Last fall, my brother and I spent a weekend in Colorado sifting through the piles of paperwork left by my late uncle—we were on the hunt for 1 specific document, and while we were successful in our search, we also came across three rooms full of papers and other clutter. And that’s not counting the basement. Apparently, he never threw out a single piece of mail—not a single one—from the late 1960s until 2016, when he died at the age of 82.
The experience was gut-wrenching, mind-numbing, and heart-breaking. We had known fairly early on that my uncle was a hoarder—as kids, we wondered, what use did a confirmed bachelor have for cabinets crammed with toilet paper and toothpaste?—but it seemed harmless at the time, probably a sale at Walmart.
This, however, was different. In addition to the mail and financial documents, there were report cards, birth certificates, Eagle Scout awards, notices of pay increases, army reserve information, resumes, job applications—most in duplicate or triplicate and not in any discernible order.
It was a dismaying four days of determining what might be of value and importance: did the stock certificates come from companies that were even in existence after all this time? was this bill actually paid? was this business dissolved? were these taxes paid? how many accounts were still open? who owed him, and whom did he owe?
I recently made the acquaintance of Holly Southerland of Traveling Organizer, who tells me that just as I encourage clients to look at their relationship with food to get insight into how they show up in their lives in general, she coaches her own to examine how their relationship with “stuff” can be a mirror for what they can’t release in other parts of their lives, even weight.
Ultimately, we narrowed the important documents in my uncle’s house down to 1 banker’s box. Three rooms full of files and 82 years of a life into 1 banker’s box. Marie Kondo would be proud. I think even her critics would be impressed?
It was an odd feeling designating so many documents as unimportant, consigning them to the recycling heap. Did we really have that right? Of course, someone would have to do it eventually, but it was odd to be put in the position of having to decide what someone else’s life would ultimately come down to, what meaning it would hold, what it would stand for.
It felt uncomfortably like playing God.
I’ve worked with a few clients who struggle with clutter: a home in disorder does not provide a particularly nourishing environment, and I have watched as they work to create “white space” in their rooms and suddenly discover more mental, emotional, and spiritual space, room to work on relationships, on careers and goals and dreams.
It seems so much more important to leave a legacy of work and words and memories, and that makes it easier to decide what goes to a donation center, to the recycling, to the dump.
And more than making us consider what does NOT define us, decluttering on a regular basis makes us consider, what DO we stand for, and given a blank space, how can we fill it with the more intangible “things” that define us and still leave some room just for white space?
If you had to reduce your life to a single banker’s box—real or virtual—what would you put in it?