Decluttering My House, One Identity at a Time

My house is sluggish. It’s tidy, but dragging.  I’ve felt it slowing down.  Losing power.  Burdened.  Inefficient.

An efficient house feels different.   Lighter, somehow.  You can find things when you need them.  There isn’t the last minute race to hide piles before guests arrive.   At the end of a day, everything goes away easily and peace reigns once more.  

When I think about a “green” life, being rid of excess stuff is part of it.  Green living is freer living.  Simpler living.  Being able to choose my next adventure because I’m not weighed down.  Not by toxins, not by guilt, not by bad food or bad influences.  Not by hurry, nor debt, nor stuff.

In the past week, I have extracted 12 full boxes of stuff from 3 ½ seemingly orderly rooms.

What got me started was a sudden moment of clarity.  I opened familiar drawers, and instead of seeing familiar stuff, the stuff had coalesced into various “identities”.

Among them, I found identities I have had in the past.  Identities I thought I wanted to have in the future.  Identities I feel I ought to have now, but don’t.  Hiding among all those, were the relatively small number of identities I actually have right now.

Over time, I had collected a lot of supplies for these mostly-idle identities.  This paraphernalia cost me time whenever I look for something I need right now.  Time is a very precious currency.  When I have to dig through past and possible future identities in order to find what I need for my current Identities, I waste Time.  

There’s nothing wrong with dreams and plans and ambitions.  But when “what might be” and “what was” blocks me from accessing “what is” right now, I miss out on fully living today.  This took a bit of navel gazing to figure out exactly who I am right now, and certainly this will be ongoing as I grow and evolve.  Who I am changes, which is part of the fun of this adventure called life.

This idea of identifying identities gave me a strong framework to apply to the objects in my house.  “Is this item part of who I am today, or will it be part of my certain future?”  If not, out it goes.  This also helps me when faced with a buying decision.  “Does this item fit who I am right now, or in to the clear direction I am going?”  I do not want to refill these beautiful spaces I am clearing.  We need to white space around our focal points.

So right now, this day, here are some of my identities – big and small – and the stuff I’m keeping to equip them.  

  • I am a raiser of children.  (Keep their necessaries and joys.)
  • I am a keeper of a comfortable home.  (Keep the comfy and inspiring furnishings and decor.)
  • I am a feeder of a family.  (Keep the useful cooking gear, spices, cookbooks.)
  • I am a doer of laundry.  (Keep the baskets, drying rack, cleaners.)
  • I am a maker of lemon marmalade.  (Keep the canning gear.)
  • I am a teacher of baking biscuits.  (Keep the cookbooks, the tools.)
  • I am a blog writer.  (Keep the computer & pleasant workspace.)
  • I am a helper of a college student recording a podcast.  (Keep time to spend with others.)
  • I am a declutterer of cabinets.  (Keep the boxes to be filled with donations.)
  • I am an enjoyer of past travels.  (Keep the albums and journals.)
  • I am a puzzle assembler.  (Keep the puzzles I enjoy assembling.)

(Not a complete list! I am a wife, I am a reader, I am a friend, I am a child of God…)

Here are the identities I found hiding in forgotten corners.  Some of these are identities I had in the past, but no longer, and some are identities I thought I might have some day, but have lost interest or the time.  I cherish the memories.  I don’t need the stuff.  

  • I am not a grower of winter vegetables.  (No time this year.  Out go those seeds and that guilt.)
  • I am not a repairer of electric trains.  (Out goes the broken train, idyllic though it sounds.)
  • I am not a reader of books about English Renaissance or the Reformation.  (I was once, I enjoyed it, but not for the past 20 years.)
  • I am not a maker of from-scratch pasta.  (Out go the two never-used pasta makers.)
  • I am not a grinder of my own meat.  (How I ever thought I would be is beyond me.  Out goes the meat grinder.)
  • I am not a decorator of cakes.  (For my skill set, tasty must equal beautiful.  Out go the books and inordinate variety of sprinkles.)
  • I am not a high school English teacher.  (I was once. It was a good thing.  Out goes the box of “Teaching Supplies” and curricula.)
  • I am not a concert pianist.  (I enjoy playing casually as the mood strikes, but out go the Rachmaninoff concertos and the guilt that I ought to be more.)
  • I am not a lifelong quilter.  (I’ve made a few, but I never think, “I have some free time.  Let’s quilt.”  Give me a crochet hook instead.  Out go those bins of fabric.)
  • I am not an enjoyer of certain travel souvenirs.  (Out they go.  Make a mental note not to buy so readily on future trips.)
  • I am not a calligrapher.  (I enjoyed my class.  I learned some skills.  I haven’t used my quill in 15 years.  Out it goes, with all the ink.)
  • I am not a reader of toddler books.  (My kids are way past this.  I kept the favorites that still bring joy.)

