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We had new carpeting installed at our house this week, and somehow this led to me scrubbing out the cupboard under the kitchen sink. What does a gross, crusty, under-sink cupboard full of half-empty cleaner bottles have to do with new carpeting? Nothing. But you know how it is: you make one aspect of the house look nice and suddenly everything else looks like crap.

I did not realize that carpet replacement would be a spiritual experience, but it turned out to be a massive exercise in crap management. And crap management, of course, makes you wonder: Why am I dragging all this crap through life with me? Things get philosophical pretty quickly.

To prepare for the installer to move the big pieces of furniture, we had to remove all the framed photos and fake plants and tchochkes from the tops of dressers, all the books and papers and random baskets of reading glasses and binder clips from our desks, and all the books from several bookshelves. Oh and don’t forget all the shoes and dropped hangers and random boxes on the floors of closets. Yikes.

We are a cluttery, hoardy bunch at my house, so removing the stuff and piling it higgledy-piggledy in other rooms was one kind of task. But after the installer was finished, we faced the real reckoning: what do we put back? Here was an opportunity to thin out, pare down, organize—really get a handle on our relationship with stuff. And we found ourselves repeatedly wondering: at what point do we get rid of this?

So in an effort to organize even my soul-searching thoughts, here are some categories of stuff that presented dilemmas in our house.

Children’s memorabilia
At what point do we get rid of the stuffed animals the children adored when they were young? Said children are now all in their 20s. I have their precious fluffies in neat, labeled boxes now, but I can’t bear to part with them. And what about souvenir props from high school theater productions, or soccer trophies, or track medals—all the detritus of the achievement treadmill that is youth in America?

Hand over these items to the adult children to take into their own homes, you say? Ha! What homes? The oldest has a home but will move again in a year, the middle child lives in a small apartment, and the youngest just moved back in here, with his wife. And their stuff.

Move the boxes of childhood memories into your basement storage room, you say? You mean the room with moldering camping equipment, boxes of children’s art work, an impressive collection of Christmas cookie tins, old dressers full of curtains I made for our first apartment, a fake Christmas tree, several boxes of photos from my parents that landed at my house after they died, numerous boxes of memorabilia from mine and Ron’s youth, and the furniture the youngest child is now storing in there after moving back? That storage room?  

That storage room is already a shrine to stuff I can’t part with. I have a box of baby clothes down there from my first child (born 1993) carefully folded and packed in a plastic bin… for a grandchild? This will work beautifully if I do indeed someday have a grandchild and if that child is a girl born in the spring. What are the odds of that? Let’s not even talk about the fact that I have irrationally insisted on saving our children’s crib, a 1990s model that our babies survived just fine but is now considered instantly lethal to infants.

Skinny clothes
I’m actually pretty good at donating clothes that no longer fit me. One reaches a certain age and one naturally expands. I am personally resigned to a slightly more, shall we say, robust lifestyle. A certain other person in the house, however, is committed to keeping the skinny clothes as inspiration, motivation: maybe someday? Hope springs eternal, and I honor that. But at what point…? Nope, don’t even ask. Sensitive topic.

Books
I’m actually getting better at letting go of books. We have a free book table outside the English Department at Calvin, so if I want to let go of a book I know where to put it where someone else will adopt it. Not sure why anyone would want a Norton Anthology of British Literature from the 1980s, but those naïve young students who browse the free book table have not yet realized what it’s like to drag 75 boxes of books through life (that number is not an exaggeration—it’s probably low, in fact). I, however, am starting to imagine books flowing through my life rather than sticking around forever.

Oh, who am I kidding? I’m a book hoarder, and so is my spouse. For instance, Ron and I cannot let go of our college philosophy texts, our Greek and Spanish language texts, and a whole collection of cheap sci-fi paperbacks from the 1970s. Can’t explain this nostalgia, really. After the carpet went down, those books all went right back on their shelves. Anyway, who would want them? Used book stores would scoff.

Antique Media
CDs of music we love that is now on Spotify, 3.5-inch floppy disks with drafts of grad school papers, VHS tapes of children’s birthday parties, a once-expensive digital camera at which our current phone cameras laugh in scorn, snakey tangles of cables with gadgets on each end that no longer fit into any current electronic item. At what point do we get rid of this stuff?

