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.
Eric, thank you for these thoughts. I grew up very poor and without a lot, including indoor plumbing. I have over the years learned that I too am a “collector” of physical memories. I believe it is a human condition, at least for some. Struggling with concept of moving something out is very hard sometimes, but always readjusting the mind as to what is important for mental survival verses physical. I appreciate the additional insight.
It’s that wonderful day when all my favorite magazines arrive in the mail at the same time.
Smithsonian, naked, no wrapper, National Geographic wrapper in paper and Plein Air wrapped in PLASTIC. Dear Eric, do your part. Please no plastic wrappers.
My husband just died and I have been going thur his belongs. He had saved his father’s old drivers licenses and lots of things that he saved that made no sense. I began to throw out so many of things but then I fished out some files and photograph albums from the trash can. I called a relative of my husbands and he was thrilled to take some of the photos. I also found about 5 years worth of diaries from his Aunt Kate and read them. They had a history of the little town she grew up in and after read them I realized how different my life was with the internet and all of the entertainment there is on TV.
Kate played cards and put together puzzles and went for walks and out to dinner at a friends house, took a hike in the country or walked to the drug store for a soda.
These tokens from the past were like a gift to me. Now I may give them to the local historical society of that small town. I had already donated photos and an old class jacket (from the 30’s) to them and they loved those things. But I understand what you went thru and I got in the spirit of getting rid of things that I don’t need. I took lots of clothes (some of mine as well as my husbands) They said what they don’t sell to donate to a charity, they put in a large bin a ship it to a third world county. They put those clothes to good use. So the “good money” I paid for those things just keeps on giving.
I’ve attempted to live life with “open hands”, realizing early on that the things I desired rarely satisfied the way that experiences and relationships did. It helps to move 4-5 times in your life as well…this past purge was the best yet, settling into a small two bedroom cottage.
Sorry for your loss, happy for the great intact memories.
I’m a packrat and also need to declutter. I’ve been doing it in small bursts but avoiding my studio. I have a lot of creative baggage there. Projects I never completed…..
Thanks Eric, for the great article. I learned the de clutter lesson after my first trip to Eastern Europe. Having to go into homes where there were five children plus their parents sleeping in the same bed and only field potatoes for meals…whoa! Coming home I found I could not go grocery shopping. It all seemed such a waste! I had it all. They had nothing. I did the same thing you did. Question every purchase. It made me feel wasteful because I had so much stuff. I now live a de cluttered life and I can say along with you, it’s freeing!
Recently my husband and I moved from East Coast to the West Coast. It took me a month to go thru my studio. Gave some things away donated some, trashed some and sold a bunch of what I’ll call stuff. When it came to the house we sold a bunch of stuff. In the process we decided to go paperless. I scanned years of photos, important papers. My husband scanned years of manuals and paper. We also threw out a ton of old paperwork.
Right now we are living in our RV while looking for a house. Living in an RV really shows you how little you need to live.
I will have to say I miss my studio and all my art supplies.all I brought for the RV is watercolors. It’s not my favorite medium, but it keeps me happy for now.
I’m thrilled you have decluttered, it is a freeing freeing !!!
I loved this article. We have been through getting rid of both parents’ stuff, and just recently did our own. We moved into a CCRC in Oct. Before we did, I had a major cleaning out, including a lot of art supplies. Now that I am painting again, I’m realizing I gave away some things I need. But I don’t look at things in a store the same way. Especially at Christmas, everything looked kind of superficial to me. Now both our children have died, and I have two grandchildren to pass things on to. I am making a list of little things I have kept and what they mean. Hopefully they won’t end up at Goodwill. And they took almost all of my art and have hung it on their walls!
I agree with Shannon Sultan. Passing on those lessons and making yourself vunerable. Good for you.
Wow, hit the nail on the head. I have just finished sorting and discarding papers of my Navy Commander husband, (he passed 14 years ago) that no one will need. Those that are worthy of keeping, such as his certificates of finishing up at the Naval Academy and entering the US Navy. Those will get photographed and kept in a memory book. That’s for another day.
Really funny you should write about discarding stuff, an accumulation over the years. But discarded with care.
Got me to remember things about my husband, that I will always cherish.
It means a tremendous amount that you share so much of your wisdom and talents with us all. That you would make yourself vulnerable and open in sharing your thoughts and life experiences. Passing on those lessons so that we can not just read about you but that we would participate and adapt those same lessons in our own lives.
You are a wonderful encourager and motivator/mentor.
