Getting rid of things is not getting rid of people

Anyone else get paralyzed by decluttering?

By staring at that old, ratty thing that you’ve had in a box for years, but can’t throw away or donate because of memories, guilt, or because you’d hauled it around for 28 years and it seems ludicrous to finally dump it now?

On the other hand, I look around my house and think, “If that were lost in a fire, would I try to replace it?” The only things I’d want to preserve, aside from my family, are our photos.

Everything else? Nah, they can go.

So why can’t I just chuck them now?

My kids will have to, in a few years. I should save them the hassle.

When my parents started to decline about six years ago, we began the first of many moves, putting them progressively into more intensive care, and also smaller rooms. The first time my siblings and I walked through our old house, which could have served as a backdrop for “That 70’s Show,” I was a little weepy.

Until I took a good look at the green shag carpet, which had been there since my parents bought the house in 1978.

(Not my parents’ old house, but could have been.)

Hideous.

The longer I looked at items my parents no longer needed in their new residence, the more I found myself wanting to chuck them. We preserved photos, journals, my dad’s paintings, and a few books. But everything else?

Within an hour we were tossing the majority into a dumpster. And we couldn’t do it fast enough. Who really needs Tupperware that’s forty years old?

We had to go through the process three more times, as they moved again, and finally as they passed. Each time we took home fewer items, until when my dad died all I wanted were his scriptures. My siblings took a few items, and the rest we donated. It filled the back seat of a car.

As I looked around his room, I realized that he lived quite well with very little.

The entire tiny house movement is based on this: the fewer items we own, the freer we are to live. The less house we own, the more money, time, resources, and peace we have.

I’m fascinated by minimalist movements, like Becoming Minimalist , full of advice to getting rid of all of the stuff we accumulate, thinking it will bring us joy.

(From the Becoming Minimalist Facebook page.)

Or Marie Kondo’s konmari approach to keeping only items that “spark joy” and releasing all those things that no longer do. She suggests giving them to find a new home, to bring joy to someone else.

I did that a few years ago with a china set my parents bought me before I was married. I used it exactly twice. Then I sold it, 25 years later, to a family in our neighborhood for $50. I felt simultaneously guilty and relieved; guilty because I thought it was so important that I never used it (and took it with us on a dozen moves), and relieved that someone else could enjoy it.

Probably 1/2 of all I own I wish I could “send on its way,” but guilt holds me back. My husband made this, or my deceased sister bought me that, or my mom used to wear this, or I read this once, thirty years ago.

I need to remember that the love and memories associated with that person or event don’t leave with the item.

They’re just things I’m throwing away, not the people.

High Polish Tatra mountains

Writing Book 5, and forcing characters to leave behind all that they own, made me wonder how I’d face the same situation. I admit, it’s left me mixed. I want to be able to toss it all, but irrationality holds me back.

A friend told me of her parents’ house—true hoarders—and their many packed sheds in their backyard. They’d asked their grandson to pull some weeds so they could open the door again (it’d been that long since they’d been in there), and as the brawny boy leaned against the shed for leverage, the entire thing crashed down. Everything was destroyed.

The boy’s father cheered.

The boy’s grandparents mourned.

Nothing was salvageable, nor could they remember what they had stored in there for many decades (mostly old paint, it turned out). But they resented having to throw it all away anyway.

(Don’t let this be your children’s fate.)

The rest of the family was thrilled when that shed came down. In fact, they had the grandson lean against all of the other sheds, hoping for a similar result. When my friend’s parents finally die, they’ll need at least three dumpsters, she estimates, to unload all of the stuff no one—not even her parents—can use.

There’s some strange pride in not letting things go, in holding on to something beyond its usefulness.

In not allowing anyone else to have it.

In not acknowledging that you never needed it in the first place.

Some psychiatrists suggest it’s a mental illness, or maybe conditioning from grandparents who endured The Depression nearly one hundred years ago. I remember well the “get more attitude” of the 1980s, where acquiring stuff was all the rage, where your value was based upon what you owned. I think a lot of us in my generation still suffer from this early programming.

