Fool’s gold

April 13, 2010 at 9:18 pm | In writing | 2 Comments

Last Friday I met with an architect friend who’s working on a creative side project that involves drawing, from memory, the floor plans of houses she has lived in, and annotating them with anecdotes (as opposed to building instructions). She’s asking friends to draw their floor plans for her, adding the results to an archive she’s constructing.

Although I must have moved house ten times with my parents before moving out on my own when I was 17, there’s one house (ironically “in the sticks”) with which I associate strong memories. It’s located on a country road outside a village in Germany, near the Dutch border. We moved there when I was 3 1/2, leaving a relatively comfortable urban apartment in Duesseldorf so that my father could pursue one of his crazy schemes: starting his own paint factory. He went “into business” with two creeps who invested nothing, while he sunk our savings into the venture. Then he went bankrupt, spectacularly, and was reduced to working day and night shifts to keep the bailiffs off our backs. My mother once broke down in tears because she had no money to buy one of us new shoelaces. Well, I guess we at least had shoes, though… 😉

When I was 8, one of my father’s former apprentices, who had emigrated to Winnipeg and worked his way to significant prosperity, visited us in our diaspora and suggested that we, too, should emigrate. So we did. Call the emigration diaspora 2.0, except there weren’t no internets back then…

Given the opportunity to contribute to the creative floor plans project, I drew that house, with which I associate some terrible events, but also (as it turns out) things that continue to have a hold on me.

As I wrote yesterday, I’m reading Julie Morgenstern’s latest book, SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life: A Four-Step Guide to Getting Unstuck, and am trying to embark on a SHED process right now. It’s a tough slog. My approach isn’t exactly as Morgenstern lays it out in her book: I am separating and heaving (the “S” and the “H” in SHED) more or less simultaneously, if only so I can machete my way through what has become of my study (and god, how I dread tackling the basement in the coming weeks). But one insight from Morgenstern’s book is already throwing some new light on my habit of accruing stuff around a certain subject or area.

When I drew my creative floor plan, I recalled three areas of the house most vividly: my father’s study, which I loved spending time in because of its numerous books (including a fair number of art and architectural history books); the attic where one of my sisters made her lair: she had learned dressmaking and had all the tools of the trade up there – she was also heavily into Karneval and costumes; and – the jewel in my crown of memories – the outbuilding which housed my father’s paint factory. After he had to abandon the business, the mixers and all the paraphernalia stayed behind: powdered pigments in glass containers lined the shelves; various mysterious fluids, made from aromatic gums, turpentine, and oils beckoned; latex galore (he was making latex paint); and drawers filled with esoterica. My favorite was the one that contained the gold, bronze, and silver leaf.

I loved “playing” in that paint factory – which wasn’t hard to do, since no one else was using it. I wasn’t supposed to be in there, but of course I went anyway. Who would miss a piece of gold leaf? Who would want to miss seeing it quiver when the air moved over it too briskly? Who would punish me for trying to make paint on my own? If anything, I suspect my father was pleased that at least someone in the family was interested in what he had tried to do.

What does this have to do with SHEDing? Well, Morgenstern counsels looking in one’s personal history for the triggers that prompt particular hoarding or cluttering-up behaviors. My interesting (to me) insight today was that I attach a great deal of love to objects like books and creative-crafting-home-repair supplies (including paints), as well as luxury materials like nice fabrics or sumptuous costumes (my sisters – the one who sewed in particular – were often tasked with taking care of me).

And those are the areas where the clutter accrues, where it’s hardest for me to heave.

My mother, on the other hand, is sadly absent in my various collections – and I have no problems with hoarding or cluttering up the part of my life that might be associated with her.

She was an accomplished cook and baker; every year she made preserves and canned vegetables. She had all the domestic skills, but she was no sentimentalist. Worry and work had ground her down: it never felt comfortable around her, she was perpetually harried. She had been quite a good athlete (swimmer), and I think her way of expressing herself was fundamentally physical. I also suspect that she scorned talk as something cheap – and a waste of time. God knows my father did enough talking for five people. In my mother’s orbit, everything was hard and edgy. She banished any sort of tchotchke from her domain. Why? It would have to be dusted, and the less there was to dust, the better. Dust was the enemy, and dust was always on the offensive. Many things, including memory, were a waste of time. And eventually she probably concluded that looking into the future just meant seeing shit.

“Get rid of it” could have been her motto.

Today, during my 2 hours of trying to SHED, I threw out the hoarded remains of craft and paint supplies I continued to hang on to, in case I (or the kids) were to start up again. (Yes, pathetic.) I have a possible recycle/ give-away pile (if someone wants it) that includes brushes, a baren, and a brayer; nearly half a gallon of white glue; miniature trees (for models); various charcoal sticks; about 40 small jars with lids that would be perfect for someone’s craft supplies; a clutch of small glass vials and droppers; a stack of fabric and paper sample books; a Print Gocco (I’m really loathe to part with that one – but heave it I should: it’s not really a treasure anymore); stacks of home decor magazines; …and I haven’t even started on the closet in my study, which contains various treasures related to making sculptures and to artisan paper, along with a sewing machine and a serger.

God, I’m doomed.

And this – my room – is the easy part. The basement on the other hand… That’s the department of discontinued lines, the electronics graveyard, the power tools horror show…

I could channel my mother and throw it all out, but having read Morgenstern’s book, I now know that my father would just come back and clutter it all up again. So I have to tread very carefully and make my peace with what I’m tossing.


While I was thinking about this entry, I remembered writing about an article called Quitting the Paint Factory by Mark Slouka a while back, and decided to look for it in my archives. Turns out I referenced it as part of a larger blog post I wrote nearly 6 years ago (in 2004), called Why read blogs? It’s in part about community, the qualities of online communities, and the differences between online/ virtual communities and real-life communities. (I also discovered that my link to Slouka’s article has gone dead, but that this blogger rescued the article for online reading: thanks!)

My long long entry from 2004 (with several long long comments) startled me. I can’t believe I wrote about all these questions concerning community as far back as 2004 – and it’s still topical today.

Maybe I need to put together a book one of these days. Not write, as such, another book – done that; but rather compile one from these entries here.


  1. I’m also in the process of de-cluttering. I blogged a little about one item I found here:

    Other items seem woefully outdated. Things like high school worksheets on how to type inter-office memoranda (justified left, no salutation, etc). There’s a stack of art school drawings that I think I will photograph and toss.

    Comment by robert randall — April 15, 2010 #

  2. Well, you’ve beat me if you still have stuff from high school flying around…! Interesting entry you wrote (Peace in our time)!

    Comment by Yule — April 16, 2010 #

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