Decluttering is Deeply Personal: Do It, But Do It Your Way

So, some might remember: back in July we moved from our multi-generational 2600-sq.-ft. home, with 4 additional storage units into a 1700-sq-ft. rental (with a 2-car garage and small storage). That was only Step 1 in our journey toward self-converting a 2020 Sprinter 170-extended, high-roof into our forever home on wheels. So much was decluttered then. . . we were doing everything so fast I didn’t really have time to document it all. Certainly, 3 moving-truck’s worth of stuff was decluttered.


. . . November 4, 2020, we finally purchased and moved into our new home, which will become a rental when we hit the road – it was a stressful week, to say the least, with the election, the move, our anniversary and Leila’s birthday all thrown in together.

A collage of the main house and ADU when we first purchased it. It was staged with furniture and interior design items.
Totally staged - not us! Just so you get a feel for the spaces - main house and ADU

And so, began the process of decluttering everything else!


I know there are decluttering methods out there, and this post will summarize the most popular/most appealing/resonates with me – the KonMari method. . . AND why I’m not doing it – at least in full.


I’ll go over what we had to do to get this whole thing moving, what our process will be like, and little bits of what we’ve already started. What this post ISN'T is a suggested method for decluttering your life - there are plenty of resources out there.


Rather, this post explains why WE aren't going strictly by any method in particular and what we're doing instead!


The Decluttering Method – KonMari


So, Mari Kondo exploded onto the “scene” of decluttering/organizing/minimizing with her #1 New York Times bestselling book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," and her popular Netflix show, "Tidying Up With Marie Kondo."


Her method claims that, if you do it once properly, you’ll never have to do it again. To summarize, you declutter by category, of which there are five (clothes, books, papers, komono – miscellaneous items, and sentimental items). You take everything in that category and make a giant pile of it, which you start reviewing one item at a time, without regard to how sentimental or special that particular item is. You only keep those items that “spark joy” in your life. Those that do not, you quite literally say “thank you” to and put in the discard pile. She then has tips and tricks for how to organize what you have left. . . and voilà, you’re done. . . forever!


I do like decluttering by category, I do. To a certain extent that is my plan. Still, this method could never really work for us because:

  • We would never be able to get EVERYTHING in one category all together EVER without making it literally impossible to walk through our house.

When we were at the old house (the 2600-sq.-ft. house), there were four additional storages, things stuffed into trunks, things packed into boxes, etc. At the 1700-sq.-ft. rental, 80-90% of our things were in boxes and I couldn’t get myself to unpack it all, knowing that (however little would be left), I’d have to pack it all back up again at a moment’s notice if we found and purchased our more permanent home base. Now, I could try doing some of it by category but know that the movers mixed up boxes everywhere and some boxes of clothes/books/etc. are still hiding.

  • Everyone in this house processes “things” differently and I do not believe it is fair of me to decide for them.

Luckily, with my mom’s dementia, she has little attachment to physical possessions. I have yet to go through some of her and my dad’s jewelry to see if that sparks sentimental memories for her. Certainly, the clothes aren’t a big deal for her though, and the books, as long as I’m finding replacements for her favorite books and authors on Kindle, she doesn’t mind and they’ll go to a few adult care centers with a lot of elderly Russians who will enjoy them.


The kids are a bit different, and inherited my father’s and my pattern of imbuing physical objects with sentimentality. For Dante, it’s everything – clothes, physical objects. . . For Leila, it’s mostly physical objects. She loves giving her clothes away to people we know. I’d say Marino has little attachment to physical items but then, after the first round, he still had three weeks’ worth of shirts.


And then there is me – I’m getting better at letting go. I’ve let go of A LOT. Why it is hard for me?

  1. Owing it to my dad to try to sell some of the items that have significant financial value

  2. Knowing that some of these things had sentimental value for my dad

  3. Knowing that some of these things had sentimental value for my mom but for her dementia and knowing what that sentimental value is (e.g. a tiny jazz statuette she purchased with my dad in New Orleans, their favorite city in the U.S.)

