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Column: Downsize now. Your children will thank you later 


Last May, my 86-year-old mother-in-law moved from the Wisconsin farm where she had lived for 40 years to a smaller house 15 miles away. With help from seven children and 11 grandchildren, she has accumulated more stuff over her lifetime than she (or they) could ever use, and so during the week leading up to moving day, family members made a dozen round trips in minivans and SUVs, transporting small items — lamps, dishes, knickknacks, plants, wall hangings, her thimble collection, along with a profusion of canned goods  — to her new home.

Illustration by Richard Mia

About halfway through the process, my older son whispered, “Please, don’t let this happen to you and Mom.” Someday, it will fall to him and his brother to help move us. And so — although we have no imminent plans to move — the word “downsize” has crept into our vocabulary. 

As the 65-mile marker begins to fade in my rearview mirror, I had better get started — you know, while I’m still young. Gazing around my basement office at the walls of magazines and books, at the boxes and cabinets filled with outdated computers, monitors, keyboards, and cables, and at the 10 file drawers stuffed with paper, I realize that I should have started sooner. Like maybe 21 years ago, before we moved into this house. 

I’m not sure where to begin. There are enough books on decluttering to fill that big old bookcase you’ve been meaning to get rid of. And if you search the internet for “declutter,” your screen will be instantly cluttered with links to sites filled with tips. But should I be reading about decluttering when I could be using that time to actually do it? Clearly, I need help. 

I start with the current world champion of decluttering: Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, who was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2015. Her approach to decluttering is a six-step process that relies on asking yourself whether a possession “sparks joy” when you hold it. If not, you should thank it and send it packing. 

I don’t doubt that Kondo has helped millions of people get their houses and lives in order. But few of my possessions spark joy — not even my last novel, probably because I know there are two cases of unsold copies lurking beneath the basement stairs. 

I make my way to MakeSpace, a website that calls itself “your closet in the cloud” and offers a page with “15 actionable tips” from six certified professional organizers. 

For parting with sentimental items, one of those pros suggests taking a picture and “writing a short story about its history and significance.” But in my case, those sentimental items include a dozen unpublished short stories that I thought were pretty good, even if a jury of editors unanimously disagreed. Upon closer examination, I discover that the MakeSpace business model is mostly about shifting clutter: “We’ll pick up your stuff, store it in our secure storage facility, and create an online photo catalog of it so you never forget what you have in storage.” 

I decide to consult my neighbor Therese Garrity, one of the most organized people I know. A real estate appraiser and the mother of seven children, she has had to confront clutter on a scale few of us can fathom. She is an ardent devotee of the “FlyLady,” Marla Cilley, a blogger who launched an online support group to help people counter household CHAOS (Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome) in 2001. 

“I couldn’t keep up with stuff; I felt like our house was always a mess,” Therese says. “I liked FlyLady because she didn’t come off like she was perfect; I could relate to that.” By following the basic FlyLady flight plan of setting a timer for 15 minutes every day and picking up items with two bags — one for trash, one for things to be donated — she was pleasantly surprised by how much progress she made. 

I like the fact that Therese doesn’t proselytize. “Whatever you do has to work for you,” she says. 

But what I’m doing isn’t working, maybe because I’m basically doing nothing. So I turn to another friend, who recently downsized, for advice. 

Tom Wolfe and his wife, Barb Wallace, have been a comedy-writing team for several decades. Like me, they work from home, they have two kids who have graduated from college, and, as writers, they rely on deadlines for motivation. My own wife, Barb, says that the lack of an impending deadline is our biggest obstacle to getting started. 

“It’s not decluttering; it’s a purge,” Tom says, noting that the process of selling their house and moving “took about six months and seemed like a full-time job.” It included two garage sales and multiple trips to recycling facilities and outlet stores of charitable organizations. “I have a Puritan streak — I hate to waste stuff,” he says. “But I actually started wondering if the carbon footprint of driving things all over cancels out the benefit of trying to be environmentally responsible.” 

During their purge, Tom established a two-year rule: “If you haven’t used or worn something in two years, get rid of it. If it has value, sell it or donate it. If it doesn’t, throw it out.” Along the way, he made a discovery that makes me optimistic about finding the motivation to get started. “There’s a great sense of relief not being surrounded by stuff,” he says. “It’s a very freeing feeling. And I think it’s a great gift you can give your kids, to have your stuff in order.” 

In passing, Therese and Tom both make reference to a book that came out last year: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. The author is a Swedish artist and grandmother named Margareta Magnusson. 

The guiding principle behind Swedish Death Cleaning is that you should try to keep things the way you would want someone to find them when you die. Now that makes sense to me. It has a responsible ring to it. Although it may sound morbid, when it comes right down to it, facing up to our mortality is what it’s all about. 

“If I die — check that, when I die — I don’t want our kids to be burdened with our stuff,” Tom says. 

My sentiments exactly. So I’m adapting advice from both of my volunteer consultants. I’m trimming the 15 minutes a day to 10 and extending the statute of limitations on unused items to three years. And I’m setting a personal goal: reducing my file drawers from 10 to eight by spring. I’m going to get started right away, as soon as I get back from Costco. We need to pick up a few things. 

• Paul Engleman is a frequent contributor to The Rotarian