thanks, Auntie!) seems to me to be one of the ordinary, sometimes vexatious, but ultimately rewarding aspects of a mother's life.

There's something sweet about boxing up those tiny shoes to pass them along to a neighbor or stranger in need. There's something exciting about seeing a child move from Play-Doh to real modeling clay. There's something wonderful about collecting children's classic literature when your four-year-old still likes pop-up books. There's something satisfying in figuring out, on your own, the ultimate storage solution for your child's favorite building blocks or her button collection. And here in the land of hundred-degree summers, there's something magical about seeing the reappearance of soccer balls and baseball equipment when late autumn finally brings a hint of energizing frost in the welcome swirls of cool wind.

We don't want our children to be rampant materialists. But we do want them to be children.

Which is why I must confess to a feeling of dismay upon reading a few blogs where the resident mom has taken the notion of decluttering, of having a clean and tidy home, to a level that some extol as being simple and uncomplicated, but which strikes this admittedly outside observer as being austere and cold. There seems to be a focus on having only a few things, but on making sure that the things are of good quality, which nearly always means expensive. There seems to be a sense that this is virtuous, to skip, for example, birthday or Christmas gifts altogether in favor of some more meaningful party, assuming that what is meaningful to the adult is also meaningful to the child. There seems to be an underlying assumption that being materialistic always means having too many things, but that it never means having too many conditions set up around the things you have, restrictions and rules based on the number, material, quality, utility, or perceived longevity of each and every object you purchase for your child or your home. This is not true; the harried mother who quickly grabs a few pairs of pajamas at a discount store for her growing children is being far less materialistic than the mother who is exclusive about where she shops, what material the pajamas have to be, how long she expects the pajamas to last, and whether or not the pajamas satisfy some inner aesthetic rule known only to her.

Lest the above seem too harsh, I'd like to be clear. I don't mind if someone decides that this kind of austerity works for her and for her family. I do mind if it is in any way set up as some kind of overwhelming act of virtuous anti-materialism that it behooves other Christian mothers to copy and follow. It may be many things, but it does not avoid being materialistic; it simply changes the focus from quantity to quality.

Because, you see, anyone who is not living as a priest or religious, who has not taken a vow of poverty, is going to be concerned in some way with material things. When Our Lord told Martha that Mary had chosen the better part, He wasn't telling Martha to quit cooking His dinner. Some of us live vocations that require us to meet the needs of other people besides ourselves, and we will intersect with the material world whether we want to or not. We will have to make choices about the things we allow into our lives and our homes, but if we want to avoid being materialistic we have to learn to avoid thinking and acting as though things are important to us. The person who shops constantly and the person whose children aren't allowed to read books that didn't come from the library are both making the same error: they are both letting material goods become the king of their lives.

In the end, the discount store pajamas and the nice quality, 'better' version will both be dust. The silly plastic beads in the dress-up box will fall into the same decay as the expensive, handcrafted wooden blocks residing on the artisan toy shelf. Our simple but costly hand-fired earthenware dishes will meet the same fate as Great-Aunt Betsy's pre-war Woolworth 'fine' china; the library of leather-bound classics will moulder just as badly as endless paperback copies of "Little House" books.

We can see this clearly, if we open our eyes to it.

What bits and pieces remain of ancient Greece or Rome? How much of ancient Crete survives? What is left of Ur of the Chaldeans? Alas, Babylon; you, too, are dust. The fragments of once great cities hide a favorite vase or pot, left in shivered fragments in the mud; from the tomb of the Pharaohs a gold mask is lifted, and placed in a museum for our edification, its wearer long past the point where he could complain that the colors didn't please him or that he had too many gold masks already.

Jesus put it this way, speaking to His apostles: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be." (Matt 6: 19-21)

My greatest earthly treasure is my family. I don't mind if I have to help my children clean out the things they've outgrown; I don't mind buying more paint or yarn or buttons here and there, if these things are helping them to learn and to grow into the adults that God wants them to be. He will someday call them to a vocation, and it's true that if I've let them become selfishly materialistic and this impedes a call, say, to a convent, then I'm failing them; but I would also be failing them if I raised them in an enforced ascetic and austere lifestyle that caused them to overcompensate as adults by buying for themselves the childish things they always dreamed of having when they were children, and never received.