  4. Being on the path to zero waste, it really hurts to know that some of this stuff is just going to end up in the dump or on some Goodwill shelf for eternity (after I’ve tried my local “Buy Nothing” or “Give & Take” groups – e.g. pens! Hundreds of pens!).

  5. Being frugal and knowing that if we kept all the shirts we have (not that many comparable to the average family), we’d probably never have to buy clothing again (I can live with this one because I know they will be of use at a shelter).

  6. Books are my hoarding items – have you ever heard the saying, “It’s not hoarding when it comes to books”?

  7. I’m a sucker for photo albums, especially old photographs. I’m not great at creating them but I simply cannot get rid of them. Everything about real, old-school photographs is magical – from the film, to the negatives, to the prints . . . the thought we used to have to put into every photograph because we’d only have 24 shots, the weathered look of older photographs and the way you can tell from the color and resolution what decade they came from. I am NOT destroying them. . . My children and (if they have children) grandchildren and every generation after them will have these photographs to peruse for as long as these photos last! Will I digitize all of them to make sure we don’t lose them and can take them with us wherever we go? Of course! But NEVER getting rid of them!


Getting Started


Our process works for us because of how we process our things. . . and I guess that’s the point – decluttering is deeply personal and it has to work for you and your family. Our process required that we first move into a rental while we sold the old house and looked for a new one. The main reasons were:

  1. We wouldn’t qualify for a traditional loan but had a lot of equity in the home. Our option was a bridge loan, which has higher interest rates. . . – financially, paying rent for 6 months saved us 50% of the cost of a bridge loan, even with L.A. rental prices!

  2. We had so much stuff – SO MUCH STUFF – that there was no way we could show the potential of that house while we were in it.

  3. We had so much stuff (again), and so much hidden away, that it was painstakingly slow and confusing to go through it all there. We did as much as we could before the self-imposed deadline I created for us, knowing that all the rest would to be sorted through later. Otherwise, we might never have actually left the old house and this whole journey wouldn’t have started (yet).

Just that first step was HUGE! We probably reduced three to four truckloads of stuff, which you can read about in my first post on our version of minimalism. The zero-waster in me suffered tremendously – while many items COULD have been slowly reduced down through local zero-waste groups, we just didn’t have the time or bandwidth to do so, with everything going on.


Luckily, about one truckload went to a homeless shelter. Another truckload was, sadly, broken or really worn-down furniture that could have been fixed with time and care but we couldn’t trust that we could give it all away to people wanting to do that in the 4-week window we set ourselves for getting out of that house.


Some items just had to be chalked up to trash – a lot of used medical items we had for my dad, 90% used cologne bottles, scratched up pots and pans that would be toxic and I’d never give anyone, badly-rusted tools, moldy clothing that should have never been stuffed into the outdoor storages, wine that had gone bad because my dad didn’t store them properly (we kept what we could as cooking wine and used a whole box-worth just in the few months we were in the rental – we LOVE cooking with wine).


Hopefully, you get the picture.

A collage of the packed 2-car garage, storage shed and back driveway at the rental showing all the items we were left with after the move, in addition to what we had inside the house
This is what we were left with AFTER the first move, plus whatever we had inside the house with us!

Phase 2 Never Happened


I promised myself that NOTHING would enter the new house that we didn’t need – a.k.a., I’d declutter everything while at the rental. Not well thought out.


If you’ve never had this much stuff, you have no idea how pain-staking it is to pack it all. Once at the rental, I couldn’t bring myself to unpack boxes to have to pack them all (at least half of them) back up again to move to the new house.


Even though I had labelled all the ones I packed, the movers just plopped them down wherever in the garage and it was impossible to group all the books, toys, kitchenware, etc. all together to properly sort through them (I like that aspect of the KonMari method, it just can’t always happen for us since everything is everywhere!).


To get an idea . . . going through one box of books to reduce it to half a box and not be able to find other books to sort through to at least consolidate two boxes into one but instead be left with the same number of boxes but just have the one box be half full is exhausting, doesn’t visually look like progress and in fact, looks more cluttered and overwhelming.


