Life Review

This week my life flashed before my eyes. Generally when one says that, people respond with “Oh No! Did you have a bad accident? Did you get a terminal diagnosis? Did you have a clairvoyant episode outlining the details of your own death, and if so, do you know the date? (And by the way, can I have that painting I’ve always admired?)” I assure you, hopeful reader, that none of these things is true because none of these things is necessary for me to have my life flash quickly and alarmingly before my very eyes. All that is required is a trip to my attic.

See those dark recesses toward the back? You have no idea how much stuff is there. But I do. This is only one side. The other side is worse, and goes back further.

Long time readers will know that part of our cunning plan is to get rid of most of our stuff and move aboard a sailboat. They will know, as well, that we have been married for 31 years. That we have two adult children, that our home is large and has large grounds. What they might not know is that cloistered in our attic is the considerable remains of that 31 year history. Our house has about 3000 square feet. Our attic covers the entire house. Easily 2/3 of that attic is crammed with boxes big and small. Oy vey. I have spent many hours since this blog’s inception going through ‘things’ in my house and toting them to Goodwill. We have the tax deductions to prove it, thanks be to God. But I have not yet touched the attic. Until now.

Over the years as children have outgrown special toys, graduated to new grades in school, or decided they wanted a room ‘remodel’, things got stuffed into the attic for storage because I’ve lived with kids long enough to know that the minute I get rid of something they intuitively know it and look for it. Likewise when my own mother downsized dramatically, I was the recipient of special things that were hers or my father’s. They currently reside in the attic. Then there are things from my own childhood that I have kept for decades. All in the attic. Mike’s home burned to the ground twice when he was growing up, so he has very little from his childhood. He knows what it’s like to lose everything and then be okay.

Just imagine this, times 2 million.

In our attic is a gazillion dollars worth of Legos, Playmobil, action figures, American Girl dolls and their accouterments, Christmas ornaments, old LP’s, Nancy Drew books, a huge collection of rubber animals (anatomically correct, don’t you know), wedding and baby momentos, dressup clothes… Seems like our kids’ entire childhoods are in that attic, safely tucked away for the grandchildren we may never have. If there were any young children in our lives just now, they would be having an amazing time in our attic if we could get them to put down the Nintendo DS.

Some of you more thrifty and organized readers may be echoing my own superego just about now, giving voice to the general tongue lashing that goes on in my head. You know the words, so sing right along with me:  I am reaping what I sowed because I should have been getting rid of stuff all along and shouldn’t have collected so much stuff to begin with. Sure, you would have a good point because there is a lot of ‘sunk costs’ sitting up there in that space. But, by way of ‘walking a mile in my orthotics’, consider this: I grew up a military child. We moved a couple of times in early childhood, then in kindergarten; then again in grades 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, and 9. We then had three years where I had a stable high school experience, more or less. I’m not complaining, as there are many blessings that come from this kind of upbringing. But I am making the point that the only things that remained stable in our lives were our immediate family, and our stuff. I do not easily get attached to people, but I do get attached to things; the dirty little secret of this vagabond kind of childhood, at least for me.

Home may be where the heart is, but in my upbringing it was defined as where mom hung the portrait of me and my sister over the piano. When the big book cases (which currently grace my family room) were placed, and all the decorator items were in place in the living room, we were ‘home’, for however long it lasted. When the movers brought our stuff to our new digs, it was like Christmas. My brain and my body, and mostly my heart, developed around ‘stuff’ defining our space, and thus defining my feelings of ‘home’. So I guess part of my karmic learning is how to let go of things and still feel whole. I’m getting there but it’s a slow thing.

I’m not quite ready to let go of Andrew’s Playmobil collection. It’s just so cool! And he was so completely adorable with it.

Anyway, this attic has been literally hanging over my head for years. It has been the huge elephant in the middle of the living room of my mind. I knew it was there, but I preferred to walk around it rather than try to tame it.  Caught between a rock and a hard place, I have been wondering if this task of ridding ourselves of the stuff would ever end. And if it never ended, surely we would never get to go sailing down the coast to Mexico and beyond. We would never sail around the U.K. We toyed with the idea of renting out our house furnished, locking up the attic as our continued storage space. But on some level, that just felt like a cop out, like not really making a decision.

So this week Claire and I began with the attic. I pulled down as much stuff as I had space on the garage floor. We threw out a huge bag of trash, sent some stuff to Goodwill, put aside a few things for a friend’s garage sale, and packed up a box of treasures for Kitty down in Texas. Then I stared in horror at the collection of dolls, baby clothes, dress-up costumes and other assorted things that I just don’t have the heart to deal with. All I could think was “there are only about 200 more boxes upstairs”.  The word ‘discouraged’ doesn’t even touch my feelings. Just thinking about it makes me want to go lie down in a dark room with a whiskey and soda. Large, please. This took an entire day, and I was not finished yet because it was only the easy part that we had accomplished. Only about 200 more boxes to go, and countless decisions to make. I walked away from it to prepare dinner.

