Decluttering ahead of ‘death cleaning’

george kindergarten

My first Hawaiian shirt at age 6. Kindergarten, Decoto School, in Union City, California.

OK, so spring has come and gone and we’re a few days into the summer of 2018. At least Lori and I have begun acting on a pledge we made to each other earlier this year: to start ridding ourselves of unneeded, unwanted possessions.

If your garage looks like ours, you’ve probably accumulated more stuff than you need. In our case, plastic bins and cardboard boxes line two sides of our single-car garage, reaching toward the ceiling. Most containers are stacked neatly on top and next to each other, but some are leaning over like a drunk.

A lot of this we brought with us when we moved out of the home we lived in for nearly 30 years, the place where we raised our three children. We downsized big-time when we made the move to this brand-new townhouse in the fall of 2009. But now we’ve been here nearly nine years and not only have we hung on to what we brought, but we’ve managed to add to the clutter.

Do we really need four bicycles? Why do we keep shoes and clothing we haven’t worn in years? And who knows what’s in some of these boxes anyway?

***

Americans are known for being pack rats. But there’s another approach that’s caught my attention.

Several months ago The Washington Post published a feature article about a Swedish woman in her 80s who’d just published a book called “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.”

As the article explained, “The concept of decluttering before you die, a process called ‘dostadning,’ is part of Swedish culture. (It comes from the Swedish words for death and cleaning.) ”

The main message from author Margareta Magnusson is this: “Take responsibility for your items and don’t leave them as a burden for family and friends. It’s not fair.”

Or, put more bluntly, “If your family doesn’t want your stuff when you’re alive, they sure won’t want it when you’re dead.”

 

Fair enough.

Just to be clear, we’re not decluttering because we see The Grim Reaper on the horizon. No, we’re doing so with a simple objective: to reclaim some more space for ourselves.

We started two Saturdays ago with several boxes and continued this past weekend with an overdue assault on a closet and a trunk in a spare bedroom. It’s amazing how much paper one can collect in the form of back taxes, canceled checks, and all manner of work-related materials. I plead guilty in the first degree.

Read about Swedish ‘death cleaning’ here

***

Magnusson, the Swedish author, suggests that age 65 is a good time to start death cleaning, but the process is freeing at any age. And she suggests that you don’t start with your photos, as you’ll get bogged down in your memories and never accomplish anything.

I’ve heeded that advice for the most part. Still, going through all this stuff, you’re bound to come across things that give you pause, spanning the years from childhood to parenthood to empty nester. So many items that reflect your status as son, husband, father, as well as student, employee and professor.

For example:

  • Family photos depicting changing hairstyles and fashion choices.
  • Grade school photos, book-ended by my gap-toothed smile as a kindergartner and my dorky high school graduation portrait.
  • A book of autographs from Major League Baseball players, including one from Hall of Fame inductee Willie Stargell.
  • Hard copies of the news stories I wrote for a beginning journalism class at San Jose State and for which I earned an A (whew!). And by hard copies, I mean typewritten words on old-school plain copy paper.
  • Business cards from The Argus, my hometown newspaper in Fremont, California, where I began as a part-time prep sports writer while attending college. Phone number only; no web address, of course.
  • A huge cache of yellowing newspapers and glossy materials relating to my three-decade career at The Oregonian, including: Stories and columns that I wrote. Sunday Opinion cover stories that I conceived and edited. Slick pamphlets that I used to recruit top prospects to Portland. Binders full of tips and best practices that I picked up at training conferences from California to Florida. Tip sheets from various speakers at our in-house training sessions. Programs from job fairs, journalism conventions and writing workshops that I attended and sometimes organized.
  • A treasure trove of documents relating to the newsroom internship program I ran for 10 years. In one folder, bios on a couple of interns who were starting work on the same day (hello, Esme Bermudez and Yvonne Ngai). In another folder, a roster of the 2004 summer intern class (including Melissa Navas, Sophia Tareen, Niki Sullivan, Shannon McMahon, April Simpson and Christine Yee.) In yet another folder, students’ autobiographical essays that resonate as powerfully today as the day I first read them 20 years ago.
  • Payment stubs for an array of prescription drugs and medical services — hospitals, physicians, ambulances, nursing homes — that piled up in the waning months of my mother’s life. As her financial representative, it was my responsibility to keep up with those obligations.

 

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Sifting through all the above and much more felt a little like an archaeological dig. It unearthed feelings of pride, seeing how rich my personal and professional lives have been; of sadness, knowing some family members and co-workers are gone forever; and of regret, seeing so much valuable journalistic content get tossed into the recycling bin.

All in all, I have no complaints. This decluttering will be cathartic. It will take us the rest of the summer, I am sure, but the time and effort will be worth it. A little more breathing room for Lori and me will be nice, even if we’re still years away from a serious “death cleaning.”

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