As a kid, I was the one spreading quilts and rearranging stacks of pillows and stuffed animals. There was a basket full of photos I accumulated; and a small white tv stand that I used to house my growing collection of nail polish. Tiny collections.
I was a newly-minted 18-year-old in my first apartment in the Bronx. While the setup wasn’t the best, nor was how I found myself there ideal, I had a mattress on the floor and a closet full of clothes I hung on my own. I lined up my Jeffrey Campbell pumps. I’d run uptown, downtown, and all the way to the end of Brooklyn in these shoes, another one of my tiny collections.
A year or so after that, in my apartment on St. James Place in Clinton Hill, I had another little TV stand that this time was full of bootlegged movies in their plastic covers. I bought them in various hair salons and on the street to keep me company at night. I stood up a clothing rack for my clothes; beyond that, I found the floor to be the best option as I ran in and out between jobs. (Thirty years and two kids later, a pile of clothes to sort through still haunts me in my room.)
When I became a mother and the need for useful thrifting grew, something changed within me. My desire for tiny collections dissipated. I needed surfaces clean, drawers organized, and little things didn’t survive the purges. As River and Oak grow older, I find that, if there is one point of contention in my home, this is it. I am in constant wagering over tiny collections with an almost 9-year-old and a 5-year old.
It is no secret that kids like little things. River loved rocks. Oak likes rocks even more. River left them at the door. With Oak, many make their way to our dining room table, though he doesn’t know why. River, a sentimentilist, finds a story in every single thing her hand touches. And so, naturally, every conversation about the stuff is much more than just the stuff. In these moments, I see, she is more me than I ever thought.
I realized long ago that this was a compromise, a valued dance. A compromise of their feelings, of their autonomy, and of their stuff. A compromise of my feelings, of design, and yes, of my own discomfort. Last January, realizing that the conversations with River became all the more frequent, I thought it was time to get a school desk for her growing collection of art books, a large place to stuff what she needs (and doesn’t) and what I don’t want to see. I found this picture and was sold. The middle ground of solutions. Big enough for her to grow. Simple and vintage enough for me also love its design. But the more I looked, the more varying price points made me punk out, and the bigger my children got. Six months after the original idea, I realized that Oak would need this desk too.
My friend, Erin, found a double school desk via her Buy Nothing Group, and that rumbled the idea train again. I spent a few weeks searching and found some dinged-up imperfect solutions. Their imperfections made the project as a whole even more exciting, though it wasn’t free. I bought a pint of paint, and over the course of two weeks, spent time painting, drying, organizing, sitting back, compromising, and re-imagining. And on a random afternoon, when their room was done, my kids walked in shocked and excited, yelling how this long, drawn-out process made their room the best room ever.
Weeks before, River and I had a conversation about all her stuff, and I think there was something about it that made me seem reluctant to add to or even organize her collections for her. But I did. Little foxes; photo booth photos; a stack of sharpened pencil with eraser-tops that she had color-coordinated one afternoon; seashells and little trickets from my book tour travels; tiny stones; and an almost invisible tea cup she got from a necklace. But this was what they first noticed in their new room—the corner with all the tiny things.
I am imperfect, as is our spaces. There will be times when their desks overflow and the weeks I spent organizing them will feel so far away. This morning, we talked about their responsibility for keeping things organized this fall, and that felt encouraging. Maybe my responsibility isn’t in clearing out their collections, putting a stop to their collecting, or even in organizing how I see fit. It’s empowering them, in encouraging them toward what they love, and in teaching them how to care for those things.
How do you handle the little things?