The imperfect magic of late-life downsizing

Joan Brown is one of six reader columnists for The News Tribune.
Joan Brown is one of six reader columnists for The News Tribune. phaley@thenewstribune.com

When we moved back to the Pacific Northwest after my husband retired from the Air Force, I rejoiced that we were finally done with packing boxes and moving vans.

Friends who preceded us here remarked: “One problem with staying put is you no longer have the motivation to get rid of stuff.”

At the time, it seemed too soon to worry about that, but it didn’t stop me from saving our last shipping boxes as a way to prevent our ever having to use them again.

Like the late Erma Bombeck’s mother, I also knew the value of a box.

As the years went on, I’ve gone on periodic binges to throw things out or bring them to Goodwill, mostly after reading one of our growing collection of books on how to declutter.

But spending the first half of our lives accumulating stuff has proven infinitely easier than the task of this second half: trying to get rid of it.

I also realized that it would be a genetically tough slog. My parents were Great Depression survivors and saved everything.

In addition, I discovered that hanging on to things was part of my job description as an Aquarius.

A speaker on the psychological implications of horoscopes had it on good authority that, despite changing styles, I was fated by my birthdate to hold on to and keep wearing the same clothes for years, only to throw them out just as they were about to come back into grace.

Just before “downsizing” became popular, I also began commuting cross country to New York and Florida for several years to help reduce or dispose of tidal waves of our parents’ things. Of course, some of that came home with me.

It also didn’t help that as a freelance writer, I’d accumulated an ever growing mass of research materials and interview notes.

When our older daughter brought us a copy of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” either in desperation or as encouragement, I was delighted to see that paper is one of the last categories in Kondo’s discarding process.

Before reading the rest of the book, I proceeded to the easier task of discarding clothes.

Kondo’s criterion: Take each item in hand and ask, “Does this spark joy?”

I pillaged through drawers and closets, shoes and handbags, holding every piece aloft to see whether it “spoke to my heart.”

Next, I learned to fold each keeper properly and replace it vertically, rather than horizontally, and return it to now bare drawers and shelves. To my amazement, it was as if everything I’d saved had reproduced. I now had less room everywhere than I had before I’d begun.

That was when I realized two things: First, I should have finished the book. Second, I was one of the vast majority of veteran homemakers who had never learned how to properly “tidy up.”

If I had gone about Kondo’s method perfectly, I would have had every category of clothing found anywhere in the house piled high on our bedroom floor until I had parted with all that was to go. Only then could I begin to put things away.

Kondo estimates that for one household of stuff, a proper tidy-up requires a minimum of half a year. But how could we function amidst such disorganized chaos?

So much for perfection.

I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to accept the wisdom that I was not, never would be, and should not try to be perfect. I certainly failed to put our house in order in one fell swoop — but then, it hadn’t gotten that way in one fell swoop either.

It was almost enough to make you think maybe you did need to move.

Joan Brown of Steilacoom is a freelance writer and author of the book “Move — And Other Four-Letter Words.” She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page.