I am good with the identities I’ve chosen for today.  I can see them clearly and with greater purpose.  I am excited about them.  Happily, my identities for today do not bind me to what my identities are in the future, and that is a beautiful thing.  

This identity concept still doesn’t account for all of the extra stuff in my house.  There’s still the 46 coffee cups I just counted in my kitchen.  46!  How does that even happen?!  

Nonetheless, the really entrenched stuff, the stuff that is deeply tied to my emotions, my public guilts and private shames, is most often caught up in this whirl of identities.  I am letting them go.  May they live a long and happy life bringing joy and utility to others.

That is another beautiful thing.  Those bins of excess fabric?  You may turn them into gorgeous quilts that will warm and hearten.  Those pasta makers?  You may use them to feed and cheer.  Sitting where they’ve been in my house has, in a sense, robbed others of a means of warmth and comfort.  

What Do I Do With What I Don’t Want

In my last post, Everything You Buy Is Trash, I discussed generating less trash, and here I’m talking about getting rid of things.  With a little thought, I can find happy, loving homes for most of the excess in my house, without resorting to a landfill.   

Here’s where all that stuff I evicted is going:

Much of it to a yard sale benefiting a Mom’s group I’m part of.  (But I certainly could have hosted a Kitchen Swap, and hopefully exchanged my pasta machines, meat grinder, and cake decorating gear for pie or bread pans! But not another mug.)

The toddler books to a friend with younger children.

The English Renaissance books to our library’s used book store.

The electric train went to a mom in my Mom’s group for her husband to fiddle with.

The music books to a local music exchange.

The fabric is going to the quilting group at my church.

For other ideas of whom to benefit with your castoffs, check out this thorough list.

What about you?  Who are you and what stuff is holding you down from being fully that?  Open your closets with new vision. Instead of seeing the same ol’ stuff, see if you can find identities that don’t fit you anymore, or perhaps never did.  I’d love to hear about some of those strangers you end up evicting!

30 thoughts on “Decluttering My House, One Identity at a Time

  1. Lovely. This fits so well for me right now. I just finished When the Heart awaits by Sue Monk Kidd an absolutely fantastic book about spiritual formation in mid-life as I have felt the need for some spiritual sorting of my identities. Can’t recommend it enough. But I digress. The kids are gone in PA for a few weeks and I wanted to do a massive declutter and overhaul while they are gone. This is just the inspiration I needed, plus it was nice to “hear your voice” as an old friend and former identity (Mops mom) I oft times miss.

    • Hi Miranda! Great to hear from you, too! I’m so glad this fit in with where you are right now.

  2. Thanks for the great post Lisa! I like to go through things seasonally – we have a loose rule in our home – if it doesn’t get used in a year, out it goes to bring joy to someone else! I appreciate the suggestions for things and would like to add another: https://buynothingproject.org/find-a-group/
    I found a local group in my town (via Facebook) and have had many takers for specific items (for instance, I just gave away our daughter’s large collection of Care Bears to a teacher, who was looking to provide some comfort to her students). It does take a little effort to post items and determine who gets your stuff, but I find it is a good option for specific things that might otherwise not have as much meaning if taken to Goodwill.
    Keep up the good work!

    • Hi there – Excellent! Thank you for sharing the resource!

  3. Lisa, thank you for sharing your insights on this process. There is a new Netflix series titled “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” that you might enjoy. The series is based on her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”.

  4. Hey Lisa – I relate well to your description of a sluggish home and also look forward to the lightness of a house that is not clogged and burdened. I really LOVE this concept of identities past, present and future. Not only will I think of you when I clean my shower (peppermint soft scrub & I have a thing – man I love that stuff) but also, very soon as you have inspired my to face the reality that ‘I am no longer a scuba diver’ and ‘I am no longer a hula hooper’. Heh heh – love to you from Pete, Michaela and Hamish too. xx

    • Hi Andrea! Though some may be past, I know you have a good many adventures left in you! And I bet you could still hula a mean hoop, if you had the time. And inclination. Love to all, from all here!

  5. THANK YOU, Lisa! What an inspiring, pragmatic, wise post! I’m printing it out to be put in my revolving file to look at again next Januar 1st – for the next 10 years or more.

    The practicality and brilliance of your ideas and musings are truly food for the soul, seeds for every “heart-garden” waiting to be planted.

    Please continue sharing your honest, pragmatic wisdom – you’re a beacon in this world!

    With thanks, admiration and gratitude, Kathryn

    • Hi Kathryn- Thank you for your kind words. I love the idea of tucking this away to revisit each year. Decluttering is most certainly an ongoing task.

