Clutter is good for you: what we collect, save or give away at some point says a lot about what we value most and wish to recall from the past

It’s been almost a year since the biggest de-cluttering and emptying experience my life occurred, and only because we sold my mother’s house, where I had also lived for ten years while taking care of her as her dementia got progressively worse. Needless to say there was a huge amount of “stuff,” “things,” “objects,” “artifacts,” and “memorabilia” to sort through, and either give away, sell, get rid of, or preserve for future generations. This included beautiful and centuries-old antiques, furniture, mirrors, end tables, lamps, Chippendale chairs — all collected over decades by my mother, and situated in the home downtown that she loved had always wanted. But that wasn’t all . About 60 years worth of my own memorabilia, books, knick-knacks, photographs, artwork, writings and boxes of papers, treasures bought on numerous road trips, part of my stamp collection from the 1960s, and numerous other “artifacts” from my long life, as I like to think of them now.

The estate sale at my mother’s house was hard enough, but it was all the many small and less monetarily valuable items that had belonged to Mom that were difficult to not just look at and think about, but consider giving away well. My sister came to help sort through much of the jewelry, fine china, and personal items, and I had the monumental task of going through my own stuff and deciding what to keep and bring to my new apartment, or give away or toss. The whole process of chipping away at this emotionally exhausting but essential project, took many months, particularly as related to my stuff because I simply could not, and still cannot bear to part with much of it, including several thousand books, although I did manage to donate about 500 of them to the library last year and the year before.

The estate sale and emptying of the house, and its relatively quick sale, are all long over with, and I am ensconced comfortably in my new place, which is a third the size of Mom’s house downtown. That place is only memories now. The new owners have changed everything outside, removing every plant and shrub from our formerly luxuriant front and side gardens. I cannot even imagine what they’ve done to the inside.

As for my new abode, it has become the repository of a lifetime of accumulating and saving “things” that mean a lot to me, and which are uniquely capable of reviving once-forgotten memories of events and places that constitute small pieces of my life’s story.

Added to that disparate collection of artifacts are the new “things” I’ve been buying at my favorite stores and at Goodwill, and which have now affixed themselves to every possible square foot of space in my apartment. Some, or perhaps most people would say it’s too much clutter. I can hear them now. “You need to get rid of a lot of it.” So because of this imagined reprimands and scolding, I’ve felt guilty about the quantity of stuff I have, now more than ever before, and that’s with a ridiculously expensive 10×10 ft storage unit that’s about half full.

In addition to my stuff, I brought with me a representative selection of Mom’s things from when my siblings and I cleaned out the house. I plan to hold onto these because of the deep and special meaning they hold for me in preserving and cherishing the memory of my mother.

But serendipitous experiences do happen. I found to my astonishment recently an article in “The New York Times” with the headline, “Clutter is Good for You.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. Was this some sort of vindication?

The author of the story, Rob Walker, wrote, “there is something misguided about our general relationship to material culture. In short: What we often dismiss as “clutter” — all those nonessential, often oddball objects that a third-party observer might write off as needless junk — can actually be good for us…”. A new term I discovered as I read on is “cluttercore.”

He continued, “As one cluttercore advocate argued to Architectural Digest, social media has fostered aesthetics that tend toward the neutral, the acceptable, the blandly, conformingly tasteful: an endless series of unobjectionable tidy backdrops ‘devoid of personal style.’ Cluttercore, in contrast, wholly depends on idiosyncratic personalities and rarefied interests, and thus ‘celebrates radical individuality.’ In an era when imitation is everywhere, ‘Architectural Digest’ asserted, so-called “clutter” represents something that “l’can’t be duplicated.’”

This is absolutely true. Those things we cherish and hold onto are one-of-a-kind objects, which, if tossed, given away or sold, are gone forever, as are the many memories associated with them.

Walker makes an important distinction when talking about material things. In the case of memorabilia and keepsakes, there is, in behavioral psychology terms, “terminal materialism,” which means buying or valuing an object solely for its intrinsic properties, such as the latest iPhone, a tech wonder, that will soon enough be replaced with a newer and more fully equipped and advanced model.

Walker describes the “worthless-looking junk” we hang on to as “instrumental materialism,” valued for its “connection to another person, a place, a time in our lives, a meaningful affiliation…”

A crucial takeaway from the article is that those “things” [we] love, no matter how whacky, minuscule, or unimportant they may seem to someone on the outside,” are the building blocks in our lives that resurrect and enhance memories, without which we have no way of revisiting our pasts in such vivid and concrete detail. We can tell many stories about our lives and pasts by referring to, and passing on, these “instrumentally” material things.

There’s so much in the article I relate to with regard to the decluttering issue because the points made pretty much silence the critics who badger the keepers of keepsakes about becoming hoarders, a uniquely psychological and pathological series of personality traits that lead some people down a path of cluttering no return. I have to honestly say anxiety about having too many material things has been a painful problem for me for decades now, and although I’ve managed to toss out a lot of stuff during this huge move to a smaller place just completed, and although I’ve managed to give away to the library hundreds of books, it still hasn’t made a real dent in my overall level of “clutter,” using that term pejoratively because that’s what neater and more organized people call it. I truly despise the word because it demeans and denigrates the value and purpose of holding onto things, and becomes a sweeping term of gross generalization.