Goodbye cute little paper giraffe Claire made in the first grade. Goodbye hand decorated photo frame with starfish picture that she won a prize for.

I decided that this was just too much work, both physically and emotionally. There had to be another way. So I waited for the epiphany, and then it came:   What if, instead of having to touch each thing and make the decision to keep or get rid of it, I touched only the things that were most important to me? What if I began to look at things in terms of what I would choose to take to a new house in the future? If I were building my dream home today, what would I take with me? What things give me that comfortable feeling of ‘home’? What things tell me that it is I who live here? If I could choose those things, I would hire an estate agent to come in and have a big estate sale and let go of the rest.

I cannot avoid going through the things in the attic forever. But I can let someone else do all the unpacking; laying things out on tables in an orderly way, then giving me the final say about what I will pull out to keep.  Dear Lord, what a concept! I am almost breathless from the freedom of it. The thought of someone else coming in and doing all that work makes me positively giddy. The sale itself would probably feel about like chopping off an arm, but at least it would be fast and then I could get over it and get on with other things. This idea fills me with a sense of relief that is palpable and that makes me know that it’s the right direction to go. If the feeling is of relief, then the soul has spoken.

This display in our living room is filled with family history from both sides of our family. There is just no way I am getting rid of all of these things. Some, but not all.  We will find a way to store them while we are gone.

As the idea began to take shape, I found that removing the emotional and physical burden of the continual exercise in mourning that is stored in our attic allowed other ideas to take root. Selling the house and buying land we could leave to our children, for instance. I have always wanted to leave land for my children.  Perhaps designing and building a small house on that land in the future, a house that would be easy to keep and that would take us safely into our old age when we are finished with the sailing. Removing the burden of the attic gives me room to dream again.

As I began thinking more about it, I discovered that aside from a select few pieces of furniture,  most of the things that bring me comfort in my home are the decorator items that can easily be packed away. My mother’s Cottage Ware teapot, the piece of art pottery Claire brought me from the Scottish Highlands, the small paintings of our boats, the Native American fetishes I collected in the southwest, my father’s lithograph of the seven mortal sins. Specific stones. The cement maple leaf I made. The block print of Skimmers that Mike and I got when we were first married. These are things that will be put away, waiting to be placed in my next house so I can quickly call it ‘home’.

With the burden of constant purging removed I will be able to enjoy the time I have left in our house, this home we’ve created together, with all of the creative energy of our family’s youth still held firmly in its very bones.  I will be able to focus now on what we will take with us from this place into the bold future, turning my face from what we are leaving behind.

I will likely never make another one of these. It took me a year to perfect the formula to make the cement strong yet thin. The casting is of a maple leaf from the tree in our backyard.


17 thoughts on “Life Review

  1. I am struggling with this very same issue even as we speak. I’ve already gotten rid of most of the clutter but the art work, that’s a tough one. Every piece I own represents a specific moment or person in my life. It is hard, so hard.

    I will tell you Kitty adores her treasures and plays with them every day. She even sleeps with her favorite thing of all, the feathered fan. You did not declutter, you spread joy.

    • I hope you can find a way to keep the things you love that define your home as yours. They are not replaceable. In my mind I think what if we go cruising and then don’t love it? What if we feel finished after three years and we want to come back and have a home on land again? You cannot replace the feeling of history that exists in a home where things have been chosen over the years. You cannot just go to a furniture shop and create a home. You can create a nice space, but that is different. I can always get rid of additional things later. But if I give everything away now, I cannot get it back. Now that I have freed myself from the belief that i have to get rid of anything that doesn’t belong on a boat, I had the energy to spend 4 hours in the garden catching up outside today. And I actually enjoyed it for the first time in over a year. Yes, the soul speaks clearly. So I hope you can find a balance between keeping treasured belongings and letting go of things that are really not necessary.

      So glad Kitty loves her treasures! It gave me such pleasure to send them to her, rather than to Goodwill. What little girl can even resist a feathered fan, especially if said fan is pink?

  2. Y’know, I think I may be doing something similar with the additional 1100sq ft of house and stuff that I’ve just inherited in Seattle. Most of the stuff is stuff. I’m trying to find the things that matter to me and bring those home. I’ve found the dimestore vase that always makes me think of spring because mom always put the forsythia branches in it to force, and that’s here now. Things like that. She didn’t have valuable things anyway, so it’s just a matter of picking through the stuff for the things that mean memories. It’s a strange thing overall, really.

    • Sounds like you just lost your mom? If so, I’m very sorry to hear it. That is such a difficult process, sorting through the things of someone else’s life. That dimestore vase is a keeper, though. Probably an estate sale would make things alot easier for you when you are finished going through.

