Why Am I Keeping All Of This Sh*t? A Case For Decluttering

A bipolar, body-positive bread enthusiast with a fucked-up ankle and a history of disordered eating chronicles health, weight-loss, and gardening. No diets allowed. 


In California’s Central Valley, fall can look a lot like summer — all swimwear and sweat and margaritas. And if it isn't drenched in the sweltering heat of 100°, it is the opposite — plaid-clad, frolicking in a pile of red, orange, and yellow leaves, pumpkin picking, and sipping cider with a cinnamon stick in it.

The day my great-grandmother died, 19 years ago, was a plaid pumpkin-picking-frolicking day in late October. She was 89. She died raking leaves. I don't remember now, but the leaves were probably yellow. We don’t get much red or orange here in the fall — things just go from living, to dead, to on the ground in a few days.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure she at least started to die while raking leaves. She didn't answer her phone that morning. My grandmother nudged the front door and found her mother (my Granny) on the floor behind it, her rake left laying on the grass. She would never have left her rake on the grass. Not unless there was an emergency. (I’m pretty sure the emergency was that she herself was dying while raking recently-dead yellow leaves.)

The day before Granny died, I replaced a quart of expired half-and-half in her fridge and when I wouldn’t take her $20 for it, she told me that I “don’t even listen pretty good.” That was one of the things she loved to say, right along with, “You’d lose your head if it wasn’t attached to you.” That day, before I ran out without listening pretty good and without the $20, she gave me a crocheted shawl with a weird brown stain that was either blood or chewing tobacco — her DNA either way. She thought I hadn’t dressed my littlest (seven months old then) warmly enough; 89-year-old women with no body fat think everyone should be wearing a parka, so she gave me the blood/tobacco stained shawl to wrap him in.

Last week, in an afghan avalanche of decluttering in the kids’ bedroom closet, that shawl fell. I had forgotten it was perched on top of the pile. I had forgotten about the stain which was visible through the gallon-sized Ziploc bag I put it in the day she died. It probably doesn’t smell like her (baby powder and chewing tobacco, in an unlikely combination that is the scent of my childhood), but I can smell it anyway. That smell reminds me of being frightened and protected and so so small, all at the same time. 

When I asked myself why I still have a shawl that's been in a bag for 19 years, the answer was simple: her.

Even though it probably just smells like plastic and old yarn now, the idea that it might smell like her — like safety — was enough to keep it in the closet. 

Most folks, I suspect, aren’t really lucky enough to get to have their great-grandparents around. But as my luck would have it, my grandmother gave birth to my mother in 1953 when she was just 16. My mother then gave birth to me in 1974, when she was 21. I, in turn, gave birth to my oldest daughter when I was 20, making our family a closely stacked five generations of women. And making my great-grandmother my best friend.

So I was either lucky, or unlucky, enough to have a relationship with Granny closer than I'd have with anyone. She was my constant. My north star. Other hyperbolic sentiments. She was my constant, not because she was an 89-year-old matriarch living in the house she and my great-grandfather built, still drinking White Zin from a box and mending the neighbors pants, and spitting into a brass pot; she was my constant because she was forced to be.

When my mother was out or drunk or over-nighting with a boyfriend, or working early or going to the bar late, I was with Granny. Granny scrubbed skinned knees, fed me stale Oreos, made me memorize bible verses (and the Lord’s Prayer), whipped me with either a flyswatter or a switch from her weeping willow tree (whichever was closest), and generally taught me to be the steel-willed, stubborn badass who sits before you on this Macbook today.

Everything I am is a mixture of my mentally-ill addict mother, my own perseverance, and all that Granny taught me in that tiny house. 

I didn’t know it when I was five or 11 or even 15, but I know now. She’s the person I will always think of first when someone says, “Who do you most admire/wish you could see again/miss the most?”

And in addition to being that person, she is the person who taught me to save everything. The Dust Bowl and the Clutch Plague made her a penny-pinching machine with a cupboard full of canned green beans and the ability to turn any scrap of fabric into something useful — and beautiful.