And let’s not forget boxes of drafts of books I’ve written. Am I ever going to look at these again? To check a footnote? Do I really think some graduate student in the year 2203 is going to find these fascinating? No, I do not. Why are they still here?

Sports equipment
Most of our old sports equipment is in the garage, to be fair and, like the kitchen sink cupboard, has nothing to do with carpeting the house, but we are nevertheless eyeing those basketballs and catcher’s mitts with a steely gaze. At what point do we get rid of the whiffle ball and bat? How many of grandpa’s bags of golf clubs do we need? Are we really ever going to play bocci ball in the yard? Fortunately, old sports equipment can easily be given away—once you remove the cobwebs.

Photos
This one is hard. We have drawers and shoe boxes and piles and envelopes full of old photos. I am not going to throw away any of them! These are photos of my children as chubby infants and feisty schoolkids and awkward teens. These are photos of beloved relatives sitting on couches together year after year at Christmastime. Am I going to put these photos in scrapbook-style albums? I am not. Am I going to frame them and hang them on the wall? There are not enough walls. Am I going to digitize them and cherish them forever in cyberspace? Eh. They will remain where they are, along with a random assortment of frames that may or may not fit, have proper mats, or frankly even hold together.  

What can’t I get rid of stuff?

Let’s ask the deep question now: why? Why hang on to this stuff? It’s not about monetary value or status, that’s for sure. Well, here are my proposed explanations.

  1. Time: It takes time to sort through stuff, organize it, dispose of it properly or find a new home for it. Other tasks are always more urgent. Our lives right now are characterized by constant deadlines. When I retire (warning: beware of sentences beginning with that phrase) I plan to spend the whole first year embarking on a determined crap management campaign. (I can hear you rolling your eyes.)
  2. Garbage guilt: I am reluctant to dump more stuff into a landfill somewhere. I do throw things away, I do recycle what my county will take, and I do give things away to the thrift stores, but of course thrift stores won’t take everything. No one else wants a ratty old stuffed doggie or that death-trap of a crib.
  3. Possible futures: Someday, my kids might need quilts and afghans and extra sheet sets. And I will have them! Problem solved before it even happens.
  4. Logistics: Some of this stuff I would be happy to part with, but I just can’t get to it. It’s behind other stuff in that storage room, packed in tight.
  5. Time: It all comes down, I think, to our human longing to remember, and by remembering, make sense of our lives. The photos, the memorabilia, the tchotchkes—they are tokens that help us hold on to fragments of a past that is always slipping away behind us. We cling to fragments in the hope that we can somehow fit the pieces of our lives together into a meaningful whole, make the pieces form a sensible picture.

And then, at some point, the picture dissolves. I remember managing all my parents’ stuff when they moved into assisted living: distribution to relatives, an estate sale, a dumpster. And then managing the little bit that was left when they died. How ephemeral life seems when you’re watching a lifetime’s worth of ballast floating away. Our days are but a breath, says the psalmist. Hevel, says the Teacher.

For now, I’m still sitting heavy in the water. We got rid of some things, but mostly we tidied and organized like crazy. Our dressers, desks, and closets are much neater. The basement storage room, however? Just keep the door closed, please.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

32 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Move to an apartment. Then! (Especially if from a commodious GR house to a tiny Brooklyn apartment.) All those questions suddenly get answered..

  • Barbara J. Hampton says:

    Debra, I highly recommend digitizing your photos and even taking (digital) pictures of belongings that you still cherish but don’t need. I couldn’t have survived (even emotionally–I am thinking of the death of our eldest daughter here) if I had not done this several years ago. I have a high speed scanner I will be glad to loan to you if you’d like.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      That is very kind, Barbara. Thank you. Someday, when I can once again actually get to those boxes of photos (behind all the other stuff), I’ll let you know. 🙂

  • Nate DeWard says:

    I feel seen.

  • David Hoekema says:

    I defer to the insights of the Austin Lounge Lizards in their hymn “On the Other Shore”:
    ——-
    As we reach the twilight hours of our fleeting earthly time
    And know we will not see the sun tomorrow
    We may think with deep regret of all the things we leave behind
    But oh, my friends, do not give in to sorrow
    (Refrain)
    On the other shore, on the other shore
    We will reunite with all the things we ever owned before
    Our single socks will all be to their rightful pairs restored
    We’ll meet all our possessions on the other shore

    • Jan Zuidema says:

      Oh, this is too much! As I routinely revisit letting go of ‘stuff’, I do not, DO NOT, want to meet it on the other shore!

