Paraphernalia. Stuff. We have a lot of it. More than we think. And guess when it really makes its presence felt? When we die.
I recently stripped a Grade II Listed country home (with garage, garden, painting studio and shed) completely bare. Dealt with possessions lovingly accumulated over the decades in the space of two weeks. Eradicated the evidence of a man who loved antiques, militaria and literature. Erased the legacy of a woman who loved fashion, art and travel. I can safely say it was one of, if not the, most challenging experiences of my life – mentally and physically.
The frontal lobe hosts the part of the brain involved in decision making. Some decisions are simple, seamless and rational, shower or bath, broccoli or spinach, others come with an irrational emotional wrapping and stretch you to the limit.
A late family member’s house clearance inevitably starts with the irrational and the emotional – “ooo that sideboard was Great Aunt Mary’s, we can’t get rid of that” “she wore that scarf all the time, can’t throw it away” “maybe I’ll keep this cling film, ten spare rolls could come in useful”. The end result is a big pile of stuff that never diminishes in size, never gets dealt with, and leaves you with heart palpitations at the impossible task ahead.
It’s therefore important to switch to simple, seamless and rational decision-making mode as soon as possible.
Several deep breaths later the ‘dustsheet sorting system’ had been implemented. A dustsheet for eBay-able bits, a dustsheet for valuable auction-house-able things, a dustsheet for charity-shop-able stuff and one for food-bank-able items. A rented VW Transporter van was parked at the front door for the rest i.e. junk destined for recycling and landfill.
Immediately the task became infinitely more ‘shower or bath’ ‘broccoli or spinach’ and the physical replaced the mental. Lifting and shifting from dawn to dusk. Helping an eBay bid-winning sheep shearer load a double bed on to his trailer, a Romanian strawberry picker carry the 50 bottles of wine he bought off Facebook to his car, a female prison officer squeeze a drawer unit into her zippy hatchback, and the local hospice transfer the contents of the garage to their van. All rounded off with an onerous 48-hour stint of polishing, scrubbing, hoovering and dusting.
A fortnight later the keys had been passed from estate agent to buyer and our work in the English countryside was done. But I now knew that I had to do the same ‘dustsheet duty’ in my own home as soon as possible. Because, while we do indeed live in a material world, the best things in life aren’t things. And you certainly can’t take them with you when you die.
As the poem goes, “what will matter is not what you bought, but what you built; not what you got, but what you gave”. Stop collecting paraphernalia, start creating memories, stop getting attached to objects, start accumulating experiences. You won’t be remembered by the extensive shoe collection, fruitwood dining table, Royal Worcester tea set and ten spare rolls of cling film, you’ll be remembered by the treasured moments you shared over the years and the hole you leave in people’s hearts and minds.
So, please, pop “declutter” in the diary for the weekend. Your family will thank you for it some day.