Q&A with Eve Schaub, Author of Year of No Clutter

A few weeks ago, while I was immersed in my own continuing downsizing saga, I made an absolutely wonderful discovery. Eve Schaub is what we call in our book, and on this blog, “a keeper.” She is also a writer who describes herself as “a serial memoirist.” In 2011 she wrote a blog about her family’s attempt to live for a year without any added sugar in their food, which later became the book “Year of No Sugar.”  This spring, Eve published the “Year of No Clutter,”  which describes her struggle to transform herself from a self-described “clutter-gatherer” into “a neat, organized person who can actually walk through every room of her house and does not feel the need to keep everything…” 

With refreshing–even brave–honesty, with sensitivity and self-deprecating wit, Eve tells the story of how that year went, and how her family helped her–more or less–achieve her goal. Her book is not only entertaining–in fact, often laugh-out-loud funny–and deeply insightful, it is full of practical ideas that will be helpful for the keepers of this world who are trying to talk themselves into getting rid of things, and the loved ones who are either helping them, or looking on in horror and trying not to interrupt. 

Eve recently returned to her Vermont home after a book tour, and was kind enough to answer my questions about the “Year of No Clutter” via email.  Her husband, Steve, and their two daughters, Greta and Ilsa, who were intimately involved in the process, also agreed to answer a couple of questions. Many thanks to the whole family for sharing their inspiring, and (mostly) successful story of dealing with the mountain of stuff in their “Hell Room.”  Janet Hulstrand 

JH: Steve, the book begins with a foreword by you that makes it abundantly clear what a tolerant, understanding, supportive, and forgiving person you are. How did you find the kindness and the generosity of spirit to be so supportive of  Eve and so patient with her, and with the situation in your home, throughout the Year of No Clutter? And do you have any thoughts to share with other husbands (or wives) who live with someone for whom dealing with clutter is a constant struggle? In particular, how do you keep the demon Anger from rising up, and make room for more productive emotions to emerge? 

Steve Schaub: Eve and I have a very giving and loving life together, and we’re both creative people, so solving this issue in a creative way (through writing about it) made total sense to me. I think the first thing is to be aware that the person you love is in a struggle and getting angry is the wrong approach. Trying to win an argument about what is of value, or what is or is not clutter is also the wrong approach–-you don’t win in a situation like this. You compromise, you listen, and you try to be aware of how very hard this is for someone you love.

JH: Eve, was there one particular moment of awareness, or event, that caused you to decide to launch into your attack on the challenge of decluttering the room you called your Hell Room? 

Eve: I describe in the book one especially memorable moment in which, in order to do his job, the energy assessment guy had to poke around the atrocious Hell Room–which was my nickname for the large spare room in our house that took up the slack for my extreme-keeping-behavior. Over the years, this room had gone from being a regular room, to a very cluttered storage room, to a giant sponge–while everywhere else in the house was relatively okay, this was the room that absorbed everything. Eventually there weren’t even paths through the stuff anymore, and knowing what was there, finding things, keeping things from being ruined, were activities that were getting harder and harder to do.

So here’s this poor energy-assessment guy, trying to get to the far corner of the room, stepping over piles, literally wading through the horribleness and I was utterly mortified. Up until that moment I had been able to remain in denial about how bad things had gotten. But now I was forced to see the room–and me–through his eyes, and I did not like what I saw one little bit. I wasn’t sure if it was possible to change–or rather, modify–the sort of person I was, but I realized for the first time that I wanted to try.

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The “Hell Room” Before the Year of No Clutter. Photo by Stephen Schaub.

JH: What was one of your happiest moments in the process? The saddest, or most difficult? The most enlightening?

Eve: The happiest moments were the moments in which I felt I had achieved a clear mark of progress: the times I came home from dropping off a car full of things at the charity and consignment shops with a blissfully empty car, or the times when I was, for the first time, able to sit down and use a space that previously had been filled up with piles of stuff. Just sitting down in a newly cleared-off armchair to read a book became a small but significant triumph.

