Decluttering: What to Let Go and What Truly Matters?

A good day these days is one during which I have tossed at least one garbage bag of “stuff” away (read: donated, recycled or re-homed). Our new, smaller home will not have the capacity to contain all of the things that, without great thought, we stowed away over the years.

It feels good, freeing, liberating to get rid of the “stuff.” 

The first pass through the “stuff” is easy. In our home the “one thing in, one thing out” rule quickly morphed into “one thing in, one thing stowed in a storage area.” Consequently, there is the pile of refuse that for some reason was never properly disposed of. Promises to wipe a computer’s hard drive went unkept. Now that we are properly incentivized, the computers will be wiped and begone, and good riddance.

Some decisions are easy. 

Some decisions about what discard are easy and others, not so much. (Shutterstock: Andrey_Popov)

The decisions I am making are not really about the stuff

But, this isn’t about the “stuff.” Not really. It’s about forcing myself to reckon with what matters. Once the first layer is gone and I can more clearly see what lies beneath, I begin to cut closer to the bone. And, then the decisions become difficult. 

A pattern emerges: Furniture, even the nice stuff, does not inspire connection for me. Those decisions are purely utilitarian-do I like it and do we need it? But a soft cover book like, I Love You the Purplest or Goodnight Moon that I read to my boys so many nights feels impossible to discard. Maybe someday they will read to their children from the book I read to them. 

The jewelry presents its own issues

There is the jewelry from my parents’ home that I cleaned out years ago that has been gathering dust in a Ziploc bag in my closet. A necklace brings back memories of the person who wore it, memories of the day they bought it, of the way they looked in it.

But the piece is not my taste and it never will be. Do I melt it down for its cash value? 

It’s not a question of absolute value but of its value to me? I pause and wonder; might an outdated style of jewelry come back into fashion and be just the thing that would connect a daughter-in-law with her husband’s grandmother? Melting the piece down for its monetary value feels like the right answer. It also feels like the wrong answer.

Other pieces that do not inspire memories are easier to let go. 

The letters are another thing I need to decide on

I continue digging. 

I find an aerogramme from my late father to his late sister in which his writing strikes me anew. And an image of dad jumps out from the words on the page. I picture him sitting at his desk, Montblanc pen (his one splurge) in hand, drafting. I ponder his relationship with his sister. Perhaps this letter is the most revelatory and durable thing he could have left me.

As I read the letter and the memories flood in, something strikes me; I grew up in a very different era. Did I even know my father as a person, as an adult, as a brother? 

My much-adored father, now gone 25 years, describes me to his sister as an 8 year old “much given to female vanity.” Female vanity, Dad. Are you serious? Is vanity a uniquely female attribute? You simply could not have thought so.

Could an 8 year olds reaction to a gifted dress which made her twirl repeatedly in the mirror perhaps be called enthusiasm rather than vanity? I feel like I have spoilers and I want so much to let my dad know: The child who was “much given to female vanity” did not, in fact, turn out to be overly vain, just normally so. Might one of my three grown sons, perhaps the one who is named for my father but never had the chance to meet him, enjoy getting to know his grandfather through his writing. I stuff the letter back in a drawer; it’s definitely a keeper. 

This process forces me to decide what really matters

This whole process forces me to sift through the detritus of my life and decide what is worthy of keeping and what not. And in a larger sense-what is now and what will continue to be important to me or to my children? It also forces me to grapple with what of my own life my children might find worthy of keeping one day. 

The process reminds me of the rhetorical question in Hamilton, “Who will tell your story?” And as an extension of that question, the natural follow up-Which of the items I’m sifting through now will aid in that telling? 

The memories are ours to keep, if not the things

At dinner the other night, my friend reminded my adult children who struggle with letting go that we never have to let the memories go; they are ours to keep. I remind myself of that too. But some of the things bring the memories flooding back. And when the things are gone will the memories be harder to access? Perhaps even impossible to access. 

Someday, when I am consigned to the dustbin of history, which of my things will remain? And who will sift through them one day and wonder about the person who used them, about the person who made a decision that these were the things to be saved. These turn out to be hard decisions; harder than I thought they would be. 

More Great Reading:

Once My Nest Emptied, I Just Started to Declutter EVERYTHING

About Helene Wingens

Helene Wingens has always been passionate about painting pictures with words. She graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in psychology and three years later from Boston University School of Law with a Juris Doctor. In a year long clerkship for an appellate judge Helene honed her writing skills by drafting weekly appellate memoranda. She practiced law until she practically perfected it and after taking a brief twenty year hiatus to raise her three children she began writing a personal blog Her essays have been published in: Scary Mommy, Kveller, The Forward, and Grown and Flown where she is Managing Editor. You can visit Helene's website here

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