  • I can relate! At 80, facing surgery and its always uncertain outcome, and having the time, I hauled out stacks of bankers’ boxes that had made it through a few moves. It took five weeks of almost daily sorting. I, too, blogged about the process. I was saddened to find I had reduced my late husband’s life to two boxes. And when my two children came to care for me after surgery and went through them, only one box remained. A major cleaning like this does prompt deep questions about life! Have I made the most of my one best life? What have I neglected? What does God still expect from me? And on and on. Thanks for your notes on this same journey!

  • David Hoekema says:

    Couldn’t get two excerpts into one comment — these verses are a source of inspiration and hope for many, and especially relevant.
    ——
    We’ll have giant storage units free of charge for evermore
    Where our tax receipts will all be saved in bags upon the floor
    We’ll meet all our possessions on the other shore.

    On the other shore
    We’ll find National Geographics from 1974
    Our children’s art will cover God’s refrigerator door
    We’ll meet all our possessions on the other shore

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      OMG. I love it. I would be OK with this as long as all the possessions are neatly organized in boxes and clearly labeled.

      Or how about David Wilcox’s “Farthest Shore”, about a fire that destroyed a bunch of his stuff, including a treasured guitar:
      “Let me dive into the water, leave behind all that I’ve worked for
      Except what I remember and believe.
      And when I stand on the farthest shore,
      I will have all I need”

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Debra,
    Do this for sure. We did, and it is the highlight of every Christmas. Save every book, toy, game, outfit that your kids cherished. When they are 18–20, wrap and give one back each Christmas. (Or maybe birthday) Our daughter is now 47. There is nothing like the joy of hearing her shriek, “My Weebles!”or “My Little House books!” or “My Candyland game!” 👍❤️Jack

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    My dear wife and I asked each other if we had read RJ this morning—She has been working at this process for the better part of three years, for her mother in her decline and passing in 2021, basically sorting, divesting, disposing of all Mom’s “beautiful things” souvenirs from travel, and junk, first from a palatial Denver home, and lately from a mountain vacation home—and while on that roll, now in process of attacking our home’s nearly 40-year collection, much of which would see-and-raise your ante. Her reasoning: she felt some quite strong emotions about being left with that overwhelming task, and is vowing not to leave a similar task someday to our kids. In process, a bit of the George Carlin “your junk v. my stuff” reasoning gets employed between us, as well as my King Lear response “O reason not the need . . .” for keeping something just a while longer. Last thought: my 97-yr-old mother, still living well in her own home in WMich, still holds onto the Little League bats my brother and I received at Tiger Stadium in the early 1960s, his stamped with Bill Freehan’s name, mine with Gates Brown’s. “Come and get them any time,” she says. :?)

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Yes! My retirement determinations are partly for my own sake but mostly to spare my own children what I went through with my parents.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Whatever you do, don’t build bigger barns. It does not end well . . . Actually, when we moved 15 months or so ago, we concluded we had no choice but to rent a storage unit. (Hopefully this does not count as a bigger barn.) In that unit are boxes and boxes (and boxes) labeled “Guys” because somehow that is the nickname our daughter gave to her vast array of stuffed animals when she was 3. She and her husband are moving into their first house next week. Can a Guys delivery be far behind . . . ?

  • Tom Prins says:

    First a memory. When I cleaned undersink at our cottage after 20 years of summers I triumphantly and sheepishly marshalled the 30 plus bottles on the railing of our back deck. And I have pictures, stored somewhere. Second a thank you. I read your piece on a Saturday morning, on which day I have vowed to clear out at least one bag of my late wife’s possessions. You have encouraged me in a process I find exceedingly difficult. And then there is my stuff. A spiritual and physical reckoning.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      I think all these comments indicate that we need to start a support group!

      • Lynn Setsma says:

        And this idea made me think of getting together with two friends to clean one of our homes together before going for lunch. We all had different quirky cleaning musts. Maybe we form a friends cleaning out group. Groups of three or four together. And then we go for lunch.

        • Dawn Muller says:

          It certainly is easier to clean another person’s junk. I remember returning home during a college break to my mom’s linen closet…”why do you have 42 t-shirts/dust-rags”? Great idea to form a cleaning out group!

