Decluttering Your Life, Letting Go

How a Potato Masher Becomes a Nemesis

We’ve all been there. We have decided to do a clean-out. We are knee deep in drawers, closets, and cabinets, and we are feeling weak. Suddenly, something catches our eye. It’s a piece of a vacuum, an old can of paint, an umbrella stand. Suddenly we are overwhelmed by anxiety. Do I keep it or throw it away? Sure, nothing in my house is that color, but what if I decide I need a change? Yes, I already have an umbrella stand, but what if it gets ruined? I know I haven’t used that blender since I replaced it three years ago, but what if the new one breaks? What if, what if, what if? Before long, we are questioning the very foundation of our existence. Will someone just discard me when I am no longer useful? And then comes the ultimate betrayal – that little whisper from the deep recesses of our hoardingbrain, calling out in desperation, “But you might need it someday.”

One of my more memorable items came in the form of a potato masher, which I purchased for $4.99 at Homegoods. It was made of green plastic and had a potato with a little smiley face for a handle. It was adorable enough for me to overlook a few details about my life and throw it in the cart.

My husband, for some reason, saw it as the pinnacle of useless crap.

“What’s this?” he said, pulling it from the utensil drawer.

“It’s a potato masher,” I said.

“A what?” he asked.

“A potato masher,” I repeated. “I bought it so that I didn’t have to buy a mixer. Plus it’s cute.” He stared at it and pondered this explanation.

“But I’m the only one who really eats mashed potatoes,” he said, “and I only like the instant ones.

“Not always,” I replied defensively. “On Thanksgiving, I make real ones.”

“So you bought this in January so that you could mash potatoes in November?” I was starting to get a little annoyed. For God’s sake, who discusses a utensil for this long?

“Yes,” I said. “It was only $4.99. What’s the big deal? Plus it’s cute,” I repeated, trying to impress upon him the notion that  the cuteness of the utensil far outweighed the need for it to be useful or necessary.

“You paid $4.99 for this?” he asked. “What are we, the Rockefellers?”

“I’m sure the Rockefellers have an electric mixer,” I said. 

But I saw it. I saw Rick’s point. He didn’t care that I spent five bucks. The potato masher was just one more thing to add to my drawers and cabinets of many, many other things. I knew that given my background, it was a slippery slope towards my home becoming a series of pathways created by boxes of useless crap. At least, that’s the way I took it.

Rick, being a person who buys next to nothing, wasn’t one to let such things slide. “You mash any potatoes today?” he’d say almost daily, smiling, as he was putting the silverware away. Then he would dig my increasingly neglected masher out of the drawer and hold it up for me to see. I couldn’t blame him, though, because I’d used the same techniques on my siblings and parents for years. Really? You’re going to make something out of this bouquet of dried flowers someday? Hmm, you think you’ll actually dress as Batman again in your mid-forties? Wow! When’s the last time you wore this 1982-concert-tee-turned-muscle shirt? I could already sense the legendary status the potato masher was gaining. Aware that it was on its way to becoming perhaps too legendary to part with, I dropped it into one of the twenty or so “yard sale boxes” in the garage. 

There are many modern conveniences that are designed to make our lives easier Look in your kitchen cabinets. Count the small appliances and the utensils. Do you have a wok? A griddle? A blender? Four whisks? A waffle iron? A margarita maker? A Magic Bullet? A rice cooker? Six rubber spatulas? A deluxe juicer? All of the above? I am not suggesting that you ditch all of your kitchen goods. But consider the things that you bought, thinking, “I’ll use that all the time.” And for the first few days or weeks, you did. But suddenly one day, you realized that you needed a break from stir fry. Maybe your family was starting to get concerned about your frequent margarita habit. Maybe one whisk might be enough. And so you decided to just put that item up on that high shelf for a little while. And suddenly, a big frying pan was easier than dragging out the wok. Margaritas were better when made by a bartender at the beach. The Magic Bullet had lost its magic, and it was just as cheap and a much less messy to buy fresh squeezed juice at the store than to make it in your kitchen.

Might you wish someday that you had held on to that food processor? Maybe. Hell, you might even go out and buy another one and have a satisfying fling a few years down the road. But is it worth spending your life’s energy on indefinitely storing things that will collect dust and take up space that you don’t have?

In 2010, a friend of mine took a yearlong leave of absence from her position as a Media Specialist to travel across the country in an RV with her husband. I listened as she described whittling her life down to a small enough pile to be able to carry it all in an RV. For her, this was an eye-opening experience about what we hold onto and how long we hold onto it. Two years later, she decided to move to South Carolina for a job opportunity. We talked for a while about her relief that she had learned how little she actually needed and about how moving for her was going to be so easy in comparison to what it would have been before her trip. I asked her if she was freaked out about getting rid of so many things that she deemed important enough to buy in the first place.

“You know,” she said to me, “it happens to me all the time. I’ll think, ‘where did I put that?’ And then I remember that I got rid of it. But you know, I’m past the point of that bothering me because at my age, even if I don’t get rid of something, I’ll forget and think that I did.” The point is that if the only reason that you are holding onto something is that you might need it someday, then that is not reason enough.

By the way, I did finally sell the potato masher at a yard sale. I think I got a quarter for it. The girl who bought it held it up to her significant other and said, “Look how cute!” He smiled and nodded. Only he and I knew what was behind that smile.

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