People accumulate a lot of stuff in today’s society. We have a vast abundance of material goods, far more than at any time in the past; and often we don’t give much thought to what we’re going to do with them all. Our homes are overflowing with things that don’t have a place. Even if we are not classic hoarders or struggling with a garage that’s too full of junk to get the car inside, we still have to decide where to keep the things we buy.

Put another way, for every purchase we make in our modern consumer society, there is a corresponding drain on our mental energy as we ponder what we’re going to do with it. And after that gets sorted, we often need to rearrange other things in turn. We don’t always notice when we do this, and we may not trace the cause-and-effect chain all the way through.

By way of illustration: During the summer, my husband and I decided to buy a Keurig coffeemaker. We never drank enough coffee to make a standard coffeepot worthwhile, but we bought occasional cups at Starbucks or the gas station convenience store. So we thought a single-serving coffeemaker would be ideal—no bags of old coffee getting stale, and we could have a carousel with several different flavors.

After we made these purchases, we had to decide where to put them on the kitchen counter. The carousel fit into the corner well enough. The coffeemaker took more time to get situated because some decorative items already occupied the preferred location, which was the counter space underneath the cabinet that holds the dishes. We got the decorations rearranged, after a few tries, in a way that made enough space for the coffeemaker and still looked almost the same. We also bought travel cups, which we put in the corner cabinet above the new carousel.

At first we bought only small boxes of K-cups, the contents of which mostly fit into the carousel. Space didn’t seem to be a problem. But then, not surprisingly, we found that we were drinking more coffee because it was so much more convenient. After we had sampled various flavors and decided which ones we liked best, we thought it made more sense to order large boxes online and get the volume discount. When the boxes arrived, we had to make room for them in the pantry. That wasn’t too difficult; but, as it turned out, there was still more to be done.

We already had a set of cups that matched our dishes. I regularly used them for hot tea before we got the coffeemaker. I thought they would be fine for coffee, too; but after we started drinking coffee more often, my husband told me that he would prefer to use mugs, rather than cups. We had some promotional mugs with various logos, none of which matched. Because we hadn’t used them, we kept them in the high cabinet above the refrigerator. To make space on an easily reachable shelf of the cabinet above the coffeemaker, we first had to take out some plastic glasses, and then we had to rearrange the contents of another cabinet to make room for the displaced glasses.

At this point, my husband had two mismatched mugs in the preferred spot above the coffeemaker. One was a large red mug that had been a blood donor freebie, and the other was a smaller white mug with a college sports logo. That looked awkward because almost everything else in the cabinet was part of a matched group. While doing some Christmas shopping, I found a nice boxed set of two mugs that read “Joy to the World” and featured a cheerful winter scene. Problem solved, or so I thought.

But I never did move the old mismatched mugs to the cabinet above the refrigerator because it occurred to me that my husband might want one of them if he drank more than two cups of coffee in a day, or if we forgot to run the dishwasher. So at the present time, all four mugs are residing in the cabinet above the coffeemaker. They still look awkward and don’t fit well either.

I’m probably going to move the old mugs to the cabinet where we put the plastic glasses when we first made space for the mugs. But right now, the remaining space on that shelf is taken up by a box of K-cups in assorted holiday flavors. I have the options of moving the box to the pantry, which would be less convenient because the pantry is farther away from the carousel; moving the box to another cabinet and doing more rearranging; or finding another place for the old mugs, which would also require more rearranging. And so the saga continues…

I have been enjoying the coffeemaker, and I very much appreciate the wonders of modern technology making such small indulgences possible. This post isn’t meant as a complaint, but simply as an observation that our consumer culture takes up more of our mental energy than we may realize. We shouldn’t assume that if people are having trouble clearing away clutter or adjusting to small changes, there must be something wrong with them. Today’s world requires us to deal with more clutter and more small changes as part of our everyday lives. These are cultural issues, not just individual problems. We should consider how our social structures might be adapted to better suit our needs in this regard.

Colorful strands of holiday lights, leading up to the front entrance of the nursing home, did little to relieve the darkness of a rainy South Carolina afternoon. A reindeer statue with a blinking red nose gazed out upon the parking lot from its place of honor in an evergreen planting bed. The statue reminded Ella Mae of the deer she had hit in the twilight several years ago, when it had bounded out into the road without her seeing it. After that she had given up driving.

She waited in the passenger seat of the Buick, listening to the rain patter on its roof, while her housekeeper Marta walked around with the umbrella and opened the door. Struggling to step down while holding the neatly wrapped box she had brought, Ella Mae placed her feet carefully on the slick asphalt. Marta put a hand on her arm to steady her.

