For my friend Susie, it was the winter. Days and days of being marooned in her Cape farmhouse on the edge of Freeport, Maine, trapped by snow and ice, sometimes without electricity, worrying from November to March about sump pumps and heating bills, cars too cold to start.
‘I want a two-bedroom condo,’ she emailed in February.
‘You’d hate it,’ I wrote back. ‘Besides, what about Christmas?’
‘I can’t live all year for one week in December, especially now the children have to rotate with their in-laws. When it’s my turn to do Christmas, I’ll rent a big house somewhere warm.’ And with uncharacteristic speed, she began trawling the internet, meeting her financial advisor, viewing apartments in Portland and disposing of a lifetime’s accumulation of stuff.
After each trip home, Phoebe and Rufus left with their cars loaded with paintings, books, dishes, quilts, utensils, china, glass, curtains, rugs, scrapbooks, keepsakes. In April, Susie emailed me the website where I could take a tour of the clutter-free version of her house. It made me think of Isak Dinesen’s description when she was leaving Africa, her house, empty of furniture, was admirably ‘clean like a skull’.
For my friend Francine, it was her back. After years of creating a wonderful garden almost single-handed, she shovelled one load of compost too many and spent a painful winter wondering if she’d ever tackle another weed. She spent her days visiting cranial osteopaths, acupuncturists and chiropractors. In the end, her GP who diagnosed a damaged ligament. The pain subsided, but she knew that her digging days were over.
‘I’m thinking about selling my house and moving to Whitstable,’ she told me one morning. She reckoned she’d do it in two years’ time. Feeling expert, thanks to Susie’s emails extolling the joy of heated garages and life pared down to the crème de la crème of one’s long acquisitive life,
I advised: ‘Do it now, while you have stamina and hope.’ When Francine sold her house within the month, I began muttering ‘Let me rephrase that’.
With both friends, I’ve been living through the melancholy dispersal of the contents of houses. When he was leaving a six-room apartment in New York for a farmhouse in Maine, E. B. White wrote that a ‘home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on night and day-smoothly, subtly, imperceptibly.’ Things arrive and, like the snow that seals the door of the woodshed shut, the cumulus of years seals us in and we wonder if we will ever get out.
I’ve now lived in this house for 24 years, adding my goods and chattels to the layers of four generations. The only things that have left on a regular basis are the rubbish and the paper and bottles for recycling. Everything else has somehow taken root, and when charm or usefulness susbsides, it makes its way to the attic or the cellar.
But now, I find myself dreaming of downsizing, a dream not shared by my husband, so I’m developing strategies for downsizing while staying put. While filling boxes, I speculate on how we all became such so acquisitive. Post-Second World War prosperity? The mad 1980s? The cheapness of everything ‘made in China’? The mall?
Last week, I took a break and went to see the Renaissance draw-ings at the British Museum. On one wall of the exhibition was a quote from the journal of Florentine banker and patron Giovanni Rucellai. ‘It is generally said (and it is true) that earning and spend-ing are among the greatest pleasures given to men in this world, and it is difficult to say which one gives greater pleasure.’ He wrote that in 1473, which suggests that acquiring, shuffling and disposing of our worldly goods is as old as the Moon.