Minimalism and Losing a Mentor

mentorMinimalism lite served me well this year. I’m no longer living out the latte effect. My shoes almost all fit into my organizers. There is hope that one day, my husband’s clothes and mine will be able to live side by side in one closet. That’s to say nothing of the money that I’ve made selling my stuff, clocking in at just over $1,300 for the year.

Yes, my watered-down version of decluttering and deowning was a bright spot in 2016. Until I realized that I gave away the saltshakers. Now, I’m not so sure.

Last week, I lost my mentor. She was a guiding light and a force to be reckoned with. At five feet nothing and maybe 95 pounds, she was tiny in stature yet one of the mightiest women I’ve ever met. Think Tuesdays with Morrie and toss in some cigarettes and an affinity for Virginia Woolf.

Our paths crossed my first year of undergrad when she taught an English 101 course with an economics professor. They called it Money Matters. At 18, I wrote essays on housing projects and engagement rings. Under her guidance, I read Shakespeare and economic theory. In one breath, she could move from gender theory analysis and semiotics to Marxism and questions about Freakonomics. She was, simply put, brilliant.

In addition to becoming my advisor for four years, she humored me when I signed up for every class she taught, and she also invited me to serve as a teacher’s assistant for two more revivals of that freshmen class about words and money.

I learned more about teaching from her than I did from the entire education program. She helped me land my first job. She was there for me when I lost that first job twice. For the past nine years, every time something has gone really well or really wrong in my classroom, she’s been an email away.

And then she wasn’t.

As a wedding gift, she bought my husband and me a saltshaker set from an art museum. They wobbled when you pushed them and arms sprouted out the sides. There were no feet. There were no heads. They were equal parts entertainment and nightmare.

This summer, I gave them away. I also tossed the note she penned for our wedding. I didn’t need stuff. Memories are between people, not things. Besides, they’ll always live on in my mind. This overreliance on material goods was proof of how indoctrinated I was in consumer culture. I had to be strong. I had to donate and recycle.

When I got the call that she had passed, I cried. And then I went to find the saltshakers. When I remembered they were gone, I did not feel like I had betrayed her. I felt like I had betrayed myself. When I realized the card was gone as well, it was almost too much.

It is true that no amount of things will ever bring anyone back to us. We can hoard all the clutter in the world, and it still won’t offer up a hug, a quip, or one last burst of laughter from a loved one who left. It is true that the real impact that people make is felt on our lives, not seen in our possessions.

But in this moment, I’d really like to nudge those damn saltshakers one last time.

So Tell Me…Have you ever missed anything that you parted ways with?

Minimalism and Losing a Mentor

29 thoughts on “Minimalism and Losing a Mentor

  1. Sorry to hear about losing your mentor, she sounds awesome! I had the same experience when I found out my dad had passed. I looked around for things that he had given me, or stuff I could look at and remember things more and I realized I’d done the same as you and gotten rid of a lot of it in the name of “decluttering.” Just the same little inane things like your salt shakers. Like you, I had those same feelings.

    I can’t say I missed the stuff, but rather the feeling of the connection with him that came along with that stuff.

    1. Yeah. The salt shakers would traumatize my nephews. But they were so her sense of humor. I do many of my essays that I wrote for her classes and other things to remember her by. But it’s funny what we look for.

      Thanks for the kind words, Mr. SSC.

  2. This year we have been purging our home, not in a superficial way, but the painful deep way. Things that are very dear to my heart. And honestly I miss a lot of them. Not all. But enough of them. But in order for our 1650 sf ft house to comfortably house our 7 people and sweet puppy, we can’t be a safe haven for unused things. If I wanted to spend another $100k to buy a bigger house, then maybe we would keep all those things I miss. But I don’t want to spend that much money to house things we don’t use.

  3. I’m so sorry for your loss. What an incredible woman to have in your life and I have no doubt someone in your classroom will look at you the same way one day.

    I am fortunate and unfortunate in the way of purging. Moving 7 times in 11 years will make you pare down real quick. I did, however, have a major setback last year when I found out the items my ex was storing at our house (I moved out 2 years prior) had all been thrown away without him contacting me first. Everything was gone. My Nanas antique cake stand from out wedding, her handmade velvet bedspread from the 60’s, all my camping gear, photos, my grill. Everything was gone. I was so pissed! And then I realized that had it been that important to me in the first place, I never would have left it there. I had to remind myself that if the house was burning, would those have been the items I grabbed? No.

