Decluttering the Attic; Assessing a Life

September 2014


When my husband and I retired, a couple years ago, one of the things we put on our “to do” list was to go through all the stuff in our attic, basement, and garage and get rid of as much of it as we could. We moved to our house in 1988, so it’s been 26 years, or over a quarter of a century (which sounds even longer) – anyway, a good long time.

Long enough to accumulate a lot of stuff. It’s amazing how much stuff accumulates in a house. Each magazine somehow becomes a stack of magazines, and each stack becomes several. They must have been reproducing up in the attic by some process of spontaneous generation – because surely I had the subscriptions for only a year or so, didn’t I?

And then there are all the books I ever read and kept because, you know, I might want to read them again – to say nothing of the ones I bought but never read, which I might just want to read … whenever. You never know.

Actually, a lot of what is in the attic wasn’t accumulated while we’ve lived in this house. A lot of it came with us to this house – the sum total of what we’d accumulated in the previous places we lived. Most of the books in our attic, for instance, came with us to this house when we moved from our previous house – and there they stayed, in the attic, in the boxes we’d packed them in 26 years ago, or 32 years ago when we moved from the place before that, or 35 years ago when we moved from the place before that. Think about that: There were boxes of books that remained unpacked for 35 years and simply came with us each time we moved. Whenever I’d think about going through those boxes to sort through which books to give away and which to keep, it just seemed daunting, the sort of task that would best be done at some unspecified future time.

And similarly with sorting through all those magazines and all the old clothes and our kids’ old clothes and the papers and textbooks and notebooks from every class I ever took, and writings and letters and old toys and some wedding presents we’ve never used and … you name it.

A few years back we had our roof re-shingled, and solar panels put on the south-facing portion of the roof. The hammering involved in removing the old slates and nailing in the new ones knocked loose dirt that fell from the attic ceiling and covered everything in the attic, lending to our decluttering effort something of the feel of an archeological dig.

So part of what makes it feel so overwhelming is the sense that we’re not just going through stuff; we’re unearthing stuff. And part of it is the sheer amount of stuff we’ve accumulated over the many years of our lives – collectively, over 125 years.

And yet I don’t think of my husband or myself as hoarders. We really have gotten rid of many things along the way; we really don’t feel we must keep absolutely everything. My heart goes out to people who are true hoarders, people who keep everything that has ever crossed paths with them down to each lowly paper clip (since, you know, you never know when you might need another paper clip). Actually, my heart really goes out to the children of true hoarders.

No, the amount of stuff we’ve accumulated over the course of our lives to date is, I suspect, well within the “normal” range, at least for people who live in houses, where there is somewhat more space to store stuff. We don’t even have an especially large house; but it does have a basement … and a garage … and an attic – plenty of room to put stuff that we don’t want to think about just now.

It might be more to the point to talk not about stuff but about decisions. Every book, every notebook, every piece of writing, every article of clothing represents a decision: Should I keep this? Or discard it? And I’ve found that the trend over time is working in the wrong direction – the older I get, the harder it is for me to make decisions. Where should we go for a vacation this year? Well, I don’t know; wouldn’t want to make the wrong choice. Should I throw out these old notebooks from my undergraduate days? Well, I don’t know; wouldn’t want to toss them and then regret not having them. What if I get a yen to peruse them at some point? You never know when such a yen might pop out of nowhere. Have I had such a yen in the last, say, 30 years? No, but you never know …

Now that we’ve finally begun to tackle the attic, it’s become clear that it’s not just about decluttering. Each item is laden with personal history and often with emotional significance. For example, I studied Chinese language (Mandarin) for two and a half years over forty years ago at the University of Michigan. I loved Chinese and was at the top of the class. I dropped it only when I decided I wouldn’t major in it, and third year Chinese was too time consuming to continue doing just on a lark (which is why I started studying it in the first place). I still have every single Chinese language textbook I ever used, and I will keep them ‘til the day I die. Why? Not because I’m planning on taking up Chinese again (although I might! You never know). It’s because I like to open them up from time to time and softly say the Chinese words for, say, “How are you?” or “You are very tall” or “That is a big book.” I was delighted, once upon a time, to be able to speak some Chinese and understand quite a bit, and sorry that I’ve lost most of that ability from lack of use over many years. My Chinese language textbooks are warm reminders of my own personal “golden era of Chinese,” sort of the textbook analog of a personal photo of a bygone era.

And similarly for the many math and statistics notebooks and textbooks I recently unearthed from the attic. I’ve always loved math, from as far back as I can remember (2 + 2 = 4! Wow! Cool!) When I discovered statistics as a branch of mathematics I was delighted. Deriving the binomial distribution may not thrill most people, but it thrilled me. It was exhilarating to understand just why the formula for the binomial distribution is the way it is. And similarly for the Poisson distribution or the negative binomial or any of the other probability distributions we derived in my first real mathematical probability class. And, like my Chinese language books, I still have every textbook and notebook for every statistics course I took in graduate school – plus all the homework assignments I ever did (and there were a lot).