Once inside the building’s lobby, the two women parted ways. Marta, pushing an errant strand of dark hair away from her round face, settled down in a comfortable chair with a Sudoku puzzle book. Ella Mae got a visitor’s badge from a cheerful young receptionist and went on through another door. On either side of the wide hall beyond, thick pine wreaths adorned doorways that led into small visiting areas. The heavy fragrance of the wreaths, and likely some pine air freshener too, didn’t quite cover the institutional smell of bleach and other cleaning products.

Cousin Florence came into view at the other end of the hall, wearing a blue polyester dress and pushing her walker. She had been obese most of her life, and the weight had only just come off a few years ago, now that she no longer cooked for herself. Under sparse white hair that had gotten only a desultory combing, the skin of Florence’s face and neck hung in loose folds, like rivulets of melted wax running away from a candle at the end of its wick.

The right side of Florence’s mouth always looked like it was turned up in a sneer. Ella Mae knew this was the result of a stroke and Florence couldn’t control it; but that was sometimes hard to keep in mind, given Florence’s habit of starting to complain the moment a visitor arrived. Today, just as she got within earshot, Florence launched into her favorite topic—the unpardonable neglect from her four children, all of whom had left South Carolina long ago and rarely came to see her.

“Not one of them can be bothered,” Florence declared, as she maneuvered her walker into one of the visiting rooms, “to come and see their poor lonely mother at Christmas. They’re so wicked and thoughtless. I might not last another year, Ella Mae, and then they’d be coming to my funeral instead, if they could even stir their lazy bones that far.”

This lament no longer had much emotional impact after having been repeated each year, in one form or another, over the past four decades. Cousin Florence had made up her mind that she was a neglected old lady as soon as her children left home. To nobody’s surprise, that complaint had turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ella Mae put her box on a coffee table and settled herself on an overstuffed pea-green sofa, nodding at intervals and making sympathetic noises as her cousin’s rant continued. Her weekly visits always went much this way. She didn’t begrudge Florence a little company now and again, though; it seemed only the decent thing to do, now that both women had been widowed for many years and most of their kinfolk had left town.

The ringing of her cell phone gave Ella Mae a brief reprieve from this one-sided conversation. She glanced down at the picture on the screen. It was Timmy, still staring at the world with the bright curious eyes he’d had at his birth, although by now he had deep crow’s feet around them and had lost most of his hair. Ella Mae touched the screen and gave him a cheerful “Hello.”

“I’m working overtime again tonight, Mama.”

Timmy never had been much of a talker. He could manage a sentence or two at a time, but not much beyond that. Telephone calls, when they went on for more than a minute, left him as nervous as if he’d picked up a snake. Even so, he always called without fail when he had a change of plans.

“I’ll let Marta know, dear. Bye.”

Ella Mae put her phone back in her handbag before her cousin had time to say anything about the interruption. What Florence thought of Timmy had long been a sore spot. Almost a half-century ago, Florence had said some unkind things and Ella Mae hadn’t spoken to her for months. If Ella Mae thought about it for too long, she still got upset sometimes, although she knew there wasn’t any sense in that. By now, Florence, who had been diagnosed with dementia, probably didn’t even remember what had been said. Although her cousin’s childhood memories remained clear as a bell, anything else was hit-or-miss.

All the same, Ella Mae still felt she was owed the apology she’d never gotten. Florence had been so hateful all those years ago when Timmy got his first job, telling her, “You raised that boy all wrong, Ella Mae. He can’t do for himself worth a nickel; you’re still fixing his meals and doing his laundry, and now you’re driving him to work. He never goes out on dates or does much of anything besides building those silly model trains in your basement. What’s he going to do when you can’t take care of him anymore? That boy is bound to end up in an institution, Ella Mae, mark my words.”

As it turned out, although Timmy never left home or learned how to drive, nothing dramatic came of it when Ella Mae got older. Marta took charge of both the household chores and the driving, and life went on much as usual. Timmy had a good union job in a factory, earning more than enough to pay Marta’s wages and keep up their small house.

Reminding herself once again that she ought to know better than to hold a grudge against her cousin for so many years, Ella Mae turned her attention to the gift-wrapped box. “Go ahead and open your Christmas present, Florence. It’s made special for you.”