Of course, by contrast, the most difficult moments were those in which I felt I was spinning my wheels and getting nowhere: when I’d start out with a pile and get stymied halfway through, unable to make decisions or discard much of anything. Life has a way of getting in the way of decluttering with more pressing tasks like eating and sleeping and changing the cat litter and it’s sooooo easy to get sidetracked. When this happened I’d be very hard on myself and start to lose hope that anything would ever really get accomplished. The only remedy for this was to keep going– sooner or later there’d be some small victory again to make me feel back on track.

As for sadness, at some point I made the decision that regret/sadness was just going to be part of the bargain for getting control of my house and living space back. Because I had experienced loss so keenly in the past over things I had gotten rid of, I fully expected the process to be a very sad and upsetting one. Surprisingly, this time it wasn’t. I attribute this largely to two things: first, I had a newfound sense of what was at stake in this process, and that larger purpose helped me overcome that tendency to get bogged down in regret. The second thing was simply practice. I realized that the getting-rid-of-stuff muscle in my brain had lain so long unused that it had atrophied. So using it more and more, making lots and lots of decisions all the time, seemed to inoculate me to a degree against the tendency to obsess over one thing or another.

JH: At one point you write, “I’ve come to realize that the Stuff conundrum is one that people in our culture feel quite keenly, even when it isn’t on an epic scale…helplessness is the key emotion I hear [among people who talk about their issues with Stuff] and on some level I’m coming to see it as an issue of empowerment…” Can you say a bit more about this? What is the nature of this helplessness, and how can people who feel it begin to take control of the situation and become empowered? 

Eve: It really is all about empowerment: who’s in charge around here anyway? Me? Or my Stuff? Taking control for me meant giving myself a certain degree of permission in a very conscious way. I mentioned that I made a decision to accept that a certain measure of sadness and regret were going to figure in to my decluttering. I also knew the Murphy’s Law of Clutter: “If you get rid of an object, exactly forty-seven seconds later you will suddenly discover that you desperately NEED it!”

So I knew that sooner or later I would get rid of something and soon thereafter wish I hadn’t. In fact, I realized that much of my cluttering and keeping was based in a deep-seated fear of making a mistake, doing something that I would perceive in hindsight as being wrong. I was so averse to the idea of making a mistake that I’d end up making no decisions at all.

This brings me to what I arrived at as a definition of clutter. I wondered: how is “clutter” different from “a mess”? I realized that a mess is pretty straightforward. The kitchen is a mess, so you go in and clean it up. It’s pretty common sense: you wash things, you put things away. In fact, someone else could probably do it for you. But clutter? No one can solve your clutter for you. This is because clutter is about deferred decisions- items that don’t really go anywhere because we haven’t fully decided where or if they fit into our lives. Once I realized this distinction, I found it very helpful and empowering- the key to cleaning out my clutter was making decisions…thousands and thousands of decisions. If I made enough of them, one day I’d get my room–and the sense of control over my life and my living space–back again.

JH: One of the traps for people who have difficulty getting rid of stuff is the aversion to getting rid of the “perfectly good…[fill in the blank]” Can you share with our readers some of the things that helped you feel better about getting rid of perfectly-good items in your Year of No Clutter? 

Eve: At one point in the book I describe helping my father have a tag sale at his house in preparation for his move from New Jersey to Kansas. Now, my Dad is a big-time keeper– his level of clutter makes my petty one-room nonsense look like nothing. In fact, it was only once I was a grown-up and stood back and looked at the way my father and some other members of my family lived with their belongings that I began to see a pattern and started to wonder if all this cluttering and hoarding was genetic.

As you can imagine, having a tag sale with a tremendous keeper like my dad wasn’t going to be easy. I vividly recall at one point having a rather animated conversation over a brand new roll of shelf paper, still in the plastic, that had been lying around for at least a decade, unused. Dad objected to me selling it on the grounds that it was, of course, “perfectly good.”

“But Dad,” I found myself saying, somewhat desperately, “I’m pretty sure they have shelf paper in Kansas.”

What I tried to convince my Dad of, and what I tried to convince myself of (somewhat more successfully), was the idea that every item we own comes at some sort of cost. It’s a small cost, almost infinitesimal at times, but it’s there nonetheless… it’s the cost of owning that object, taking care of it, allotting space for it in your living space as well as in your brain. Sometimes there’s monetary cost too- such as when we have a storage locker.

