The difficult task of sentimental decluttering

Other than Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi, the person whose name it seems we’re hearing the most at the start of 2019 is Marie Kondo, author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and focus of a new Netflix series. Netflix’s Tidying Up with Marie Kondo began this month, inspiring people who made new year’s resolutions to declutter.

Even before I’d heard of Marie Kondo, however, I’d resolved to tackle my storage closet this winter. My editor colleagues might remark that all closets are for storage, but I’m differentiating it from a clothes closet, an entry closet, a linen closet, a utility closet, or a pantry. It’s an empty 10’ x 1¾’ space that I had walled off in my den to hold the things moved from the basement storage area in my former vintage building.

For the nearly six years I’ve lived here, this storage closet had makeshift shelving, boxes stacked on boards, or no shelving at all. Some boxes were simply stacked on one another. It was impossible to reach the lower ones. Earlier this month I finally bought free-standing shelving.

When the shelves were assembled and filled, I was pleased with how organized they look and disconcerted by how little was discarded.

Here’s what’s on the new shelves:

• a box of more than four dozen steno pad journals composed over five decades

• a box of clippings and samples of my writing and editing career, culled from several boxes before my move

• a box of correspondence, notes, and records of ancestors’ births, marriages, deaths, and burials from my genealogy research

• a box of brochures, guidebooks, and diaries from trips

• two boxes labeled sentimental, with memorabilia from significant events in my life

• a box of unsold copies of a self-published book

• a box of photos

“If you haven’t used it in [fill in time], toss it” doesn’t work for such things. They are sentimental, not useful. Kondo suggests taking photos of items we want to remember, but my clutter isn’t three dimensional, it’s paper. I’m pretty good at keeping 3-D objects under control.

I picture myself at 90 opening the boxes and wallowing in memories. Discarding the contents might feel like erasing my life. There’s a reason they’re called keepsakes.

Yes, some things could be digitized, particularly the photos and clippings. Maybe they’ll have to be some day if I need to free up storage space. Reading newspaper clippings on a screen, however, seems incongruous when my whole career was in print.

How do we part with the stuff that tugs at our heartstrings?

For the time being, I’m not. Organized in separate, clearly labeled boxes and not taking up space I don’t have, the materials have received a stay of execution.

I have some ideas for when I’m ready. Tackle the easiest stuff first — save only one copy of the self-published book. For things like the travel and sentimental memorabilia, smaller boxes might be the answer. Only what fits into each box would be spared. This could be a continuing process, one category at a time, with an ever smaller box for each pass. Sorting through the items this way would stir up repeated memories, surely a more satisfyingly way to reminisce than waiting until age 90.

The diaries will be left for last because they elicit the most emotional angst. I don’t want anyone else to read them — they chronicle my low points and say hurtful things about others — but destroying them now feels like cutting off a limb. The box is labeled “DISCARD; DO NOT READ,” which I worry is an enticement to read. Hoping I’ll have time to dispose of the diaries isn’t a solution. I could die unexpectedly.

Maybe decluttering momentum has taken root. With the keepsake boxes now visible whenever I open the closet doors, this thought comes to mind: If I haven’t looked inside a box for years, how much does it really tug at my heartstrings?



Last week I listed some sites to help Chicago voters find the positions of candidates in the February 26 mayoral primary. To the list can be added the Chicago Tribune’s candidate questionnaires. Ten candidates filled out the Tribune’s survey.



“As Trump reached the halfway mark of his term on Sunday, he has left a trail of negotiating partners from both chambers of Congress, both political parties and countries around the world feeling double-crossed and even lied to.”
— Noah Bierman, Los Angeles Times

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