by Cynthia Cummins

Cynthia is owner and founder of Kindred SF Homes and a top San Francisco Realtor. Check out RealEstateTherapy.org for refreshing reflections on the meaning of home and for more “best real estate advice” (since 2013).

Reading time: 3 minutes

There’s something about the holidays that always brings out my inner spring cleaner. Maybe it’s all the gifts that come in without a balancing purge. Maybe being around family makes sentimental clutter less sentimental. But I always find Thanksgiving weekend to be a perfect time to do some ruthless decluttering.

Think of it as an antidote to Black Friday. Don’t consume new stuff! Exorcize old stuff! As I’ve said before (and will probably say again), it’s our belongings that most often entrap us and prevent us from moving smoothly and happily through the stages of our lives.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these remarks:

  • We can’t entertain because the antique banquette my grandmother gave me takes up too much room in the dining room and it’s filled with my other grandmother’s china.
  • We can’t sell because I need to first find time to go through all the letters and photographs I’ve saved and I need to do it right, once and for all.
  • We can’t downsize because there’s no place to put all our grown kids’ stuff, and I just can’t bear to part with their old toys and clothes.
  • I can’t possibly get rid of my books, her Pez dispenser collection, our wine cellar, his tools, their skateboards.

With very few exceptions, most would-be home sellers are trapped by the possessions they’ve accumulated over time. Decluttering is difficult enough, but it’s especially challenging when it comes to sentimental items: Children’s art, hand-me-down quilts, pottery hand-thrown by a beloved uncle, glasses from 20 years of Napa Valley wine tastings, bongo drums purchased for the 5-year-old kid who’s now 38, half-crumbled dough ornaments from Christmas 1994.

Luckily, items with meaning (but no present-day value or practical use) can be easily disposed of IF you follow these two steps.

Step Two first: If it was once precious but now it’s out of sight and out of mind (collecting dust in a closet or cupboard, tucked into a moldy box in the basement, or stacked in a dark corner of the garage) you should sell it, give it away, recycle it, or throw it in the trash. How you dispose of it doesn’t matter, so don’t get hung up on finding its ideal final destination.

When in doubt, simply throw it out. You are not ungrateful because you never liked or used Aunt B’s crocheted afghan. You are not being a spendthrift because you didn’t sell your manual typewriter on Craigslist. You are not singlehandedly ruining the environment if you throw a broken Barbie into the trash.

Keeping sentimental stuff around is – honestly – just sad. It may be challenging to purge, but Step One makes it easier: Stop to snap a picture!

The very act of taking a picture creates a small ritual for saying goodbye and thanking the object for its service or existence. Plus you can promise yourself that you’ll always have a digital record of the red bunny rabbit that Billy drew on the back of a Pasta Pomodoro menu in the 3rd grade.

Not that you’ll ever look at the photo ever again. It’ll simply trick you into LETTING GO. If you let go of enough sentimental items, the effect will not be one of regret but rather a gradual freeing and lightening. You’ll be strengthening the muscle that allows you to walk out the metaphorical door and into a whole new life. I promise you it will begin to feel good. After a while, you may even skip the first step of taking photos.

Rather than a cause for grief or remorse, the act of photographing then tossing can become a celebration. The celebration is about embracing the now rather than living in the past.

As Pema Chodron wrote, “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” Good advice, but most folks first need to throw all their stuff out of the nest.

Photo Credit: tamara garcevic

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