      • Our two mothers passed away in 2010 & 2012 and we did the estate sale thing both times. We were not there to attend it. Too far away + easier on emotions. They donated what didn’t sell and we were very happy with results ($1000). We are constantly looking for ways to save $$$ nowadays. A strict budget obviously since we have fixed pensions at our age (62). Food ($600) followed by moorage ($400) are our biggest monthly expenses now. Good luck on the “land loss” grief. I know it was hard for me. Glad we were forced into it really. Much harder to do on your own.

        As for mortgage (death pledge in French). When you are older, you will want smaller, flatter and easier to maintain. So renting a small apartment makes more “sense” than living in a big house with lots of things to dust and maintain. Unless you want to hire help or ask family to maintain your current life style. We were forced to downsize so we have a different perspective.

        Besides, if you travel to places “far, far away”, you will always have the additional cost of getting back to your other land “home”. We had a home in England for 10 years and rented it out as well. We were always worrying about it even with a good manager. Less worries, more fun. hehe

      • Thanks, yes, she died in July (I posted it on FB, but with the new FB I don’t think anyone ever sees anything.) She got sick and went into the hospital in June and never left. It’s been another very strange summer for me. Now I’m popping back and forth regularly dealing with all kinds of stuff-both stuff-stuff and things about inheriting stuff and stuff about bills and stuff about a condo and…I think it’s going to be months before I wrap it all up.We’re still deciding what we want to do with the big things. We’ve got time for that though.

        • Oy vey! I am very sorry, Sue. But I am glad to hear that you are not in a hurry. That sounds like a lot of decisions to have to make. We were gone all of July on the boat with only the occasional limited internet access, so I never checked personal facebook stuff. I missed it.

          • No worries on missing the FB thing, but thanks again. Yes, suddenly I’m very busy. Nice to have lots of things to do, don’t like the reason very much. But I’m doing OK. Having time to think things through and not make rush decisions is very helpful. I’m very impressed by your decluttering-now it’s even more imperative that we get aggressive with our own. I’m hoping you’ll continue to be inspiring as we did through did we ever end up with so_MUCH_stuff anyway? Ah well, take care.

  3. I grew up in the military also. So I attach little value to things. We downsized from a house to a boat when I lost my job and had to sell our home of 10 years at a loss. We donated 1/3 to Value Village/Goodwill, 1/3 we sold on Craigslist and the final 1/3 we kept in storage. We have been successful in getting this last pile into a smaller and smaller storage space over the past 3 years. My mom and mother-in-law both left us homes full of stuff which we had to sell and get rid of everything except photos. Our son also left home in the last few years and we have a couple boxes of his toys.

    We had been living on a boat every weekend for a year before we sold our home. Practicing I guess. We have been living on our boat full time with an office + garage ashore for about 3 years now.

    Good luck with your downsizing effort. I would never rent a home out again. Been there, done that. Bad experience. You can always buy another home. Average American changes homes every 7 years!

    • Isn’t it funny how different people get different learning from the same kinds of experiences? You learned to not get attached to stuff, I learned to not get attached to people too much. I like how you describe taking your time to downsize that last pile of belongings from your land life. I think that’s important, to be able to let go gradually if that feels like the right thing. Also living on the boat on the weekends, gradually getting used to a smaller space, is a good idea. I can see us living on a boat with a storage unit somewhere on shore for awhile.
      We go back and forth about renting the house. Of course, we would like to sell when the market is good, and it is turning around now. One of my clients just sold a house in 4 days in Tacoma, at 5,000$ MORE than the asking price! I thought those days were over for good. On the other hand, while we may always be able to buy another house, we are not likely to want to take out another 30 year mortgage at our age. It wouldn’t make much sense. We, too, have had a bad experience being landlords, but we are close to the military bases and we have a friend who owns a property management business that caters to that demographic in this area. I would trust him completely, so it’s still a possibility if we think we can get more for the house later. We’ll see. I’d rather have land just about now, but that could change.

  4. I have wanted to respond to this for a few days, but just now have found the time. GREAT post. I never moved as a child and so didn’t even think of the role “things” played for people like yourself. That is a really good insight that I was lacking. Also, wow, you do have alot of stuff. Things you hold dear and I imagine this must be incredibly daunting and overwhelming to tackle it all. I really do hope you get someone else to help you, like in an estate sale! But are able to keep the items that are most important to you.

    In a ways I’m so glad that we don’t have much that we care to keep. We have only one box each that will stay in a family members attic. I can try to put myself in your shoes, and it’s probably just so hard to part with the things you use to define your home and that have so many memories.

    If you are looking to sell your house, but buy land, maybe you could build a storage unit on the land and store your stuff there for when you return. I like seeing you ponder these tough decisions, because it shows you are really making progress towards your goal. :D!!

