The comedian George Carlin was well known for comic routines about his stuff. Like George, most of us have plenty of it lying around. There are those who qualify as hoarders, others mere packrats, while some of us collect things. Most of us have plenty of stuff although on occasion one encounters a true minimalist.
I am not a hoarder, but I do my share of collecting — mostly rocks, masks and art from my travels. Despite this propensity, the surface of my house is typically “clean.”
A friend once commented to a group of poker players known to loiter at my pad that its spotless condition suggested a deep psychological disorder. His observation amused me.
My cleaning “disorder” comes from a drill-sergeant step-mother who instilled fear over the failure to make proper hospital bed corners. I still feel like I’ll get in trouble if things aren’t neat and tidy. Those childhood ghosts are hard to banish.
However, behind that clean facade plenty of jumbled stuff lurked in my closets and elsewhere.
Another propensity that complements my need to clean is a compulsion for making lists. That habit is particularly helpful these days given that my short term memory has gone to hell. There is my daily list, my weekly aspirations list, and the before I croak bucket list.
The obvious impediment to completing my list seemed to be all the clutter that lurked in my life, my closets and my drawers. I had no significant other to jettison, so it had to be closets standing in the way of progress, right?
It was time to clean house so I could focus on important things. The goal was to toss all but the most essential matters (art was excluded from the tossing because it is essential). I wanted my affairs organized the way you’d want your family to find them if you actually moved on to another dimension.
Where to start? The closets beckoned. I began a methodical process that took two months sorting out every drawer, shelf and closet throughout my house (including the garage).
As I worked, a pile of discarded stuff mounted in the garage. At the end of this process, I drove my crammed car to Irving Junior High. Many of the discarded items could be sold by Callie to benefit the homeless kids in the program she manages at the school. This positive tossing of unneeded items brought clarity to my mind, and it was easier to find things in my house.
I progressed to less obvious matters like photos, electronic communications and old papers. Ten years’ worth of electronic communications were sent to the ether world of delete. There were plenty of messages I no longer wanted to read — why should anyone else have to suffer that chore?
Nine photos albums were reduced to two. It’s amazed me how many bad photos I had saved. My albums now contain interesting images, and the process was a nice walk down memory lane. Boxes of old legal files were shredded — only I knew their lack of relevance.
I also attacked my electronic photo bank as thousands were deleted. My children will vouch that I take too many photos. They used to call me Mr. Click.
The final assault began as I started on personal papers. They were saved for the last because I hoped to mine nuggets I’d saved for writing inspiration. Many things lingering on my bucket list related to unfinished writing projects like producing the next great American novel.
That box of personal papers is still being processed. I was proud of my efforts and mentioned my productive activity to a friend. Kathy responded, “oh, don’t you know, you’re doing Swedish death cleaning?” I had never heard the term.
“Well, I do have Swedish heritage, but I’m not planning on dying any time soon,”
“We should be so fortunate (I think she has a dark sense of humor). It’s a concept of cleaning out your house, in essence, reducing it to the basics you want your heirs to have to deal with. It doesn’t mean you have to die any time soon, but it is supposed to be liberating.”
Her comments induced me to Google the concept. Swedish death cleaning: Dostadning, or the art of death cleaning, is a phenomenon by which the elderly and their families put their affairs in order (nice to know I’m ahead of my time as I’m not elderly).
The subject is addressed in a book recently released by Swedish author, Margareta Magnusson titled: “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.”
A suggested guiding principle for your cleaning is to part with anything that doesn’t spark joy when you touch it (you can hang onto your favorite toys).
An obvious benefit is the favor you are doing for those who survive you, and it is a good exercise for people to apply who struggle with facing their demise.
Dostadning also complements the minimalist movement as paring down allows one to focus on what is really important.
The articles suggest the purging can be joyful, and I honestly felt a lightening sense with each room I mowed down. I get that same feeling when I see the attendant cutting the lawn at my condo. Once cut, it’s neat, it’s tidy, with the added benefit that I didn’t have to do the chore.
Studies show that people who are focused on material acquisitions tend to have a higher risk of becoming unhappy. Letting go of needless possessions is a way to rebel at the chaotic world we live in. Less chaos on the outside equals less chaos on the inside according to Amy Morin, author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.”
Clutter is linked with stress and decreased productivity. Material things don’t last forever, nor do we, and Morin added this type of cleaning allows us to face our mortality.
The older people get, the less likely they are to do Swedish death cleaning. That’s why I tackled the job while I was still able to remember it was my stuff. So what are you waiting for?
Now, to get back to writing that novel...
Jesse Robison is a Pocatello native who has lived in Mexico and other places. He was educated at Idaho State University and University of Idaho. Robison works as a mediator and insurance law consultant, but his passion is public art. He has spearheaded numerous art improvements throughout Pocatello, including the Japanese garden located at Pocatello Regional Airport, and he serves on the Bistline Foundation. Robison currently resides in Pocatello.