Plus, by moving day, there were still quite a few items that hadn’t been packed. The movers didn’t label the boxes when they packed them so there were a bunch of boxes that I didn’t even know what was inside. I cannot explain the frustration of opening box after box and closing them all back up because one is books and another is toys and another is kitchen items and (see paragraph above), sorting through one box of anything doesn’t do much, especially when you don’t know how much of that something you have or where others of that something are to look at together.


Still, at the rental, I was able to reduce down 1 box of wine, 2 boxes of my parents' old papers, a box of our papers, two boxes of kitchen items that the movers accidentally packed but we had already planned to get rid of... so, it wasn't completely fruitless.


Now What? And What About KonMari?


So, November 4, 2020, we moved to our new home – where we will temporarily live while building out our van/forever home to travel the world, take care of financial/estate/ID documents before we travel, and – importantly, for this post – declutter and minimize everything in our lives to fit into our 86-sq.-ft. forever home (and maybe a small storage rental).

The house the morning after the move, Dante and Leila reading on the kindle, boxes everywhere and almost no where to move around, Baba sitting at the dining table
Morning, Day 2 - Dante and Leila reading on the Kindle and thank goodness you can't see the rooms!

Time to declutter. Going back to the KonMari method and what doesn’t work:

  1. I don’t like the 5 categories. I need more categories. That miscellaneous category is way to big in our family: all kitchen items, DVDs/CDs (some of which are music, some are recordings of Marino and I when we worked at the radio together, some are lectures, some are photos, etc.), all décor items (many of which are sentimental so that gets blurry), kid’s art, art supplies, toys, linens, tools, aaah!

  2. I’m a realist and I know how hard it is for me to let go of certain things. Why set myself up for feeling like a failure by tackling a category that would feel like little progress for me? I’m going to start with either BIG items that I know need to go and will feel great when they’re gone, or things that are easier to let go of to get in the flow. Also, the reality of our situation will dictate what happens first – if everything doesn’t fit into the closet, or doesn’t fit into the kitchen or whatever – that’s what I’ll have to work on first!

  3. Along those realist lines, given our timeline, I know that digitizing photo albums (the sentimental category) will have to come before CD/DVD clutter (the komono category). Since the albums aren’t coming with us, I need to digitize them now but I’ll probably take the CD/DVD clutter and clutter our van with it in the beginning. One of my projects during the start of our journey will be to sort through all of the CDs and DVDs. By the end of the project, I will have reduced down ALL of the CDs and DVDs because I either won’t need them or will have saved the files I wanted onto a hard drive. Point being, the categories and order that Mari Kondo suggested doesn’t work for our needs.

  4. We have a lot to let go of. . . a lot more than most people are trying to let go of. . . some stuff we have to let go of actually “sparks joy” for us but we have to let go of it anyway. So, we’re going to enjoy it while we’re at this house and get rid of it after we’ve given it some more love and it has sparked some more joy for us. So, our decluttering journey necessarily will happen in stages.

So, instead, we’re doing cycles - those items/categories we went through a first round on, will need to go through a second round (hopefully not a third). So far, we've done clothes and only those books that are Marino and mine.


As a side note, I will say that we did a bit of decluttering in the kitchen but nothing major - just getting rid of our extra lids for pots and pans, and mismatched storage containers. It wasn't worth too much discussion because the real decluttering will happen soon and I'll try to keep you all posted.


We started with making sure all of the items in the rental made it into the interior of our new house. We added those items that we knew we’d need or want from the rental’s garage for the duration of our stay here:

  • All of the children’s toys and books (we didn’t unpack everything at the rental and they are so happy to see all those books that were boxed up. . . and the Legos!!!!)

  • Papers boxed up from our filing cabinet (to be sorted through to see what can be digitized and what we need to keep physical copies of) that we survived without for a few months but are records we need to keep

  • Kitchen boxes with additional supplies we didn’t want to unpack in the rental but that we need – e.g. baking pans, popsicle molds, etc.