Sorting through all of this when I brought these things down from the attic illustrated the basic conundrum of decluttering: The point of decluttering, as the name suggests, is to declutter, to get rid of as much stuff that you probably will never use or look at again as possible. The easiest thing to do would be to just get rid of all of it. That would certainly save a lot of time. But all those notebooks and homework assignments – I sometimes spent hours on a single homework problem – represent a sizeable and important chunk of my life that carries great meaning for me and is still an important part of me (I am a statistician at heart). Throwing it away would feel like throwing away part of myself, part of my history. Keeping it, or at least some of it, serves as a reminder – and as proof – of what I was once able to do. Yes, there is a sense of one’s own personal history in all that clutter up in the attic, and part of that is a sense of pride in one’s past accomplishments.

Another part is a strong desire to avoid embarrassment. In the back of my mind, as I was reading through all the letters and writings, was the knowledge that, when I’m gone or just too old to deal, it will probably be our kids who will deal with whatever stuff we leave behind – just as my sister and I did when our mother died and my husband and his siblings did when their mother died. This letter that I drafted when I was about nineteen – was it just too “woo-woo”? That unfinished novel that has sat in its box for the last 20 years – is the writing cringe-worthy? I reread everything to identify anything that I should simply toss, to avoid the embarrassment of my kids reading it and thinking, “Mom wrote that dreck?” So just as I now reread and often edit each essay before posting it to my website for others to read, I’m “editing” my personal history that will be available for our kids – and anyone else, for that matter – to see when I’m gone.

Perhaps my personal threshold for “cringe-worthy” wasn’t high enough, because I’ve tossed precious little for reasons of “cringe-worthiness.” Mostly I tossed stuff for the more mundane need to reduce the sheer quantity of stuff we leave for the kids to have to deal with when we’re gone.

There is a really big emotional component to going through one’s stuff – or the things that a loved one has left. I’m realizing, as I write this, that something I said above isn’t quite true – my sister and I haven’t yet dealt with the stuff our mother left behind, some of which is sitting in my basement. Our mother died years ago, in 2002, but somehow every time I look at the pile of her stuff that ended up in our house, I think, “I really ought to go through that stuff at some … unspecified future time.”

For my husband, Barry, that “unspecified future time” became a very specific time when he had to fly out to California to deal with all the stuff his elderly parents had accumulated in the house they’d lived in for over forty years, as they got ready to move to an apartment. Before Barry left, he said to our then-19-year-old son, “Jesse, I want you to go into the basement and get rid of all the milk jugs that, face it, you are never going to make into a raft.” And when Jesse was done, Barry added, “And now, Jesse, I’m going out to California and getting rid of all the milk jugs that, face it, I’m never going to make into a raft.” And they were still there in the crawl space under his parents’ house.

Nowadays so many things are electronic – e-books for a kindle, newspapers and magazines online, and music via the internet from Spotify, for example. All that virtual stuff is replacing the actual “hard copy” stuff that we used to use – hard copy books and magazines and records or CDs. So now we can read to our hearts’ content without accumulating so many actual books and magazines; we can listen to whatever music we want without having to store stacks of records or CDs. But each one of those books or magazines or records or CDs, on the other hand, reflected a bit of ourselves; some were like mementos, reminders of who we were at one point in our lives, what we cared about – and maybe still care about.

So there is a tradeoff – it’s nice not to have all the clutter, and I find that I actually enjoy getting rid of stuff. But it’s also nice to have actual physical things that are laden with memories and feelings from one’s past. I guess the goal – my goal, at least – is to strike a nice balance between the serene pleasure of total lack of clutter (a sort of zen emptiness), on the one hand, and the warm pleasure of having physical remembrances of one’s personal history to hold and enjoy, on the other hand. In the end, it’s all about balance, I suppose, finding one’s own personal “happy medium” – and hoping that the kids don’t think I erred too much on the side of keeping physical stuff. After all, if the past is any indicator of the future, they won’t have only their parents’ stuff to go through but their maternal grandma’s stuff as well.







4 comments on “Decluttering the Attic; Assessing a Life

  1. I never even considered saving college textbooks and notebooks (I would be surprised if I actually took any notes), but I save just about everything of Owen’s. Decluttering is hard emotionally–there are some good books to help understand the process better and make it easier. I read the books, agree totally, and still the “stuff” sits around unsorted.

    • ellen post says:

      Heh. I once joked with a professor at University of Maryland (who was a couple of years younger than me) that, when I die, it will say on my gravestone, “Here lies Ellen Post. She took good notes.” 🙂

      I should take a look at some of those books on decluttering. It’s clearly emotional — I’m not really sure why I haven’t been able/willing to go through my mother’s stuff in all these years.

  2. Sandy Barnes says:

    Such huge issues; I know that we resolve not to leave a bunch of stuff. But we’ve been living in this house since 1987, four kids. You think we have stuff?

    We dragged out the LP collection and played them for awhile. My husband and I both claimed the Richard and Mimi Farina album (hey, I knew it was mine). And we accused each other of bringing the Loggins & Messina album into the marriage. But if it wasn’t mine and if it wasn’t his, where the heck did it come from? Then in a vague memory of long ago when I had too many little kids, I remembered that my friend Linda (the same age) was cleaning out her house and maybe, probably, could be, gave me a stack of record albums. I’m blaming her.

    I enjoy reading your writing when Barry features it on his Facebook page.

    Sandy Barnes

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