By Sarah White
I went to Italy. I turned 65. I came back feeling my life didn’t fit as comfortably as it had. The urge for change had been sparked.
However, any change I could envision brought a chain of thoughts that all circled back to the same place: I need to declutter. To downsize. To take charge again of the stuff that has reduced the size of our living space, lining the walls like the soft detritus an animal lines her burrow with.
I am 65 and I want to deal with my stuff.
I didn’t realize this would be a psychological process as much as a physical task. A 2020 article on Next Avenue interviewed David Ekerdt about his book, Downsizing: Confronting Our Possessions in Later Life. Ekerdt described downsizing as a complicated task with cognitive, emotional, and social aspects. I’d better buckle my seatbelt.
Ekerdt strongly advised that people do their downsizing while in the sixties. It’s the last age at which we will physically be up to the task. By our seventies, we’re too likely to have trouble with the crouching and kneeling, lifting and carrying, that the work entails.
Now I’m 65! I was already motivated to deal with my stuff when I read that the clock is ticking on my physical ability to do so. I’ve started, by moving a great deal of stuff to offsite storage, ostensibly to make room for a home office remodel but just as much, to force me to deal with it by adding a penalty if I don’t.
Watching the moving men removing bookcases and boxes, my life flashed by like a film running in reverse—whole epochs were excavated and carried out. My decade of promoting and leading reminiscence writing workshops, my decades as a business writer and graphic designer. Old work samples, job files, inspirational resource material—so much soft detritus that had lined my nest. There, it quietly whispered stories to me about my identity, my role in the world, my purpose. Now, in the storage cubicle, things mutter to each other, “what will she do when she gets to me?”
I will dispose of as much of it as I can, keep as little as possible, to travel lightly into my next epoch. And I will respect a psychologically-helpful strategy Ekerdt identified, which he termed safe passage: “With downsizing, people are intentionally trying to give their possessions a safe passage into the future to people who would value them and use them and respect them as they did.”
That brought to mind how a yard sale I held in my thirties had temporarily shattered my identity. I hadn’t tried to give special items safe passage, just sold to any who would buy. I spent the rest of that summer hunting for my lost treasures at other neighborhood yard sales—and found a surprising number of them. I wasn’t ready to let go of certain parts of my identity that those items symbolized. This time, I will give stuff with value safe passage, if possible.
Asked how did downsizing, or a failure to downsize, relate to identity, Ekerdt responded, “Possessions are an extension of ourselves… And that’s why it takes a great amount of courage to surrender these things and decide you’re going to move forward.”
So, I’m asking: how do we muster that courage? And, being me, I will write about it. “Keep the stories, lose the stuff,” I tell myself. Would you like to join me in this work? I would happily convene a virtual discussion group around decluttering and downsizing. Send me an email if interested.
And meanwhile–here are some links that might get you thinking.
The Power of a Thing, Or, The Tea Cart Goes Away (previously published here on True Stories Well Told)
From my friend Linda Lenzke, who blogs at Mixed Metaphors, Oh My!, come two stories that address ‘stuff’:
The Ties That Bind – https://www.mixedmetaphorsohmy.com/2013/04/21/the-ties-that-bind/
Moving Story II – https://www.mixedmetaphorsohmy.com/2013/05/25/a-moving-story-ii/