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Uncluttering Seven Decades of Life

Posted Nov 19 2012 8:30am

category_bug_journal2.gif After my mother died 20 years ago and it fell to me to empty her home, I was surprised at how little “stuff” she had. Her personal files were contained in half a file drawer yet all the papers and documentation I needed were there.

Her five or six closets in a two-bedroom home were mostly empty – some clothes and a handful of small boxes with such things as photos that didn't make the cut for the albums. Dresser drawers held a reasonable number of sweaters and undergarments, but no more than that.

The kitchen was well stocked with equipment but not overly so as mine is. The largest collection of stuff was the miniature tools and other supplies for the two- and three-story dollhouses and related furniture she built from scratch.

In retrospect, I'm pretty sure she had spent the year prior to her final illness cleaning out the clutter. She was 75, had lost one breast to cancer and had developed additional cancers. She knew she wasn't going to live to be 100 or even, probably, 80.

Yesterday, the estimable, New York Times health reporter, Jane Brody, wrote about a new book , The Hoarder in You: How to Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered Life (good god, the author might want to unclutter that title).

That author is Robin Zasio, a clinical psychologist who has gained celebrity in the past few years on the television program, Hoarders. Brody tells us:

”...that Dr. Zasio’s book is about the best self-help work I’ve read in my 46 years as a health and science writer. She seems to know all the excuses and impediments to coping effectively with a cluttering problem, and she offers practical, clinically proven antidotes to them.”

So with this book, Zasio is not speaking to the extreme collectors she deals with on that TV show. This is for the rest of us, people like me who have some overstuffed drawers, closets and corners but are in no way irrational about saving everything.

Even so, hardly a day passes when I don't have such thoughts as, you really do not need 36 teeshirts. There are seven pairs of pants in that closet you haven't worn in two years. Six of those sweaters are threadbare; why aren't you tossing them?

How about the giant box of old photos – twice the size of your mother's – that are the rejects? Or, in another box, 30 years of daily diaries from the time before you kept your calendar and notes on the computer?

Neither do you need as much china as you have – enough to feed 15 or 20 people at a sitting when you have room for only four at the table? Do you even know how many quilts you have? Seven? Eight? Ten?

Plus, you transferred all your music CDs to your computer and a backup many years ago. Is there a reason you are keeping those hundreds of CDs?

And there are at least a dozen necklaces I haven't worn in several years and an unknown number of pins that once decorated jacket lapels – the kind of work-related jackets I no longer need.

And so on.

Like I said, I have these thoughts almost daily – often when I'm deciding, for example, what color teeshirt to wear UNDER a sweater where no one will see it.

Anxiety about parting with one's stuff is understandable, Zasio says, but usually dissipates quickly. Brody reports that Zasio prescribes setting aside an hour a day to work on clearing out the detritus.

”Make three piles (or bins) of stuff: Keep, Donate, Discard...Get rid of the Discard and Donate piles as soon as possible. Keep only those things that have a realistic “home” in your home.”

Brody's story about this book aroused the minor anxiety I feel regularly about having too much stuff. Part of it is that I don't want to die and leave so much crap around for someone else to deal with.

But then, rooting around in the lower reaches of my psyche about it, I realized that a good part of my reluctance to tackle what is, in my case, a relatively simple task is that it represents a winding down of my life.

Although I haven't looked at the reject photos in years, trashing them feels like trashing parts of my life. Some of the things I don't use anymore have a history. They may have been gifts. Or they relate in other ways to people I've known and places I've been.

Each time I see them or touch them, I recall those events for a few moments so if I don't have those reminders, I wonder, will I forget those people and places?

That, then, is what keeps me from discarding unnecessary stuff – that without them I might lose pieces of my life, my self.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marcy Belson: Time Out

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