Decluttering Our Lives

My friend Bill asked me to come to Klamath Falls to help him out. I asked twice what sort of help he needed. He wouldn’t tell me, except to say “Bring gloves.”

He admitted to me when I got there that he was afraid if he told me, I might change my mind and stay home. But that would make sense only to a stubborn 82-year-old Midwesterner, a man determined to hold onto his pride even longer than his health.

He owns a house in a little town not far from Klamath Falls and this winter he had to evict the tenants. Times are tough everywhere, but small towns offer even fewer options than most. The house has been mostly empty for several months. The job of getting it completely empty required gloves.

The couple didn’t leave the place in shambles. They didn’t exact any sort of revenge for their unscheduled departure. It is, after all, a small town. But they stopped caring before they left, and the sadness of their unmet hopes filled several closets.

I know people who love a fixer-upper, who regularly sort through the detritus left by others. I suppose it’s something you can get used to, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I could see the sadness — was it in or on? — Bill. Fortunately for me, I never met the couple who had lived there for almost two years.

He must have been a tinkerer and she was a garage sale shopper. The deep fat fryer with the damaged electrical cord still had the sticker with “$5” written on it. The restaurant-sized iced tea dispenser must have looked good on a hot Saturday afternoon, but it had gathered dust in the corner of the garage ever since. I knew they wanted to get things organized, because I piled over a dozen storage bins of various shapes and sizes, most missing their lids into Bill’s pick-up truck.

Our destination was the dump outside of town, and I wanted to resist. I hated putting it in the landfill, but I couldn’t find an alternative that would also give Bill the closure he needed. The least I could do was to gather all the beer bottles and energy drink containers for the recycling bins. I counted 17 bags of bottles and cans. Collectively, they may have represented the couple’s retirement strategy.

After three days of cleaning and multiple dump runs, I came home with renewed resolve not to ask or allow others to be obligated to follow behind me with gloves on. I’ve been on this campaign for a while now, but the vigor was renewed.

Last summer I pulled everything from my attic, lined it all up in my living room, had a yard sale, made several trips to various donation depots, and then rented and filled a full Dumpster. I started the same process in my pantry and fridge, determined to see the back wall of each.

I counted the hangers in my closet and resolved that I would buy (or accept) no more. If I wanted to buy a shirt or a pair of pants, it would have to replace a garment I can do without.

Now I’m working through my bathroom cupboard, using all those free bars of so-called soap from decades of hotel stays. I never meant to keep them all, but I didn’t take the trouble to throw them out either. “Just in case” has slowly accrued into “I need a bigger case.”

I’ll keep it up until I have only what I intend to have, or until I find I no longer care. So far, the smart money is on the former.

I’ve taken this urge to its natural conclusion and I’ve started shopping for my favorite spot to store whatever is left of my physical presence. There’s a plot on a knoll under an oak tree that I have my eye on. My sons think I’m being silly and I hope they are right, but I’d rather be too early than too late.


Don Kahle ( writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs