Whiirrrr goes the ceiling fan overhead, trying its hardest to move the thick, hot, sticky air inside the little fenced-in back porch. To my left is a small two-story rabbit cage, complete with a little pet bunny. At my feet lie three dogs, two tiny and one fairly large. Orchards in the garden are in full bloom and the scent fills the air.
On a Plane
Yesterday morning we flew into Fort Lauderdale as a family. One of our first stops was “Nana’s” old house, where the kids loved to go … not only to visit their grandmother, but to play on the nearby beach. It was a chance to visit the house one last time and commit it to memory, much like I did with my grandparents’ home before they died 30 years ago. Those memories have served me well for a lifetime, and my kids too will have fond memories of “Nana’s house.”
Memories of Grandparents
Some of my most cherished possessions are a couple of little memories I picked up when my grandparents passed … a small 8” x 10” brown-and-white print of Vigée-Lebrun’s portrait with her daughter, which I looked at often when staying at their house. The other is a painting of two deer by a stream, done by my grandma’s sister. It may be the reason I fell in love with painting. I can remember hot summer nights with the old round black fan in the window and the streetlights throwing light on that painting. Now it’s my kids’ turn. A chance, along with other family members, to pick out a few choice memories.
The Big Sift
The last time I was in my mom’s house was a couple of weeks ago, the day she passed. Knowing I had a busy summer ahead with work and family plans, I needed to play my part in sifting through a lifetime of stuff. Because Mom grew up in the Great Depression, she never would throw anything away. Her motto: “We might need it someday.” Though I can’t possibly relate to what she and her family went through being without, I know she trained me well.
As a child I would do a spring cleaning of my little green bedroom, fill up my wastebaskets, go off to school, and find everything back on my shelves again when I got home. She would say things like, “We paid good money for that. You might regret throwing it out.” Or, “You’ll look back and wish you had that as a memory.” Therefore I rapidly went from being a clean freak to being a pack rat. And like Mom, for decades I’ve saved every little thing because I might need it again someday.
Going through Mom’s stuff was cathartic and helped me cope with the grief of her passing. It was also a chance to see hundreds of old photos — which will be scanned, saved, and distributed to the family. With so much stuff, I had to set some rules: All photos get kept. All financial papers older than 7 years go away. Anything that looks like insurance, stocks, or important contracts gets saved. Almost everything else goes unless it has family memories attached.
Thankfully, Mom made it easier than I expected. She wrote notes on everything — an envelope would say, for example, “Receipts for taxes 1958.” This was a gift. If something had meaning to her, she wrote it on the outside. But I had to comb through everything because I quickly learned she would stuff a $10 bill inside an old pillbox or between the pages of a book.
The Great Depression
Because of her generation, I suppose, when everything was on paper, my mom printed out every e-mail she ever got and printed out every photo someone sent her by e-mail, not understanding that everything was saved on her computer. Those alone filled up several garbage bags.
At the end of the first three days, when I had to return to my family and my work, we had probably filled a hundred garbage bags, without touching personal items, clothes, furniture, and special memories.
I’m Officially Cured
Upon returning home, I told my wife, “I’m cured.” I declared that I am no longer a pack rat. My kids will have no idea what to do with things, the meaning of my junk, what is valuable and what is clutter.
On a Mission
As soon as I returned home, I started decluttering my art studio. I used to keep every old jar I might need someday, or a favorite old brush that was no longer usable. I went through my drawers and filled a few bags with stuff I had saved. Then I attacked my office, which had files of things I’d been keeping for decades and realized I no longer needed. I threw out thousands of old business cards, which not only made me realize how many people I’ve met, but that I’d not looked at some of those cards in 30 years. Why save them? Anyone I need to reach now is in my contacts folder on my computer. I’ve filled another 10 bags from my office, and I’m just getting started. Drawers and files that have been cluttered for years are now empty. My once-disheveled bookshelves are neatly organized. There are no piles.
Free at Last
It took my mom’s passing to teach me that getting rid of clutter is very freeing. It’s been in the back of my mind as a someday project for years, yet it never got done. It’s also taught me that if I don’t use it, don’t touch it for a couple of years, it needs to get trashed or sent somewhere for someone else to enjoy.
Don’t Pass It On
I’ve learned that someday never comes when it comes to clutter. My mom’s gift to me was allowing me and family members days of work so that we know the kinds of messes not to leave for our own kids to deal with.
A Big Dent
Whether or not I get through all my someday clutter piles in the garage, I’ve already made a significant dent. Rather than keeping things as memories, I’m happy taking photos to remember them. I’m more likely to see things in my photos on my phone than to touch them in person as they sit in a file cabinet somewhere.
The Big Rip
I also had a horrible habit of ripping pages out of magazines, writing notes on them, and saving them. I probably found 1,000 pages as I cleaned up. I looked at every one of them, and instead of keeping the ones that were still relevant, I snapped photos and immediately e-mailed them to others if action was needed. And last week while reading a magazine, I ripped out a page, caught myself, shot a photo, and threw the page away.
The End of an Addiction
I’m happy to report that my days of being a pack rat have come to an end. My lifelong addiction to stuff is over. My intent is to label everything, write on things with instructions or meaning (heaven forbid my kids send my best, most valuable paintings to Goodwill), and I’ve always written the story on the back of every painting I do … where I was, who I was with.
What about you?
Spring cleaning is something I’m told other families did every year. I can’t say I experienced it, but my intent is to declutter at least annually.
I feel unusually free, and my wife shared that going into my office and other areas had been stressful for her because of my piles of stuff. Those piles are gone.
One of the best gifts you can give your family is to get rid of everything they won’t need, and to label everything they might need and mention why it’s important. Though I’d mentioned clutter to my mom a couple of dozen times over the last 30 years, she eventually got to the point where she was too feeble to even lift a box. She told me that the idea of moving overwhelmed her. Thankfully, we were able to keep her in her home rather than moving her into an assisted living facility.
Decluttering isn’t just a gift for loved ones, it’s a gift for you. Stuff is tied to emotion. We hold on to things for a reason. Maybe to hold on to a memory, or maybe to feel more comfortable. Perhaps just because we might need it someday. Though I can’t speak for you, I’ve found decluttering to release a lot of anxiety I did not know I had. Someday never comes.
In the airport I was wandering around the gift shops, thinking, “I’ll just end up throwing it away. I don’t need it.” Now before I buy something I think about whether it’s going to end up in a pile, a file, or the garage. I think twice. In my big cleanse I threw away dozens of gadgets I’d bought over the years that were THE hot gadget at the moment. Soon the next gadget would come along, rendering the old one obsolete. Yet because I had paid money for something, even though I knew I’d never use it again, it was hard to part with. I threw away 30 years of gadgets and cords I’d been saving. It was insane to have kept it all.
Yes, We Can Still Change
It’s never too late. I just made a significant change in my life and overcame something that has been a lifetime addiction. I’m now rethinking what I need, what I buy, what I keep, and what I shed. In reality, I need very little. Everything else is just a burden.
Is it time for you to declutter?
Are you clinging to things?
It took me decades to learn this lesson. Less is more.
PS: The week before Father’s Day I’ll be painting with a bunch of friends among the mountains and waterfalls of Upstate New York. If this plein air thing sounds like fun to you, come up and spend a week with us. It’s a low-pressure way to “break in.”
Also. if you love art and want to see a lot of it for a week in Europe, I’ve got a trip planned this fall to see the art of the South of France, Provence, and even a separate trip to Scotland. It’s not a painters’ trip (though some do paint in their spare time). It’s the best way to see art because we take our guests behind the scenes.