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Dani. It frequently feels like we are just stuck in the mud here, making no progress at all. You and Tate are so smart to keep the ‘stuff’ down to a minimum, and, of course, you haven’t yet been married 30 years! That does make a difference. But the main thing is that you two are of the generation that understands that ‘things’ can weigh you down and get in the way of your dreams. Regardless of how hard it is to get rid of things, I’m going to do it in the end. I have thought of the idea of building a small structure on a piece of land, or even if we got something that had a small house on it. But it’s a very long way from owning the home we do now to owning something else, so all of that is just fantasy and possibilities right now.

  5. An unplanned opportunity to downsize from the big home & yard we raised our family in presented itself a few years ago. The timing was great and awful; the kids were on their own and we always planned to simplify and downsize, but that same week, my father and maternal grandfather passed away unexpectedly. We decided to go ahead with the downsize, bought a condo and put our place on the market. The need to part with our family-memory things was challenging, but I was motivated, because I still had unopened boxes of things from another family member who had passed on, and now there were more boxes arriving. What to do with all of the memories? The packing and moving gave me something physical to do, and kept me mentally occupied, so in retrospect, that was a very good thing. Tasks kept the grief manageable. Before going through the inherited boxes – I loaded my car with the first goodwill run of our stuff. I expected a pit in my stomach and tears while driving away. But what I felt instead was a lifting off my shoulders. An enormous weight disappeared. It was just STUFF. I could twirl around, open armed in the place it once occupied.

    I have thousands of photos. With that same stuff in the photos. And I have photos (now all scanned so they’re on my computer) and digitized movies of the people I enjoyed the stuff with. And barring media to rely on, I have memories, and I don’t need the stuff to keep the memories. After that first load, each car-full got easier and easier to drop off (I have an Element, which is like a small van; roomy inside when the are seats up). By the end of the week, I felt exhilarated to have emptied several rooms of books, games, toys, furniture, file cabinets, art supplies, kitchen utensils… boxes and boxes of things I hadn’t touched in years. Our house sold in 24 hours. We moved into our new place, and I thinned again after the first 6 months. I’m thinning again now, three years later, and it’s nothing short of glorious to Let it Go. For me the biggest lesson in this process of giving it away was that I had never done it before (you might have been proud of my clutter), so I was always afraid of the feelings of loss. As a skilled clinger-on, especially if the items had anything to do with family, the What If’s of giving up the contents of those boxes just shut me down. I am a sentimental, soggy, clinger who saturates every family object with a movie reel of memories. (Leftovers from a childhood of moving and broken homes.) Once I got started unloading my car, I realized that thinning the stuff – incrementally – wasn’t as hard as I always imagined it would be, and the good things of lightness and freedom by far outweighed my concerns and what-ifs.

    I’ve kept a few things from each family member I cherished, and enough art to feel nested, and the basics to cook, clean, make beds and dry off after a bath. We bought a boat a little over a year ago, and that experience has further buoyed my wishes to downsize. Hopefully, after retirement, we’ll go sailing, and if there are things to store for a life after sailing, I’ll slip that into my kids’ garages till we get back. 🙂

    All that long-winded rambling to say; I dearly hope that your process through this, with estate sales, and opening & sorting boxes and pondering what to keep and which things you “might need some day” – goes far smoother then you expect it will. I hope you are pleasantly surprised with a new sensation – a lightness in your whole body that comes from letting go of the stuff, while trusting your memories of the people & events it evokes.

  6. Belinda, thank you for sharing that story! What a lot you had on your plate at once! It sounds like maybe you were even more of a clinger-on-er than I have been. I’ve actually cleared the house out pretty well because I don’t like to have closets stuffed with things we don’t use. If they start getting crowded, I have to purge them. I have yet to regret anything I have tossed out or taken to Goodwill. Like you, I have always felt freer the more we removed from the house and property. I hope you are right that the sorting and pondering of the stuff in the attic goes easier than I think it will. I think I am on the right track because just the other day I opened a small box that we had previously removed from the attic. It turned out to be a box of cards we got when Claire was born. It was really easy to just take a look, realize I don’t even remember half of those people anymore, and toss them in the trash. Then I opened a ‘space’ bag filled with Andrew’s old dressup costumes. I felt attached to only two or three things, the rest went out the door without a second thought. So I am encoruaged! Possibly when I revisit the things I kept, I will feel like tossing those as well. Who knows? I am certainly open to the possibility! Also, we have the makings of an excellent estate sale.

    • I’m rooting for you from over here. And yes, each time you open the box of things you saved, you might decide to drop a few more somethings off at Goodwill, and the boxes get smaller at each review/purge. That is whats happening over here this month. Your estate sale will be amazmo. I wish I could attend to hawk things & haggle. 🙂 Double high fives on your progress thus far.

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