Until recently, my basement had been full of stuff that should have long ago gone to Goodwill or simply been thrown away rather than saved as a project for another day. The same goes for my closets, my ample kitchen cabinets, my medicine chest and my backyard shed.
Trust me – I'm neither a pack rat nor a hoarder. Quite the contrary. Friends joke that my refrigerator is alphabetized. (It isn't.) The rare books or magazines on my coffee table are always at right angles. My desk is cleared nightly of every file and sheet of paper, even though I have a dedicated office in my home and could simply close the door. I have made my bed every day of my life. I separate paper clips by size. The items in my lint-free purse are always in the exact same place.
But still, thanks to laziness, the luxury of space, 17 years in one house and a surfeit of sentiment, here's what I found and got rid of when I recently prepared to put my house on the market (if not to sell at least to gauge its current worth):
- A half-dozen coffee makers, without carafes (they shattered).
- Mountains of Tupperware containers and unmatched lids.
- Canned food so outdated it would surely cause botulism.
- Bathing suits, jogging shorts and underwear, with no remaining elasticity.
- Old garden hoses with duct tape covering holes in the rubber.
- Two bicycle racks, one for the car and one for the wall — but no bikes.
- Computer cases for every laptop I've ever owned.
- Piles of defunct cell phones and their outdated chargers, cables and cases.
- Shards of broken flower pots.
- Enough old dishes and flatware to host a dinner party for 100 (although I never entertain).
- Stacks of local phone books dating back many years.
- Flannel nightgowns so old they're almost transparent.
- Extra rolls of wallpaper, for walls that are no longer papered.
- Fitted sheets with no matching top sheets (and vice versa).
- Enough blue plastic New York Times delivery bags for 50 years of doggy mess.
- All of my late mother's plastic hangers (she disapproved of wire ones).
Again, I'm not moving yet. I was just preparing for a broker's open house, without the benefit (or cost) of a professional house-stager or declutterer. So most of this back-breaking clean-up work probably wasn't even necessary. Potential buyers care more about the number and size of closets than what's in them. As for the unfinished basement, the primary concern is whether it's free of termites and asbestos, not whether it's full of old flatware. And my shed? Depending on where prospective buyers are coming from, and especially if it's New York City, it may be bigger and better than their current home, but for the absence of insulation.
(MORE: My Father Is a Hoarder)
Still, my exercise, while wearying, was worthwhile. So what did it teach me – and what should it teach you? The lessons are both practical and philosophical.
Any of us with elderly parents, or who are wise enough to think in advance about our own futures, know that many people – perhaps most – stay longer than they should in houses that are too big, too much work and sometimes unsafe. "Home" is where people generally want to spend the rest of their lives – aging in place, as we now call it. This is realistic for some. The rest of us will need to move, and will likely balk at the daunting physical, logistical and emotional task of leaving what might have been home for generations.
My own mother left my childhood home, by choice, in her mid-70s to relocate to a senior community. She was eager to flee the snow, the need to drive and the demands of taking care of a house as a widow. But she still came unglued at the actual task of clearing out. Without me and my brother there to help, I suspect she would have lost her nerve. He sold the house. I went through a lifetime of possessions with her, stickering every item red, yellow or green, for "toss,'' "sell'' or "keep.'' Together we disposed of everything, one way or another, and got her where she was going quickly.
(MORE: What Documents to Keep, Store or Trash)
I don't have children, but even if I did, I'd prefer for them not to have to persuade me to move and then do all the heavy lifting and generally boss me around when it came time to leave. I not only have no choice but to do that for myself, I want to do it. I suspect having and exercising that kind of control, at a time when it may be slipping away in other areas, is why my mother made many such decisions for herself sooner than we would have pushed them on her. We were grateful, but that wasn't her motive.
It seems our downsizing choices are: Wait until it's really, really, no-more-fooling-around-and-hoping-it's-never-going-to-be-necessary time, and then all but kill ourselves trying to start the process at age 70 or even 80; never do the work and just burden our children with it; or, my preference, get ahead of the curve by starting, right now, to live every day like you're moving tomorrow.
This means setting rules, starting with a regularly scheduled purging – not "some day," "when I have time," or "when I feel like it," but weekly, monthly or on some similarly strict timetable, as if the task was no different than filing taxes by April 15 or, for those of us past 65, reviewing your Part D prescription drug plan during the annual open enrollment period.
Faking a deadline like that requires enormous discipline. If you don't have it, it might be easier, going forward, to shed belongings one at a time. When you break a flower pot, don't pitch it in the shed. Take it to the garbage can. When you get a new laptop or bicycle, allow one week – it will most likely be wasted – trying to sell the old computer and its accessories, or the old bike rack, on Craigslist, then pitch it or take it to your recycling center. (Better yet: Pitch it right away, unless the longshot chance you're going to get a $5 offer is worth potentially meeting the new Craigslist Killer in a darkened parking lot.)
At some point in this routine, you'll have to step back and prune your possessions so that you can go forward. If you face even routine suburban clutter like mine, make some decisions: Ditching shorts with no elastic should be a no-brainer. If you already have this year's telephone book, that's the only one you need. A dead mother's collection of high-end coat hangers? That's perhaps a discussion for you and your therapist.
Not to sound like someone who finds it easy to meditate, reads a book and then gives it away, or thinks one pair of jeans is all the wardrobe a person needs, but you might find that getting rid of stuff also makes you feel lighter.
It did me.