Everybody’s downsizing—or should be.
You know my motto: If you think you’re ever going to move—or die—start now. Several of my friends are, for various reasons, taking my advice and dealing with their clutter.
And most of them start with the basement. Oh, yeah, the basement.
Basements are repositories—make that dumping grounds—for items that “might be useful later,” that “should go into the next garage sale,” or once belonged to someone meaningful (possibly Great Aunt Tilly, who died eons ago, but you’re not quite sure) and therefore must be kept in perpetuity, no matter how ugly or unloved. The job is always daunting.
My neighbor Maryann never did a thing in the basement. That was her husband’s territory. Other than doing laundry, Maryann walked through on her way in from the driveway. What lurked in the far regions was, in her mind, not her problem.
Until, that is, she came home after a long weekend at work, walked in and found herself ducking under sleeping bags hanging from the rafters. “Just then, my eye began to twitch,” she recalls. “That was the moment I realized the basement was now mine!”
Maryann is one of those organized souls that I both pity and envy. Armed with a tape measure and an actual, drawn-on-paper floor plan, she commandeered her son, Joe, and got to work. It took a summer, but she no longer ducks under hanging sleeping bags on her way to the washer and dryer.
Sherman, on the other hand, is moving to a bigger house—Sherm, what are you thinking? Nonetheless, he’s purging, too. His reason? After his parents moved to a nursing home last year, he had to clear their long-time home of “stuff” that had accumulated through the decades.
“I don’t want my daughters to have to go through this exercise, so I’ve decided to get rid of stuff I haven’t unpacked in four moves over 10 years,” he said. “Besides, do I really still need a cassette player?”
And now we come to Lee and Terry. They’ve lived in their comfortable, four-bedroom suburban St. Paul home for 30-some years. Their kids are out of the house (but their stuff isn’t) and Lee and Terry are ready to move into something smaller. They want to sell their house.
Before: 20 years’ accumulation
The problem? The basement, of course. Lee knows buyers will want to at least see the floor.
Where to begin?
Theoretically, you—like Maryann— will tackle the basement with a plan. The plan will detail specific areas for certain activities or objects. My reaction to this advice is “Uh-huh, right.”
I’ll tell you where not begin. Do not start by going through packed boxes or file cabinets. Those are snake pits of delay and despair. Once, when a California wildfire was literally burning up the hill toward my mother’s house, she started leafing through papers in her file cabinet, deciding what to save. I had to steer her out the door. This was no time to decide whether her kids’ third grade papers should be saved.
I would like to say you should just dispose of the file cabinets and any packed boxes that haven’t been opened for years, without ever looking inside. However, just as I was about to do that myself when I was moving, I opened a box in my garage. What did I find? My son’s baby book and a bunch of writing I thought was long gone.
So, move those boxes and, if you must, the file cabinets into a convenient corner. You can deal with the contents later. Besides, moving them out of the way should open space for processing other junk—I mean stuff.
After Round 1: Four hours later
Note: There’s a difference between clutter and “stuff.” Clutter is an accumulation of broken, out-of-date, useless or unused, meaningless things. “Stuff,” on the other hand, is something useful that you actually use or which holds meaning beyond its function. There’s no question about clutter—it’s gotta go. Stuff? Well, maybe it stays—but it still has to be assessed with an eye to getting rid of it.
My approach, after moving packed boxes and trashing obvious debris, is to just dig in. That’s what Lee and Terry have been doing. (Should you work with your spouse? Oh boy, that can get complicated! I’ll leave it for another day.)
I’ve been coaching Lee from afar on what to keep and what to jettison. For example, she came across a piece of art and emailed a photo.
“The dilemma,” she wrote, “it’s lovely and used to hang in my family home. But it’s been in the basement for 8 years. That should tell us something, right?”
Right. If you have to ask, you know it’s got to go.
Ditching something you actually like is very, very hard—the first time. After that, it gets easier. In fact, I got downright giddy. Of course, a deadline helps. The night before I closed the sale on my house, I left a 17-inch, nearly new television on my neighbor’s porch. (Off-loading useable items in good condition to friends is one strategy for guilt-free disposal. As in my case, it often works best under cover of dark.)
I asked Lee what items she found hardest to discard.
“The beautiful, cherry twin beds that I slept in as a child, that my daughter slept in when she was young, and that now sit in our basement…
“My grandmother’s sewing machine, the one she taught me to sew on, so high sentimental value for me, not so much for my kids—that was an “aha!” realization.”
“Sentimental things about the kids …How do you decide what’s the right thing to keep and what’s the right thing to remember—and then give away? And practical things, like toys that could have a useful second life when grandkids are around—like American Girl dolls and the PlaySkool Castle. How long do I hold on to these things? (Neither of Lee’s children are married, or even engaged.)”
She had no problem parting with Battleship and sundry other games, reference books made obsolete by time and Google, decorative baskets for storing magazines—complete with magazines from the last century, and bags of costume jewelry destined “for the garage sale.” In fact, anything destined for a garage sale went, instead, to Goodwill.
“If I don’t have it in the house, I won’t have a garage sale, which just saved me valuable time and hassle. Priceless.”