    The fact that he did the purging for me sucked – but I probably wouldn’t of had the strength to do it myself. We attach memories to items in such a strange and sentimental way. I have heard of people taking pictures of things before donating them but I wonder how many ever look at those photos again? The memory is more powerful than anything else. It sounds like you have a lot of great memories with your mentor…that is worth all of the salt shakers in the world. Again, I am sorry for your loss.

    1. I’m so sorry that it happened that way! That’s really stressful and emotional.

      My parents boxed up all my leftover stuff in the desk I used at their house. There are a few photos that I’ll copy, but I’m not even going through the rest of the box. It can get tossed. If I didn’t miss it for three years, I certainly don’t need it now.

  4. I’m so sorry for your loss. She sounds like an amazing gift–much more so than those salt shakers–and by writing this a piece of her will live on in eternity on the internet and with your readers too. Actually, it already did since you’ve been using what she taught you to write for us and teach your official students.
    Remember the salt shakers fondly, but you don’t need them anymore. She has become a part of you now and you can never lose that.

  5. I am so sorry for your loss. She gave you the greatest gift of all…her time. She left you with lasting memories and lessons you will have with you the rest of your life. Even though the saltshakers are gone, you won’t forget.

  6. I’m very sorry and sad to hear about this.

    I lost my mom 5 years ago, and I’ve had this exact experience. I threw away her old baby shoes. In reality, this shouldn’t have mattered very much. I don’t have kids yet and yes, it would have been One More Thing cluttering our home.

    But when I think about those little shoes I get upset. And that goes for all of the other things of hers that I gave away/threw away/donated. I was down on my luck once and sold some of her gold jewelry–it was stuff I would never wear, but I do regret it at times, even though I needed money for food.

    It’s hard to balance out the desire for decluttering and keeping the things that matter. I’ve started assigning special spots in the house for sentimental things like this. For example, I have a fancy box I’ve filled with all of my mom’s things. This way, it’s all in one organized spot and I know that I shouldn’t get rid of these things.

    1. I’m so sorry for your loss. And it sounds like you have a great system for making sure that you keep track of things that really mean something to you.

      In another week or two, I don’t think I’ll miss the salt shakers much. But right now, I really do as silly as that seems. I’ll get to pay my respects this week and visit with her family, so I think that will help a great deal.

  7. She sounds like an amazing mentor. I’m so sorry for your loss. You’re very lucky to have had someone like her in your life and her memory will live on in all that she taught you.

    I can’t remember longing for any material possessions, because I’m still struggling with sentimentality in my quest to become more minimalist. I hold onto a lot of stuff. I also seem to have a pretty bad memory. I’ve gone through boxes and been reminded of good memories that were previously lost some deep, dark place of my brain.

    However, I really do want to get away from having so much stuff. And, um, we are going to need a bit more space in the house 😉 😉 My current plan is to tackle small amounts of stuff at a time. If I’m on the fence about something, perhaps I can just take a picture of it. One of the really big issues is clothing. I have so much outdated clothing that I can’t seem to sell. I want to use it for refashioning projects, but haven’t spent much time doing that lately. So, I have duffles and bags hiding in closets and other places. Little by little, I will figure it out.

    1. I’m definitely take the slow approach to minimizing. I’m not sure I’ll ever actually get to minimalism, but I am enjoying the decluttering process. This is one little hiccup. But I’m going to keep going forward. I would love for you to update me on your journey, Harmony!

  8. I’m so sorry for your loss.

    Some of my mentors turned friends are getting into their 70s and 80s this year and each year I’m a little more worried about having to say goodbye. They’re such a rich part of our lives and not having them around will be so incredibly hard.

    Definitely have regretted giving up some things but they don’t come to mind right this second. The grief-memory-item I’m struggling with is this one:

    1. Thank you so much for sharing a link, Revanche!

      Losing my grandma a few years back was really hard. This is the first teacher/writer mentor that I’ve lost, and it has made for a difficult few days to say the least. When the person who normally helps you sort through things isn’t there to do the sorting, well…I’m glad I have my blog.

