catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 7 :: 2007.04.06 — 2007.04.20


Reading the stash

As a college student I romanticized a life with only a backpack and a guitar case—but also with someplace to stash my turntable and album collection and book collection and all of my favorite letters. I’d live with my light luggage for my summer job in Colorado, and in September I’d set up an award-winning dorm room with all the extras. By February I’d begin packing truckloads to my mother’s house, so she wouldn’t be shocked when she arrived at the end of the school year to take me home. I didn’t have my own room at Mom’s house, but I had plenty of storage space and I took it seriously.

Then I worked as a college residence director for six years—my “home” doubled as a room to hold meetings, so I kept it hospitable and warm. My “pop-up instant home kit” included a handmade quilt for display on the wall, to hide the ubiquitous cinderblock of RD apartments, and a huge braided rug, my favorite swivel rocker and a funky pink and gold standing lamp. I added plates and kitchenware, and matted posters and art prints. When my husband and I married near age thirty, we simply added a handsome futon-couch, some bookshelves and a papasan chair—we swapped living spaces every six months, between an unheated summer live-in job and a winter rental with a view of the Atlantic Ocean, so we had little possibility to accumulate stuff. Then we took a job as the live-in attendants for a historic home, and our living space was visible, daily. We learned to be tidy and to take up little space.

Ten years later we are a family of four crammed into the same square footage as my first apartments, but within walking distance to a beach and a nice downtown. When the children arrived on the scene, we were ensconced in stuff over our heads! With no tours and no meetings taking place in our living space, we’ve lost track of how we used to live, and we are drowning in our own stuff.

Why do we keep what we keep? What is truly necessary? We love books about simple lifestyle so much that we buy and hoard all of those books! How do we regain perspective?

My father is fond of saying, “it’s not eating anything” about the stuff he keeps in his three-bedroom home with the separate garage and workroom. But our stuff is eating us in this small space, and my energy is being eaten away by managing our belongings.

Recently a woman who hosts a knitting blog suggested that knitters and book lovers have serious problems with collecting more stuff than they can read or knit, and she suggested to “Read Your Stash”.  Read it—what does this collection of books say? What does this collection of usable yarn or art fiber say? What does your house say when new people walk in? What does it say to the people who live within?

Certainly new guests read our bookshelves when they walk in the door, running a finger along the spines of the long shelf of rich fiction and contemporary poetry, then the fat shelves of children’s books for every age range. The corner for spiritual books contains an eclectic variety of readings from world religions to Bible translations to nonviolence. It’s a microcosm of my friend Byron’s bookstore motto: “Something to offend everyone.” The same corner holds the practical books on gardening, drawing, writing, cooking, and a comfortable seat surrounded by children’s “icons” and handwritten verses in crayon. There are felted whales and dolphins and stacking wooden ocean waves, rainbows and angels and the kitten’s bed on the bookshelf. It’s a good place to sit and look at the sun sparkling on the ocean, with a book in hand and enough time to doze off.

But it’s impossible not to read our frustration if you “drop by”, to see me hustling to remove the stacks of laundry and coats and the stack of things ready to go out the door, and to remove my husband’s stacks of God-knows-what. He saves paper and magazines. He is an educator—I hear he is not alone in his “but there might be something valuable in there” mindset.

Knitters affectionately call their collection of yarn a “stash,” and notable websites suggest “stash reduction”, “yarn diets”, and stash-busting projects that lessen the load of unused yarns. One website jokes about ways to hide a burgeoning stash from one’s family, and how to hide the money spent on it. My yarn stash is rather tame, with the big yarns filling a file-drawer sized translucent box and the sock-yarns in a smaller translucent box. Both fit easily under the window seat of my bedroom. I typically finish what I start and I only own yarn for multiple pairs of socks and two large unfinished projects—both sets of supplies were purchased more than three years ago, so they’re not eating anything. I knit three or four pairs of socks each year for my children, and one or two for me—wool socks are expensive to purchase, and mine last longer than store-bought, besides being far prettier.

In addition to the yarn, though, I also own a vast stash of other fiber projects. Would you like to tie-dye? Give me thirty minutes and I’ll have you all set up. Craft handmade paper? Another thirty minutes. Supplies for my daughter’s flower fairies are in the clearly marked box, next to the box for her crocheted bracelets and beading. Sewing? Crafting items from shrunken sweaters? Weaving? Would you like a two-inch loom or a professional heddle-loom? I spin yarn. I enjoy paper crafts. This week I am handcrafting another dozen bird’s nests from wool, to sell at the store in my children’s school—I’m making hundreds of dollars from my stash! Lucky me!

I suppose the books say, when we read our stash, that we are literate in a hundred different ways. I hope they say “welcome” and say that the world is a fascinating place. I was charmed when two teenage houseguests pulled the Calvin and Hobbes books from the shelves in a free moment. The handcrafts speak similar things—my children and I are literate in fiber and color and we will try our hand at anything that can be made. I hope that the handcrafts say “you are capable of so much, with your own two hands,” as well as “here, try this.”

What I’d like our whole home to say is “there is plenty of room for you to come and sit comfortably here. We were expecting you. You are a gift. Our house is made for you to come visit.” There is much work to do—right now we scramble anytime we hear footsteps coming up the stairs, or people arrive and I wonder how I’ve neglected the place for so long.

I’m glad I own more than a guitar case and a backpack. I’m a little glad, too, that I cannot fit every book we own on the bookshelves, so I need to sift through things regularly. Though it is a mite too big, I’m glad for how the book stash reads—the part that’s in the living room, anyway. (Did I mention the pop culture section in the bedroom, or the two overflowing “bedside tables”?)The handcrafts are another kind of welcome. I’m glad to teach my children, my friends, and my children’s friends that the world is filled with fascinating shapes, textures and colors, and that it’s all worth a try. I’m going to continue to “read my stash” to find out what it says, and what I can learn from my collecting habits, to learn why I keep what I keep—and perhaps also, to learn how to let go of what I need to let go. I’ll keep the important things, but not everything. Not just a backpack and a guitar case—I’m keeping the kitchenware and the handcraft supplies, and I suppose the crafting kids and the paper-keeping husband, too.

For now, though, would you like to dye Ukrainian eggs? I can set up a Pysanky station for you in about ten minutes—the beeswax and kistky tools and five colors of dye are in the corner cabinet, just an arm’s reach away…

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