Eric, this was so very timely for me and my home. After having a heart problem requiring hospitalization, a heart procedure, and multiple medications daily I have had to face the fact I won’t live forever. I need to clear out many things I’ve been saving, just in case I might need them. I love your suggestion of taking photos of torn out articles as it took me a step closer to decluttering even more. Been filing those torn out articles in binders. Now I can photograph, and file in labeled albums in my photos. I too started with my office and it looks great decluttered and without piles of paperwork and things to do. I still need to get rid of many decorative items and will donate those. My office needs another pass with a more discernible eye to even shrink the kept items.
After that, I’m moving on to my library in formal living room. Will be donating many books and keeping only those that have special meaning to me or family. If it’s something I want a child or grandchild to have, I’m giving it to them now, so I can see their joy in the pleasure of it’s use. I’ve also been much more picky with my purchases. Asking the very same questions one has to decide if its really needed or even use an item. It makes decision making so much easier. Amazing how much less a person really needs.
Very timely article. I’m in the process of doing the same thing, decluttering. Thank you for this! It reinforces the need to declutter.
Eric, you’re more than right. I had to declutter clothes, cloth and glassware from my folks that hey accummulated for decades, it was a nightmare. I’ve adopted this policy even concerning my stuff.
I agree less is more for sure
It is so true how a sad event like your Mother’s passing can bring an unexpected gift. I have been doing this for the past year, following my husband’s death, and he never threw anything away. I am resolved now, like you, to leave the minimum behind. Now that I am almost done with his things, I have turned to my own and donating art books and supplies to youth groups, books and CDs to the symphony for their fund raising and other things to places that can pass them on to those who can use them. You are right about the ‘good money’ part, and it has become second nature now to really evaluate whether I’ll buy something. Works of art though, well, if I love it, I will still buy it because it brings joy. Thank you for sharing this timely story.
A bright spot that comes from a sad and tragic event. So sorry for your loss, but at the same time happy for your new found freedom. I just recently went through this exercise with both parents that died way too young. It was an eye opener.
I’m doing the same!! Decided to sell our house and move to our smaller cottage. I refuse to drag all my gatherings from our life with children and collections of stuff to our empty nester cottage. Me and the dudes at the Salvation Army are on a first name basis. This includes lots of artwork as well, that is good but that I don’t deem sellable. Hopefully if will find a home outside of the dumpster, haha!
Thank you for your insights. I have been decluttering and like you had the same parents who lived through the depression. Now I am inspired to really tackle it. I also worried my paintings would end up at GoodWill.
Went through the same thing when I cleaned out mom’s house following her move to a long term care facility. Decided I would not leave such a task for my children. Still not done, but at least all my important paperwork is organized and easily accessible. Also learned the importance of having everything in legal order, too…will, POA, health care proxy, etc. A sad but valuable lesson.
Decluttering? Yep, that is what I have to do. This article as is every Sunday Coffee article is my weekly inspiration. Two houses down to one: mostly stuff that is redundant. Yes we have special things from Mar’s house and our travels, but your article is the push I need to go through it all. I plan to donate furniture, archive photos, and trash most of it. Thank you.
Thank you, Eric, for your heartfelt account of “decluttering”. It seemed your words were spoken just for me, echoing those of my husband of 56 years. Because we are blessed with excellent health, I can easily fool myself into believing time for us will go on forever. Our three children have their own styles, goals and dreams and do not need, nor do they want, “stuff” that we collected in our life’s adventuring. You have inspired me to ‘get serious’ about the serious business of “decluttering”. We will label valuables, get rid of shelf and closet clutter, and do a “triage” on our many books and my many paintings. This Sunday Coffee has been an inspiration. Again, Thank you!
Thank you so much! This article is so timely and valuable.
I’m so sorry for the loss of your mother. My mother passed 1 1/2 years ago
and I still have her clothes in my closet and her dishes in my cabinets. Trying
hard to let go. Warmly, Elaine
I know what I need to do.
You hit the nail on the head for me Eric. Those of us with grandparents and parents of the Great Depression learned at their knee, we might need it some day. So I’m following your lead, and hope my husband will not only read your article, but heed your advice.
Wow! Did this Sunday Coffee hit home! I’ve been trying to get rid of paper clutter, but sometimes it seems like an insurmountable task! Thank you for this well-written article of encouragement!
Thank you for sharing and I think it is time for me to de-clutter. I did just that yesterday in my studio..
So very sorry for your loss.