What’s in your attic? We’re looking at how we make our house work better for who we are now, and how we’ll live as we get older. Decluttering the attic is a useful, practical step. It’s also a lesson in ageing well.
It’s satisfying getting rid of unnecessary things – how many tape players does the modern household need? Am I really going camping again? Would a goldfish survive in that cracked tank, even supposing I got one?
But there’s a lot we’ll definitely keep. The Christmas decorations, jigsaws, games and suitcases get used annually. The Lego might come in handy if we ever have grandchildren – well, I’ll enjoy playing with it!
There’s pleasure in finding things I’d forgotten: photos of my parents, a 1980s table tennis programme autographed by top international players, audio tapes of all the Narnia books. Aha, I knew I needed a tape deck for something.
But it’s also bitter-sweet to root through what’s up there. Like rooting through my whole life. My current self, my successes, my interests, are reflected around the rest of the house. What’s shut away in the attic is who I used to be, what I didn’t achieve, who I’ve lost. It’s tempting to leave it stashed away in the dark for our children to sort after we’re gone. Or, more drastically, to get someone in to remove the lot. Either way, I never have to think about it.
Except that ageing well means taking stock. As Anne Karpf puts it in her excellent book How to Age*:
Middle age and beyond provides an opportunity to look back over our lives and grieve for the good things that never happened and the bad that did – to work through pain, loss and unresolved conflicts and let them go, rather than dragging them around behind us like an increasingly heavy suitcase.
Sorting through what’s in the attic brings me face to face with the sum of my years and thoughts of what I’ll leave behind. As I open the boxes, I let out the dreaming child, the evangelical teenager, the ambitious young woman, the anxious mother, the devoted daughter, and see how they’ve made me who I am now. How they are still part of who I am now.
I like James Woodward’s image in Valuing Age*, of our lives as a slowly ascending spiral, where each new circle contains within it the make up of the old. The octogenarian is “still aware of what it felt like to be the child, the lover, the parent he or she once was, and still displaying the same recognizable characteristics, but wiser now, shaped by life’s knocks and able to say, ‘I have been here before and learnt a thing or two.’”
I’m not keeping everything in the boxes, only the most precious, and a few items which represent periods in my life I might otherwise forget.
Whether or not I ever open those boxes again, I’ve made my peace with what’s in them.