St. Paul tells us that he put aside childish things when he became an adult, and I'm already seeing this at work in my family, though my children aren't all that grown-up yet. Toys they squealed with delight over at age five or six no longer entrance them; birthday wishes are more likely to include a piece of clothing, a book and some art supplies than anything that can strictly be called a toy. The years of the over cluttered toy box will soon be behind me, at least for now, and in some odd way I'll probably miss them. The next years will fly by so fast, too, as the girls go from pink lipgloss and pretend games to real lipstick and real life. Time is relentless, and nothing we have on earth will last.

In the end, letting ourselves be too focused on things seems like the most childish thing of all.


Emily said...

Okay. Hats off to you again! I read these minimalist posts and when my husband came home I began to explain how great it was and how maybe we should be "minimalists" too. Only thing is, we've tried that. I have tried buying one nice waldorfy $100 doll (with Grandma's birthday money). After harassing my daughter constantly about taking good care of it - it's head fell off!! The rest of my kids toys were picked up at thrift stores. Oddly enough (or not so) my daughter's other dolls have been left out in the rain, dipped in mud puddles, used to bait the dog, used to fight "dinosaurs" etc etc. I never bothered her about "how to care for them" and .... they still have their heads!!!!!
We have also tried limiting clothes to 5 outfits. Last fall I was feeling temporarily snobby and I bought 5 Land's End dresses for each of my girls. When the inevitable happened (my 2 year old drew on 2 of hers, several others were badly stained from eating something or other, one was accidentally cut with scissors, another cut with scissors (but not accidentally) I had a fit. Now, our closets have returned to being full of my $.99 thrift store finds. I don't yell anymore. And I really could care less about what I wear. I just don't think about it... just reach in and grab some thrift store clothes and off I go.
Anyway... the allure of minimalist living is so.... ALLURING. But in the end I think it makes me crabby and too focused on the few "material possessions" we do allow into the house.

You go, girl!
Keep telling it like it is.

Red Cardigan said...

Emily, thanks! It's great to hear from someone who actually tried minimalism and can be realistic about it all.

I think my concern isn't that some people like to live this way--if they can make it work, great! But it isn't a surer path to holiness than any other method of family life, in my view.

Thanks for a great comment! :)

diana said...

I tried being minimalistic after a friend (vegan, unschooling, you know the type)got on my case a bit.
But you know, I don't agree with that stance.
I teach my kids how to shop. I feel it's important to get the most from my money. We don't waste money. My oldest is learning how to bargain shop, and I taught her if she sees an item she wants, think of a price in her head, and then see if she can budget it. She'll need it for when she has a family. She has on her own said she didn't need something,even if I encouraged her to get it. I feel my job is to get the most stuff for my family at the least cost. So I hit the rummages and thrift markets. If I find a great glider rocker at a rummage for 40 dollars well, I don't really need it but it sure is nice for a kid's room. I have bought good quality toys that my kids loathed. They like what they like and play with just about everything. And we have a lot of stuff.

To me its more important that they TAKE CARE OF THE THINGS THEY OWN. I say that God had allowed us to have these things and so we must be the good stewards of what we own. I taught them to be grateful. But they must take care of it, pick it up, put it away, organize it themselves. I don't have time for it and no one wants mom to decide what leaves the house.

My house is nasty neat, there are some messes, like our library and garage, but they are under control and I have a plan. I place the responsibility of ownership on the kids. We have all the pieces of our games and toys, no one scribbles with crayon on the walls, or thinks to leave a mess.
We say as a prayer every once in awhile, "God, help us use our resources WISELY." And that's enough for us.

Willa said...

I sure like your blog, which I just discovered through your link on the Real Learning message board. I linked to your post on my blog, and put a quote from Chesterton's Heretics which was too long to paste here in its entirety. -- but here's the operative section.

The only simplicity that matters is the simplicity of the heart. If that be gone, it can be brought back by no turnips or cellular clothing...If that remain, it matters very little if a few Early Victorian armchairs remain along with it.

Red Cardigan said...

Willa, welcome--and I LOVE the quote!! :)