Guest blogger: Susan Finch
Nothing changed my idea about “stuff” more than losing both my mother and father at a relatively young age, in relatively rapid succession. After my mother passed, I learned that she had hoarding tendencies… keeping years and years (30 or more) of things like paid telephone and gas bill statements and stocking her food cupboards front to back, top to bottom so that the only things you could see were the things at the very front. She bought loads of discount clothing, stuffing her closets so no hangers could move. As I cleaned out I found several duplicate blouses, many still with tags on them. She never threw anything away… even her ratty underwear! I counted… wait for it… EIGHTY-EIGHT pairs as I cleared out her dresser, some new and still in packages, and some probably as old as I was at the time. Growing up in the 1930s, my mother was quite poor. She was lucky enough to be fed and clothed (by her tailor grandparents), but her family struggled to make ends meet. I think there was comfort for her, in her later years, in having stuff all around her.
My father was raised on the high plains of eastern Wyoming, also in the 1930s, and he too “collected” things in case he needed them. The running joke in our family was wondering how many lawnmowers my father had at any given moment. He had a habit of buying up old ones at garage sales just so he could have enough parts to keep one or two of them running! When he died, my brother lined them all up at the curb with a sign that said, “Free. Must take all!” And, ask my brother how he felt about hauling TWO TONS of metal panels to the scrap metal place! My dad thought he might need them to build a FOURTH shed on the property – to store stuff in! Many of you probably also have depression era parents and know the mentality that compelled people to save everything because you never know when you may need it! Thankfully, this is no long as prevalent of an attitude!
In my grief, as I waded through my parents’ things, I found myself unable to let go of (what now seems like) ridiculous things. I kept WAY too much, but not because I thought I needed it (in most cases). It was as if doing so would serve as a deeper connection to my missing parents. Thus, I shipped furniture, clothing, photos, boxes and boxes of books (that I would certainly read one day)… even OFFICE SUPPLIES… across the country from Colorado to Oregon, and stored most of it, unused. Over time, as I grew older myself, and as my kids fledged, I realized the obvious: you can’t take it with you. I also do not wish to leave my own children the burden of sorting through all that meaningless stuff when I die. Perhaps more importantly, as a result of cleaning out my parents’ home, and noticing my own stuff-amassing behavior, I now understand the heavy mental weight and stress that holding onto unnecessary things, or things that don’t give you joy, can cause. And the reality is that things can’t possibly replace my memories.
Enter my lovely friend, Ellen. I started my decluttering journey with her in January this year when she offered to help me clean out my closet. That’s it. She came for two hours with a clear picture of how to proceed. We piled all the clothing from the closet onto my bed, and started to go through it, piece by piece. What seemed like way too big of a chore for me to tackle alone became enjoyable and productive with a friend, especially a friend who is a decluttering expert! If you follow Marie Kondo’s advice, you can ask yourself if each item sparks joy? If so, you may choose to keep it. For things that are not useful, and do not spark joy, you may part ways, making more organized room for the things you use, or need, or that just spark joy.
It may sound a bit corny, but the process worked perfectly. I had so many things that didn’t fit, or even if they fit, I no longer liked or wore them. Ellen helped by handing me things one by one, placing them in my hands to contemplate, and very gently, and most importantly I think, very non-judgmentally nudging me along the decluttering path. We made separate piles for things that didn’t fit/giveaway, things I wasn’t sure I wanted to give away quite yet, and another for those things that were sentimental (my grandad’s plaid, wool bathrobe, for instance… WHO wears a WOOL bathrobe?). By the end of the process I was INTO it. When we finished, I had FOUR large trash bags full of clothing to donate and one large trash bag of blankets and towels to donate to a friend who runs a boxer rescue. And, best of all, I had a clean bed… and an orderly closet.
Later in the year, Ellen came back to help with paper and files. For this, she guided me, helping me think through whether I needed specific kinds of paper, dividing papers into like-items (financial/taxes, pet records, auto records, etc.) and how to organize my files in a useful and logical way. Mostly, she served to motivate me through a task that I… pretty much abhor… and more than likely would have abandoned 20 minutes in, had she not been there.
Perhaps, more importantly, her help ignited a decluttering flame in me. I’ve learned so much from working with Ellen and feel more confident tackling decluttering projects on my own. But for some things, such as financial files, insurance papers, taxes, and other things that make me tremble, even if I know what to do, having her there to provide guidance, and motivation, and moral support is invaluable.