Sorting Through Life

When it comes to decluttering, it took me most of my life—and several false starts—to get where I am. The biggest kick in the butt was the passing of my brother, a lifelong collector of pretty much anything. When he died, my siblings and I travelled to Manitoba to clear out his apartment in a matter of days. Overwhelmed by the amount of stuff he had, we needed to make quick decisions about what to keep and what to toss. We dropped off about 40 bags of clothing to Value Village and filled two recycling dumpers with decades of old magazines. Much of the rest went into storage for months until we could sort through it, trying to decide whether something was sentimentally valuable, monetarily valuable, useful to someone somewhere, or merely crap. Sometimes the lines blurred.

When we die, someone has to sort through and make sense of what’s left of our life: every single thing that we gathered and stored over the years. As the parent of an only child, I didn’t want to saddle my daughter with that burden.

I’d attempted decluttering before. Failed attempts involved a never-ending cycle of moving piles from one place to another. So while I didn’t know how to go about decluttering my life this recent time, I knew how not to go about it.

Then I read Marie Kondo’s Lifechanging Magic of Tidying Up. The premise? Get rid of stuff first, then organize what’s left. The simplicity resonated with me, and I dove right in.

To keep myself accountable, I Instagrammed my journey, posting before, during, and after pics of my ventures. I stuck to the KonMari system as much as possible, because the idea of sorting by category made sense to me. How else would I have known that I had twenty lanyards, eight pairs of scissors, and dozens of pieces of mismatched plastic containers?

Socks before
Tidy sock box after!

I re-homed as many items as possible. My yard sale failed miserably (I sold a lanyard for a dime and not much else), but immediately after the sale, I loaded up the vehicle and took everything to the Salvation Army, which accepts clothing, household items, sports equipment, electronics (even broken ones!), and a whole lot more.

Sharing images through social media allowed me to pass on items to friends and acquaintances. Neighbourhood kids inherited my kite collection and sports bobbleheads, and a local dog advocacy and rescue organization took a decade’s worth of news clippings and printouts on breed-specific legislation.

The dreaded junk drawer (one of them, anyway) before.
The now-combined family junk drawer, after.

The pharmacy disposed of all our expired medications and vitamins (tip: remove them from the containers and put them in a clear sandwich bag before you drop them off), and the City of New Westminster cheerfully hauled off the contents of filled-to-the-brim recycling containers. (Shout out to the neighbours who let us use theirs when our own wasn’t enough.)

New West is a pretty good place for disposing of things. The recycling depot by the Canada Games Pool took our cardboard, old paint cans, and dying deep freezer.

What do to with this pile?
What do to with this pile?

The biggest challenge was getting rid of twenty years’ worth of plastic containers of shampoo, cleaning supplies, expired sunscreen and cough syrup, and more. Using up old products wasn’t an option (although I did take a few to work for post-run showers), and dumping that much down the drain at once seemed inappropriate. The recycling depot’s website provides no advice for disposing of these items, and the city has no policy, so I just tossed them in the garbage. (And, yeah, I still feel guilty about it.)

Many folks figured my house would be back to its cluttered state in no time, but I’ve gone nine months without a relapse. And the experience brought on a few surprises:

  • Decluttering is fun. It was great to finally let go of guilt-inducing unfinished knitting projects, clothes that were still in good condition but uninspiring, and a pot or two of my grandmother’s that I never used and had nowhere to keep.
  • The family, despite not having read the book, humoured me during the process and put things away in their new rightful places. (The beauty of the system is that even if they messed up, I spotted it right away and fixed it.)
  • I cook more. Cooking was once a stressful activity that was either preceded by a last-minute run to the store for a spice that I already had but happened to misplace or interrupted by a mini-tantrum as I emptied out a cupboard full of pots and pans, looking for the right one. (And sometimes both.)
  • I shop more responsibly and enjoy it more. I don’t buy anything unless I absolutely need it AND I have a place for it.

As a family, we still have a ways to go. I focused on organizing myself and shared items. But slowly, other family members are getting on board, discarding things they no longer need. We keep a box in the basement to fill up with items we’re ready to part with, and every week or two, we drop things off at the Salvation Army.

Next up is decluttering my digital life. I have a hunch my daughter (not to mention my executor) will thank me.