Decluttering Virtual Space

The other night I spent five hours clearing out email from the work account I had for the nine years before I retired.

The account only allows deletion of one email at a time, there is no key for a group check off.

Each one has to be deleted at least twice, first from “Read” or “Sent” and then from “Trash,” before it is completely gone.

While some accounts automatically “empty the trash” every three months or so, this account doesn’t.  It was all there.  So into the virtual dumpster I dove.

In particular, I tackled the email folders I’d set up to record activity to be documented in my periodic professional review portfolios.

These portfolios are intended to provide Evidence of Excellence in Teaching; Evidence of Service Rendered to Department, University, Community, and to My Discipline; and Evidence of Continuing Scholarly Activity and Professional Development.

Looking over those messages, reliving those hard-fought battles and concerted efforts was much harder than going through a house full of old keepsakes.

I found:

  • bittersweet documentation of hauling students to academic safety — and a few to even higher ground,
  • reports of painstaking research conducted to provide (mandated) faculty input about university-wide problems (the solutions, we learned in the end, had been decided long before our reports were filed),
  • notes from harried organizers gushing thanks for my service as a judge of project posters or essays for national scholarship contests
  • carefully transmitted instructions for each of six consecutive years spent as a program director, reviewing student submissions for a regional research conference
  • three invitations from far-flung colleagues to present formal talks about my research, and personal notes of thanks for having contributed those colloquia presentations
  • respectful requests from attendees for copies of my presentation notes and asking for suggestions for further reading,
  • an acceptance of a proposal for an article I hoped to write for a professional journal — and also my anguished withdrawal from the submission process…

But perhaps the most poignant of all was the email to submit a packet of application materials I’d compiled to nominate a respected colleague for a regional teaching award.  Which he won.

But you know….

I don’t need to compile self-congratulatory notebooks anymore.

Files documenting my  mathematical work are safely tucked far away from my emails.

All the service activity is noted in my curriculum vitae.

I’m real-life friends with many former students.

I dispatched all of these ghosts to the ether.


Difficult Decluttering Isn’t Easy…..

This morning a friend who has been following my blog sent me a link to a source for a set of three collapsible canvas hampers marked, “Give Away,” “Put Away,” and “Throw Away” which purported to be The Solution  to deal with Procrastination, the impediment that the vendor would have us believe is the principal deterrent to decluttering our homes…

I replied to my friend’s message thusly:

“The reason any of us procrastinate the EASY decluttering, the sorting of our own stuff — stuff on which nobody else has a claim — may be the lack of decluttering equipment, although I’ve always found that a box of 30-gallon trash bags does the trick very nicely.  Plus, the bags disappear with the clutter and don’t become clutter themselves, as those containers would do, and 30-gallon trash bags don’t sit around forever proclaiming that we will NEVER be finished with decluttering.”

But I don’t believe it is the lack of cute or appropriate equipment that is the reason we procrastinate EASY decluttering.  I believe we put off decluttering our personal stuff because we don’t need to do it.  That is, until we’re going to move house, or until we really need the space — for a new baby; or maybe to set up our new weaving loom…


The main thing this blog is concerned with is DIFFICULT decluttering; decluttering which no sweetly organized how-to steps, no helpful charts, no colorfully marked bins, no dumpster contracts can ever help to get done.

DIFFICULT decluttering is decluttering stuff to which another living person has ties.

The reason that kind of decluttering is difficult is that it cannot even begin without mutual consent. But absolutely nobody can ever MAKE anyone else DO anything, let alone make anyone else feel any urgency about doing it NOW.

DIFFICULT decluttering is a matter of developing enough negotiating technique, enough love and respect, enough sense of shared purpose, that all the people involved agree that it must be done, when it must be done, and how it must be done.

DIFFICULT decluttering is difficult because nobody, no matter how inconvenienced or irritated, may give away, throw away, or even put away another person’s stuff without mutual agreement.

DIFFICULT decluttering gets stalled when one or another person doesn’t want to deal with it, when the stuff isn’t actually bothering one of them, or when the task is so physically or emotionally overwhelming that they don’t know how to get started.

DIFFICULT decluttering is about dealing with a whole lot of emotions — all the emotions tied up with the stuff, plus all the emotions tied up in family relations.

I think that DIFFICULT decluttering becomes easier when we share our stories.  That is what this blog is about.

Stashes and Reusables and the need for a vision

My husband’s grandmother refused to let anyone throw away gift wrap, ribbons, boxes, cards…  My husband’s first wife was disinclined to even after her grandmother-in-law passed on.

A few months after we married we spent five weeks dedicated to preparing his house for my stuff to move in the following summer.  First went the carloads of his deceased wife’s clothing and accessories to the thrift stores.  Then, my husband asked me to “make some sense,” if I could, of the mountains of Christmas stuff piled into boxes and bags.

As nearly as I could tell, each Christmas for twenty or thirty years, presents were opened after which all that year’s gift tags, wrappings and disposables were tossed into a bag which was tossed onto the heap forevermore out of sight and out of mind.  And so I began to work through the archeological dig.

