“Things! Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful fire! More room in your heart for love, for the trees! For the birds who own nothing — the reason they can fly.” –“Storage,” Mary Oliver–
Mary Oliver! Such truth, such wisdom! At once humble and confident, Oliver seems able to catch a ray of light and express it through words. (I love writing. I do. But I STRUGGLE with that poetic element of conveying physical beauty. Mad respect to those writers who possess this gift. Mary Oliver is definitely one of them. Check out this other post I wrote about her and her wisdom.)
So in this particular excerpt, Oliver doesn’t mince words (just one of the beautiful aspects of poetry — words are very deliberately chosen and ordered, like jewels lined up and patterned). She starts (simply) with the one-word exclamation, “Things!”
I wonder what that means to all the readers out there. I wonder what that means to you. Do we read that as if she’s exasperated? Hopeless? Angry? Excited? Surprised? Take a moment and experience the poem for yourself, from beginning to end. Pause for just a moment after the exclamation, assess your own emotion, and continue:
When I moved from one house to another
there were many things I had no room
for. What does one do? I rented a storage
space. And filled it. Years passed.
Occasionally I went there and looked in,
but nothing happened, not a single
twinge of the heart.
As I grew older the things I cared
about grew fewer, but were more
important. So one day I undid the lock
and called the trash man. He took
I felt like the little donkey when
his burden is finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing — the reason they can fly.
A wise student once said that good poetry changes you — that you’re not the same person at the end of a poem as you were at the beginning. Wow. (Sometimes I have these moments as a teacher when I stand in sheer amazement that I get to do what I do. The wisdom that radiates from the beautiful humans that are my students floors me.)
All that to say, I came out of that Oliver poem changed. When I got to “Things,” I can only describe my emotion as happy resignation. Things — who needs ’em? What a great reminder that this beautiful life we live with the beautiful friends and family we’re so fortunate to share it with is more important than things. Things encroach. Things overflow. Things make babies. And before we know it
When our lives start turning into a photo feed of (heavily filtered) stuff . . .
Where are we? Where are we really?
I got rid of my “dustbuster” vacuum today. It hasn’t worked well in awhile, and I have an upright vacuum that gets the job done. (I also would probably shed real tears if Mary Oliver advised me to toss my Dyson Small Ball Multi Upright Vacuum Cleaner I Love It So Much into a bonfire.) There was no good reason to keep a sub-par dustbuster in my house, especially when it was sitting underneath the piano getting dusty and collecting dog-fur tufts.
Yesterday, I gave away three reusable bags. (Let me tell you, those make babies!)
And my husband and I make it a point to read the books we have and then give them away. We consider the public library our “storage unit” for our books. What a concept! Read more about the wonder that is the public library here.
It feels good to purge things and make a beautiful fire (or just drop them off at Salvation Army or Goodwill). And remember, when we get rid of things, we open up room in our heart for love — and in my case today, after lugging a couple of bags to the Goodwill drop-off location, I opened up room in the back of my car. I suppose the case could be made that love might happen in the back of one’s car. There are still a couple of bags back there that I need to drop off at Round Robin consignment, so maybe not quite enough room for love . . . yet.
As I write this post, sitting at a desk that is quite full of odds and ends, I know that getting rid of things is never ending. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t try. Have some spots in your house that you keep nice and clutter free — spots that spark joy (check out this spark joy podcast, based on the book The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up).
But tangible things(!) are only part of the problem. Our homes and cars and classrooms and cubicles and desks and backpacks and lockers get cluttered with who-knows-what, but our minds get cluttered with things, too. I’m a firm believer that decluttering our physical lives helps declutter our mental lives.
And when we’re decluttered humans, we’re better humans. (If you’re a regular reader — thank you!! — you know that being a better human is important to me. I hope it is for you, too.) I think Oliver believes that being better humans means we’re more open — whether it’s our home for unannounced guests or our hearts for love (or the backs of our cars . . . ).
So how can we declutter?
The tangible things: Well I’d start with a good ol’ fashioned purge of your stuff. Donate it. Give it to a friend. (Burn it!) Try not to get too emotionally attached to things. (They don’t love you back.)
The intangible things: Take some things off your schedule (and therefore off your mind). Try for fewer activities. Allow your kids to have open schedules that include boredom from time to time. Allow yourself some boredom from time to time. Put the phone in another room (or — gasp — don’t bring it with you on your errands). When you’re back with your phone, reassess what you actually need (I use that term loosely) notifications for. Maybe notifications for phone calls and texts only.
And then: Go outside. Play piano. Sing. Write. Read. Talk to your spouse. Talk to a friend (not Siri; not Alexa).
I think Mary Oliver would advise sitting under a tree and listening to the birds. (Think about the last time you did that; I can’t remember the last time I did that.)
We shouldn’t let a day go by without getting into nature. Writing this, I’m hoping to finish soon and go sit on my screened-in porch and listen to the cicadas and frogs harmonizing in my backyard. This is a way I can get into nature — and not get mosquito bites. (Mosquitoes: not an element of nature I want to “get into.”)
Mary Oliver’s advice is simple: get rid of the things in our lives that we really don’t care about. We won’t miss them, and getting rid of them will release a burden. We’ll free up our homes and hearts for love. Remember the birds who own nothing? It’s the reason they can fly.
So let’s get rid of our things.
Let’s get rid of our things (in our daily planners).
Let’s get rid of our things (that notify and beep and buzz).
Let’s get rid of our things (that worry, that stress, that cause us to lose sleep).
Let’s get rid of our things,