The Story of (Getting Rid Of) Stuff

I don't want this. Do you want this?. Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

A recent post on downsizing, Nobody wants the family heirlooms anymore, raised a lot of questions, and commenters suggested many answers and much truth. Peggy noted in the comments:

The generation of people who are now in their 80s and 90s were the ones who lived through the Great Depression and I truly believe that's why they later accumulated so much "stuff" — as a reaction to that.

There were so many suggestions:

“This is why you start telling the stories behind these possessions so that, when the time comes, people see it as more than just 'stuff'. It has history. It has meaning.”

Others get the meaning but really, “We now have SO MUCH of her "stuff" and yes, some of it is "good", real antiques that she collected many years ago, but NO ONE WANTS THEM.”

Couples (like my wife and me) often disagree about it: “I've been sick of the clutter for years, but my wife loves it. If there is an open spot on ANYTHING, she buys some garbage to fill it with.”

There is a rule followed by many writers on sites that still have comments. Print out in bold face, upper case 72 point: DON’T READ THE COMMENTS! But I have to say that in 15 years of writing, I've never seen such an interesting, involved and intelligent stream of comments as I did on this post; it's clearly an issue that many people are thinking about.

It's a topic that merits revisiting, to explore what resources are out there than can help solve this problem. But the more I read the comments, the more I realized how hopeless and out-of-touch my advice is. As I noted in the previous post, I'm an architect and a minimalist and perhaps a bit of a snob, so I don't have much stuff — a few books, a few pieces of mid-century Herman Miller and that’s it. I always quote William Morris:

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

So how do you do downsize?

In researching this post I discovered Marni Jameson’s wonderful book "" published last year by AARP. She has learned how to dump everything, from husbands to houses to stuff. She starts off by quoting Morris’s contemporary, Mark Twain, acknowledging the emotional tugs:

Our house was not unsentient matter — it had a heart and a soul, and eyes to see with.... We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up and speak out its eloquent welcome — and we could not enter it unmoved.

Mark Twain’s house spoke to him, and no doubt the stuff in it did too. Jameson gets how stuff speaks to families, and how hard it is to part with it: “Simply and starkly put, sorting through a household makes us face our own mortality: the passage of time, life and death, where we’ve been, where we haven’t been, where we are in life, successes and regrets.”

When discussing the first cut of getting rid of stuff, Jameson channels Morris and writes:

When sorting, ask these questions: Do I love it? Do I need it? Will I use it? If you don’t answer yes to one of them, the item goes.

This is a message that resonates with every generation. It's pretty much the advice that Marie Kondo gives in her best-selling minimalist bible, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up":

I came to the conclusion that the best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.

Marie Kondo is speaking to young people trying to manage tiny apartments; Marni Jameson is speaking to older people trying to downsize; William Morris is speaking to 19th-century aesthetes. But they all have pretty much the same message: Lose the emotional baggage and keep what is beautiful, loved or that sparks joy.

So how do you narrow it down, particularly when you're dealing with your parents' house of treasures? I particularly liked the advice Peter Walsh of TLC’s "Clean Sweep" gave Jameson:

Imagine that your parents have deliberately left you five treasures. Your job is to find the items that have the strongest, happiest memories for you. Go through not in sadness but in loving memory. So look with joy for the few, best items to keep. Let the rest go.

Perhaps the best advice in Jameson’s book is the discussion about when to downsize. It’s a subject I have some experience with: I saw my late mother-in-law trapped in her suburban split-level without being able to drive, having to decide whether she wanted to be on the kitchen level or the bathroom level. I downsized by duplexing my house and keeping about a third for my wife and I. Jameson describes a family, the Switzes, who moved from a big house to an apartment:

Attitude — and timing — makes a difference. Moves to downsize are much easier when people choose to move, as the Switzes did, rather than when the move chooses them, which happens when people become too frail, have an accident, lose a spouse who made independent living possible, or start having cognitive issues.

The consensus from the book, from Richard Eisenberg’s original post, from my personal experience and from the many comments on my last post is that we should get ahead of the problem. Get rid of the stuff while you can and don’t leave it to your kids, because they really will not thank you for it or know what to do with it. For your kids, emptying your house will not spark joy.

More resources

Downsizing has become a significant industry, and with 8,000 Americans turning 65 every day, there's a significant market. There's even a professional association, the National Association of Senior Move Managers, “who specialize in helping older adults and their families through the daunting process of transitioning to a new residence.” They have a nice little PDF download with useful information.

There are companies that will come into your home and organize your stuff, photograph it and get rid of it, using the latest social media resources. Check out Maxsold and Everything but the House.

Jameson also writes a post on the AARP bulletin with 20 tips to declutter your home, reminding us to remember: "You're simplifying your life, not erasing your past."

When you're tacking this kind of emotional task, that's good advice to remember.