You Can't Take It With You - So Stop Hoarding

Em Unravelling

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At the start of this month, in my role as executor of the estate of a recently deceased client, I visited his house so that I could empty it of all important financial paperwork before the house clearance company arrived.

The house, which sits in a quiet leafy spot near the point where the town becomes the countryside, is beautifully preserved. Its decor is a homage to the 1970s that is so perfect as to appear almost a pastiche. There is an avocado bathroom suite with geometric tiles, a lot of rattan, and a high-quality green patterned carpet laid throughout. The structural bones of the house are beautiful, its windows are big, and the air within it somehow feels calm, happy, complete. It was a home for many, many years to a couple who, as far as anyone who knew them can tell me, a very loving and contented marriage.

As I opened drawers and checked cupboards, making sure I hadn’t missed an envelope stuffed full of cash (I learned long ago that these money pockets are a common find under the mattresses and in the bed frames of my very elderly deceased clients), I felt in true awe of how tidy and neat the house is. There is no clutter anywhere. Everything has its place — there are special racks for every kitchen implement; drill bits are ranked by size in the garage; and in the sewing room, tiny drawers slide out to reveal their satisfying array of multicolored reels of thread, arranged by color and thickness. My job, to retrieve financial paperwork, was made very easy by the fact that all such correspondence had been neatly filed by type and date.

I thought, as I always do when I am carrying out this task, of my own house. I pictured the attic space, packed as it is with bags of mismatched Christmas decorations, boxes of toys my children discarded in the noughties, crates of my own clothes stored five autumns ago “for next summer” and never looked at again. I thought of my kitchen and all the drawers that need a nudge or a twist to open them because they’re so full of…what? Frayed tea towels with scorch marks, decorative spatulas my mother-in-law brought home from Portugal or Spain or Tuscany, rattling piles of mismatched lids for sports water bottles I’m not sure I still own. In the study, annual summaries from a student loan I took out in 1999, smashed into a filing cabinet with redundant paper statements from a bank account I closed last year.

If I think about it (and I’ll be honest, I tend not to, or I’d drown in the objective sadness of my day job), I rarely imagine a dispassionate stranger wandering through my home, flicking at the pages of the books on my bookcases, checking under my mattress for stray fivers. I always imagine my family in that role, remembering me fondly, indulgently forgiving me for all the odd socks and single earrings I’ve somehow held on to.

Yesterday, though, I imagined it all through the eyes of a stranger. I imagined a future version of me, a harried lawyer in the middle of a busy working day, taking an hour to go and find the necessary bits of paperwork in their deceased client’s home. Sad about it, of course, but gently and in the abstract. Frustrated by having to wade through a pointless jumble of apparently meaningless items to locate something relevant.

I then wondered why, even as I take a near-daily lesson in the fact that life can turn on a sixpence and I can’t take any of my stuff with me, I still struggle to achieve the level of tidy minimalism I aspire to in my head.I’m not a hoarder by any stretch, and I don’t actually have a problem with sweeping ruthlessly through the house every few months, swiping things into charity bags or into the bin. It’s exhilarating and I feel better when I’ve done it. But there’s still an awful lot I hold on to.

I’ve read about decluttering, at length. There seems little doubt that the old maxim “tidy house, tidy mind” is a truism for a reason. There’s no shortage of research into this. Cluttered houses make us more stressed; cluttered desks make us less productive at work. Clutter affects our sleep and can even cause us mindlessly to make less healthy food choices. And many of us, like me, just believe it feels better to exist in a clearer, calmer environment. It naturally feels like a happier place to be.

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that I walked into my late clients’ tidy, calm, neat home, and believed immediately that they had lived happy and full lives. Our brains seem to make a connection between a tidy environment and a calm, happy mindset — and yet this connection seems so at odds with the part of our mind that slavishly seeks to retain souvenirs of all our experiences, and feels a surge of happiness when we acquire more and more new things.

A couple of years ago, Marie Kondo’s extreme decluttering techniques hit the headlines. Could it really be right to divest our homes not only of old shoes but of our books? Her “spark joy” theory was much derided by some and slavishly espoused by others. I had a look at some articles quoting her book, checked out her website, and changed how I folded my T-shirts, but I didn’t change anything else. The idea of parting with books was a step too far.

I was interested, though, in the scientific research into what makes us hang on to things. At the far end of the scale, researchers at Yale discovered that throwing things away activates the same part of the brain that processes pain. Reading this, although it’s admittedly an extreme example and involved research concentrated specifically on individuals who had an identified hoarding disorder, made me feel a bit less confused about why I find it hard to get rid of the little blue-gingham A-line skirt that I wore on early dates as a teenager with the father of my first child, a man with whom I later came to associate a lot of trauma.

On a less extreme, more everyday level, it is natural to have some sentimental attachment to some things. Kondo herself talks of the “spark of joy.” The folder I keep full of theatre and concert ticket stubs, plane boarding passes, and train tickets might look like a pile of rubbish waiting to be shredded, but each one reminds me of a holiday or an experience that I loved, and right now — in a recently locked-down world where the idea of free travel, or of sitting in a packed theatre or standing shoulder to shoulder at a gig still seems ludicrous and otherworldly — I am glad I kept them. They spark joy.

What we know we all need to part with, though, are all the things that we keep for reasons other than their genuine ‘spark of joy’. The dress that cost $300, but which I wore once and never picked up again because I remember I didn’t like the way the neckline hung and I was self-conscious all evening. It doesn’t spark joy — it sparks guilt at an extravagant purchasing mistake. I should eBay it for $20, get over the lost cash, and get some space back in my wardrobe. The bottles and bottles of body lotion that come with Christmas gift sets every year — I don’t have enough skin to use all of it before it reaches its expiry date, even if I was the sort of person who remembered to use body lotion at all. These are the things I thought about as I stood in that empty house.

My own life situation is slightly different to that of my late clients. I am less than half the age they were when they died, for a start — I’m still in the stage where, lockdown aside, we spend more time out of the house than in it, meaning that opportunities for decluttering are perhaps more limited. I have three nearly-grown children, so barring any catastrophic family fracture or fallout, I hope when both my husband and I are no more that they — or at least one of them, or two of them — will take responsibility for wading through our stuff, and that they might feel some nostalgia or indulgent forgiveness for the disorganized mess their parents have left them with. That they might keep some of it, treasure it.

Or, I vaguely hope that in the future when (if!) I retire I will miraculously become an organized, tidy person, with no clutter anywhere, neatly annotated photo albums and alphabetized spice drawers, and memory boxes lovingly parcelled up in the attic for each of my offspring. That I’ll change the habit of a lifetime and start a capsule wardrobe, with neatly arranged co-ordinating accessories.

All of this is what I tell myself. But as I stood in the light and airy rooms of my clients’ meticulously organized house, I felt a renewed resolve to try to streamline my possessions once again. Not just because I can’t take any of it with me and because it’ll be a hassle for someone else when I’m not here. All of that is true. But because a life with fewer things in it — with more room for the intangibles, for love and experiences and memories — has its own appeal. It feels like a happy way to live.

Fewer possessions, I concluded, doesn’t mean an emptier existence. Maybe that’s what we all need to realize.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.

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