The Art of Decluttering

How the hell did we accumulate so much, and why did we squirrel it away so carefully?
(photo by Andy King)

If you are one of the homebound who is looking to spring clean as a diversion, this essay submitted from a reader might serve as inspiration.


Sifting through the boxes and boxes of papers I’ve lugged from one place to another for years, I wondered if I really did need seven copies of that truly stunning annual report I designed and wrote for a health system — 24 years ago.

No, I don’t.

Nor do I need all those papers that chronicle my time doing this or that nonprofit work. Nor all the brochures (remember those, pre-websites?) that describe services no longer offered. Nor the letters (remember those?) from people whose names I can’t quite place. Nor those boxes and boxes of unused “hanging files” — hanging from what, and why?

For people of a certain age, the word “downsize” is hovering all around us. How the hell did we accumulate so much — and why did we squirrel it away so carefully?

Never mind. We did it. And now it is ours to go through.

What the people we eventually leave behind do not want is to try to figure out what to do with all the concrete pieces of our lives we also leave behind. That job is for us now. No amount of feeling overwhelmed by the task makes the work disappear.


Age of Property

So, knocking mouse droppings from the bottom of those boxes stored in the basement, I tell myself “into the breach” and dig in.

I think of this passage from E. M. Forster’s “Howard’s End,” written in 1910: “The Age of Property holds bitter moments even for a proprietor. When a move is imminent, furniture becomes ridiculous. Chairs, tables, pictures, books, that had rumbled down to them through the generations, must rumble forward again like a slide of rubbish to which she longed to give the final push and send toppling into the sea.

“But there were all their father’s books — they never read them, but they were father’s, and must be kept. There was the marble topped chiffonier — their mother had set great store by it, they could not remember why. Round every knob and cushion in the house, sentiment gathered, a sentiment that was at times personal, but more often a faint piety to the dead, a prolongation of rites that might have ended at the grave.”

Ah, there’s the rub. Do I want to have my children someday stare at all of this and think it would be lovely to drop it all into the sea — trying to not feel guilt for disposing of my relics, perhaps as an homage, hanging on to things that don’t even have meaning for me anymore?

So I will continue to go through the bundles and boxes. I will continue to pause over memories that arise before hauling another load to trash or recycling or Goodwill. I will continue to stare at the furniture as photos soon to appear as sale items on Craigslist.

In downsizing, it is not that I see my life as having little value anymore, but it is about giving it all a different value — a changed focus, a little less weighted down by those boxes.

I also heed these words: “There’s nothing you can name but that someone will do it for money.”

I plan to hire out the hauling, and enjoy the freedom of my newfound spaces.


Patti Lazarus spent a career working in nonprofits, including Firefly Sisterhood. When she is not cleaning out boxes, she is working as an end-of-life doula, trained by the International End of Life Doula Association.