I spent a week separating gift wrap from cards from tissue paper from ribbons from gift boxes from stuff intended as secret Santa gifts from half-eaten canisters of peanut brittle, open boxes of candy canes and an occasional pipe cleaner or evaporated bottle of perfume.  I sorted the wrapping materials into “that which is hopelessly defaced” and “that which could conceivably be reused if we live long enough.”  In the end I had it all sorted into “keep (for now)” and “utter garbage among which I am grateful I found no mice carcasses.”  The indisputable garbage was removed.

Five months later it was time to sort my own belongings for the great move.  Among other things I had a mountain of yarn.  And in the midst of the gathering of homespuns, dreamy stuff and  projects-in-process (or at least firmly in mind) there were skeins I’d intended, thirty years ago, to knit into vests for my brothers, piles of sale yarn in odd colors, yarns of various fibers I later discovered I hate to work with…

Don’t throw anything away.  It’s GOT to be good for something someday!

I have two friends to whom I am deeply indebted.  Between them they took banker’ boxes full of all of my collected “I don’t know about this stuff” yarn.

I got to work finishing up two big projects to send off to other friends.  In the end, the stash I sent across the country is yarn-with-vision; materials for which I have plans — and projected timelines — already firmly in mind.

The featured image of the day is about two-thirds of the stash I sent across the Great Plains, a desert and two mountain ranges.  You’re looking at some prayer shawls and socks to be…..

Re-Cycling. Envisioning. Imagining.

A couple of days ago I was in a beautiful shop full of high end beautifully colored yarn, of masterful knitted samples to show how the yarn looks made up, and wonderful people making beautiful things in a knitting class.  My eyes were full of happiness.

Beautiful as it all was, I didn’t buy anything.  I had no vision for how, or what, I would make with any of it.

At home, I have four imaginative projects underway, two un-begun sweaters and a lap robe waiting in the wings, and an array of materials intended for learning how to make socks and knitted lace shawls.

But it wasn’t this sufficiency that held me back from buying more yarn.

It was, quite simply, that beauty alone is no longer enough to entice me;  I couldn’t imagine how I would use any of that beautiful yarn so there was no attraction.

Forty years ago, after my grandmother had passed away, my aunt and I came across a basket filled with a project in progress.  There were little knitted swatches with notes pinned to them: “snout,” “paw,” “ear,” and so forth.  She had been making a toy…  We sensed her spirit so alive in those bits of the project.  My aunt could see how it should look and took it to finish up.

A couple of years after my mother died, my father enlisted my help to empty his hall closet.  He’d saved aside the linens that were in active use.  But what, he wondered,  should be done with all the other stuff?

My mother loved to sew.  After a particularly difficult day at her office, she would stop in at a fabric store near her office.  The hall closet was chock full of lovely fabric samples…  But I don’t sew.

A colleague of mine’s eyes lit up when I described the stash. She took it all to her sewing circle where the fabric samples were snatched up by the ladies who each knew exactly what she would do with her selection.

A couple of days ago I began talking to a guy who owns a bike shop.  He had an absolutely perfectly beautiful “Brooklyn Cruiser” on display: a floor model marked down to half its original price.  One glimpse of this marvelous machine and in my mind’s eye I was tooling around bits of California on that so very aptly named, strong-framed, three speed with coaster brakes.

I’d probably have bought it on the spot, but the dang thing turned out to be too big for me ….  So he’s going to look around to find me something that will attract my love, suit my height, and fit the pocketbook.

I asked whether I might talk trade with him about my dusty old ten-speed racer…

“Sure!” he said, “Bring it by.  You never know what might be worth something…

“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure!”

Farewell to childhood: my first decluttering

Once upon a time all of us kids had finally fled the nest and my parents had found the perfect downsize home.  So they wrote to all of us and said, “You have (I forget how many) weeks to come get your stuff.”

I was in my thirties by then but even so I felt lost and strangely angry.  “Hey” I thought, “We didn’t get a say in this!”  But of course, we didn’t get to have a say anymore.

So I picked a weekend and went home, to my soon never to be home again.

Somewhere there are photos of me hauling boxes out of the crawl space and sorting through the stuff in each one with a battered souvenir hat from the 1964 World’s Fair on my head.  (It didn’t survive the day.)

Maybe I was looking for joy.  But among other stuff, I found four years worth of Newsweek magazines from my junior high school days.

There was a time when I first became mature enough to understand news stories and reading those magazines felt like important steps toward becoming a responsible adult.  As a mark and measure of my progress, I would carefully pile them up into a taller and taller stack.

But I preserved them because I was too young to understand the disposable nature of the news.  For me, those magazines were full of important immutable truth.  I had respected both their symbolic and their intrinsic value.

Those magazines joined all sorts of other no-longer-necessary symbols of passage in a sea of thirty gallon trash bags…

My mother worked for an agency which helped a lot of families so we set aside good things for her to take for the children.  And there were a few treasures I decided to keep.  A quarter century and ten moves later, I still have the things I saved out from that decluttering.

