I’m not here to offer advice about decluttering, like “if you haven’t worn that shirt in more than a year, get rid of it.” I’m here to admit that my clutter is a result of avoiding making decisions for decades about what to keep and what to get rid of. It’s been easy because I’ve been in the same house for 30 years, a house big enough to stuff my belongings in the back of a closet or a room in the basement and forget about it. I’m paying for it now.
In going through old folders (that is, paper folders), I’m finding paycheck receipts for jobs I had 20 years ago and coupons that expired more than two years ago. Those are the easy things to get rid of because I can toss the papers in my recycling bin. It’s harder when I want to be socially responsible and not add to ever-growing landfills: clothes that maybe someone else can wear (even if they are 20 years out of fashion), winter boots that the homeless could use, or books that someone else might want to read.
We’ve come to a strange crossroads in our civilization when you can’t give stuff away, even good stuff. Imitating my neighbors, who put old bookshelves or desks in their driveway, hoping someone will drive by and give them a good home, I recently put a perfectly good armchair in the driveway with a “free” sign attached. When it sat there for a week, gathering snow and dust, I brought it back in and called the waste disposal company. It’s a little embarrassing, like my chair isn’t good enough.
It feels like half my friends are in a decluttering frenzy. But, as many have found out, it’s not easy to get rid of our unwanted belongings. To paraphrase one recent headline: “Your children don’t want your stuff.” My (long dead) grandmother’s porcelain tea cups have been sitting on my shelves—never used—for decades. They belong to a different era, when ladies would sit and gossip over tea and pastries, but almost no one has time to slowly sip tea, and almost no thrift shop will take something that’s not sellable and is easily breakable.
It’s not that I am emotionally unable to let them go, but I don’t want these delicate treasures crushed under a trash pile. There must be someone who would appreciate the artistry and delicacy, but how do I find that person? I could spend time posting them on Craigslist or NextDoor, begging thrift stores to take them or hold a garage sale. But I’m competing with others my age who are trying to also get rid of their mother’s or grandmother’s fine dishes, so the chances are small of finding a good owner. And it all takes time, and I have much more decluttering to get through.
Like finding a home for my vinyl records that I haven’t listened to for decades. Even though there has been somewhat of a resurgence in vinyl, mine are scratched and unlistenable, but surely these album covers—of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell—should be treasured as small works of art. I remember poring through record bins when I was young, examining the covers as much as the list of songs. But even if I found someone who might want these covers, I would still have to throw out the vinyl because our local recycling center—one of the best in the country—has no use for them.
On top of that, my favorite thrift shops—ones that are linked to local non-profits—have gotten fussy about what they’ll take. You can no longer deposit stuff in their bins and leave. One of their staff members has to go through it first to make sure you aren’t using the thrift store as a dumping ground for useless or broken items. Because these places are also short staffed since the pandemic, they restrict their schedules for taking donations (Tuesday and Wednesday only from 11 to 3) and how much they will take at one time. One thrift store will only accept one box (no bags) of books, one box of shoes and one box of clothes per visit. So I have to time my visits.
I’ve been culling my library with the goal of getting rid of books that I will likely not read again. That part has been fairly easy. Finding a good home for them is another matter. Books that no one will ever read (“Learning HTML”) can be recycled. Books that someone might want to read can be donated to thrift shops. And I thought I could make some money by selling books by best-selling authors to used-book stores. But on a recent foray, the bookseller rejected two-thirds of them. It’s a bit painful, like sending your children out into the world and seeing them rejected by schoolmates.
Someone suggested I could donate the books to a library or a jail. In due time, I will try that, but it’s all more effort and work than I want, especially since the basement still holds downhill skis that I haven’t used for 20 years, boxes of film slides that I need to digitize, and newspaper articles that I wrote 30-40 years ago.
I once had a neighbor who sold her house after her husband had died. Like me, they had lived there for at least 30 or 40 years. Although she started cleaning out the house months before the closing date, somehow she hadn’t realized how much stuff she had. The day before the closing, she and her daughter were frantically throwing big and little items into a super-sized haul-away bin. I don’t want to be in that situation. That thought keeps me going when I’m sorting through decades of accumulated stuff: do it now or pay later.