News flash: I have way too much stuff.
Our nest recently emptied, Tom and I live in a house that is now too big for us, filled with way more stuff than we need or have time to maintain. Recently, we have been longing for less, and have been considering our options. What in our lives is worth keeping as we slide into our "golden" years? What can we gleefully chuck into the dumpster with nary a second thought? These questions apply not just to stuff, but to all aspects of our lives: tasks, responsibilities, thought patterns, prejudices, relationships...
What does this have to do with family history, you ask? I promise to come back around to the relevant subject, if you, dear reader, can forgive a few personal musings along the way.
A recent visit to Pittsburgh, where my daughter and her husband just moved for a two-year grad school adventure, really got me thinking about the issue of "stuff." They left Utah with only what they could fit into their car, putting all their beautiful wedding gifts and other accumulations in storage. They rented a small studio apartment close to campus and purchased a bed, a chair, a desk, and a small dining table.
(Lest you think she was born minimalist, just know that this is the same girl who just a few short years ago, during a marathon room-cleaning session, clutched each of a dozen matted, ball-point-tattoo'd Barbies to her chest, sobbing and wailing, "But I'll never see it agaaaaiiiiin!")
She and I had fun with some inexpensive Pinterest projects to brighten up the apartment. During a visit to Ikea, I spied a cute little loveseat. "You need a couch," I said.
"Why?" she replied.
"Well, where will you sit to watch TV?"
"On the bed."
"What if you want to have people over?"
"There's nowhere to park near here, so I doubt we'll be having many visitors."
She had a point there. But I knew she had really internalized her newfound minimalism after I got home. "Grandma wants to buy you something for your new apartment. What do you need?"
She couldn't think of a single thing.
So, what does this have to do with family history, again?
I'm getting there, I promise.
In an inspired quest to simplify my life, I've lately been reading articles and blog posts about the trendy concept of "minimalism." Once I got past the initial minimalist stereotypes--young rich white boys giving up their corporate jobs to blog full time in an all-white room with nothing but two turtlenecks, one pair of jeans and a laptop, or hippie couples living in tiny mobile homes in Vermont--I realized that minimalism is really about consciously choosing what's really important to us, and what we can live without, in order to make room for what we truly value.
Seriously, what's not to like about this concept?
Here's the family history tie-in. We see so many clients that are overwhelmed by the amount of family history "stuff" they have accumulated, and in many cases inherited. They look at the stack of boxes and all they feel is stress and guilt. "I should do something with this." Boxes upon boxes of moldy old photographs and oversized binders brimming with yellowed pedigree charts; it's exhausting to contemplate. Which is the very reason they inherited it all in the first place--because the previous generation was too exhausted to deal with it. But it was too important to throw away.
The very nature of what's in the boxes cripples our ability to pare it down in a sensible way.
If we have five wire whisks in the kitchen drawer, and we really only need one, we can dump the other four because we know that if we were mistaken, we can always drive on over to the dollar store for another whisk.
But these mysterious Boxes are full of History. It's a heavy word, a weighty responsibility. The irreplaceable, inscrutable runes and heiroglyphics of the family knowledge have come into your possession. And you, by choice or by default, are the High Priest or Priestess, the keeper of the legacy. And that's a lot of pressure. Enough to make most people shut the door of the storage room and turn on Duck Dynasty instead.
To the question "if your house were burning down, what would you grab?" my answer was always: those Boxes. About 20 years ago, this thesis was tested when a wildfire raced down a hill toward my house. Fortunately, the fire was contained and we were able to return after a short time. But I had thrown out my back hoisting a half-dozen cartons of memorabilia into the trunk of the car. That was my first inkling that something had to change.
It took a few years, but eventually I did find ways to manage the beastly Boxes. Along the way, I also learned to manage the stress and guilt, that nagging gravitational pull of being responsible for such important Stuff. And an unexpected side benefit: the process of transforming the contents of the Boxes into something beautiful, useful, and user-friendly led me to a new career.
Stay tuned for Part Two of this post, in which I detail my (ongoing) process in taming the Boxes, and find a measure of peace and creative fulfillment along the way.
Note: You can read Part Two of this post here.