Accept that it will take more time than you think
I have spent the last three years or so uncluttering. My mother died in 2013 and I had to empty her room. Several car loads of clothes, jewelry, shoes, photographs and anything else she could cram in there, were transferred to my house to sort. This is why you need to unclutter your life today.
And now it is the mother in law. She is ill and in hospital. Possibly not returning to her own home, at least in the short term.
Sick house syndrome
Like my mother’s room, the mother in law’s house has what I call sick house syndrome. It is not just the lack of good housekeeping in what was once a house proud home. It has stale air, it is dusty and long term sickness, loneliness and regret seeps from the walls and floors and the furniture.
Mountains of paper
And there is paper everywhere. On every windowsill, in boxes, on worktops, in cupboards. The filing cabinet needs fixing. Every drawer in the desk was stuffed with letters from solicitors, accountants, and the tax man. Opened and returned to the envelopes, not dealt with. A copy of the Radio Times from 1991 and Damart catalogues, piled up with information from the council and the manuals for the central heating stuffed in a plastic bag that toilet rolls are usually packed in.
Every pile needs to be sifted. I instructed the brother-in-law, on his house clearing shift, to get all the letters from each organisation and collate in date order. The stuff he didn’t think was important was set aside for me to sift.
In the unimportant pile I found all her diaries, the Fensa certificates, three Parker pens and some photographs. And her late husband’s driving licence.
She kept every order of service of every wedding and funeral she has attended. And the letter her mother wrote to her Great Aunt announcing her (my mother in law’s)birth .
A series of magazines about World War Two that my husband collected as a boy. Letters from the Bishop of Birmingham thanking her father for his contribution to the parish.
It is not easy to know what to keep and what to discard when you are dealing with other people’s memories. I err on the safe side. The Damart catalogues and the Radio Times can go. The diaries and the letters are kept.
Unfinished letters to cousins and friends are everywhere. Were they drafts? Did she forget she had written them? Or did she change her mind? I keep them. I do not know the answer to these questions.
Don’t hoard food
Meanwhile my husband clears the fridge and the freezer. Seven frozen guinea fowl and a chicken. One bought each month from February to July. Five packets of smoked salmon. Half a dozen loaves. Two ready meals from 2014. In the fridge there are dried lumps of cheese, a half used tub of cream cheese with mould, pate, more smoked salmon, three tubs of margarine, all well past their use by date. As much as Phil and I hate to waste food, we reluctantly put it in black bags to be disposed of at the tip.
Then there is the wine. Every few months a representative from Pieroth would pop in and sell her £500 worth of wine. She liked the company of the charming young man. He liked his commision. I counted over 100 bottles, stored in the spare bedroom, her bedroom and the kitchen. We have since contacted them and told them to refrain from visiting her again. This type of selling verges on Elder Abuse.
The best legacy you can leave to your friends and family is a decluttered house
When I wrote about the best legacy you can leave your children, my mind was on an empty attic and paperwork in order. Re reading it for this post, I added this.
Addendum: February 2016. I am now helping mother in law with similar decluttering tasks while she is ill in hospital. I would add these to the best legacy you can leave your family: a recent will, a living power of attorney and a pre paid funeral. Mom left me two of these, the will and the pre paid funeral. It made the awfulness of her death easier in many ways. A power of attorney was not needed, thankfully, yet it is something to be considered. Today.
Phil and I have made wills. I am now looking at organising a Living Power of Attorney and pre paying for our funerals. Cheerful stuff it is not. Practical it is. My experience in the past few years, dealing with the clutter, the paperwork and organising funerals and looking at care homes, has made me realise that you need to do this for your kids too. All we know about the Mother in Law is what hymns she wants. And for her ashes to be with her husband’s ashes, in Aysgarth.
Don’t keep stuff ‘just in case’
In my decluttering mode, after the wardrobe, the books and the attic, I got rid of most of the towels, bed linen and dozens of spare pillows. All stored neatly in piles in the cupboard, just in case but never used. No room for them here in the small house so now it is two sets of linen per bed, one bath towel each, one for a guest and 4 hand towels.
It is old not vintage – unclutter now
Mother in Law has about 50 towels and a dozen sets of bed linen. Her bath mat was at least 50 years old and was crumbling. The toilet brush and holder has got to be 30 years old going by the floral design. While I hate to dispose of perfectly serviceable items and hate how almost everything now has built-in obsolescence sometimes things really have to go. We made 12 trips to our local tip before we moved house to downsize. We make a a couple of trips to the tip each time we go to Winchester where the mother in law lives.
Get rid of clutter before you buy more storage
Clutter is so often an indicator of poor mental health. Most of us hold on to things of sentimental value and that is ok. I am having childhood books that were gathering dust into 3D pictures so that I can see and enjoy them.
Blind Ted is going to live in the she shed with Fred Bear and other childhood toys that are simply not safe enough to give to any child, with the Ladybird book and the Beatrix Potter collection. The she shed will be our entertainment area with a vintage theme. The house will be minimalist.
When I was house hunting I was drawn to a property with a garden room so I could hide all the stuff I couldn’t fit in the house. Fortunately I realised this and and eventually we chose a small house where we can’t hide the clutter. We are over full, yet refuse to hire a storage unit, because that will just be hiding the stuff, not dealing with it. Organised stuff is still stuff. Building cupboards or rooms to hold the stuff you may need someday is organised clutter.
Do they spark joy?
I gave away most of my books. Phil is sifting the vinyl and the CDs. Most will go and we will get a Sonos system for the small house. We apply the Maria Kondo rule of decluttering keeping only things that ‘spark sufficient joy or are truly necessary’ – it takes time, it is not easy, it is a journey.
Overwhelm – it gets worse before it gets better
If you came to my house today you would think I had lied in all my posts about my decluttering. We still have too much stuff. Last week it overwhelmed me, I was full of self doubt, no progress was being made and I was fed up of being surrounded by furniture too big for the house and having to be a yoga expert to operate the oven. And then I realised that we had only been in the new house for 10 weeks, with Christmas stealing time and bad weather preventing us from doing more sifting. Every other weekend has involved a long journey to visit the mother in law and sort her stuff. I reminded myself that I will have an innovative builder who will transform my tiny kitchen and falling down outhouses to make the house open plan, functional and minimalist. I know that sounds contradictory, downsizing and then having an extension built. Cooking and entertaining sparks joy – and there is no joy in the poorly planned current kitchen. Ping meals are challenging.
Let it go
If you find yourself holding onto stuff because it was expensive, or it may be useful, but are not using it, I urge you to let go. Being surrounded by clutter suppresses you. Being surrounded by clutter makes cleaning a chore. If you have to move stuff to find stuff you have too much stuff.
I still have too much stuff. Do you?
Here is a list to help you to let go of stuff you really do not need to keep. How many of these do you have?
Addendum August 2016
Things change with remarkable speed. Mom in Law passed away in April. She never really recovered after her operation. Her house remains full of most of the stuff she accumulated over the years as we had plans to be away for 4 months. I am now in Melbourne, house sitting. Brought two big suitcases full of clothes we do not need. Stuff happened just before I packed and I lost it. Life gave me lemons I realise now (after counselling and overpacking) that I have a way to go. So I am off loading clothes to op shops, enjoying doing nothing some days, apart from talk to dogs and read. Other days exploring Melbourne, teaching my husband about blogging and helping him launch Sleeve Notes . And eating brunch. I am sleeping better, my skin is better, walking more than ever (except for days when I read a whole book in one day) and looking forward to lots of adventures.