  9. She sounds like an amazing woman, I’m sure she’d be proud to see your tribute. We downsized 30 years worth of “stuff” earlier this year when we sold our primary home and downsized to our cabin. It was surprisingly non-emotional, and we’ve had no regrets. I did keep a few significant heirlooms, but would have tossed those salt shakers, too. She lives on in your mind. Treasure her there.

  10. I am so sorry for the loss of your mentor, and your mementos of her. My own decluttering efforts have been so lackluster to date that I don’t think I’ve missed anything. But I have bought doubles of things that I couldn’t find. And I’ve spent hours looking for things that didn’t have a proper place in my home. And I’ve been stressed by the clutter. I think there are some important trade-offs here and while you may be beating yourself up for giving away the shakers, you are reaping other benefits of your efforts. Hold on to the memories of your mentor, and try to let the shakers go.

    1. Yes! That is part of what prompted my decluttering. All the times where we couldn’t find something, bought another one, and then discovered the original. So maddening!

  11. So sorry for the loss of your mentor. She sounds like she was a wonderful woman, and your memories of her and her impact on your life are the things that will endure. I can understand how it feels though – to wish to have that one physical thing to hold on to, no matter how trivial.

  12. I’m sorry for your loss. What a wonderful lady. How lucky you are to have learned from her and to have those memories at your disposal.

    The only thing I’ve ever missed I don’t even remember tossing. It was a small bottle of some type of liquor my father was given as a present at work. At the bottom was a windup music box that fascinated me as a child. I still remember the tune to this day.

  13. I’m really sorry for your loss. Your mentor sounds like a fabulous woman and we should all be so lucky to have fabulous women in our lives.

    My mom passed away a few years ago and as an only child still living at home I inherited all the stuff. My childhood drawings she kept, mementos, knickknacks, fine China, clothes, EVERYTHING. Initially I did a good job of donating a ton of stuff-our lease was up soon and I need to move quickly. I still have an unreasonable amount of “things”. I know that keeping something just because my mom touched it once is not a good reason to hang on to it today. But sometimes it’s hard to not think that the things are a link to the past. I have recently come to terms that the amount of things I have is causing me stress and that it is time to finally let go, but it is an ongoing process. All of this is to say-I completely understand about the somewhat terrifying saltshakers.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing, Jax. I’m sorry for your loss. I can’t even imagine. How wonderfully therapeutic that you have a process now to continue sorting through her things.

  14. It’s amazing the impact one person can have on your life. Someone you’ll remember always…I like that we have almost a year to really downsize. I’ve read through all of the comments and there are some great ideas about ways to keep some of the memories while still being able to reduce our belongings.

  15. I’m so sorry to hear about your mentor.

    I’ve touched on it in the blog a bit here and there, but my wife’s mom died early last year, completely unexpectedly and just as we were coming back from a trip, denying my wife the chance to spend one last moment with a lucid mother. Both of her parents grew up with next to nothing, so when they finally had the opportunity to have “stuff,” they loaded up. Because of that cycle of deprivation, my wife and her siblings grew up investing massive emotional value in things that had a passing connection to the people they love. I’m not totally sure how it developed, but it’s there.

    As a result of all of that, clearing out anything that her mother held or gave to her– even a random receipt or scribbled note– is incredibly hard for my wife. I don’t know how to make the loss any better, but I know for sure that the goal of your mentor (and my wife’s mom in her case) was to bring you joy. Dwelling on pain or sorrow because a thing has passed out of your life is the opposite of the reaction the thing was meant to invoke in the first place. I understand the sense that “there will never be another ‘x’ like this,” I do. Just try to spare a thought for the fact that *you*– not the stuff– are her real legacy.

  16. Oh I’m so sorry, dear Penny. She sounds perfect. The perfect ones are always the first to go because the world can’t handle them for long. I’m so sorry about the salt shakers and note. Hanging on to something is helpful. And I have done that. *hugs*

    1. Because I treasured her classes so much, I still have my papers that I wrote. There are dozens and dozens of them. I thought about chucking them because my writing has changed (and improved!) so much, especially since my first class with her at 18. But now that I have her comments scribbled in the margins, it makes my favorite parts of her as a teacher become so clear in my mind. I am going to scan the documents so I can have them as long as I want without the clutter.

      Thanks for the kind words, Maggie.

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