  6. Hi Lisa, This is truly the BEST article I have ever read on decluttering. Thank you that there was no shaming involved. I love the idea of looking at the things I have collected through the eyes of “who am I”, “what identity do these things belong to”. After being injured 3 years ago I had limited movement and got caught up with purchasing anything and everything online. Now I am surrounded with stuff I don’t need and as I am slowly being able to do more for myself I will start to declutter with the focus on my identity associated with each item. For the first time I feel I have been gifted with a method that will work for me. THANK YOU!!!

    • Thank you, Tamara! I am so happy to hear this article spoke to you.

  7. My husband and I are currently on a similar venture. We grow most of our own food, cook from scratch (would LOVE a pasta machine!*), make bread, craft our own cleaning supplies (praise to Dr Bronners…it’s all we need, really!) and feel great at the end of the day for creating less impact for the rest of the world to manage. Just as we consider ourselves simple/minimalist people, we invariably ‘trip’ over an object that sits idle, with no real identity (and continue to do it day after day). What about us? Then it hits us that it is time to purge, release the weight of the quick and simple, at that time, pleasures that now bring us unwanted stress and take up valuable space. It is important to consider not only the impact of your choices for the planet but also for ones self. If we cannot create a better, more efficient personal space at home, we cannot create the same outside of it. We want to be examples to others and it starts at home. Thank you for this motivational (and funny) post. It is a reminder to always take time to consider what is reasonably best for you in the long term, prior to taking ownership of it. * will trade for a vegetable spiralizer!

    • Hi Lumen- I too have found myself “tripping” over an unused item – repeatedly – without seeing it. Until suddenly I do. Which is a sure sign it’s time for some decluttering. My pasta maker has been passed along to a new home. Perhaps your local thrift shop has one there just waiting for you!

  8. What did u do with your piano music? I
    have a trunk full of my mother’s. She was
    Very accomplished – so there is some difficult
    and old sheet music and books.
    Thanks!

    • Hi Maggie- I am giving my music to our local Music Exchange, and many music stores also sell old music. It can also be donated to a nearby high school or college or music teacher. If you’re crafty, there are all kinds of DIY projects to turn music into cards, wall art, magnets, even jewelry. Some good gift ideas for a musician there. Some old music can be have value to a collector, depending on copyright date, rarity, condition, etc.

  9. Excellent post! I too have been purging our home of the previous identities (love the use of that word here). I feel so free and much more clear minded. There’s also an added bonus…I have less to dust!!!

  10. Hi Lisa,
    Here in the suburbs of Chicago we are getting ready for a “Once a Century” weather event ( riiiight…it is Chicago). Expecting -45 degree windchill readings so it’s the perfect time to dig into those cabinets and closets and take control. I have already done a Minimalist purge in my house but you are right in saying somehow it resurfaces and clogs the arteries of life. My project of “who I am now” started when my last child went off to college. I learned to sew back in high school. I also enjoy visiting thrift stores which can be dangerous when trying to keep the clutter at bay. So I focus on buying thrift cashmere sweaters and turn them into fresh repurposed scarves for Vets and the homeless. Everyday I create I am surrounded by one of the most luxurious fabrics in every color of the rainbow! It’s a gift for me as well. Finding what we are passionate about is much easier without all “who I was” cluttering up our lives. Let’s us be the best version of ourselves. Thanks for your inspiring blog.

    • Hi V.B.- I love how your gift to others is also a gift to you!

    • How AWESOME is your service to others……….thank you for the wonderful idea. Do you have a website with pics, I would love to see your creations.

      Blessings, April in Idaho

  11. Lisa, It’s always a pleasure reading your blog. An inspirational pleasure actually! I think you struck a chord with me when you mentioned the 46 mugs! So we aren’t the only ones who accumulate coffee mugs! As I said to my wife, we live in a house not a drop in centre! Things will have to go OUT. As we’ve just become grandparents (December 17 ??) we will have to be able to accommodate a new set of ‘souvenirs’ & ‘stuff’ New circumstances, New priorities! Thanks for the little push needed to begin the process. Jim.

    • Hi Jim- I’m glad I’m not the only one to have so many mugs! Congratulations on your new identity as grandparents. Enjoy!

  12. Loved this article. I shared it with my sister (an English professor) because of the imagery and with a friend who shares my zeal for regular “organizing” because of the practicality. With decades behind me, I have often felt slightly sad at saying good-bye to “identities I have had in the past. Identities I thought I wanted to have in the future. Identities I feel I ought to have now, but don’t,” even though it was necessary. I love the shift from “sacrificing to make time and space” to “focusing on the joy of now” especially as the past looms larger and the future becomes much smaller. I’m always up for a good round of organizing, but I’m even more excited this time around. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

    • Hi DDS- I’m glad this post resonated with you, and thank you for sharing it!

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