I Feel Bad About My Stuff: Getting Rid of Emotional Clutter
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I Feel Bad About My Stuff: Getting Rid of Emotional Clutter

That ugly vase from my favorite aunt. Faded kids' art projects, gathering dust. Photos of my ex-husband. It's not clutter, it's toxic. Must be time for some emotional organizing.

Two years ago I was newly divorced, newly impoverished, and desperate for a fresh start. The quickest, surest fix for all my problems, I decided, was to put the marital house on the market. So I called a real-estate agent, who came over immediately. "Get rid of everything," she said, with a blithe wave of her hand. "Immediately. We'll list in two weeks."

Two weeks? I had two weeks to turn a three-story house where five slobs had lived for seven years into a showpiece? It would not be an exaggeration to say that I went nuts. For 14 exhausting days I did nothing but fill boxes, bins, and bags. "It's not permanent," I told myself, sweeping a mantelpiece-worth of detritus into a cardboard container. "I'm not throwing things away. This is just till the house sells -- then I'll get all my stuff back."

Two weeks later, when I proudly pounded the "For Sale" sign into the fresh-mown grass out front, our cozily cluttered house had magically become a gleaming minimalist museum. Gone were the smiling photos in frames, the lovingly proffered Mother's Day sculptures from my sons, the precious preschool paintings tacked over the bed. Gone were the report cards and class pictures and grocery lists from the fridge -- gone, even, were the magnets that held them there. Gone were all the funky little collectibles the kids and I had strewn across the shelves. Our zillions of books were dusted and lined up neatly and the furniture, devoid of tchotchkes and memorabilia, shone blankly in the sunlight.

The bathrooms looked as if they'd never been used. I'd gone berserk in the medicine chest, throwing out anything that was out of date, unsightly, or unusable. And the linen closet was a thing of beauty: tightly folded rows of color-coded sheets and towels, smelling faintly of sachet. We trod lightly, made our beds in the morning, hung up our towels, and swept ourselves out of the door every morning for months.

After all that, the house didn't sell.

Find the Happy Medium

In despair, I took it off the market. The one bright spot, I figured, was that we'd get back all the precious possessions we'd stashed. But when I opened the first of the dozens of boxes stuffed with everything we supposedly held dear, my heart sank. Did I really want to put all this junk back where it "belonged"? To be honest, I hadn't missed any of it. Neither had the kids. The thought of a mantelpiece crowded with candles, picture frames, and odd Lego spaceships made me shudder a little. But I couldn't live in a sterile showplace forever. How could I find the happy medium between chaos and coziness?

The answer, I decided, was to choose carefully from the items I'd stored -- putting back only what I loved most and letting go of (or stashing away) the rest. It wasn't "decluttering," since I'd done that already. And it certainly wasn't "redecorating," since I planned to put my same old things back into my same old house. It was, instead, "curating" -- selecting, with an eye toward quality and personal significance, which of my family's possessions I wanted to have around.

I didn't want to declutter, exactly, I realized. I wanted to curate my stuff, selecting and displaying the things I loved most, while packing or throwing the rest away.

Still, it seemed wasteful, even sinful, to ditch things that weren't broken or ugly or even out of style. It made me so nervous that I sought some professional help. "Doesn't having fewer, more cherished belongings sound better than living with tons of extra stuff?" asked Xorin Balbes, author of SoulSpace: Transform Your Home, Transform Your Life. Balbes promised that I'd learn something about what I valued most as I winnowed my possessions. "Choosing what you want to live with will give you a clear sense of who you are now, as opposed to who you were five or 10 years ago," he said.

This sounded good -- I was at a point in my life where I could stand a little redefinition. I'd lived with my husband for 18 years. Now that I was middle-aged and divorced, I wanted the house to reflect my tastes. The first box I opened turned out to be filled with photos, most including my ex. I paused. I didn't want to obliterate the past -- it was important for our kids to see evidence of the long, mostly happy relationship that had brought them into existence. I stared at the box, trying to figure out which pictures I wanted in our lives again.

Finally, I came up with a solution: I got rid of the wedding photos, but kept two lovely shots of the whole family. I divided the pictures of the kids with their dad alone -- half for me, half for him -- and packed his up, along with others I knew he'd like: His grandmother holding our infant older son, his mom with the kids one Easter, our sweet old dog when she was a puppy, and so forth. It wasn't easy. I loved all these pictures. But after putting back some of our old photos and seeing that I had plenty of space left over, I realized it had been several years since I'd framed anything to add to the collection. Our photo gallery was, quite simply, out of date.

Start Curating

This buoyed my spirits in a way I hadn't expected. It was fun to figure out what new pictures I wanted to display and I was glad to have tangible evidence that the kids and I were still happy and functioning. My snapshot collection was no longer living in the past -- and neither, suddenly, was I.

Photos were just the tip of the iceberg, however. The sheer amount of junk I'd stashed -- and hardly missed -- boggled my mind. I had boxes and boxes to go before I slept. How had it happened? Nobody ever says, "What I really want is a house crammed to the gills with redundant possessions." Yet somehow this is how we end up. According to Tsh Oxenreider, author of Organized Simplicity and the blogger behind SimpleMom.net, "We are so reticent to get rid of things because we believe our cherished memories are tied up in our things. If we get rid of the thing, we're saying those memories don't matter to us. Not true." Still, the thought of paring down makes most of us anxious to the point of paralysis.

