I figure I have two options right now as I self-isolate and the world around me closes up like a morning glory come night time. I can stew and fret or I can look for the silver lining. OK, it’s not really an either/or situation, is it? I have plenty of angst and anger, but in my stronger moments, I’m determined to make the best of my current house-bound state. I’m doing something I’ve always meant to do, but never had time for: Organizing.
According to the Chinese zodiac, I was born in the year of the Tiger, but to be honest, it really should be the year of the Pack Rat. Since a young age, I’ve had hoarder-like tendencies, collecting stamps, string art, and Bobbsey Twins books. Needless to say, learning how to declutter wasn’t really ever on my to-do list.
As the years have passed, I have succumbed to serial collecting obsessions, some small-scale (let’s talk Georgian jewelry) and some large (old French advertising posters). Few things make me happier than roaming a flea market or antique fair where I can cherry-pick someone else’s flotsam and jetsam. A Pucci dress, a school-room map, a muffin tin—there are few things I don’t want/love/NEEEED when roaming the stalls.
My enthusiasm for stuff wasn’t dimmed by the fact that my house has an already overstuffed—to put it mildly—attic and basement. Overstuffed because I also suffer from an excess of sentimentality and have preserved the clothes that both my husband and I wore on our first date, as well as vast stores of my children’s artifacts, including but not limited to every stuffed animal they ever cuddled, a bonanza of bedtime storybooks, and a wealth of skateboards, longboards, fencing equipment, and tae kwon do uniforms.
But I realize I have to reform—and now. Over the last couple of years, midlife has been sucker-punching my obsession with material things. My sons have been coming and going—off to college, back with a trailer full of possessions, and off to apartments of their own. I realize their childhoods, which I documented and curated so meticulously, are now in the rearview mirror, and perhaps I don’t need the carton of school papers (one per child for each school year) I’ve accumulated. Nor do they seem eager to take my duvet covers or desk lamps circa 1999 that I saved, hoping they’d use them to feather their own nests.
Now Why Did I Save This?
Intensifying the feeling of overload: My father—who never met a piece of paper he didn’t like and find worthy of keeping—passed away recently, and I have cartons and cartons of his files and books in my home now. I realize that we hold onto so much in the hope or expectation that one day, in our dotage, we will dig through these things, rekindling fond memories and leaving our life stories for the next generation.
Though house-bound in his later years, my father never had the energy or inclination to wander happily down memory lane. The carefully collected record of his life is now with me, and as I sort through his papers, I realize how much of their meaning has passed with him. The names signed on decades of his saved holiday cards mean nothing to me. Ditto the dozens of book reviews clipped from the Sunday paper.
I decided that I needed to clean up my act and lighten my load. Not sure when or if we’d be downsizing our home, it seemed wise to start, like, NOW. I coerced my husband into emptying out one box of papers with me. We opened it and pulled out maps of Paris and floor plans of the Louvre from the mid-80s, before we had met. We’d each been to France and had stashed papers as a souvenir…a flurry of old business cards for bakeries and restaurants and bookstores. “Are these yours….” I asked him tentatively, “Or mine?”
“Ummm, not sure,” was his answer.
If we couldn’t remember whose stuff this was at midlife, how would we ever be able to when we’re 80? It was time to get serious and get rid of the clutter.
I began to investigate how to make a real dent in our accumulated stuff. Here’s what I found.
How to Declutter: Kondo It
A couple of years ago, it was hard to avoid the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, aka the Decluttering Bible. The key bit of wisdom that resonated with so many of us was this: Put your hands on an object and ask if it sparks joy; if it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, thank it for its service in your life and get rid of it. Doing this can be a brilliant first step in paring down. And this: “If you’re having a hard time getting rid of something, thank the item for the role it has already played in your life,” Kondo advises, recommending something like, “Thank you for giving me joy when I bought you” or “Thank you for teaching me what doesn’t suit me.”
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Square Feet
A friend once told me that at the end of every school year, she photographs her kids’ best artwork and uploads it to the cloud, then saves one IRL piece and gets rid of the rest. That way, she has a record of almost everything but saves precious space. This works well for all kinds of other things, as well. Those favorite stirrup leggings you’ll never wear again, the box of No More Nukes flyers you made in college. Technology can help you crunch down a cellar full of stuff into a nice digital nugget.
If you have a stash of pillows, a stationary bike, and fireplace accessories that have been sitting for years, get real. What are the odds that you will start using them now? Life is full of new lures and possibilities, and if things have been sitting unused since 2015, it’s unlikely they will be redeemed. By you, at least. Which brings us to:
Declutter Stuff By Sharing It All
There are plenty of organizations that will take your good-condition castoffs and give them new life—and you’ll get a tax deduction to boot. Do you know that amazing book The Blue Sweater, about an American woman who travels to Africa and sees a young girl wearing a sweater she had donated to charity years ago? It’s an inspiring true tale that’s good and motivating. The world is a big place, and the things you don’t need can help others. Check donationtown.org to help track down which organizations in your area will pick up unwanted items. Once those are identified, sites like Charity Watch and Charity Navigator can help you see how well a cause does at turning donations into social good.
Once our lives return to normal, put out all the goodies you’re shedding for a yard sale (or whatever you call it—tag, garage, or stoop sale). Check local guidelines, then advertise that your stuff is available and then brace yourself for the inevitable early birds. Obviously, you can also sell stuff on eBay, though it can be a labor-intensive proposition, creating your listings and shipping things out. Craigslist is another good option; I may sell my sons’ outgrown electric guitars this way, if I can get over my fear of having strangers come to my doorstep to test-drive the gear. (All those nights watching “Criminal Minds” don’t help in this regard.)
Dole Out to Declutter
If you have deep pockets, a tight deadline, or just can’t even when it comes to getting rid of your material goods, you can hire someone to haul it away. Junkluggers is one such service that comes and carts away your detritus. In my NYC area, where I see Junklugger trucks regularly, there’s a minimum $120 lugging charge, up to $600+ if they fill a whole truck, and a bunch of other charges (labor if you need furniture taken apart of junk bagged, surcharges for removing certain types of items like mattresses, paint can, or hot tubs). So it’s not cheap, but sometimes there’s a value to outsourcing—it forces you to get things done.
Make a Ritual Out of It
Honestly, this is my best tip. Block off a window of your weekend—just 90 minutes or so—to declutter. Put it on your calendar. Create a recurring time and a way to make it feel special. I like to set aside a late Sunday afternoon to shred papers and fill garbage bags, then reward myself and my husband or a good-hearted friend who kept me company with a pitcher of Sangria (1/2 c brandy, some fruit, a bottle of wine, 1/2 c club soda and sugar if you like, poured over ice). Cheers! Here’s to traveling light through midlife.
A version of this article was originally published in October 2017.