When we get too many items under our jurisdiction–unless we are lucky enough to have a museum staff at our disposal to sort and organize and protect all our things–things start to happen. Not only do you not have the full, functioning use of your living environment, but you also can’t take good care of the things you care about most–there’s just too much stuff to be able to care for it all properly. And things begin to happen: the piles topple and your wedding album gets stepped on. The mice move in and begin eating your collection of baby clothes. There’s a cost.

So in a way we can think of decluttering as a process of prioritizing what we are willing to take care of and devote some time and energy and space to keeping. So then the decisions become easier: things that are replaceable, like shelf paper, or a “really great box,” or an extra lamp nobody really likes or needs, can all be dispensed with, so that we have more resources in our lives for the items that can’t be replaced, such as the baby clothes, the wedding album, the old notebooks from college and so on. The bonus is that items that are easily replaceable (i.e.,the perfectly good lamp) are often things somebody out there can use and would be delighted to have. So you avoid the dreaded landfill, clear out some much-needed space, AND make someone else happy in the bargain… it’s a win-win-win.

JH: Toward the end of the book, you talk about your “revelation” that “despite my knee-jerk tendency to keep, keep, keep! there were many things that I could, in fact, get rid of…” How important do you think it was the YOU were the one who was given the time and space in which to learn how to “give YOURSELF [my emphasis] a good stern talking to” and do what had to be done, rather than someone else “helping” you do it, or threatening you if you didn’t do it, or simply trying to shame you into doing it? 

Eve: Prior to my Year of No Clutter, it had happened at least twice that I’d had a friend over who said, oh, I can help you with this! And they’d start putting things in boxes or bags, holding things up and asking me questions. Both times I was uneasy, and ended up saying,” Okay! That’s enough! Thanks for your help!” I wasn’t ready, and therefore, no matter how good their intentions were, they weren’t able to be helpful.

I think it was absolutely pivotal for me that this was not a process that was imposed from without, but rather something I realized I really wanted/needed to do, and that I initiated and carried out. While researching for the book I learned that hoarders who have been forced to clean out, or who have had the cleaning out done for them, have a significantly higher propensity to be depressed and/or suicidal.

So I think that reality shows like Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive can actually be harmful, not only potentially to the people they are often forcing to clean out, but also to the people who watch these shows and think that forcing their friend or family member in a direction they’re reluctant to go is “for their own good.”

 JH: What would you say to those reading your book who are reading not because THEY have an issue with keeping too much stuff, but because they live with someone, or care about someone, who does. How can they be helpful to their loved ones who are struggling with the problem of Too Much Stuff? 

Eve: Although I’m the one in our house with the biggest “stuff problem,” it turned out that my husband had a significant amount of stuff in the Hell Room as well. So even while dealing with my own demons, I was also in the position of trying to convince someone else to confront their own.

My husband is kind of the opposite of me in how he deals with clutter: he has a tendency to want to simply throw everything away without even looking at it, just to get the process over with as quickly as possible, like ripping off a Band-Aid. But this can present other problems: once my husband donated a wallet with his social security card inside to the Salvation Army! (Fortunately a kind soul found and returned it.)

But the boxes in our Hell Room had things like photographic negatives and valuable camera equipment in them (my husband is a photographer), so we really did have to go through them. After lots of resistance from him to come look at the boxes, I finally brought all the boxes full of his stuff downstairs, into the dining room and let them sit there on the floor. They sat there for days, and quietly drove him crazy, because he couldn’t ignore them anymore. Finally one day after lunch he said “Okay, fine. Let’s go through a box.” After that every day we’d go through a box or two making decisions, emptying them out, putting things in proper places or discarding them. After only a few days it was all done and it seemed amazing that it had ever presented a problem at all.

What I found over the course of this year is that different strategies work for different people, so sometimes you need to experiment. Patience is key. Making sure the person feels respected in their choices and in control of their belongings and living space is too. I know I pushed the envelope a bit with my husband’s boxes- quietly confronting him with something he didn’t want to deal with–but ultimately it did work, perhaps because I let him work it out in his own time.

JH: Are there one or two key things you hope people who struggle with the problem of “too much stuff” will take away from reading your book? 

Eve: First, I really hope people who struggle with stuff come away from the book with the feeling that they are not alone. I’m amazed at the fact that every person I talk to about my book has a connection to the problem of too much stuff–either they have a stuff problem, or someone they know does. It’s a much more common problem than people think.

