On William Morris

Recently I’ve read a number of posts, or comments on posts, where the writer states that the impetus for beginning a more minimalist life was the experience of clearing out a relative’s home after their death. I’ve shared that experience, more than once, and I too believe it was a major reason I try to live as simply as possible. Even so, I seem to have accumulated more possessions than I’d like.

Minimalism, for me, isn’t about bare counters and ‘everything in its place’. My credo is that of William Morris: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’.

In clearing out my parents’ house finally this spring, the two categories of things we found hardest to deal with were my mother’s watercolour paintings, and, the objects – mostly porcelain and china – that had made the journey from England, and in some cases had been in my mother’s or father’s family for several generations. Heirlooms. Not of any financial worth, but all had stories attached.

Even among three children and three grandchildren, we couldn’t keep all of my mother’s flower paintings. She was prolific, and, at the height of her talents, good. We all chose a couple we truly loved, gave a few away to friends, and gave the rest to the local horticultural society for their monthly draw table, knowing that way they’d go to people who loved flowers (and who chose the painting as their prize from the table, as that’s how those things tend to work.)

And the heirlooms, some of which are neither beautiful nor obviously useful? We kept those, even though they added to our possessions. How could we not? Our history as a family is reflected in them: the Toby jug from the pub my great-great-great grandmother kept; the vases my sea-captain great-great uncle brought back from China; the willow-pattern plates my father ate his Sunday dinners from at his grandfather’s house. We don’t own these things; we keep them in trust for the next generations, as repositories of the stories that go with them. They make the family history tangible, and, therefore, are both useful and meaningful.

So perhaps for me William Morris’s statement needs a slight revision: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, believe to be beautiful…or know to be meaningful‘.

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