Somehow, as I’ve already noted, I’ve managed to cram most of my treasured belongings into a space that’s less than a third the size of the house I moved from. It’s not a pretty sight to the average person, and I keep acquiring.

I love this stuff. I really need a huge mansion to live in and then I’d be able to properly display all the do-dads and keepsakes I’ve bought over the years, lately in particular.

I did manage to toss a bunch of old algebra and geometry tests from high school that I’ve kept in folders and boxes since 1969. I have lots and lots of other school papers from 8th grade essay to researched chapter papers for my short-lived PhD studies and dissertation in the 1980s.

I have a hard time throwing away anything that is remotely interesting to me because each and every bit of minutia has a story behind it. Everything. This is how I recall my past. Memory slips as you get older, but mine is constantly refreshed every time I go through a box of memorabilia. I think I’d feel lost without most of this stuff.

In her book “The Sum of Trifles,” Julia Ridley Smith was confronted with “a virtual museum of furniture, books, art and artifacts,” after her parents died. The agonizing question, for her, and last year for my siblings and me, is how we decide what to keep and treasure, and what to we part with. Ultimately the decisions we make are highly subjective and based on much soul-searching and expenditure of a range of emotions.

My sister is here from Seattle, and next week she will begin going through about a dozen boxes I hastily put in my storage unit as the deadline loomed for us to have everything out of Mom’s house. I’ve saved what I want to help me remember my mother, a selection of her possessions that mean so much to me, particularly since I lived in the house taking care of her the last ten years of her life. Every time I look at one of her framed flower prints, a particular piece of jewelry or one of her favorite, well-worn stuffed animals, “Baby Bear,” I smile at the sweet memories the poignant and sweet evoke.

Mom was a much more selective buyer than I ever was, or even am today. She had many beautiful antiques, oriental rugs, framed bird and botanical prints, and various antique boxes, including a letter box she gave me 40 years ago. I, on the other hand, collect books, new and old, I go to discount remainder stores like Big Lots and Tuesday Morning (now sadly gone), as well as the Goodwill Thrift store, and buy little new and used “things” that make me smile or bring me happiness just holding and looking at them. Some of it might be considered kitschy or even tacky by others, but to me they are priceless in their own unique way. For example, a small pencil holder shaped like a little library of books with a tiny antique-looking globe attached to it. Perfect! I collect most anything I can find picturing or containing, miniature stacks of books, home libraries and the like, whether objects, or books, posters and tee shirts. One of my favorite quotes is, “It’s not hoarding if it’s books.”

I’m still grounded enough in reality to not become an actual “hoarder” because I do give away books, and I have a nice sized storage unit where I can “temporarily” put stuff if it all gets too busy in my apartment. The key is exact placement of items in available spaces. I have become a master at finding room for things without it looking too jumbled and random. There’s definitely a method to all this collecting madness.

From personal observation and simple common sense, I deduce that the majority of people have a minimum number of books in their homes, on a few neglected shelves or small bookcases. If they read books, most check them out at libraries. Not me. I have books of every size, weight and description everywhere in my apartment.

Most folks have neat, tidy living rooms, dens, and bedrooms, unless there are lots of kids around. There are numerous magazines featuring perfect homes, with perfect rooms and gardens. I love to look at these magazines because they depict spaces I might love to inhabit, but which I’m pretty sure I never will. But would I actually be happier in a neat, tidy, and perfectly arranged home? I seriously doubt it.

In my case, living alone, my belongings going back decades are “me,” “myself,” the person I have become. When I look closely at any of my accumulated “things” or “artifacts,” I have a feeling of warmth and security. I say to myself, “This is my place, my fortress, my safe place, despite those not infrequent times when it can all seem overwhelming, and even a bit depressing. But those moods usually pass rather quickly.

So as long as my place is navigable, and not too overwhelming, I’ll live with it. But guilt? Yes. That doesn’t go away. Even if I’m very different, or more than mildly eccentric, that’s okay, especially at my age. I’ve earned it.

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3 weeks ago

My mother was (as was her mother) what I call a “string saver.” She saved everything–mementos, things she might need some day, things that might be valuable because they were old, an on and on. Underneath the inability to give things up was a fear. Fear of life. Fear of the unknown. When she died, the task of sorting through her stuff was so overwhelming that most of it went to the landfill without even being looked at. It was a nightmare. Please, for the sake of the people who have to dispose of your stuff when you’re gone, get rid of it. Condense it. Digitize your writings onto a jump drive so they don’t have to. When I got divorced and was forced to downsize, it killed me to get rid of my books and all the other crap I had saved. I think for me it was the fear of being erased. But after it was gone, I didn’t really miss it and i was still standing. Hanging onto “things” because of some perceived emotional or monetary value is an illusion.

