Read this book

A needed background primer on me and clutter:

I’ve long had a mixed relationship with housecleaning, in that I a) don’t do it remotely often or thoroughly enough, yet b) really appreciate when it’s done well.

I find, and I know others do as well, that a cleaning so deep as to not merely dust and wipe and tidy but actually get rid of visual clutter is not just physically appealing but psychologically beneficial. There’s a mental weight, which you may not have even been aware you were enduring, that’s lifted when you can finally, for instance, see and walk on a patch of floor that’s had boxes stacked on it for weeks or months (*COUGHoryearsCOUGH*) It could be a big change or even just a small one, but the positive effect of clearing it is undeniable.

And yet… I don’t do that often enough.

I don’t know exactly when that mixed relationship with clutter started, but have a suspicion. My childhood homes were always, from what I recall, clean and tidy, with perhaps some stored items in the basement or a closet or attic, but nothing particularly noticeable, let alone overwhelming.

But, the very first apartment I moved to in my late teens, I distinctly recall being something of a mishmash of stored, stacked items that had no particular rhyme or reason.
Clutter, you could say.
That seems to be the first I can really recall living within that kind of situation.

To be fair, taking all of one’s belongings from an upper middle-class home and trying to jam them into a small studio apartment won’t go terribly well. The old saying of “A place for everything, and everything in its place” doesn’t hold when they’re literally isn’t a place for nearly everything.

I suspect that was the turning point for me, because here’s the thing: If you never took the time to learn how to organize a household before you moved out on your own for the first time–this is how and where you file important papers, this is and how and where you store things you want available but not out in the open all the time, etc.–then you don’t know how to do that. That rests squarely on me, of course. As does never bothering for decades after the fact to look into how one does such things.

I mean, hey, life happens. Work is endured, family is visited and enjoyed, fun is had and prospective romantic partners are sought. Dealing with all this stuff? I mean, sure, that should happen. But I’ll get to it later. Then later. Then later.

And so it went, from one apartment to a bigger place, to a better place, and finally, into a shared apartment with my now-wife. There we had something of a perfect storm of too much collected stuff meeting too much collected stuff, which combined into the Japanese anime robot villain MEGA TOO MUCH COLLECTED STUFF.

We tried to organize. My wife already had filing systems going (fan-cy!), so we rolled with that. And being the far more handy of the two of us, she made and installed shelving on the walls in our office for things like my writing books and her teaching material.

But then there was the extra bedroom of the place, which had simply been relegated to a storage room for our combined stuff.

And you know that other old saying, “Out of sight, out of mind”? Man, is that one ever true. Because we’d just ignore that room for months at a stretch. We’d make heartfelt agreements to finally tackle it over her Christmas or summer breaks and get it cleared out, and would actually work at it at times–she designed and made crazy high, deep storage shelves like you may see in a warehouse, or something, that lined two of the four walls of that spare room–but the it never fully took to the point where we got nearly everything organized and cleared up and cleaned out.

Then we moved into a house. Aaaaand all that stuff came with us.

Rinse and repeat.

Cut to some several years later. My mother, for lengthy reasons, had to be put into an old age home for a severe mental issue that demonstrated she couldn’t properly care for herself. I had been appointed as her Power of Attorney not long before that, so all her bills and mail and finances fell to me to take care of (how far out of my depth I was on all of that is fodder for another blog post or three). When it became evident she wouldn’t be able to live on her own again, her father and sisters and I–I have no siblings, so relied on them for family feedback–decided over some time that it was best to sell her houses and invest the money. (Yes, houses, plural; another bananas situation to be delved into with yet another post.)

What near enough family could and would help descended with my wife and I upon the first house one weekend and clear it out to be put up for sale. There, I started seeing and feeling the effects of what a parent’s lack of cleaning and clearing habits were like for a child: What’s all this (and this, and this)? Why is that there? Where’s the rest of x, y and z that these should be with? It was pretty stressful.

That first house alone led to the rental of some storage space in the town where she lived. And also the use of space in the house of her eldest sister, who lives in the same town. The thinking at the time was that maybe my mother would recover and still be able to use some of the furniture, etc. Which it became evident soon after simply wouldn’t happen. Hence the clearing out and selling of the second house.

Well, folks… again, out of sight, out of mind. The one large and one small storage unit remain full of her stuff to this day, and the same sister–easily the most generous soul I’ve had the fortune of knowing–has kindly allowed her house to remain a tertiary storage unit of sorts for some furniture items, which I’m sure I would never have had the patience for in her place.

Every month I send the rental fee to the storage unit, I’m reminded I really should get to clearing that stuff out. Every time we visit my aunt, I’m reminded I really should finally donate or sell or somehow clear out the items I’ve ignorantly saddled her with.

The too much stuff of my mother’s that I should have dealt with from day one was still hanging over my head not for weeks or months but years, and not only over mine, but over family members’ heads as well.

(As a side note, this also makes me wonder if excessive collecting and not dealing with stuff–not hoarding, to be fair, as this definitely all falls short of that kind of extreme, but definitely collecting too much needless stuff–is in some sense genetic. I was living on my own, and already living in that kind of cluttered environment, long before my mother lived in that small town in the house my family and I had to contend with after she was safe and secure in a home, so I didn’t learn that behaviour from her and certainly not from my father, yet there’s a striking, and concerning, similarity between some of what I dealt with clearing out my mother’s houses and what I see collecting in my own.)