Another important realization I came to during this project was that decluttering isn’t something you have done–and then it’s over. Rather, it’s something you do–it becomes a part of the way you live your life. Although decluttering might come naturally to some, for a “too much stuff” person like me it is a conscious, carefully considered decision I make to part with some things while keeping others, realizing that I only have so much space and energy and time to give to my things.

Just like making your bed in the morning or brushing your teeth, decluttering has now become a part of my regular routine: discarding things, bringing clothing to the consignment shop with every new season, books to the library sale, and so on. Sometimes it shows up in the form of a small new habit, such as, when I come home from a play, recycling the program right away, or deciding not to feel guilty about giving away a gift that I know I’ll never use. Above all it means making decisions, not deferring them, and knowing that my decisions won’t always be perfect, but that it’s worth it in the long run, because it means I will get to use and enjoy my objects and my home much, much more.

I’m not “cured” of cluttering, and I’ll probably always struggle with stuff on some level. By no means is my house going to be featured in the next issue of House Beautiful either, but it’s so much better and more functional than it was. No matter how frustrating decluttering seems, I’d say: don’t despair. I’m living proof that change is possible.

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The “Hell Room” After: No Longer a Hell Room! Photo by Stephen Schaub.

JH: Since this project was really a family affair, if Greta and/or Ilsa would like to add a short, one-sentence summary of how they feel about the outcome of the Year of No Clutter, I think it would be nice to give them a chance to share their perspective too. I guess what I’d really like to ask them is, what is the best thing that happened to, or for, your family, in the Year of No Clutter?

Greta (age 17): The rediscovery of family heirlooms, and being able to use them again.

Ilsa (age 12): I guess that the best thing would be, the discovering of old treasures and heirlooms, but also being able to walk in the room that you cleaned and not feeling guilty about not have cleaned it, and being able to feel that you did the right thing. Maybe something you no longer needed and gave away is in the hands of someone who truly needs or appreciates that item more than stuffing it in a box or throwing it in a pile.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. You can learn more about Eve Schaub on her website. You can also take a short video tour of the newly decluttered “Hell Room” here

Getting Organized in January

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It’s a natural time to want to get organized, isn’t it?

January, the month right after you got all that new stuff that needs to be organized, the month right before many of us have to start buckling down on organizing for preparing taxes. The month when it’s often, in many parts of the world, a good time to stay home, where you are safe, warm and dry. But where you also can’t help but notice the need to organize. 😦

January is such a naturally good time for organizing that NAPO, the National Association of Professional Organizers, has designated it as #GetOrganized Month.

I thought it would be fun, in honor of Get Organized Month, to feature links to a few posts by professional organizers I particularly admire.

But then something interesting happened this morning when I opened up my computer and saw a new post by a friend who has recently started a blog. The title of her latest post is “Stuff.” Naturally, I had to read that one!

In it, she talks about how she came to the realization that she’s got too much stuff; how it came to be that way; and what she plans to do about in the future. (She also shares a wonderful video clip of George Carlin talking about “Stuff.”)

So, although Sara is not a professional organizer, I thought sharing her post would be a good place to start. You can read her post about “Stuff” here.)

Next I decided to visit the website of Alison Lush, a professional organizer who lives in Montreal. I enjoy following Alison on Twitter, and she often makes insightful and appreciative remarks about the posts on our Facebook page. So I figured that her blog would have a good post to share, and I was right! Here’s a post she wrote last year, about her family’s “new normal.” I think this is a nice companion piece to Sara’s, since it is written several years after the decision to somehow get in control of “all that stuff” was made, and it gives a good sense of how good it can feel to have made those changes.

Another favorite professional organizer of mine is Nettie Owens. Nettie lives in Havre de Grace, Maryland. I really like her philosophy and approach to organizing, so much so that I interviewed her for this blog.  Recently I asked Nettie to share some of her favorite posts with me, so I could in turn share them with our readers. Here’s one, appropriately posted in January (last year).

