Decluttering Your Life, Letting Go

Dirt Sucking or Life-Sucking?

I remember the day my father produced the brand new red Kirby vacuum. In true Dad fashion, when he would decide to purchase a new rather than used appliance, it had to be among the best, even though he must have known that in our house, it would be only a matter of weeks or maybe months until the new purchase was rendered useless or at least just mediocre by some action of one of us kids or my mother. But he, being an eternal optimist, bought the vacuum that had all the bells and whistles for its time. Hoses and attachments hung on the sides like groupies to an icon, and when the Kirby roared to life, you could almost feel the dirt trembling inside the carpet.

Those were glory days in the living room. When I vacuumed, I felt as though I was really making a difference, not just in the house, but in the world at large. Surely no child in Africa would starve so long as I had the power of this vacuum at my disposal. Trailblazing with the Kirby was like being on one of those vacuum commercials, where no matter what spilled, the vacuum could blaze through like a dirt-sucking steed and save the day. So of course, I put that commercial theory to the test whenever I had a chance. Nails on the floor? No match for Kirby. Marbles and Legos: Beware! Even bits of leftover grilled cheese sandwich hidden under the couch were spared no mercy. With my vacuum at my side, I was the invincible cleaner. I actually enjoyed vacuuming. Unfortunately, although dirt was no match for Kirby, the Kirby was no match for the Clarks.

I don’t remember the exact moment when Kirby started making those uncomfortable noises, but it happened sooner than it should have and definitely well before it was paid for. What started with the occasional cough-up of a penny or push-pin soon evolved into full, convulsive choking incidents, as this vacuum of royal descent struggled to come to terms with what cruel fate could have landed it in such a dirt and small-object-laden hell. At times, the vacuum would manage to recover, but with eight people in the house and countless guests in and out, we were relentless in our vacuuming, and soon after one incident ended, another would begin, just as devastating as the last. Here a garble or a haaucchhggh, there an uncomfortable screech, and often the familiar smell, very distinctly reminiscent of burning rubber. After a few bag changes and more than a few belt changes, the Kirby went from being a hero in the battles against ground-in dirt and dust mites to being just another vacuum. Its once regal body armor was soon reduced to a dull, dusty, sticky-finger tainted, middle-aged cleaning tool.

Still, Dad held onto the dream.

“It’s a good vacuum,” he would tell my mother. “I paid a lot of money for it.”

“Jack, it doesn’t work,” she would tell him.

“It does too work,” he would argue, more than a little annoyed that someone might question the usefulness of such a treasure. Then he would go into small appliance surgeon mode and begin work on the vacuum. Some nights, he would work for hours to try to fix his baby. He’d look at it, adjust the belt, change the bag, change the belt, turn it on, turn it off, turn it on, turn it off, you get the idea. Then once in a while, he would pull a small toy or mound of hair from the bowels of the wasting body. Jackpot!

“See?” he would pronounce to my mother, holding up whatever crumpled object he had just removed. “This was stuck in it. Probably one of the kids’ toys. It works fine now.” Mom would give in (actually, she’d give up way before that. Dad would just seek her out to share his triumph), and the vacuum would be back in business for a few more weeks.

Do you see it? It’s there. Just on the other side of the bargain, in the dark corners of your psyche, lurks the splurge. I would bet that you know someone who has an outdated piece of furniture or electronic equipment sitting in his or her garage. It is collecting dust and probably has been for years. Yet the person refuses to get rid of it. Whether the thing works or not is usually irrelevant, as is the reality that the person has absolutely no need or use for the thing anymore. Chances are, that item was a splurge, which I define as “a thing that costs more than you want to spend or that you don’t really need, but you buy it anyway.” That the thing is collecting dust, taking up space, or even costing money to store probably doesn’t matter either.

The fact is that when we pay money – especially more money than we would normally spend on the thing – for something, it is hard to let that thing go. Is it the guilt over replacing the thing so easily? Am I a bad person because as soon as my TV broke, I ran out and bought another one without the proper grieving period? Well, not if I keep the old one around to grow old with me, right? Just because I’ve moved the old E-Z chair to the garage doesn’t mean it is still not giving me comfort. It knows that I still love it. We assign value to things as if they had feelings. As if they were people.

Maybe you see yourself here, unable to part with the things that you no longer need, either because you paid a lot of money for them or because you “feel bad.”But I implore you to consider this: Your broken television does not know that it is going to the recycling center. Your three-legged chair is not afraid of becoming firewood. It died when the tree was first cut down to make a chair. Furthermore, keeping that old chair in the garage does not make you a better person. It just adds to the chaos. Even at the best garage sale, you aren’t going to get more than 10 or 20 percent back from your purchase, and you can never undo the fact that you paid a lot of money for something.

There is nothing wrong with paying a lot of money for something that you really need and/or want. You work hard, and the occasional splurge is not inherently harmful if you can afford it. But there is also nothing wrong with admitting that you no longer want or need it as much as you once did. There is nothing wrong with deciding that you have outgrown the purchase and either desire to replace it or to remove it from your life completely. You don’t have to prolong its death by putting it out to pasture for a few years before pulling the trigger. Things are things, and they don’t have feelings. It is more likely you own feelings of guilt, regret, or sentimentality that are standing in the way. Admitting that your tastes or needs have changed doesn’t make you a bad person.

I’m not sure when the Kirby finally died for good, for we held no funeral, and it was years before it was properly disposed of. Instead, its corpse stood in the hallway closet, the attachments still clinging to it more out of desperation or dementia rather than reverence.  I don’t know if it secretly held me partly responsible for its untimely death. Dad never officially admitted the Kirby was dead, but his trauma manifested itself in a vacuum buying spree that continued for the next ten years. It began with the wet-dry vac, inspired by the overflowing of the washing machine, which left about two inches of water on the basement floor. Then came the entourage of Orecks, Bissells, Hoovers, and Eurekas, steam vacs, canister-vacs, hand-helds, and sweepers. They were all secondhand, as Dad was still licking his wounds from the formerly brand-new Kirby. Apparently, vacuums aren’t like socks or underwear, easy to replace once they’ve outlived their usefulness. Kirby was like part of the family. I spent many a Saturday morning with it, many of them in an attempt to avoid one of my mother’s lectures. Even I sometimes miss its satisfying roar. I guess it was just hard for Dad to let go.

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