3 weeks ago

@startingover_1 I respectfully disagree with some of what you have very bluntly said here, while I agree with other points.

First, I have no intention of clearing out things that are precious and valuable to me and which in all their small details, evoke the memories of a lifetime that have become me, the person I am today.  I am one of those people who don’t just let accumulated things sit in boxes  or in storage units.  I periodically go through much, if not most of it, and sit and handle objects, observe them, and think about the stories they tell.  And I go back and re-read letters, emails I have printed out, cards, and old diaries of mine. Often I go through my “stuff” many times, particularly now that I am not caregiving and am retired and have more time.  Without these “things,” papers, letters, diaries, souvenirs from travels, emails, and countless other objects and documents, I am would not be lost by any means, but diminished in ways I wouldn’t fully realize unless they were gone and forgotten because I tossed them.

I have no children.  The task of clearing out my memorabilia, artifacts and numerous books will fall to my sister, brother and their children, if they survive me, which is a very good possibility.  I would do the same for them, as I did for my parents.  They was a monumental job, but I did it gladly with no complaints or reservations.

It’s largely a matter of what you value in life and what has special, irreplaceable meaning.  It matters not at all whether I would or would not miss the stuff if I tossed it or gave it away to make life easier for those who would have to either save some of it for themselves, or give away or dispose of most of it.  That’s not being selfish either.

If “clutter” gets to the point where it poses safety risks for me, I will get on the ball and give away a bunch of stuff or put it in storage.  If it gets to the point where it’s depressing me instead of enlightening me with many good memories  or making me unhappy, then I’ll do something.  It could become overwhelming at some point. Then I’ll act and try very hard to exert self-discipline and not buy things I don’t need or want.

In the meantime, I rejoice in the fact that I am inquisitive and curious enough about life to surround myself with books and those physical objects that bring me pleasure and intellectual stimulation.  No fear in that!

3 weeks ago

I absolutely love antiques and the energy they hold onto.  Each decade changes who we are so much- but the article you mentioned is so true.  Clutter has connotations of “useless” attached to it- but who decides what can bring us joy and what can’t? No one will ever use 3 dozen assorted teapots, but the collector gets such a thrill from seeing them…yet to someone else it’s pointless.

I’m sorry that you lost your mum, especially to something as cruel as dementia.  I work for a company who specialises in dementia care- I manage the staff but I used to be a carer.  I’ve seen first hand how exhausting it can be for the families.

Enjoy your eccentricity =)

3 weeks ago

@melancholybaby7 Thank you so much for those caring and relatable words.  As you note, collecting and acquisition are personal and subjective endeavors.  What one person gets great pleasure out of buying or collecting may seem like junk or “useless things” to others who have narrow views of collecting to begin with.

I can see you know what dementia entails.  I took care of my mother for ten years until she passed in 2020 at age 96.  I would not have ever done otherwise because it ended up being the most personally meaningful time period in my life, difficult and heartbreaking as it was at times..

3 weeks ago

@oswego I think dementia is harder on the families than it is for the person going through it, and the disease really does differ from person to person.  It is hard to watch, isn’t it? I loved looking at photos of my clients when they were younger and cared for them knowing that the person they used to be is still in there some where.  We are told not to get close to them, but it is really hard not to.  When you see these people every day a special bond is formed, and I will always remember them.  Just as importantly, I liked to built rapports with the client’s family members too because it isn’t just the client who needs support.  A cup of tea and a chat can go a really long way.  I trained as a nurse and loathed working in hospitals because there was never enough time to do this.  In community care I found my passion.  Growing old is a privilege denied to many, and it is an honor to do what I do =)

3 weeks ago


3 weeks ago

I can only imagine how hard that estate sale was for you and to have to watch all that stuff leave.  Even harder, having to let go of your things that meant so much to you.  You have a lot of books!!  I have a lot, too, but nowhere near as many as you.  Sometimes I look around my house at the things I have saved that mean something to me and I wonder if it will be seen as junk when I am gone.  I try to declutter so there isn’t so much but it’s just really hard for me to get rid of something that has memories attached to it.  Those memories will most likely not mean anything to anyone else.

But then I decide not to worry about when I am gone.  I am going to enjoy my things now while I am here.  They make me happy and they remind me of times past in my life and that is important to me.  They bring me comfort.  I do find myself trying not to bring in too much new stuff but the old stuff is staying.

3 weeks ago

@happyathome Wisely put!  My family and others who might have to dispose of my things when I am gone, may see some of my stuff as “junk,” but they will also know it had value and meaning to me, which is why I have held onto it for decades.  I don’t regret that at all.  That’s the way I am.  I hold onto things I treasure, but at the same time I do realize I have to cut back significantly on my purchasing, and be content with what I have, including enough good books for several lifetimes of reading!  🙂

2 weeks ago

I know exactly what you mean about having the things around us that make us happy. Memories are precious. I don’t think there is a limit to what we save.