Next  on my list was a visit to the Marcie Lovett’s blog. We recently shared this post by Marcie, a professional organizer based in Olney, Maryland, in which she shares her favorite tip about “how to begin” decluttering, on our Facebook page. (No, I am NOT going to tell you what the tip is: just visit her blog! It’s easy. 🙂 )

I have often also enjoyed and appreciated  posts by “Erin the Organizer,”  a Chicago-based professional organizer.  Here’s a nice one she did this month, with suggestions for good projects to tackle in January.

I hope you’ll enjoy learning from these experts! Wishing you all a productive, happy January, and all the best in your organizing efforts!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Gifts That Have Meaning

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Much has been made lately – the topic seems to come up every year – about gift giving in this season of so much stuff. Do we buy too much? Do we have too much? Are gifts really necessary?

Here’s a look at some gifts that have meaning and resonate far beyond the gift itself. A gift of a donation to one of these groups, or to so many other worthy causes, is a gift that can have a lasting impact.

Gifts that help the environment and its creatures

Although we can and do applaud the United Nations Climate Agreement that was signed this month in Paris, there is still much to be done to protect our planet.

The Environmental Defense Fund helps to find climate solutions. They “create solutions that let nature and people prosper.” Their $2-for$1 gift match offer, in effect until the end of December, triples the impact of your gift.

The National Audubon Society’s Adopt a Bird program will send a plush toy bird as a gift for adopting a bird.

Heifer Foundation helps make an impact on world hunger and poverty by finding sustainable solutions. You can donate an animal, help promote women’s empowerment, provide basic needs, or fund a project.

Projects that help people here and around the world

A favorite place of mine to look for creative programs is New York Times’ columnist Nicolas Kristof’s annual gift guide. Here are a few suggestions from his columns over last few years.

Red Cloud Indian School is a private Lakota and Jesuit school educating 600 children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. On the website, click on the Gift Shop for handmade items.

Buy a rat! In Angola, “Hero Rats” have been trained to sniff out land mines and save the lives of humans who used to do the job. At Apopo Foundation you can adopt a rat for $7 a month.

Reach Out and Read is a literacy program for the disadvantaged that uses doctors to encourage parents to read to their children. During checkups, doctors hand out free books and “prescribe” reading to the child.

A gift of food for those in need

We all love to eat and the season from Thanksgiving through the New Year provides so many opportunities to eat wonderful food – and often to overdo it. Not everyone gets to share in this bounty. Here is a way to help those in need.

It’s difficult to feel festive when you’re hungry. Feeding America supports a nationwide network of Food Banks and is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity. For every dollar donated, the Food Banks help provide 11 meals to people in need.

Let’s make a choice this holiday season by choosing gifts with meaning. Let’s make a difference this holiday season by choosing to help those in need.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

3 Things That Make Downsizing Hard, and Tips for Getting Through It…

1. All those memories. 

Lots of people get stuck before they ever get started with downsizing, because the whole house is just so full of memories. Or so it seems.

But it’s not actually the house that holds the memories, it’s our minds–and our hearts. Often aided by pictures, letters, pieces of furniture, and so on.

You can keep the memories, and you can keep some of the pictures and letters too. You can even keep some of the furniture (though you may not want to keep it all). And you can still get rid of a lot of the things in the house, and even the house itself.

You’re not saying goodbye to the memories. You’re saying goodbye to some of the things in your house, so you can make room for other things, or just to free up some space. That’s not a bad thing. And there are ways to go about it that will actually help seal, preserve and celebrate the memories that are so important to you.

2. All those things.

Some of the things are (or may be) valuable. Some of them are clearly not (like chemicals under the sink and in the basement and garage), but you don’t know what to do with them.

People in the process of emptying a home that’s been lived in for a long time come up against a myriad of perplexing questions, many of which require expert knowledge that most people just don’t have. (Is this a valuable antique or a Goodwill donation? Can I throw this in the trash, or is there a better way to dispose of it? and so on…)

You can hire experts to take care of it all for you. Or you can do it yourself. (Or better yet, with the help of family and friends.) If you do the latter, you’ll need plenty of time to sort through it all. So start now! Do just a little bit every day. Or focus on it once a week.

Figure out a schedule that works for you, and then ignore the voice that keeps whispering (or shouting), “This is impossible!”

It’s not. You can do it!

