Decluttering – But Be Sure Not to Cut Too Deeply

From Richard Leider through Marie Kondo, it is all about getting rid of stuff.  Stuff is not just STUFF (physical things) but includes sorting through memories, photos on your computer, etc.  It is also getting rid of assumptions that draw us into exclusionary thinking, such as examining the invisible knapsack of White Privilege (or any other kind of privilege).  Many of the references to decluttering are aimed specifically at US, older people who have never done anything other than randomly box stuff up and put it in the (literal or metaphorical) attic or basement.  According to Margareta Magnusson, who popularized the Swedish practice of döstädning, every person over 50 should get started because we are getting older and will otherwise leave a mess for the next generation.

And oh, the side benefit:  All of the above assume that if you do this, you will be happier.  Not just content, but even joyful, as your decluttered work life (or busy volunteer life) takes on a new sense of meaning, and your sentimental life becomes serene, as you chuck (or donate) unused bits-and-pieces of physical or emotional stuff that belonged to your dead grandparents. 

It took Dan and me six months to sort out the miscellany in the basement and attic of our house before we moved to a condo.  The stuff was unbearable, ranging from old toys to photography equipment from a distant hobby.  After moving, we did feel joyful and free as we surveyed our minimalist and light-filled new space.  We have not decluttered in the sense that any of the popular authors suggest, however.  We are influenced by our depression-raised parents, for whom reusing every bit of string was a virtue – and today’s ecological focus, which says “don’t throw and reuse”.  Books may go to the Little Free Library, but we are also liberal in borrowing from the same….as is visible in the pile of last summer’s planned summer reads.

But decluttering is about more than that.  Leider says, when repacking our bags for life’s journey, we should decide “what’s essential for the road ahead—what to let go of and what to keep, how to lighten your load, both tangible and intangible, for the new way that is opening up.”

However, If you google unpacking and repacking, the first things that come up are illustrated instructions on what to do when you get a package filled with complicated “stuff” that you need to put together – and possibly repack because it wasn’t what you wanted.  The first instruction is “Be sure to not cut too deeply”.  I kept looking for a googly way to keep that post from coming up first, but it stayed there.  I kept reading it.

Marie Kondo emphasizes the importance of finding joy in those things that we decide not to get rid of.  And, on All Saints Day (aka Halloween) I was reminded again that there are small things that we keep in our lives because they have become totems that store the memories of people who have been important to us – or even people who we never knew but who were important to another person who is dear. Maybe they are in a closet or on a shelf, largely ignored removed and dusted off once a year.  Is it the homely and old-fashioned candy dish that graced a great aunt’s Thanksgiving table?  Or the deteriorating butter box that is the only item to survive my great-great grandmother’s frightening and exhilarating journey from a rocky farm in Småland to a new life in Minnesota in the 1860s?   Neither belong in a curated/decluttered loft-like condo, but getting rid of them would require a cut too deep, even though it is not possible to say that they give me joy.  Fortunately, they are small, and can be kept without feeling like much of a burden, still carrying the deep past.  And they carry simple stories about where “we” came from.

But back to the larger “stuff” that contains emotions and occupies physical and mental space.  I just sent out a last call to my cousins to see if anyone wants our great grandfather’s rather homely and cumbersome late 19th century desk.  It no longer fits in any space in my daughter’s soon-to-be-renovated house, but everyone in my generation is down sizing.  The next generation is already in their 40s and each of them has accumulated too much stuff to accommodate it.  They are the ones who really need Kondo/Leider/Magnussen! 

I am (after much agonizing) at peace with the fact that the desk will probably go to another family — and I will survive without knowing where it is.  But the stories that come with the desk (and the candy dish and butter box) will survive because whenever the desk was moved the dates, locations, and mover’s names were recorded in a non-visible place.  They form a bare bones record of the dispersal of my father’s family from its roots in a village in Minnesota to New York, Massachusetts, Michigan….A photographic record of “The History of Great Grandpa Rose’s Desk” can become another easily stored totem of family history – if we remember to tell the stories.  

9 thoughts on “Decluttering – But Be Sure Not to Cut Too Deeply

  1. I reiterate my observation that my kids have more “stuff” saved than I do. Both of them have basements full of boxes they are “saving.” I am inclined to believe that the tendency to hang onto things is a personal trait (dare I say “failing) not at all related to age.

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  2. I think of this post in terms of sets of china… I have set, two actually, one was gifted to me by my grandmother, one from my first marriage. My mother-in-law has three… a set from her grandmother, mother, and her own. I imagine my daughters will never want these… yet I still feel compelled (not obligated) to keep them. And just last week I almost emailed my dear friend, Kyla, who was selling hers to tell her I wanted it… I didn’t want the “set”… rather just a piece of her. I need to consider letting go of these sets just to keep pieces.

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    • China is a big one. I have only one set — and my mother’s is a very contemporary plain white so I don’t mind carting it around so much. But I know what joy it brought her, so it is hard to give it up (even thought we forget to use it even when people are coming over for dinner!). Now, how about the silver that I got for my first marriage….I didn’t want it (even then) but was told that if I didn’t choose a silver pattern I would get lots of silver chip-and-dip trays. As it was, I got one (long gone).


      • I didn’t have china until my second marriage, at which time Gary Stout gave me a certificate to buy china on which he said. “This entitles the bearer to one set of china unless she comes to her senses and buys a set of good wrenches.”
        I still treasure that china as much for the sentiment as for its beauty. I use it and put it in the dishwasher. At some point I’ll make it my everyday dishes. Otherwise it will end up in a thrift store–but then someone else will appreciate it!

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