How to Feel at Home in Your Home, Part V: Stuff and Death

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If you’re just joining us, consider going back and reading from the beginning. 

Part of the reason why I started this blog series is because I’ve seen the same thing—people finally cleaning out stuff they didn’t use and didn’t like–happen over and over again, and I’ve wondered for myself if there was something to be learned.  Specifically, the case I’m thinking of was more on the extreme end.  An elderly client, on his last move, was in the hard position of moving over 40 years worth of accumulation in a short amount of time.  I’m not sure that he’d qualify as a “hoarder,” but he did, in some places, have stuff nearly floor to ceiling.  And he didn’t want any help.  He nearly killed himself getting the stuff out, but to his credit he did!  I remember how painful it was for him to finally get rid of all the things—some quite beautiful and exotic.  But maybe the worst was seeing him one day with a box full of black and white photos that were on the way to the dump.  I knew it was hard for him, but he had by that point rather stoically accepted that no one else wanted or needed them.  There was literally nowhere else for them to go.   

This week we need to have a hard conversation about the sentimental stuff.  You know what I’m talking about: the boxes shoved in the attic or in your cupboards crammed with old notes or valentines or cards or trinkets or race medallions or kid art. 

Sit down and close your eyes.  Take some deep breaths.  Thank your house and the stuff in the box.  Then confront that stuff with as open a mind as you can. 

The first question is this: Why are you keeping that stuff?  Really, what’s the deal?  For me, much of that stuff represents bits of my life that actually mean something to me either because of the person who gave it to me, the intention behind the gift, or both. Some of the stuff reminds me of important things I’ve accomplished.

Ok great, but let’s dig deeper.  What’s the plan with the stuff?  I assume, when I shove something in the box, that it needs to be kept because it’ll make me feel warm and fuzzy later when I look at it again.  I assume that one day (maybe when I’m old and depressed?!), I’ll open that box and reminisce.  I don’t have any intentions of opening it in the next 10 or even 20 years.  Maybe in the back of my mind I’m also thinking that if I die early, my family can look at that stuff and be happy?  I don’t know. 

As I think about it more, there are a few problems with my logic: 1) I assume now that I’m going to want to spend my time this way when I’m older.  Maybe I will, and it’ll be a great semi-sweet trip down memory lane.  But what I prefer to play Mahjong or want to learn electric guitar instead?  What if I think I’ll have the time to wade through those boxes and I don’t—and they end up in the landfill?  I just don’t know what’s ahead, I guess.  2) Sorry future self, but I’m assuming now that you’ll be coherent enough to appreciate what’s in the box and I’m just not sure how solid an assumption that is.  I sure hope I have enough marbles for it, but I don’t know that either. 

Alright, so, there are a lot of unknowns—I just don’t know that I’ll have the desire or wherewithal to go through the boxes later.  But there’s also one huge known that bugs me: I have stuff crammed in boxes.  Not organized.  Not easily digestible.  I already don’t want to look at those boxes because it’s too much to handle.  And somehow I think I’ll want to when I’m older?!  Clearly this makes no sense. 

Sooooo…if I really want to keep things that have a chance of being used in the way I envision later, I must store them correctly now.  I can’t keep throwing things into boxes, especially things like that old acorn that my grandfather once gave me that made me smile: if I don’t have some explanation along with it, my old self will wonder what the heck a rotten nut is doing in the box. 

My pain-staking task is going to be this:

Go through these boxes, armed with a few old-fashioned albums.  Think carefully about each thing.  Will I REALLY want to see this thing again?  If yes, it goes in the album WITH an explanation.  If no, thank the thing for the purpose it served and chuck it.  That’s really it.  Two more things: when I’m tempted to keep another memento, I need to decide if it’s worth the time to catalogue.  If it isn’t and I feel the urge to toss it into a box, I have my answer.  The other thing to keep in mind is this: just how much space do you want albums taking up in your house?  Even if you keep everything nicely catalogued, will you look at 50 albums or want that much space devoted to the stuff?  Probably not.  So keep that in mind on the front end. 

Parting Words:

I think what’s so hard about sorting through sentimental stuff is that ultimately, it is a stark reminder of our own mortality.  We hold that stuff dear not because it does anything but because it reminds us of the life we’ve lived and the people we’ve loved.  It’s hard to let go of all that.  It’s hard to grasp that one day we’ll be gone.  Perhaps it’s nice to think that our stuff will outlive us, but the fact of the matter is that your stuff will one day be gone too.  We all approach our own mortality differently, but the goal I have for myself here has been to preserve my time, both now and in the future.  And I think this requires more thoughtfulness and awareness than I’ve previously exhibited. 

Well, my friends, it’s spring.  Which in the real estate world means I’m close to losing my mind (not really, lol—I just have a penchant for exaggeration sometimes).  The implication is that I’m going to need to slow this train down and write one post a month for a while.  We’ve covered a lot of ground though, and I’ve learned quite a lot about myself.

Continue to surround yourself with joy and I’ll do the same,


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