The angst of de-cluttering

Posted on September 13, 2015 in Blog, Family, Life in general, Seasons | 2 comments

The angst of de-cluttering

At Lane County’s Glenwood Central Receiving Station — better known as “the dump” — I callously toss the cardboard “Jason-Deena Wedding” sign into the paper recycling bin. Seconds later, seeing it lie forlornly amid the debris, I’m overcome with guilt.

How could I?

I almost feel compelled to dive into the bin and retrieve the sign we made nine years ago so guests could find my son and daughter-in-law’s wedding site. Ah, but I remind myself, you cannot hold onto the past as if memories are dependent on some sort of material avatars to matter.

I know, I know, heady thinking for the dump. But when it comes to unloading “stuff,” I am, as you can see, schizophrenically sentimental.

I blow this way and that, like a used hot-dog wrapper on an Autzen Stadium updraft.

One minute I am melting in gratitude for having come across a personal letter from author and activist Elie Wiesel saying, sorry, he doesn’t have time to read and consider an endorsement for my book, the next minute gleefully­ pushing a used baby stroller into Glenwood Canyon with a Jack Nicholson wildness in my eyes.

My discombobulation has come to light lately as, with growing grandchildren in mind, we declutter our 1939 house to make room for a remodel and addition.

It would be easier, I suppose, if I were more decisive one way or the other: if I were the former Kidsports coach who could toss all the autographed-by-the-team baseballs with “been there-done that” nonchalance. Or if I were the hoarder who never has to face a decision because the answer is always “keep it, keep it!”

No wonder a long-weekend job is now into its second week. I’m neither (save-it) fish nor (toss-it) fowl.

I look at two bound volumes of feature stories I wrote for a Bellevue, Wash., newspaper, each thicker than a mature salmon, and wonder why I felt compelled to save them for 25 years. Boom. I exile them without compunction.

But then I unroll an 18-by-24-inch color photo of my Uncle Bill fishing an Alaskan river, the man seemingly a double for the actor playing Norman Maclean in the final scene of the movie “A River Runs Through It,” and hold the photo as if I can never let it go.

You can’t keep everything forever, Bob, I counter, as I toss it in the back of the dump-bound pickup.

But it’s such a beautiful photograph, taken by my father, and catches my late uncle in his essence. I retrieve it and place in my “to-think-about” pile, the fact that I have such a pile only underscoring my sick indecisiveness.

But the photo sat in a dark carport attic for nearly three decades and not once did you look at it, I retaliate as I toss it back in the truck.

Finally, just before I leave for the dump, I save it from the debris with a plan to send it to Uncle Bill’s granddaughter, thinking: It will brighten her day. And relieve me of another one of those Solomon-esque decisions that have dogged me regularly as we try to downsize our possessions.

I am angel and devil, extra-sensitive and executioner, Annie Wilkes sweet-talking Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s novel “Misery” — “I’m your number one fan” — and Annie Wilkes then whacking Paul Sheldon’s foot off with a dull-bladed ax.

Here’s how confused I am: One night, She Who Suffers from the Same is going through kids’ drawings from elementary school, examining each one as if a forensic scientist trying to determine if her child did, indeed, draw the 14-fingered man. She pores over every detail in one drawing with one of those “ah” mom smiles, then flips it over to relish the handwriting on the back.

Meanwhile, I’m dumping attic clutter into the back of the pickup with the urgency of a paid-by-the-pound garbage collector, resisting the urge to implore her to pick up the pace. But at night’s end, I am aghast. After all that, she has chosen to save nothing. Nothing.

What? Toss out the homemade Seattle Times newspaper Ryan created as a third-grader? A Father’s Day card that Jason made for me, my stomach chiseled in a way that it is now? How can she callously condemn these to death?

I madly rifle through the papers and save samples here and there, certain that on some cold, snowy day years from now I will look through each one and be blessed by the memories.

But that doesn’t solve the too-much-stuff problem, does it?

I know the theories of what really matters: a physical item representing an experience no more validates that experience than a plate validates a great meal.

It’s the experience itself that matters, the memory, not the memorabilia.

And yet I chuck some red-letter newspapers but can’t part with Pre, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Thurston shootings.

I save the few dozen records I still have, even though I have no record player and have 95 percent of the songs in digital format. Still, how can you part with, say, Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”?

I chuck my old Backpacker magazines but can’t let go of my Oregon Bluebooks dating back to the 1930.

I give up a handful of pliers but can’t bear to give St. Vinny’s a crescent wrench with the initials of She Who’s grandfather scratched into it.

At the end of our purge, we send six carloads to St. Vinny’s, make five trips to Glenwood and four round-trips to Lane Forest Products to recycle wood.

But just when I think I’ve gotten up the gumption to part with half a dozen Kidsports baseballs autographed by kids now nearly 35, I start staring at the names: Michael Jenson … Nate Stair … the night their two fathers, both dentists, had my back when I asked an opposing coach how he could sleep at night after yanking his error-prone shortstop in the middle of an inning and the guy got in my face … the time …

Let the baseballs go, Bob, the voice harkens.

Then I see a kid’s name with his phone number beneath, as if saying: Don’t forget me, coach. Ever.

But I can remember Tyler without a baseball, right?


Still, let the undertaker pry this one out of my cold, lifeless hand — even if it sits in a dark attic for another 25 years.

— From the Sept. 6, 2015 Register-Guard


  1. First of all, was that math question a trick question?

    Just about the time I decided to get rid of stuff, I also decided to dig into genealogy Big Time, with the eventual intent of writing about my amazing family. So suddenly all “garbage” becomes clues to the past, to The Stories. Oh, the angst, the emotional turmoil. And the filing system and attic space required. Sigh…

  2. You could give Ryan the Seattle Times to save!

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