 So this month, instead of asking an object if it “sparks joy,” I’m simply asking, do I NEED this? Because everything sparks joy. Or everything at least sparks the control thing, which feels a lot like joy to the adult who once was the frightened child of a addict.

Maybe it’s because of that, or because it feels like a piece of her is in everything she touched, that I have these afghans stacked seven-tall, with the Ziploc-shawl on top. Maybe this is why I’ve kept all of her old crochet hooks, even the rusted ones. Maybe this is why I’ve got things that remind me of her, even if they have nothing to do with her, in closets and cubbies all over my 2,100 square foot house.

It’s not just Granny, though, if I’m being transparent. Some of it is that my version of a bipolar manic phase ends with me in disastrous debt up to my Michael Kors. Some of it is that I just really like stuff. Some of it is that having a sort of controlled chaos feels safe to me.

I tried to Kon Mari my house last year. This is a method of decluttering and organizing that promises prosperity and everlasting peace, Amen (not really, but you’d think so after you read the testimonials). Marie Kondo is the Patron Saint of Order and us her woefully disorganized subjects. Touch an object. Hold it. Does it "spark joy?' If yes, keep. If no, go.

I tried to Kon Mari everything, and I did get rid of an incredible amount of shit. But even with the significantly reduced shit-pile, I still found that most things I own “spark-joy.” Or something like joy anyway.

Maybe it’s less like joy and more like that controlled-chaos thing.

A couple of years ago, I asked my therapist if she thought my inability to separate things and the memories associated with those things was some kind of coping mechanism. The same way the smell of Jose Cuervo tequila makes me panic, does a shawl make me calm?

The therapist’s short-answer? Duh.

It’s been a bit over a year since my half-hearted jump on the Kon Mari bandwagon. I’ve had some pretty significant medication adjustments/additions since then, a lot of therapy, and recently, a lot of anxiety about money and things and money things.

And very recently a re-examination of what the ”things” I have are giving me, including the Ziploc-bagged shawl.

So this month, instead of asking an object if it “sparks joy,” I’m simply asking, do I NEED this? Because everything sparks joy. Or everything at least sparks the control thing, which feels a lot like joy to the adult who once was the frightened child of an addict. Every blood-stained shawl and vintage pottery vase, every book and picture and piece of antique linen. Every one of the 27 vintage sheets in my closet and the 40 pillowcases that are just enough of a pattern contrast to be kitschy and not tacky.

I’m just one big joy-spark.

This week, when I sat in the middle of a pile of linens, some of them new, some of them vintage, some of them Granny’s, most of them useless, I cried. I didn’t cry because I had a 150 things to wade through or because Granny was in many of them, I cried because Granny wasn’t in any of them.

I didn’t cry because I was going to donate a literal ton of stuff to Goodwill. I guess mostly I cried because I realized that all the things I was keeping to hold on to a feeling, weren’t the reason that the feeling was there, nor were they the reason it might be gone.

Granny, my past, my future, my heart, none of those things are in my drawer full of tattered socks or in 11 pairs of jeans (four of which fit, two of which are too big, five of which I’m holding onto just in case I lose 10 pounds) or spatulas in triplicate. What is in those drawers? A lot of clothes to fold, a lot of dishes to wash, a lot of shirts that need ironing, a lot of stuff I simply don’t need. And a lot anxiety, too.

I didn’t know about the anxiety in the stuff because I was holding so tightly to the anxiety that the thought of not having the stuff gave me. That grip obscured the vision of a less-cluttered future, the truth that holding on to all the stuff might be hurting more than helping.

So a lot of the clothes and linen things went into bags — 20 or so, I think now. A lot of the kitchen stuff went to my oldest son, the one Granny thought needed that shawl, who just moved into his first apartment with no stuff. A lot of books went into boxes. And a lot of my anxiety went along with them.

But the shawl stayed, still in its bag, alone in the closet now. I’m not ready for that one yet.


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