I called my mom for emotional support. As it turned out, she was in the middle of a massive curation project of her own: She and my stepfather had recently sold the sprawling house my siblings and I had grown up in and were moving to a tiny two-bedroom cabin in the woods. "I'm sitting here looking at nine pairs of painted ceramic candlesticks, trying to pick just one," she said. When I asked why on earth anyone would have so many candlesticks, she sighed. "Well, I've had 63 birthdays and 63 Christmases," she said. Add one or two souvenirs a year, a few gifts from grateful houseguests, then factor in the ease of stashing things away in a large house and you've got some idea of what my mom was up against.

We had to be ruthless. Curating means picking the gems from every collection and letting the rest of it go. With this in mind, I began drastically culling duplicate mementos. In one box I found a dozen letters written to me by my beloved great-grandmother, who died when I was 13. The letters themselves don't take up much space; I could easily have justified saving every single one of them. But instead, I read them all -- and then I picked one. One letter makes a wonderful souvenir; too many make it impossible to open the desk drawer. Bizarrely, this paring down made me feel richer than before. A month ago, I reasoned, I had a pile of letters from a dead relative at the bottom of a box I'd forgotten existed. Now I have a single cherished letter. I know exactly where it is. I'll read it again every few years. Lesson learned: By saving fewer things, you increase their value.

You also increase their visibility. A huge collection tends to overwhelm your senses, whether you spend years accumulating ceramic gnomes or Fabergé eggs. "If you're aiming for sheer quantity, you're missing the point -- and you can literally lose sight of the beauty of each individual object," Balbes points out. Picking one or two shining examples cuts to the essence of why you started collecting this thing in the first place. The object you choose will be the most symbolic -- whether it's the first, the last, the rarest, or your favorite.

This, it turns out, is an interesting riddle to solve, and my mom and I discussed it over the phone as she went through her book collection. She has hundreds of books -- but she couldn't take all of them to the cabin any more than she could take 18 candlesticks. In the end she decided that any book with an inscription (which meant it had been given as a present) could come, and she picked two candlesticks from Italy. Once the other eight pairs were gone, those two looked twice as beautiful as they had among their companions. Meanwhile, I winnowed down a whole box of presents my kids had made for me over the years by choosing to keep only two and stashing the rest. (I figure I'll rotate them from time to time, just like a real curator.) I wondered if the kids would complain that certain items were missing, but in fact the opposite happened: They noticed what was there ("Hey! I remember making this!") and didn't say a word about what wasn't.

Going Minimalist

Even disciplined minimalists wind up hanging on to certain objects out of guilt. Believe me, I can relate. You bought it on sale, but it never fit right. It was a gift you don't like from someone you don't want to hurt. It's something you keep meaning to read, or wear or use...someday. Whatever it is, getting rid of it will make you a bad person -- or so you think.

Actually, the opposite is true. Ditching things that make you feel guilty sets you free. A closet stuffed with too-skinny jeans? That unopened yoga DVD whose very existence is a reproach? The ugly vase from Aunt Doris that bums you out every time you see it? Away with all of them! "Keeping needless stuff is stressful," says Oxenreider. She encourages people to live with only their essentials, even in their wardrobes. "It's more enjoyable to open a closet filled with only 30 items you love that fit perfectly, rather than a closet crammed with out-of-date, poorly fitting pieces. If you don't wear it in a year, you don't love it. Out it goes."

In box number six I found a cute little diary I'd kept in fourth grade. On closer look, most of the pages were blank and even the entries I'd bothered with were pretty perfunctory ("Today I was sick. Boring.") "Toss it," my mother said, when I called her to ask what I should do. My jaw dropped. It was an artifact! I remembered stashing it under my mattress as a kid. And it had made it this far without getting thrown out. Shouldn't I keep it, just for continuity's sake or something?

I riffled through it again. The diary was kind of boring. I took a deep breath, then dropped it into the trash.

We tend to think that anything we once treasured is automatically valuable today, even if we can't quite remember why we were so attached. But time marches on, lives change, and I didn't see myself ever wearing the rhinestone jewelry I found in another box. I wasn't a 15-year-old Madonna wannabe anymore. Still, it was pretty. I remembered the thrill of finding each piece in thrift stores, back in the day.

In the end I struck a compromise with myself: Instead of chucking my baubles, I bestowed them on a 10th-grade girl I know. She was thrilled, and I love knowing my sparkly treasures have a new home.

When in doubt, a curator should ask herself: Do I want this? Does this make me happy? And, perhaps the ultimate: If I were moving to a really small cabin in the woods, would I take this with me?

"When you're able to let things go, it proves that you're more than just the sum of your material possessions," Balbes says. "You're strong enough to survive without a million things. You can go from a big house to a small one without losing your identity, because you carry your identity with you." Oxenreider lives by the mantra from 19th-century architect William Morris: "Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." Anytime she curates her possessions, she asks herself, "Is this useful? Do I really think it's beautiful?"

For me, curating was a way to change my life by changing my surroundings. For my mom, the fact that she was actually moving to a cabin in the woods made things easier for her. Curating her stuff wasn't a theoretical exercise; it was a necessity, and time was running out. In the end, we felt like broken records, chanting, "Do I want this? Do I need this? Do I love this?" over and over when the fate of a particular object hung in the balance. The very day I broke down the last cardboard box and carried it out to recycle, my mom called from the new, tiny house. "It fits, it all fits!" she said triumphantly, sounding happier than she had in months. Relief washed over me. This, I realized, was the whole point. Keeping one's possessions and treasures and mementos to scale -- so they don't crowd you, or oppress you, or burden you -- is the ultimate goal of curating your stuff. And a life that fits is its very own reward.

Fernanda Moore lives in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, with her sons Zander, 16, and Thaddeus, 9. Their houseful of carefully curated possessions still hasn't sold!

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2012.