“Everybody’s gotta have a little place for their stuff. That’s all life is about. Trying to find a place for your stuff.” — George Carlin
You spent half your life acquiring stuff, and then once you hit that third age, egged on by the likes of organizers and ephemeral sensations like Marie Kondo, you’re supposed to get rid of your stuff. Downsizing, they call it, as if it were some kind of virtue. Or Swedish death cleaning, decluttering like there’s no tomorrow out of consideration for those left behind.
More than a few schools of thought come into play. One says to divest yourself of everything, pretending that you like minimalism and are happy, with enough possessions to furnish a modest monk’s cell. Some like to buy new, starting all over again. Others see themselves as conservators of precious artifacts, handed down from since-forgotten ancestors. The frugal and utilitarian can’t jettison perfectly good stuff, like that never-used orange fondue pot. And then there are those who view their stuff as part of themselves, a continuing project.
Langley Wakeman Collyer saved newspapers so that his lawyer brother, Homer Lusk Collyer, who had gone blind, could catch up on the news when his sight returned. They both died, buried beneath their largesse of junk, which included some 25,000 books and fourteen pianos, in 1947. For a literary account of the Collyer brothers, see E.L. Doctorow’s novel Homer & Langley.
Will it fit wherever you’re moving?
If you’re moving from a four-bedroom three-story suburban house in the Midwest to a one-bedroom Miami apartment, you might have a hard time fitting your lifetime accumulation of stuff in. And even if there’s no shortage of space, some items might be as useful as a snowblower in the tropics.
What will it cost to move your stuff? Can you afford to move it?
Let’s answer this one with a question. Will you be moving with a rental truck, doing the driving yourself, or will you call a moving company? Will your move be local, long-distance, or international? Brace yourself for some wildly-ranging estimates.
Will you be insuring your stuff during the move? Is it even insurable?
What is the replacement cost of your stuff? If it’s irreplaceable, is it even worth replacing?
Is that stove a 1949 Chambers stove or a Viking range of just about any age? Does the replacement value exceed the cost of moving – and do you even like those stoves?
Do you like your stuff?
If you like your stuff, you can keep your stuff. Or at least, you should.
Your stuff doesn’t even have to be useful to merit retention. If three sets of sterling silver flatware mean something to you, even if you never use some of it, keep it. It doesn’t take up that much storage space. That Pony Club trophy from 1964 may hold meaning only for you, and if you like it, you should keep it.
Kayla moved across the country from 3-floor townhouse to a single-story house, only moving a few items. Handing over already-read New York Times bestsellers to friends, she doesn’t store books. Her tastefully decorated abodes are always magazine-worthy, minimalist and featuring the year’s fashionable color. Even her Le Creuset® cookware is the right shade: mist grey.
And then there’s Rima, whose collection of books and magazines are her pride and joy, lining the walls of a house that blends mid-century with shabby chic, her décor inspired by John Waters and Amy Sedaris. A life-size flamingo and a bronze chimp compete for attention with a chair covered in bottle caps.
Or are you keeping it out of a sense of obligation? Two decades of harboring that etagere late Aunt Hattie left you is enough if you hate it. And the same goes for those awful Hummel figurines. You’ve earned a full release.
Are you holding on to stuff, because you view yourself as the custodian of family heirlooms? Let’s get real. Unless you really fancy antimacassars, even the ones crocheted, tatted, and embroidered by some long-forgotten ancestor, it may be time to pass those on to the natural objects of your bounty. And if they don’t want them, and if you don’t want them, it’s time to re-home those relics.
Sometimes heirlooms are just meant to die. My mother’s pool room harbored a non-performing, ancient Christmas cactus. While she was in Mexico and the cactus under my care, like most house plants, it up and died. Driving her back to her home in Iowa one spring, bracing for a lecture about my irresponsibility and failure to respect others’ property, the same lecture I’d heard for four decades, I waited until we were an hour or so away, driving along the two-lane blacktops of northwest Missouri, before I broke the news to her. “Thank God you killed that damn cactus,” she replied. “I hated that plant, your grandmother hated that plant, and all we ever heard was ‘don’t kill the Christmas cactus’ from your grandfather’s mother who gave it to her, like it was supposed to be some treasured heirloom.” Now I get more mileage out of having killed the Christmas cactus than if the damn thing was still alive.
Is there anyone who would actually want your stuff?
In the February 28, 2022 issue of The New Yorker, Patricia Marx sets forth avenues for getting rid of stuff in A Guide to Getting Rid of Almost Everything.
Seduced by Antiques Roadshow and 1stDibs, spying a 1950s lunchbox at a thrift shop that’s just like the one that held your first-grade lunch, you may think you’re sitting on a gold mine. Chances are that you’re not.
In certain markets, your stuff might be valuable, but time and place may make it practically worthless. No one seems to want pianos these days. Goodwill in San Mateo County doesn’t accept furniture as donations. No one wanted my father’s like-new green velvet sofa or plaid wool love seats. But in my neighborhood, definitely a mixed one, socio-economically, anything left, even a broken toilet, on the sidewalk will disappear within minutes.
Ten years ago, no one wanted LP records. Now LPs and flip phones are popular again. No one wants the Waterford, Limoges porcelain, Lalique, Murano glass, linen tablecloths, or the Ranch Oak furniture your grandfather bought in the 1940s, but that could change in the next decade. Today’s trash, tomorrow’s treasures.
Twenty-five years ago, I moved from Iowa to Mexico. In the decade preceding, I would wear out a Suburban, stuffed with more loot than the Jed Clampett brought with his clan from the Ozarks to Beverly Hills, road trip after road trip, maybe four years road trips a year, shipping books by mail. The bids that moving companies gave me were shockingly ridiculous, one ignorant mover insisting that Mexican cities were accessible only by dirt road and another saying the household goods would be shipped by rail to New Orleans and then by ship to Veracruz, and then overland to Morelia, which was just plain crazy. I finally landed on a company in Laredo that would contract with Mexican movers to move my stuff across the border and another thousand miles to Morelia, but it would be up to me to get the household goods shipped to Laredo.
And so, I hired professional movers to pack my worldly belongings in the largest truck Ryder rented, a car trailer hitched to that, and embarked on the most exhausting thousand-mile drive ever, driving the largest vehicle in my life.
You already know the rest of the story. That moving van contained all my stuff that I didn’t sell or jettison: a 1959 Evergleam Christmas tree, two leather sofas, old chairs, the damn Ranch Oak furniture, a dining room table and chairs, wrought iron patio furniture, more books, enough kitchen wares to stock Williams-Sonoma, a health and beauty belt massager, copper trays and Turkish artifacts, my grandfather’s tuxedos, sewing machines, my childhood bedroom furniture, Chinese Coromandel lacquer screens, a Turkish brazier, a samovar, an antique pine primitive corner cabinet that my mother bought at a thrift store long before I was born, most of my typewriter collection, an Ironrite Model 85 mangle and a Philco TV console older than I am, computers, printers, oriental rugs, an antique garden hand plow cultivator, a 1959 Encyclopedia Britannica, the J. Peterman Company 1988: Owner’s Manual N°. 1, a 45-rpm record of Witch Doctor and assorted LPs, and clothing spanning generations. And even more stuff that I’ve since forgotten about.
I left behind paintings of ancestors I didn’t recognize and that Coke bottle filled with oil from my grandfather’s foray into the oil business back in the 1940s.
Would I do that again? Sure. Unquestionably, I am a shameless maximalist. I have no plans to change. After all, I’ve got the makings of a museum of the mundane, which will surely support me in years to come.