While Dad was still living alone, not only did his house start to fall apart, but he also filled it with junk: hoarded 2-liter recyclable pop bottles, food containers, and paper – including both the contents and the corresponding envelope of every piece of mail that entered the house. He also stashed food, afraid he would run out and go hungry. This was all piled on top of forty years of furniture, clothes, papers, dishes, appliances, and other stuff.
After moving him into Assisted Living, I cleaned out the house, and it ended up taking me six months, many dumpsters, and the assistance of my boyfriend, my friends, and a professional organizer, Leslie, to go through it. The entire experience was epic, so much so that I wrote a book about it. Fridays, and sometimes weekends, were devoted to cleaning.
There was a lot of paper to sort, which only I could really do, since tax returns and financial statements were mixed up with fliers and newspapers. I found tax records, credit card receipts dating back thirty years, and all of “The Apartments” paperwork. We went through two shredders and still had to call a service for ten or so boxes of stuff.
We also found my mom’s old clothes; papers and mementos from both sets of grandparents; old toys, clothes, and school papers; sports gear; skis; books; and tools. In addition to what was inside the house, we also got rid of one camper, one truck, two cars, a canoe, and lots and lots of airplane parts; Dad’s pet project for as long as I could remember. Whenever anybody talks about de-cluttering or getting rid of stuff, I have PTSD flashbacks, which is why a recent best-selling book amuses me.
I’m sure anyone who has entered a book store or watched daytime talk shows has seen the book of the moment that I’m referring to, about de-cluttering and simplifying your life and home. I haven’t read the book, but I have to say that my experience with books like these is that they tend to make us feel guilty or inferior for not doing what the author suggests: a lot of times, they cause us to passively-aggressively do the opposite of whatever healthy thing is being suggested. Personally, I don’t think being cluttered or decluttered means anything about a person; how we live is our own business, and what we do is what we do.
I do have to admit that I am a fan of the principle of living a relatively orderly life. Like the author, I think it’s a good thing to live as de-cluttered as possible, and to really decide what you want to share your precious space with. I am something of a natural pack rat, myself; as a girl, I had carefully balanced stacks of papers and books on my desk, and toys all over my room. I collected stuffed animals and craft supplies, and jammed my closet full of projects I was working on.
I continued the trend into adulthood by collecting pictures, cards, and magazine pages showing things I liked; keeping boxes of unfinished fabric and yarn projects; and, of course, holding on to shelves and shelves of books. I have, however, changed my habits drastically over the last fifteen years but it wasn’t a book that cured me of my pack-rat ways – it was living through the experience of cleaning out my dad’s house.
Since that time, I have found it impossible to live the way I used to live. I’m not obsessive about cleanliness, nor do I vacuum the house two times a day, or whisk people’s plates away to wash before they’ve finished their food. I don’t expect unreasonable levels of clean from my husband (although he might disagree.) I have noticed a marked difference in my approach to clutter, however, and in how I want to live and what I want to live with.
It can seem both daunting and far too exhausting to contemplate going through a pile of stuff that has grown to epic proportions, but there are definitely ways I’ve found to make it easier. I think that doing a little each day is what really helps: if my life with chronic illness has taught me anything, it is the value of not letting things pile up in the first place. For me, keeping things relatively clutter-free, knowing things are relatively organized, in one place, and easily found is actually comforting. Not having to trip over stuff or move it to get to the stuff I actually use saves me energy.
I got a lot of mail for myself and Dad, now it’s just for me, but I always made a habit of going through it immediately, discarding what I don’t need directly into the recycling bin. I go through my closet fairly often – my usual rule is, if it’s been unworn a year, it goes – and make regular trips to Goodwill. I try to edit my craft supplies; being realistic about what I’m actually going to use is helpful. And as soon as I’ve finished a book, I decide whether I think I’ll read it again or need to keep it, and if not, I put it in the used-book bag to sell.
Also, I try to be really honest with myself about whether I really need a thing or just want it. During the clean-out, there were so many mementos that I wanted to keep but knew I’d rarely look at: Leslie had the great idea of taking pictures of things I wanted to remember but didn’t want to hold on to. I’m all for being gentle with oneself, however; I’ll hold on to something I’m not sure about until a time comes when I am.
I’ve noticed that more people my age are starting to have to clear out their parent’s houses, which can be a huge project. Whether you’re working on your own home or someone else’s, if you’re going for the full clear out, I recommend not doing it all on your own. Ask your friends for help – I bet they’ll be doing it themselves at some point and will need your help. If you can afford it, hire a professional. I couldn’t have done without Leslie, who kept us on track, or my stellar friends, who gave up so much of their time. These tasks are made immeasurably easier by the presence of someone keeping you company, and making you laugh.
And when you clean you never know what might happen. You might find something you forgot you loved, or that you can use again, or give to someone else to use, or even sell. It might be an item that will spark joy in you, or inspire you to re-try a practice or project you gave up on. Giving up some things might open up just the space you need to welcome something new into your life. Just make sure that when you do it, do it in the way that works for you, not what the newest book tells you. Who knows, you might have a book of your own at the end of it.