3. Someone could use this…”

People make fun of this one, but they shouldn’t. It’s true that a lot of the things we don’t want anymore could be well used by someone else. Clothing, furniture, kitchen items, even old photographs and magazines.  Finding “new homes” for the things you’re discarding is not crazy, it’s admirable. Some things may help those in need. Other things may help preserve local history for the community, or provide materials for community groups of various kinds. Given enough time and thought there’s a way to find good new uses for many of the things cluttering up your home.

But you have to actually do it!

Our newly updated e-book has very specific advice for how to approach these three common obstacles to downsizing the home; helpful tips from others who have been through the process; and links to other resources that can help you find the expertise you lack as you work your way through this process.

Professional organizers and senior move managers, as well as lots of other people, have told us that our book helped them and their families or clients–we hope maybe it will help you or someone you know as well.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coachtravel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

New e-book for a new year offers new approach to decluttering

“Aren’t there really just three words that need to be said about this topic?” my son asked. “Throw? It? Out?”

And I had to tell him, no. Those are not the only three words needed to help people who want to get rid of clutter take what is for some of them a really big step–and actually do it.

And yet this is more or less the advice offered by many of the books that promise to help people with too much stuff get rid of it.

In fact, the central message of many decluttering books can really be boiled down to a refrain that goes something like this: “Throw it out, throw it out, throw it out!” These books offer all kinds of perky rules for getting rid of the clutter: “If you haven’t worn it in a year…” “If it isn’t either useful or beautiful…” And so on.

The problem is, many people actually can’t “just throw it out.” They need help in overcoming a variety of both practical and emotional reasons behind their reluctance, and a book that tells them to “just do” what they can’t do is not going to help them get rid of all the excess stuff that is cluttering up their lives. It is just going to add one more decluttering book to their shelves, where it will gather dust.

The problem with many decluttering books is that they don’t really address the reasons why people have difficulty parting with certain kinds of objects.

What if the “dress you haven’t worn in a year” is one that belonged to your grandmother, that she wore on her wedding day? You don’t want to keep it, but does it really go into a paper bag, and off to the thrift store, along with your children’s outgrown playclothes from last year? Or is there a better new home for it, and if so, where might that be?

What if the sculpture your daughter made for you when she was in first grade is, to be honest, neither very useful nor all that beautiful (at least anymore), but you still are loathe to let go of it?

What if you have absolutely no emotional attachment to the electronic gadgets cluttering up your basement or closet, but you know that it is ecologically irresponsible to just throw them in the trash? What do you do with them?

What if you can admit that you don’t want a particular item, but you are haunted by the thought that “someone could use this”?

All too often, these are the kinds of stumbling blocks that keep people–good people, kind people, well-meaning people, and people who really would like to live in a less cluttered home–trapped in an ever-growing pile of things.

Well, we have good news for the New Year: our new ebook is available, and we think it has something to offer that most decluttering books do not.

Our book has helpful suggestions for ways to approach each of the kinds of obstacles listed above, suggestions that professional organizers, senior move managers, and just “ordinary people” have told us really work to help break the impasse, to get things heading out the door without breaking the hearts, or the spirit, of the people who find letting go hard to do.

Our book acknowledges and respects the fact that sometimes there are very good reasons why people hesitate to just “throw it out,”  and offers ways to help get them over the hurdle, to get those things to places where they can be appreciated, used, or properly and responsibly disposed of. It also has great basic advice for how to properly care for the things that you don’t want to get rid of–family heirlooms, for example–and our list of resources shows those who need more detailed information where they can find it.

We hope you’ll take a look at it and that maybe it can help you–or someone you know–to overcome all the good reasons for not just “throwing it out”–and find ways to live a less cluttered life as well.

Now that would make for a Happy New Year, wouldn’t it?

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coachtravel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

My Brother, a Keeper

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In our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, we talk about how, when it comes to downsizing, the world seems to be divided, more or less, into two main categories of people—Keepers and Throwers.

My brother, who died two months ago, was emphatically a Keeper.

Was he a hoarder? Certainly he exhibited some of the traits connected with hoarding, and certainly he kept a great many things that it made no sense to keep. I know this because after his death I spent considerable time helping my sister and brother-in-law empty out the very large storage locker into which he had loaded many of his possessions several years ago, when his illness (cancer) forced him to move out of his apartment and into assisted living.

