Saturday, January 12, 2019

WEEKEND COLUMN: The life-changing challenge of decluttering

“The first step in crafting the life you want is to get rid of everything you don't.” ~Joshua Becker 

Cindy La Ferle


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As the cliche goes, the start of a new year is the perfect time to clear out the dark corners of our drawers and closets. Time to divvy up our buried treasure. Time to let go of it all. Or at least some of it.  

If your home is anything like mine, your attic and basement are jam-packed with record albums, family photo albums, boxes of cards and letters, baby clothes, and larger heirlooms of dubious value. And even if you don’t entertain as often now, it’s likely that your cupboards are crammed with several sets of dinnerware -- including one that hasn’t seen a dining room table since Christmas of 1995.

So, where will all this stuff go when you finally decide it’s time to unload it?  According to most lifestyle experts, your kids don't want it.

When less is more

Millennials refuse to be tied down by the things they own, or at least that’s what my thirty-something son, his wife, and their friends keep telling me.

These kids prefer urban condos, apartments, or lofts with barely enough extra closet space for their winter coats. They’re not sentimentally attached to their childhood finger-paintings or Thomas the Tank Engine collectibles, not to mention Grandma’s tarnished sterling silver flatware. Capturing their experiences on digital cameras, they’d rather travel the country unencumbered by keepsakes. Experience matters more than stuff.

“Our physical and digital spaces are expressions of our identity,” explained one of my son’s friends. “If a piece of my parents’ furniture doesn’t fit with my own style, I don’t want it in my home. I’d rather take a smaller item that has sentimental value and special meaning to me.”

As a late bloomer in my early sixties, I’m just beginning to grasp the concept of non-attachment.

When my mother died four years ago, she left me, her only child, with the daunting task of redistributing a houseful of beloved family heirlooms. My mother had been emotionally attached to nearly every piece of furniture and china she owned -- and she'd hoped I'd be a respectful steward of her treasures. Deciding which items to save, donate to charity, or sell in an estate sale was a heartbreaking challenge, given that my husband and I were also trying to downsize. Our home was already stuffed with my parents’ earlier castoffs, and our basement resembled a thrift store. 

The dilemma was the source of many sleepless nights.

It’s only stuff

At the time, Marie Kondo had just published The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which later helped me navigate the process of sorting through Mom’s belongings. Not surprisingly, Kondo is also a millennial with a take-no-souvenirs attitude about hoarding.

“The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it,” she noted in her book. In another tip, she suggested that we name the reasons why we’re struggling to let go of a particular heirloom or item. There are only two possible answers, she wrote: “An attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

Though I’m still trying to streamline my household, I’m not ready to dispose of heirlooms that are rich with memories. 

Yes, I ended up keeping the tall grandfather clock that chimed through countless holiday dinners with my folks. I've kept the cherrywood tea box that my mother purchased from a gift shop in Williamsburg -- a small, portable item that still evokes memories of my mother and a place she loved to visit. And I’ve kept some of my son's old toys and Christmas ornaments, which he (sort of) agreed to take ... later, but not now.

I remind my son that, someday, when he reaches middle age, he just might appreciate owning a few tangible reminders of his childhood and the folks who loved him. By then, I hope, he and his wife will have an attic large enough to store them. ~Cindy La Ferle


  1. Cindy,
    Your words were helpful. As an only child too, I am now in the process of going through my parent's home after the death of my mom who passed in Oct. It's hard to know what to keep and what to pass on. For me the real struggle is the house. It's the final goodbye and I am torn. Your words helped and they give me hope that I will be a peace when this process is over.

    Jacquleine Polefka

    1. Janet, my heart goes out to you at this time. It is very, very hard to say goodbye to a family home. Time will heal, but it's hard. Be sure to keep a few things that have deep and special meaning to you. And photos!