  • Boxed-up winter clothes since we’re moving into winter now

Now, as a reminder, these items used to fit into the storage, cabinets, and physical space of a 2600-sq.-ft. home. A 1000-sq.-ft. home does not have the physical space to house everything that I just mentioned. Hence the cycles and going according to our needs.


Clothing


So, the first culling started right away. The easiest and most needed category to start with was clothing, interestingly, as Mari Kondo suggests. AND, while I thought I did a good job of trying to declutter ALL the clothes at once, . . . as any parent knows, it is a struggle to keep up with laundry.


So, I went through all the unpacked clean clothes did the KonMari thing. . . only to realize there were three loads of laundry that hadn't been done or included in the sort!


Well, round 1 went well BUT we still didn’t have enough room in our closet for everything! People! We’re talking about a closet that was meant for one person housing the contents of the clothing of 4 people! Just to get an idea, the closet measures 58"w x 63"h x 25"d!


While I knew we'd have to do another round before moving into the van, I didn't expect this first round wouldn't get us to fit into our closet at home. So, a couple of weeks later, with all laundry done, we were at it again.


And we did well. Dante was down to only two cubbies in the closet. Leila was down to three. Mari and I went down to 4 sparse cubbies each. We got three more large boxes of clothing and towels out of the house and everything fits in the closet! And. . . this is including the clothes we are holding onto to enjoy now that "spark joy" but that we know won't be appropriate for the trip.


For example, I have this awesome wool sweater that is seriously bulky, doesn’t work well for mostly outdoor living because the holes in the knit let cold wind through (but its too bulky to be worn under a windbreaker), and was given to me by a close friend almost 10 years ago from her parents’ own clothing company (Marg, yes, that’s you I’m talking about). I love it and don’t want to get rid of it but for the fact that I know I need something less bulky and more functional for van-outdoor living. So, I’m gonna enjoy it for now and will let go when it is time to. . .

A collage showing the contents of our closet with extra room to spare
Measurements again: 58"w/63"h/25"d - All four of us! AND room for Baba's stuff too!

Marino’s and My Books

The next thing I knew would have a big impact on our physical space and would be psychologically encouraging was to tackle Marino and my books. I’d say we had approximately 15 medium-sized moving boxes full of them.


From philosophy, to sociology, to non-fiction (human rights related texts, books from our activist days, parenting, psychology, etc), to literature (Faulkner, Hemmingway, Rushdie, Woolf, Achebe, Voltaire, and on and on), to poetry and plays (Ibsen, T. Williams, Kushner, Shaw, Shakespeare and on and on). . . you get the picture.


I decided I would get rid of:

  • Almost all books that I could find in e-book or audio-book format, even most of the ones that I really liked

  • Most philosophy books – if my kids want to dive that deeply into philosophy, I’ll gladly get them e-book or physical versions (to scribble all over like I did in college) when they want them. Who knows if they’ll even want, like or appreciate reading the same philosophers I did?

  • All books that were period-specific in the nitty-gritty of the information . . . e.g. Michael Moore books that I was saving for my children . . . but they will have the Michael Moore’s of their era and it is more worth my investing them in the current problems of our times than keeping detailed accounts of past problems that certainly repeat. They need to know their history but not 20 books on the Bush, Jr. era.


What I refuse to get rid of, even if I have to rent a small storage for:

  • Art Collection Books – O’Keeffe, Dali, Van Gogh, Khalo, Lautrec, Escher, and Black Panther Anthology of Prints

Where in the world will my children find an anthology of Black Panther art if we don’t hold onto ours and introduce it at a developmentally appropriate time?


We probably won’t make it to every museum that houses Dali’s or Van Gogh’s or Kahlo’s work. Toulouse Lautrec, a lesser-exhibited artist, will likely not be found in many museums.


And let me tell you about my O’Keeffe book: I was in grade school when I learned about her. I was fascinated by this woman who lived in the wild New Mexico desert painting flowers and skulls and desert landscapes. My class went on a field trip to LACMA (L.A. County Museum of Art) and, while other kids could charge a gift shop item to mom or dad’s credit card, I brought my saved-up $ earned from washing the family car over weeks and weeks to get this book. How could I possibly get rid of that?!?