But there’s simply no good reason to hoard stuff. No one needs 12 hammers, as one elderly man I know possessed (among a great many other things). He said someone might need to borrow one. In the thirty years I knew him, no one ever came looking to borrow a hammer. Or one of his 15 hand saws. Or 20 screwdrivers. He could have given them away long before they became rusty, to someone who truly would have appreciated them. But no.

I have a friend who has an entire bedroom stuffed with bins and boxes, all for Christmas. It takes her a full week to decorate her house, inside and out, and three Christmas trees. She admits it stresses out her family, especially since every surface is covered in something breakable, but every item is wrapped up in memories, she insists.

The memories of her children, however, of their anxious Christmases, may not be so favorable.

Why do we keep old furniture that’s damaged or even moldy, clothes that don’t fit, knick-knacks that went out of fashion years ago, paintings that no longer interest us, and books we’ll never read again?

Stuff our kids will throw out in another generation with alacrity?

For reasons I don’t yet understand, we often choose to remain burdened and laden by all that we own.  I want to empty out my bedroom closet, but that means tossing a stack of yearbooks. All I need to do is scan in the handful of photos I appear in, then throw away the books I have never, ever looked at since I graduated in the 1980s.

I also have several paintings I did in high school, which I’ll never display because they’re pretty poor, but which I can’t bear to give away. I’ve needlessly hauled them around for decades.

Sometimes I wish we could have a random fire, hitting particular items so that I’ll be forced to get rid of them. Moving many times has helped; each time I had to throw away boxes of destroyed stuff I thought I couldn’t live without I was relieved that I had a reason to get rid of them.

I have to admit, I’ve purposely dropped one or two items during a move just so that I didn’t have to find a shelf for them later.

I’m slowly sliding closer to minimalism. Each shelf that gets emptier, each old box that vanishes, each bag I bring to charity lightens my heart and eases my conscience.

By the time our youngest leaves the house in 15 years, we anticipate we’ll be moving into a tiny home, and that should force me to get rid of the last of the crud. I hope that by the time my husband and I die, our kids will need only an hour to clean up what we left behind. 

Doesn’t this just feel so clean, so simple, so serene?

Until then, I’ll try each week to toss out 10 items I don’t need. That’s my goal for the summer, and we’ll see how it goes.

If you happen to be good at separating things from those who gave them to you, tell me how you did it. I’m gonna need some motivation by August!

2 thoughts on “Getting rid of things is not getting rid of people

  1. I don’t think this blog entry could be any more timely for me. My husband passed away suddenly a little over 2 months ago, and the decision was made that due to my health, age, and other factors, it would be best for me to move clear across the country to live with my daughter and her family. My husband and I lived in this same house for many many years, and both of us tended to cling to things, both “sentimental” and “possibly useful” while all the while adding to our possessions over the years. While not true hoarders, we, nonetheless, managed to accumulate an awful lot of “stuff”. For the past 6 weeks or so I’ve had to face paring down all that stuff and choosing what I really want to keep. It’s been an often painful process. Some things, like old clothes or furniture is easy. Other things are infused with memories, even though they truly are not needed anymore. Also, there are so many books, tapes and DVDs to deal with! Let’s not mention all the kitchen gadgets and pots and dishes! The whole experience is taxing and difficult. A lot of our things are still going to make the move. Some furniture and many books and all the paintings and art are going…but at my daughter’s request. While it’s hard letting so much of my old life with my beloved husband go, it is also somewhat freeing to try to simplify, even if only the first steps that direction as I begin the final stages of my life. Thank you for encouraging me.

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    • Oh, Emma–I’m so sorry! I can’t imagine how daunting the task is. With my parents, we could see what was coming, but to lose your husband suddenly, then have to deal with paring down your entire life? Wow, just wow.
      If you haven’t read anything of KonMari, I suggest you do. She’s an amazing Japanese organizer who helps people realize what they can let go and what they should hold on to. She’s been motivating me to declutter our small house, and her ideas are practical yet charming.
      You’ll be in my prayers as you make this transition, probably the toughest of your life, I’m sure. The best of luck to you! Keep me posted.

      Like

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