But then life happens… work, family, fun, having a great kid (with school, friends, fights, happy and sad times and general life of her own)… rinse and repeat.

I now look around my own house and see boxes of stuff I haven’t dealt with for years. Boxes my wife hasn’t. And more gets added to that collection with the passing of family members, from whom we get everything from useful items or items they hope will be used, to simply stuff that they themselves had collected for whatever reason that was important to them (or, of course, which they perhaps simply never bothered clearing out as well.)

A chord was struck in me when, a few years ago, I heard a guest on a podcast I listen to–a female comedian, whose name I wish I could recall because I’d give her all due credit if I could–mention that she recently had to clear out the house that her father had left when he passed away not long before. And how huge a task it had been. Her conclusion, probably only half-joking if at all, was that she thinks the entirety of what parents leave behind for their kids should fit into a banker’s box. That literally, all it should take for a child to collect everything their parents leave to them is to show up at a lawyer’s office, grab the box of mementos or paperwork or whatever it may hold, and take it home. No houses to clear out, no paperwork or furniture or clothes or shelves of books or knicknacks to plow through and ponder over and process.
One box. Done.

All of this was crystallized for me last year when my wife and I had finally decided to pull the trigger on getting a long-wanted home reno done. Suddenly, the years–the decades–of our collective not going through and clearing stuff came back to not just haunt us but kick our asses with a vengeance the likes of which I’ve never experienced before and damn near broke me physically and mentally.

And it occurred to me again and again as we did so: What happens to all of this when we die?

But then it hit me in a flash: Forget when we die, assuming that’s decades away yet. What if my wife and I were killed in a car accident that day? What if our daughter lived on but my wife and I were somehow out of the picture suddenly? Not a pleasant thought, but hear me out: My thinking was, what would happen to all of the stuff we were trying to sort through and clear out and deal with at that moment? That task would likely have fallen to my brother-in-law, as he’s physically the closest family we have right now. So, what would he have done with all of that stuff?

And the answer was simple: He would’ve gotten rid of 99.9% of it. He’s a very practical person in many ways, a scientist who’s got a very quick and efficient mind for how to get from Point A to Point B to accomplish whatever has to happen. He wouldn’t get caught up in what one box of mementos meant to him (if anything; again, what means something to one person, even a close family member, may not mean anything to another), let alone what it may have meant to his sister or to me. If it didn’t mean anything to him, or to our daughter (he would absolutely bear her in mind with such decisions), he wouldn’t think twice about tossing it into a dumpster.

And there it was.

Just like my own experience going through my mother’s house, and like that comedian’s experience through her late father’s house, and like what everyone everywhere experiences in this kind of situation: The stuff that I like and/or use and/or want to keep for whatever personal connection I have with it will almost certainly mean nothing to anyone else. Yet our hanging onto such things until the day we die puts the burden of clearing through all of that onto loved ones who want nothing to do with almost any of it.

I have become a total convert to the idea of getting rid of useless or unwanted stuff. Not getting rid of all worldly possessions–I’m not a monk and am definitely a child of our Western civilization, for better or worse–but I mean not hanging onto things that I don’t need or use or even remember is around (which happens entirely too often, perhaps in part but definitely not all owing to my notoriously bad memory).

All of which is a huge detour to bring me around to this book: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.

When I first heard the title, I genuinely thought it was tongue-in-cheek. I thought it was about (presumably aggressive) cleaning while listening to Swedish death metal music. That alone is something I would’ve read just for the entertainment factor.

But it turns out this is a genuine, earnest thing: Dö is the Swedish word for death. Städning means cleaning. Together, the newer term döstädning has come to mean the cleaning out of needless stuff in preparation for one’s death.

This isn’t a sad or depressing thing, as author Margareta Magnusson explains. Quite the opposite: In doing this, you’re actively relieving loved ones of a future of having to deal with stuff that you’ve been hanging onto. This can not only save time and energy with the volume of what they’ll deal with when you pass, but can also spare potential arguments over who gets to keep what. Magnusson explains early in her book that she inherited a bracelet from her late mother, and rather than risking it being a point of contention among her kids when she herself dies, she sold it. All her kids were on board with this idea. Maybe because none of them actually wanted it anyway, maybe because its value would just get rolled into Margareta’s bank account which is much tidier to divide in one’s will. Whatever it is, the point is, she took her own time to contend with something she had that she understood could be a time-suck at best or a point of contention at worst among her kids when she dies.

I’m just in the early pages of this book, and of course totally understand that it’s more than a little echo chamber-y in terms of underscoring something that I’m already convinced of, but I wanted to recommend this book for one and all to read because I sincerely think we all, as a society, need to do more of this kind of thing for ourselves and each other. Let’s take the responsibility of paring down on what we keep in order to remove that burden from our loved ones whenever we die. Less stuff we needlessly keep shows more love and consideration for them.

Let’s all get to some serious döstädning. And if you want to do it while listening to Swedish death metal, then I certainly encourage you to crank it up.