  • Fred Mueller says:

    I am very close to retirement – just weeks away – and the parsonage has tons of stuff. I asked my kids to come and go through their things and to tell of which I could dispose. Guess what they said? “What stuff?” I am not making this up. They are not the problem. I am. Not I Am Who I Am, rather I Am the problem. Books? Over the past several months I have given away ten. Each was like having a tooth pulled. Like you, Debra, sitting prominently on working bookshelf is my Greek grammar from college. I open it and then return it reverently to its place. I too still have my world literature texts from freshman year. This is a confession of sin. My dear friend Paul Walther has always loved quoting Wordsworth, “The world is too much with us.” I’ll say! Thank God some of my daughters’ stuffed animals were in the attic uncovered so I could put them in the trash having convinced myself that they were now unsanitary. Shall I go on? There isn’t enough time. Today is Saturday and my sermon is not finished. The only way I can part with my books is to give them to young minister colleagues who I know study and read. That pleases me. The rest of the stuff? God help me! BTW – we are not exactly alike, Debra. Over a year ago I organized the under the sink cabinets. I – the worlds worst housekeeper – got rid of fifteen year old cleansers, soaps, ethyl alcohol, etc. That part is easy if you are the world’s worst housekeeper.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    What you wrote was tender, funny, and deep all at once. Truly a gift. Thank you!

  • Ann Schipper says:

    Enjoyed your piece today. I trust anyone over 50 can relate. Moving/downsizing often makes a big dent – especially in the bookshelves. And the children who have no interest in your Stuff prompt more frequent donations. But there are many things said children will have to dispose of because I am unwilling to part with them.
    PS: Heed your warning. Retirement usually does not alleviate our hoarding impulses.

  • Ken Agema says:

    Really excellent writing. Im currently going through and sorting some of my school papers and workbooks from kindergarten through 8th grade. I am certain my kids will love to go through all of it someday. I either need to pitch 95% of it or start my own museum. And here I thought I was the only one. 😃

  • Paul g Janssen says:

    My wife and I used to own a cottage on a lake in Maine. For a few weeks each year we who were accustomed to the classic 4-bedroom parsonage resided in an 800 square foot cottage, with little to no storage. The favorite part of vacation for me was leaving stuff and stuffed-ness behind. We lived leanly and cleanly, and didn’t acquire what we couldn’t store. So we didn’t acquire much of anything. Maybe it was unintentional Kondo-ing; the only things we had there gave us joy, in no small part because it was, after all, a vacation place, where the ordinary cares of workaday life were left behind. Thanks for your provocative piece.

  • Barbara J. Hampton says:

    A second comment, Debra. Yesterday I brought a meal to Donna Spaan who is recuperating from surgery. What greeted me, besides Donna, were more books than can meet the eye. Both end walls of her apartment, ceiling to floor; every couch; every surface were covered with books, whose organization she knows by heart. She said she moved into Raybrook with 95 boxes of books and I’m sure she has added more. But they are her beloved family, and at least her drama section will more than double Calvin U’s when the time is right.

  • Karen Obits says:

    I listened to this article – and thoroughly enjoyed it. But every time the narrator intoned the phrase “storage room,” in my head I heard the words “spider room.”
    Is it any wonder I’ve put off relocating stuff from other parts of the house needing de-cluttering to THAT room?

  • Cindi Veldheer DeYoung says:

    Thanks so much, Debra! I’m still working on rearranging things after having new flooring installed a year and a half ago. I had very strict (PUNITIVE!) orders to get rid of books. Being an English major who married another seminary student, this had been a most painful season as I made many trips to the used bookstore (“bring us anything and everything!”). I don’t know if I will ever recover.

  • Rachel Klompmaker says:

    Being on the other side of an out-of-state move and reunited with my things after a year of it all being in storage, and on the other side of six years of second-career grad school + pandemic, not to mention that long at least of growth and change, I find myself most overwhelmed not necessarily by the amount of stuff I own…though my tiny duplex does force that question…but by the sheer amount of time taken up by owning things period! Time packing, time storing, time carefully cramming it all onto the right size truck, time unloading, time unpacking, time cleaning, time repairing, time remembering, time deciding to keep or not keep, time donating, time needed to recover from all of the above, etc, etc, etc. Some of that time I’d like back and some of it I’d give again, but in general I’m coming to the conclusion I’d like to have less stuff so that I can have more time.

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