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Closet organization: It's hard to part with stuff

Joan Fieldstone

April 14, 2014

By: Joan Fieldstone, Home Improv Advocate

In: General RemodelingInterior Home Improvement

A recent story on NPR, "Why Older Adults Have A Hard Time Letting Their Stuff Go," got me thinking. Why do I procrastinate about organizing the closet? When I do manage to start, why is it so hard to make any progress?

Like everyone these days, I have so many pressing things to do. The main reason I put closet cleaning on a back burner is because I already know that it takes a lot of time for a sentimental person like me to sift through old memories. After a couple of hours, I'm surrounded by a mess, and there is very little in the Goodwill giveaway box -- even less in the trash.

NPR interviewed David Ekerdt, Director of the University of Kansas' gerontology center for the story on older adults and downsizing. Ekerdt analyzed a survey of thousands of older adults nationwide and found that almost one third of those over 70 did not give away anything during the prior two years, and more than 80 percent had not sold any of their belongings for the same period of time.

Part of the reason, he says, is emotional, "because," Ekerdt says, "our identity is in our possessions…Even giving things to family and friends…can be stressful" when they reject your gifts.

Should it stay or should it go?

The Buddha said we suffer because of our attachments. If that's the case, freeing ourselves from more of our earthly possessions should leave us less vulnerable to the pain of their inevitable loss.

But is it any easier to make a conscious decision to let them go sooner, rather than having to adjust to their possible random loss through theft or some calamity like flood or fire?

And ultimately, as they say, "You can't take it with you" -- to which my late mother used to quip, "If I can't take it with me, I'm not going!" My parents' home is filled with the beautiful things my mother collected during her lifetime, and unlike the ancient Egyptians, she definitely did not take them with her.

My dad is counting on us children to make the decisions about what of my mother's and his things we will keep and what we will put up for sale when he's gone. He cannot bear to part with the memories of their happy life together. Will I have just as hard a time letting go of my mother's things as I do of my own? I already have some sense of guilt giving away things she gifted me when she was alive, even those I don't really want because I don't personally identify with them.

Deciding which of my possessions should stay and which should go has never been easy for me -- it's not just a function of getting older. There definitely is something to this theory that Ekerdt refers to about our identity being inextricably wrapped up in our possessions.

I have been lugging around photos, scrapbooks, old theater programs, and even creative writing assignments, as well as childhood attempts at poetry and notebooks filled with scrawling from as far back as elementary school.

As a writer, anything that might even remotely jog my memories or inspire a story is worth keeping. If I had to guess, I'd say that most of what fills my closet space consists of pulp and ink. It's a lot easier for me to get rid of clothes and shoes I don't want to wear than it is for me to set fire to the written word.

What's your Achilles heel when it comes to cleaning out your closets?

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