There was a lot of junk in there, things that just simply needed to be thrown away or recycled, and never should have been kept in the first place.  Through the years of his slow demise, my sister tried—gently—to help him see this, and offered to help him do it, but he was intransigent on the subject. She—bless her heart—did not push him beyond the point of his tolerance. She could see that he had too many problems, and didn’t need one more.

That meant that the task would be left to us. She knew that, and she accepted the burden. I live far away and wasn’t able to help with the bulk of it. But I went there after he died to help as much as I could, for as long as I could. Though my sister is more of a Thrower than I am, we worked well together, and the process of cleaning out that storage unit was strangely therapeutic, I think for both of us, in a way that is hard to explain. Certainly we both felt close to my brother and to each other while we were doing it. I know I felt that we were helping him in a way that he needed help, and that he would have appreciated.

Many people feel resentful of the Keepers in their lives, especially when the Keepers leave behind storage lockers (and houses) full of stuff for their survivors to go through. I do understand their resentment, and I suppose it is pretty well justified. But, though it was a tedious, dreadful, and very sad task going through all the things my brother had left behind, I have to say I didn’t feel an ounce of resentment.

For one thing, though not as far along on the continuum as my brother was, I am a Keeper too. (So were my mother, and to a lesser degree my father, and many other members of my family. It runs in the family.) So I’m not inclined to cast stones in that direction.

For another thing,  I came to understand even better than I already had, as I read through some of the notebooks my brother had left behind, that people who can’t get rid of things really can’t do it, for some reason, or more precisely, reasons—psychological, emotional, maybe even physiological/biochemical. Not without just the right kind of help, anyway, and sometimes not at all. The process is so incredibly difficult and confusing for them that it may as well be impossible. It is also so deeply upsetting that they would rather bear the scorn of others and risk all kinds of social, emotional, and sometimes even legal consequences, than do what everyone knows needs to be done. People who are challenged in this way need understanding, help, and compassion–not criticism or ridicule.

So, yes, there was a lot of junk in that storage unit. But there was also a lot of material there that was definitely not junk—never-worn clothing, for example, and boxes and boxes and boxes of books. There were even a few (I think) valuable antique items—board games my father grew up with, for example, still in pristine condition. Also the first tricycle for both me and my brother. Wooden rocking horses made by my grandfather (now delivered to a cousin who has young grandchildren who are enjoying them). And hundreds? Yes, perhaps hundreds, of the die-cast model cars he adored.

Each of these categories of things represents a different reason for why some people have difficulty in getting rid of things. Compulsive shopping habits. Deep emotional attachment to the memories that objects evoke. The knowledge that “someone could use this.” The fantasy of  “someday” (“Someday I will have a house where I can keep all these things I love. Someday I will be able to read these books. Someday I will not have cancer anymore.”)

Then there was the note I found somewhere in all the confusion, a note he had written to Santa Claus when he was a little boy:

Dear Santa, I thought you might be hungry, so I left a snack. Would you hide my present in the liveing room. Would you sign your name here             . Your friend, John Hulstrand  P.S. The snack is on the bar, and in the wholes [sic] of the carton Christmas tree.

In the blank space he had drawn a rectangle, in which Santa had signed his name in handwriting that was uncannily very much like my mother’s.

This was one of many small gifts we discovered in the process of going through the things he left behind, my sister and I, in the weeks before Christmas last December.

We had to get rid of most of his personal papers. I gave some of the letters back to the people who had written them. Sometimes I felt a pang of regret or doubt as I placed things in the recycling bag, most of the time I did not. But I kept the letter to Santa.

I brought it home and put it in the book in which I am storing our family’s Christmas memories, and put it in the section for this year. This is the year we lost my brother at Christmas-time: this is the year we found his letter to Santa.

Does that one precious note to Santa justify the whole huge storage unit full of deferred decisions that my brother left behind? Does it make the fact that he also kept years’ worth of old bills and receipts that we had to plow through make more sense, somehow?

No, it doesn’t.

Could we have lived happily for the rest of our lives without having discovered that letter? Yes, we could have.

Did it provide some special insight into my brother’s life that nothing else could have? I can’t honestly say it did.

All the same, I’m glad that first my mother, and then he, kept it all those years. And I’m glad I was able to find it, and put it, once again, in a safe place.

me and my brother

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coach travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.