My Elul Yard Sale

September 16, 2014

Every fall, I’m drawn to the community-wide garage sale like a fly to honey. You never know what you’ll find at these things, and I love the thrill of the search. They also allow for a bold kind of people watching that wouldn’t be socially acceptable among living creatures. You can stare all you want at the stuff on the tables without being creepy, and there’s an awful lot to learn about folks by examining what they’ve owned and used, but want to unload.

There’s an array of human emotion out there on those tables, too, in the backstories about the outgrown toys, the mismatched silverware, and the silly tchotchkes that sat in cabinets for ages and are now on offer for $1 firm. I often leave with an item just because I want to conjure up an entire tale about it in my head, though the buyer’s remorse is inevitable once the story has been told.

This fall, however, I decided not to go.

If you were to land suddenly in my living room, you’d see that I run a pretty neat shop. Yet my shelves and closets are full, in some cases teeming. Guilt, gravity, and denial account for a large percentage of what is here. For a while, though, I’ve been craving a less cluttered existence and a house that contains only what we need and love. So back in May, I decided to pare down once and for all.

I got started in earnest when the kids finished school, spending countless summer hours combing through our stash. By the end of July, I’d already filled 19 bags of clothing for Lupus, whose truck arrived at 7 a.m. one day to cart it all away. That was easy. Most of it didn’t fit.

Things with sentimental value that we just couldn’t use anymore were harder to part with, though onward I marched. I posted items for free so frequently on the community board that people asked if we were moving. We gave our son’s motorized toy bike to friends with young grandsons, to their utter delight. Someone else claimed our unused stroller for a family in need, while the rest of the first round of clearing out went to our shul, which participated in the town-wide garage sale.

The slow reclaiming of space has been wonderful, as has been stumbling upon some lovely old pieces I won’t be parting with in this process. I found the oddball assortment of Barbie accessories from my childhood (including her Nancy Sinatra boots), a lovely cup and saucer I bought in Vienna, my great aunt’s college ring, and plenty of other little bits I inherited from long-gone relatives I never knew.

I could argue a great case that overseeing this repository is a good thing, not an attachment issue. At some point down the line, someone may be glad I’ve kept what I have. After all, antiques and heirlooms are generally considered fine collectibles and the items from our family are an invaluable link to our past. Still, one of my sons once asked, “Can’t we own anything that wasn’t old first?”

One day, may we please G-d live to 120, the boys will have to make decisions about what they value in this house. It won’t be pretty. I have more than once witnessed the consolidation of a lifetime’s worth of goods. It can be tear-jerking and painful. I’m mindful of that all the time. In fact, that’s part of the inspiration for this whole decluttering business in the first place.

My delightful grandmother was the tchotchke queen. The triage – what stayed, what went, and to whom – was an emotionally fraught process when she moved into an assisted living and then again when she passed away. We each took what was dear to us, but the rest wound up in bags and boxes. In the end, we can’t take it with us to the next world, and no one else has room to take it either.

When my husband’s great aunt was 94, she had me write my name on Post-It notes and place them on the items I wanted after her passing. In her loving yet pragmatic way, she tried to ease the process of dispersing her belongings, so she lived with those yellow papers dotting the shelves of her apartment until she died two years later.

Yes, this business of stuff is tiring on so many levels. I can imagine the cursing under my sons’ collective breath when the time comes to tackle what their father and I have squeezed into this house. I hope I’ll continue this healthy, periodic review of our things. But there’s no way I can toss all of it, and yard sale or not, lovely items find their way in all the time. On the upside, we can’t easily reach the attic, so they won’t find any surprises up there.

As I’m busy cleaning, I can’t help thinking that Elul is a lot like an annual town-wide garage sale. Together as a community, we clear out the clutter in our hearts and minds, laying everything on the table so we can take stock of what we’ve done over the past twelve months. There’s plenty of doer’s remorse, and we wish desperately to return the ugly bits to where they came from in the first place. But there they are, exposed, and we cannot turn back time.

We’re lucky, though, that we do this each year, this taking out of boxes and bins in which we’ve stashed what we don’t want to think about. With it all splayed out in front of us, we can clear the decks, ready to start fresh, hopeful that we won’t make the same mistakes again: the foolish deeds, the words best left unsaid, and the moments we’re not very proud of at all.

But there are also items we’re happy to cling to, and we need to value those, too. Those are the keepers, the ones we want to make a habit of, the collections we want to put away somewhere safe from year to year, the ones that make the cut. The ones we want our children to find when they clear up after we’re gone, delighting in the fact that we didn’t toss everything.

A sweet and healthy New Year to everyone! Shana Tova!