Then, after hours of sorting, I looked up and there was nary a trash bag to be seen.

While I had been engrossed in memory and sorting, my father had been quietly removing each bag as I filled it.  They were already outside awaiting the scheduled trash pick up.

It was then that I realized how deeply ready my parents were to move on.  And after doing the work, I knew I was ready too.

I appreciate their wisdom in insisting that we come take responsibility for the things we’d left behind.

JOY in American Decluttering

“I tried that Japanese decluttering technique where you pick up each thing you own and throw it out if it doesn’t give you joy.
So far I’ve thrown out all the dirty dishes and the tax bill…”

Each of two dear friends messaged me to suggest that just maybe I might find this joke relevant.

And I do know from long experience that if Just One Student mentions something, That Very Thing is on the minds of a third of the class.  And if TWO Students mention it, then it’s past time to open discussion:

There’s a reason I call myself an AMERICAN Declutterer!

Because American adults need a Completely American decluttering technique!  We need to pick up each thing and determine How Much Misery will accrue if we throw it out!

And of course I’ve set up a sliding scale for Measuring Misery…

At the far end is the Maximal Misery Level of, “I’ll spend the rest of my life in jail if I throw this out.”

At the near end is the minimal misery level of, “I’ll be dancing for joy forever and a day if I never have to look at this thing again.”

The trouble is that more or less everything we pick up will trigger two points of this spectrum at once.  Like, say, the tax bill.  I could be dancing with joy forever and a day… and spend forever in a jail cell …  if I get never look at it again.

Or maybe I’ll be dancing for joy to get rid of my child’s tattered baseball glove, but he will send me to jail if he finds out it’s gone.

(So, goes my procrastination reverie, we turn our sliding misery scale into a musical scale, and check whether the two notes generate harmonious sympathetic vibrations.  If they don’t…. )

Perhaps you can tell why I don’t take hard and fast rules for decluttering very seriously.  Except one.  That is: Sometimes you just have to do it.  And if you just have to do it….

…if at all possible, turn the discards and the discarding into joy-filled blessings.

  • Invite EVERYONE who has a stake in the stuff to agree that it is necessary to declutter.
  • Build affirming rituals around decluttering.  Include hugs, wine and pizza.
  • Sell as much as you can without driving yourself crazy.
  • Find your discards welcoming homes.
  • Recycle anything you possibly can.
  • Consign to the dump only that which is truly garbage.

Above all, Cultivate Joy.

The featured image is a teapot about as tall as my thumb, crafted entirely of beads.  It is a wedding present and serves as an absolute antithesis to clutter.  I think of Alice in Wonderland every time I look at it.  Going through boxes of clutter can feel very much like a trip through Wonderland.

Legacy: passing things on, sometimes to cats

While I was a professor I collected books to supplement and extend the textbook material on the mathematical specialties I taught.  By the time I decided to retire I had shelves of these specialized materials.  It was hard to accept that no longer would I need most of it.  It was a bit easier to accept that I could not send that library across the Great Plains, through a desert and over two mountain ranges.

I sweetened the parting from my library by negotiating one-by-one with my colleagues and advanced students to give them books that matched their particular interests.  Distributing books among a couple dozen folks took care of the surplus.  (And one colleague even took my small bookshelf!)

Today, a year later, one of those students told us that he decided to pursue graduate school after reading the books I chose for him.  His acceptance is in hand!  He’s off to new adventures in the fall.


During the month before we moved out, the townhouses on either side of mine were rented to undergraduates: three young ladies on one side and an engaged couple on the other.

Each of the young ladies had a kitten which they would (attempt to) walk on leashes through the common area that ran behind our townhouses.  The kittens’ adorable refusal to accept their walkers’ suggestions and the young ladies’ mounting frustrations presented an interesting spectacle for their old lady neighbor and her elderly cat.

Distractions notwithstanding, once engaged, the eye for decluttering possibilities never closes!  Cat lovers!!!!  I offered and the young ladies were delighted to accept my (strictly indoor) cat’s carpeted scratching post that was too cumbersome to move with us.

A little later I offered my never-used and by now utterly superfluous futon mattress to the couple moving in on the other side.  (Its frame had been one of my assemble-it-yourself failures that had gone to the scavengers weeks earlier.)  The couple didn’t need it, but the next thing I knew, the kittens’ keepers leapt forth gushing with delight over this treasure.  Five undergraduates promptly went to work “disappearing” that futon into the young ladies’ house.   It would be perfect, they assured me, with much corroborating detail, for the playroom they were putting together.

And the couple did end up taking my dinette table, two chairs and two enormous bookshelves.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the complex, a former student of mine and his wife were preparing to move to take new jobs.  They observed carefully these various transactions and after awhile the young husband appeared on my doorstep.  “We were wondering,” he asked, “Whether you have an extra box, one that would be big enough to hold our cat’s exercise tunnel…”

The next day one of my custom wardrobe boxes proved to be superfluous.  I brought it out, knocked on their door….  And got to watch his wife’s eyes light up like Christmas.  Of course their cat’s equipment fit into it perfectly…..