  • Older and original publications

I inherited from my parents the collected works of Faulkner, Hemingway, Shaw, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Steinbeck, O’Henry, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky, and on and on. . . Inheriting them means that many were published in the 1960s or earlier, since my parents bought much at 2nd-hand stores themselves. They’ve yellowed with time and have that old book feel. . .


I want my children to feel them, smell them, see them. . . I want my children to grow memories plopping down under the sun and passing the afternoon lost in the magical world of a page-turning, yellowed, smelly, must-be-careful-not-to-break-the-binding books!


If Dante is going to read Steinbeck, I want him to read the stinky yellowed version. . . If Leila is going to read Ibsen, let it be the one that makes her nose just a little stuffy from the micro-dust particles resting on it. . . If I’m going to read the two Solzhenitsyn books I inherited from my parents that have been waiting for me to read them, they’re going to be those beautiful, textured, page-turning books and not the Kindle-version. . .


So, those aren’t going anywhere, even if I have to pay for a storage and have Zia Ale bring a few with her every time she visits Europe to swap out with the ones read on the journey. . . and that’s that, no matter what the KonMari method says!


  • Books that that have significant sentimental value to me

I know, it sounds like everything is sentimental for me! Here I’m talking about books that I gobbled up, scribbled all over and that woke me in ways my brain had never processed before.


D. H. Hwang’s play, M. Butterfly? Or Danny Hoch’s Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop? And I don’t care if Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is available on Kindle – I’m keeping my copy that has scribbles all over it, that will give my children a glimpse into my college-aged self. . .

Or, my signed copy of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – that he signed for me when I was coordinating a fundraiser for his beloved local theatre company in honor of him – heck no!


Or The Assassination of Fred Hampton by Jeffrey Haas – who talks about the Black Panthers now? How will my children be introduced to such poignant historical accounts? How will they begin their journey into the rabbit hole that is the dark political history of this country and will they dig deep enough to go back that far?


Or, in Marino’s never getting rid of pile? A collection of Jorge Luis Borges’ poetry – I learned (through Marino) from this man to breathe through a little bit of dust (not allergy-wise), because dust is nothing more than time itself so we don’t need to be in such a hurry to swipe it all away . . .



Anyway, again, I hope you all get the picture


Current Decluttering Status?


Books: We went from 15 boxes of books just in Marino’s and my collection to 3. . . not bad!


We won’t have room for all of it in the van (especially with the children’s books – the subject of another post, there’s too much to say there) but hopefully, friends and family will be willing to hold on to some of them, while the others will go into storage – I just can’t let go of more and I’m fine with it.


Clothes: all of our clothes, linens and towels fit into 4 Ikea hanging clothing cubbies, with room to spare for what will eventually. be my mom's clothes (that is a whole other project worthy of its own post soon). That should be eaxctly what we need to fit into the van. . . oh, and shoes will be the subject of another post because the quantity of shoes that 5 people need for all environments could overwhelm our van if we don't figure it out properly!


Parting Words for Parting Possessions


These 4000+ words are simply to say: Decluttering is DEEPLY PERSONAL and you really have to do it the way it works for your family. Whether all at once, in rounds, one person in the family at a time, or whatever it is. . . the process DOES feel good when you’ve figured it out for yourself.


The cyclical process actually helps me. There are many more things that I hold on to in the first round. Once I breathe through the sentimental value of those things left over and have a few days to process the emotions. I can take a deep breath and let go of more stuff that I know we need to let go of. It's those days of thought, remembrance and emotionally processing in between that really help me let go. So, doing it all together in one fell swoop just doesn't work for us.


What I did take from Mari Kondo, that definitely does work, is saying “thank you” to those things we’re parting with, especially those that we have stronger attachments to. It really works for Dante and I, who have to breathe through this process more than the rest of us sometimes. So, figure out your own rhythm and strategy, say your “thank you’s” and declutter away!


What works for you all?