At about age 60 I began to notice multiple articles about downsizing, home safety tips, and being nice to one’s heirs. I decided to do it all myself before people who don’t know the history or value of my stuff take over. I know I need to clean out the closets in my mind too. I learned early that if I took the time to sort through my possessions and my mind I was less anxious. Now I find it also reduces fatigue and regret.
I started working on the house and other collections a little at a time. It was easier as a campaign than a forced march. When my mom moved to a retirement center she left the cleanup to me. I wore out. I stopped carefully sorting everything and started stuffing the piles of old clothes into bags. I mistakenly donated her Hawaiian mumu so when it was Hawaiian night at her new home I had to find her another. I didn’t know what was important to her.
Paring down my own accumulations was disconcerting, despite my feelings of accomplishment. When I moved into my current home at age 50, it seemed very important to fill up the shelves and rooms. Growing up as a WWII baby in London, I had developed a fear of deprivation. All my things added up to safety, or so I thought.
A friend once chided me because one of my kitchen drawers was full of cookies. She had grown up wealthy and had no thoughts of cookies as a sort of insurance. I did not realize what I was doing until she laughed at my stash. When I sorted out my history I stopped hoarding cookies.
It takes time to adjust to simplifying our lives. I packed away some things to see if I would miss them; so far I have not noticed their absence. I know a smaller house would have hidden the empty spaces and forced more decisions but I don’t want to leave my garden. My plan is to fill the house with roommates.
It is hard to stop being a consumer; shopping was often a task that brought excitement and satisfaction. I remember as a graduate student being happy about a new box of tea. A new outfit signaled a future just as a new hat once cheered women. When you stop accumulating things, you drop one of our standard measures of success.
At age 70 you may still be buying for children and grandchildren but rarely for yourself. You start asking your family to skip gifts. My special daughter-in-law and I used to send each other pajamas every year. Even though there is a compatibility between aging and pajamas, even that had its limits. I found an alternative shopping joy at Value Village, Goodwill, and the others. The entertainment was worth the $10 plus the senior discount. I discovered these places when buying clothes for my mother’s and my grandchildren’s changing sizes.
I did finally establish some rules for my closet. I keep two boxes: donate, think about and penance. “Donate” is easy for business clothes and tight pants, “think about” is for clothes I have never worn and memory pieces, “penance” is another word for donate. Every one new garment I bring home requires two going into the boxes.
I am committed to recycling. One of my favorite memories is seeing an aging streetwalker I had once helped wearing a flashy Easter outfit I gave her years ago. She was still flagging down cars. I looked around my garage and asked myself who could use my gardening and sports equipment. I gave away the motorized lawn equipment this year when I finally had to hire a lawn service. The food bank got my stash of mac and cheese boxes that once fed grandchildren. It has a shelf life of 25 years.
Another way to use stuff up is to consolidate and sort so you do not inadvertently buy more. Hoarding cleaning materials and cosmetics is not a good idea at age 70. Vinegar and moisturizers will always be available. If only I could use up everything before I check out. If only I could stop saving nails, screws and small plastic parts.
Decluttering made home maintenance easier and my home safer. It also forced me to clean up my memories and relationships. Our possessions have stories to tell, and these memories flood our minds and slow down the decluttering process. I began to think of these moments as Sandburg’s “fog” creeping into my mind “on little cat feet.” My collection of memories needed sorting.
I now label some of mine “moth memories” because they seem to flit about my mind at dusk. There are also “shame shots” when an unbidden memory creates a visceral shock. Unpleasant memories can surprise me even when I am trying to sleep or just relaxing. They sometimes pop in at unguarded moments and change my mood.
Some of my memories are from decades past. Why is that memory surfacing now? Yes, I did forget my lines in a school play, or more serious, I intentionally hurt someone. If some of yours are happy thoughts, good. If they are sad or painful ones, then it is time for memory boxes. My boxes are toss, replace, mitigate and penance. I have also learned how to switch from the “my mistakes” memory channel to the puppy channel.
I’ll continue to share my ideas for sorting memories in another column, but if you haven’t started on your house or your history, then join me. I know it is not easy to sort a lifetime. I also know that when your home feels uncluttered and safe it is easier to clear your mind. Then you are free to receive the energy and pleasures of simple, and therefore profound, peace.
Jennifer James has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and master’s degrees in history and psychology. She was a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington Medical School. Jennifer is the founding mother of the Committee for Children, an international organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse worldwide.