Time to jettison my paperwork past

“You’ll probably inherit this house someday,” I told my daughter a couple of years ago. Her first response: “I hope you clean out all the paper first.”

Since then, she’s bought a house of her own, and she doesn’t need mine. Nor does she need all my papers, and neither do I. Or so I’m trying to convince myself, but the process of divesting myself of years of accumulation is wrenching. Yesterday I threw out four years of my life in the form of Franklin-Covey day planners. They were four years I’d just as soon forget – 1998 to 2001.

I’d shut down my home health care agency, ElderSource, Inc., on Halloween of 2007, and I hadn’t begun writing my mystery novels. Those years were ones of flux and uncertainty, pulling up stakes in New Paltz and trying to adjust to the Capital Region where I knew no one. My mood swings veered toward the depressive end of my bipolar spectrum. Yet I kept those day planners compulsively – two facing pages per day, one for my (nonexistent) appointments, the other for my goals and accomplishments. They’d made sense when I was running an agency, less sense during my long stints of idleness punctuated by the potholes of various low-level temp jobs

I didn’t want to reread those planners, and I recycled them properly, separating the papers from the fake brown leather binders. “Are you sure you should have thrown those out?” my husband asked later when I was crowing about my accomplishment. No, I’m not sure, but downsizing is essential, since our house is half the size of our old one. For too many years it’s been choked with plastic bins and cardboard cartons of papers and memorabilia, and we need to open it up to the possibilities of the next phase of our lives. Renting a storage locker for over $1,000 seems like a cop-out, bleeding money while it lets us postpone the inevitable confrontation with clutter.

Besides, my husband wants the pink room for his office. That’s where much of my stuff is stored – an upstairs bedroom painted Pepto Bismol pink, where the papers jostle with old art and jewelry-making supplies. My own office already occupies the adjoining bedroom, and he deserves a room of his own instead of the sunroom that’s destined to become a dining and garden room if we can ever get our act together.

What’s so unnerving about jettisoning big chunks of my past? It has to do with posterity, the notion that someday someone will want to read all my meanderings – the journals and morning pages full of kvetching, the first drafts of my novels. Consigning them to the recycling bin means surrendering to the knowledge that no one really cares.

Things came to a head yesterday when Richele Corbo, our Nia teacher, asked us to bring photographs of ourselves as young children, so we could dance to our inner child during a beautiful routine with music by Christine Aguilera. To my chagrin, I couldn’t find a single one, though I know I’ve got a few stashed away somewhere in those cartons. (Interestingly, none of the other women brought photos either – they couldn’t find them or “forgot,” or as one woman, a therapist said, “My inner child’s too shy to show herself.” We’ve got photos of our children and grandchildren, though.)

When my mother died in 1970, I was too shattered to return home to Milwaukee and sort through family memorabilia, so I left the task to my father and brother. Equally devastated, they weeded out and destroyed practically everything – the home movies, the high school yearbooks and family photos. To this day I blame myself for lacking the courage to go back and salvage more of those tangible memories.

Now, while I’m still sound in mind and body, I have the chance to do things differently, so that my daughter and granddaughters aren’t faced with those overwhelming choices. Can I distill the essence of those countless cartons into three or four carefully culled archival boxes? Maybe so, if I make believe I’m moving to – heaven forbid – an apartment in a community residence.

What about you? Do you have trouble divesting yourself of your paperwork past? Any stories or helpful hints to share?

6 thoughts on “Time to jettison my paperwork past

  1. I once attended a de-cluttering workshop. Here are some guidelines for de-cluttering: 1) Keep what you truly LOVE. 2) Keep what you regularly USE. 3) Get rid of the rest (recycle, sell in garage sale). 4) Don’t bring anything new into the house unless you get rid of something old. 5) Find the right containers to hold similar objects.

    Of course, pathological hoarders LOVE every scrap they have, so they can’t get beyond even the first step of de-cluttering. The NYT Book Review of April 25 had a review of the book “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding…” by Frost and Steketee. I’m certainly not a compulsive saver (my efficiency-expert husband wouldn’t tolerate that). However, I have saved years of my daily logs, my pregnancy and early motherhood journals, paper copies of almost all my poems, scrapbooks of my career years as a professional, photo travel albums, favorite books from decades ago, recipes, etc.

    I’m moderately organized, so most of the time I can find what I need or want. Not always, though.

  2. Hi Therese, thanks for the helpful hints. I too have attended a decluttering workshop – possibly by the same instructor, whose name escapes me at the moment.

    I own several books about decluttering – those don’t seem to help much either. I’ll check out the one you mention, though – if the Times reviewed it, perhaps it has something new to offer.

  3. I’m in the process of getting rid of “eveything” I don’t absolutely love or need. My husband and I have both been packrats (“I might need this sometime in the future”), and I’ve had it with all the junk we’re accumulated. Our basement is full of carboard boxes which we’re been cutting up and getting rid of, along with years of junk. What a great feeling to set them out in boxes and trash bags for the garbage truck!

    • Thanks for the encouraging words, Jean. It helps to know a fellow packrat can actually confront all the clutter and feel good about throwing it out.

      My husband just unearthed the very first baby towel we got for our daughter and tried unsuccessfully to get me to toss it. We agreed I would start a bin labeled “Julie – sentimental” and try to confine such items to just the one bin. We’ll see how that works I’m guessing I’ll need more than one bin.

  4. When I moved into my downsized space three years ago, I got rid of lots of stuff. My attics were jam-packed with papers and odds and ends (many of them not even mine!); at that time, I did get rid of a lot of it. I hauled about a dozen carloads full of books, decorative objects, etc., to thrift stores.

    Then when I arrived at this end, I couldn’t believe that I still had almost a garage full of potpourri that couldn’t go in the house!

    I called upon one of the foster mothers I’d worked with over the years, as she was helping grown foster children set up their first apartments. So she came and took away a few carloads of my overflow.

    Now I have see-through plastic containers that have papers that I didn’t bother to sort through in the moving process. Whenever I go into the garage, I look over there, and an uneasy feeling descends…Someday I must deal with that stuff!

    Thanks for the inspirational post. I love the images of people buried in papers, or trying to climb huge stacks of them.

  5. Hi Laurel, I’m glad you found this inspirational – I find your comment inspirational too. I find the process liberating when I confront it, but it keys in a lot of negative feelings that I have to work throuogh, especially about projects I never completed.

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