With a sniff as though to demonstrate how little she expected, Florence picked at the ribbons and wrapping paper, complaining all the while about her selfish children who couldn’t be bothered to get any Christmas gifts for their poor old mother. Ella Mae knew they had in fact sent gifts last week, but she held her peace. Then Florence slowly lifted the lid off the box, revealing the bright Christmastime tableau inside.

The old train station had been demolished many years ago, when passenger trains stopped coming through town. Timmy had worked both from his boyhood memories and from Ella Mae’s photo albums in creating the scene. There was the little building with its holiday decorations perfectly rendered, a train just coming into the station, and a small crowd of carefully painted figurines waiting in their old-fashioned clothing. One of the figurines, a tall woman with a fancy hat and a long fur coat, had a little dog trotting beside her. The dog wore a red sweater.

As soon as Florence’s gaze fell on that particular figurine, she amazed Ella Mae by bursting out into a loud girlish giggle.

“Why, I declare—that’s Aunt Rhoda with her spoiled-rotten poodle!”

Ella Mae glanced down at the tiny painted face, which was little more than a blur without her reading glasses. When Timmy had shown her the completed scene, she hadn’t thought the characters in it were meant to be real people. But then, come to think of it, she hadn’t asked.

“And look, Ella Mae, that’s us!” Florence pointed gleefully at two girls in sweaters and skirts. “That’s when we went down to the train station to meet Uncle Frank when he came back from business in the city. He gave us candy canes and told us he’d brought presents, but we couldn’t open them till Christmas.”

“I remember. Aunt Rhoda’s poodle nipped me on the ankle. Horrid little beast. Ruined my best pair of stockings.” And then Ella Mae also found herself dissolving helplessly into giggles as her memories came back with more clarity. She finally added, “You know what, Florence, I do believe you’re right. Uncle Frank took pictures of us at the train station, and they were in one of the photo albums Timmy looked at while he was working on this.”

Cousin Florence looked up from the scene, her pale blue eyes moist. “Ella Mae, could you get copies of those photos for me?”

“I sure will. Next week when I visit, I’ll bring everything that’s in all my photo albums. Timmy has a scanner on his computer that can copy the photos, and there’s a special kind of picture frame with a screen for displaying them. He bought me one of those frames for my birthday, a few years ago, and put some digital pictures on it that he took with his camera. I don’t quite understand how it works, but Timmy does. He’ll fix you right up.”

For the first time since she’d moved into the nursing home, Florence had a peaceful look. Even the twitch at the corner of her mouth no longer seemed to have any agitation in it, and her gaze was completely lucid.

“You raised a good son, Ella Mae.”

Most people don’t like to be told that we are stuck in old habits of thinking or that we are behind the times. We prefer to believe that we are sensible people who can adjust our thinking when the circumstances change. But in fact, we often have no idea how many outdated instructions we’re carrying around in our mental checklists.

Not long ago, my husband pointed out one of mine when he asked why I loaded the dishwasher a particular way. He had noticed that I didn’t put spoons next to other spoons in the basket. I explained that my mother had told me to do it like that, when loading the dishwasher was one of my chores as a child, because otherwise the spoons might nest together and not come clean. He replied that maybe this was a problem 40 years ago, but it wouldn’t happen with a good modern dishwasher.

After I thought about it for a moment, I realized he was correct. The spoons always came out just as clean when he was the one loading the dishwasher and put them next to each other. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that there might not be any real need to keep them separate.

I believe that most of our social prejudices have equally simple underpinnings. They’re based on things that were said long ago—that it was best to keep certain kinds of people separate, or to have different ways of treating them. Maybe some of those ideas made sense in their original context of a world with vastly different cultural expectations and more primitive technology. Maybe they never really made sense. But however it might have happened, they ended up as entries in society’s collective checklist of how things ought to be done.

Whether our antiquated notions have to do with the proper placement of the spoons in the dishwasher or of the people in our community, we feel uncomfortable when someone points out the flaws in our thinking. After all, we’ve always done things the same way without seeing any reason to change, so how can there be anything wrong? We’re reasonable people, and we certainly would have noticed if we had been doing something that made no sense—wouldn’t we?

Once we get past our initial feelings of denial and annoyance, though, we generally do acknowledge the facts in front of us. Although humans are creatures of habit on both a social and an individual level, we are capable of changing our ways, even if it might take a little while for new information to sink in.

Laila had packed her bag for the return trip to France. Uncle Mustafa would be coming over in a few minutes to drive her to the train station. On impulse, she walked through the little kitchen and stepped outside into the backyard… [This is Part 7. Continue reading this final installment, or read the story from the beginning.]