Death Cleaning

Right now I’m house-sitting. I moved out of my apartment, put most of my things in storage, traveled to the other side of the country and entered a house FILLED with someone else’s beloved objects — paintings on the walls, books on shelves, candle holders on tables, tables on tables, photographs on stacks of books on the floor, shelves of dishes and photographs, dishes hanging on the walls, chairs on chairs, shelves of paintings, paintings on stacks of books, tables of broken and uncharged devices. The arranging of objects that is practiced here feels like art.

While I am here the house is being cleaned. The path through the profusion was already narrow, and now it is narrower. When they’re someone else’s belongings, belongings are undesirable. When they’re mine, I often don’t even notice them, their necessity seeming as obvious as air.

A friend sent me an article about Swedish death cleaning (“dostadning” in Swedish) a couple of weeks ago; I read it while sitting in a corner I’ve cleared for myself in this house. The idea is to steadily declutter, beginning maybe in your fifties, so that by the time you’re too old to move your body, you don’t have to also deal with moving so many objects. And you save other people having to deal with your clutter.

I liked reading this article in this house. I’m in pretty good shape, yet I’m overwhelmed by the objects here. I have to move chairs around to be able to get through a room. I bump into things; my legs are bruised. This article reminds me that things that are merely inconvenient to me now could be impassable in 30 years.

Since I moved out of my apartment, I don’t miss my things. I only missed them when I was living with them and contemplating leaving. What I consider necessary has shrunk from the size of an apartment to the size of two suitcases, plus all the data I store in a cloud. Maybe one benefit of having been born when I was born is that when I am older, I’ll likely have more digital possessions than “real” ones. But there is such a thing as digital clutter, too, and I don’t want someone else to have to deal with mine. So, now that I own few material objects, I’m thinking about my digital ones, and trying to declutter them. It’s difficult — documents I haven’t opened in years seem necessary, as if they help keep me warm at night. The most I’ve been able to accomplish so far is sorting things into folders — making piles, basically.

Doing this, I’m also thinking about something else I read recently — Ursula Le Guin writing about the blurry boundary between nonfiction and fiction. She writes, “Excellence in nonfiction lies in the writer’s skills in observing, organising, narrating, and interpreting facts—skills entirely dependent on imagination, used not to invent, but to connect and illuminate observation” (“Fact And/Or/Plus Fiction”). I’d rather have the ability to arrange things well than the things themselves. And I’d rather deal with what’s already on hand than get new things. The arranging is alive, for as long as my body is, and it travels with me; the things are alive only through my arranging them. I can exercise this capacity wherever I am, with whatever happens to be around.

The difficult part is stepping back from my own belongings, material and digital, and seeing them in the same way as “whatever happens to be around.”

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P.S. Friends I’ve been meeting up with while traveling have been asking me about Death School. What is happening with Death School? It’s nice to know they haven’t forgotten about me, though I wish I had more to tell them. What I’ve been saying: I’ve been talking with a couple of death doulas, and I’m going to talk with a chaplain in Providence. I’m hoping to take a death doula training in the not-distant future, and to use what I learn in this training to organize a Death School session.

This is all true. I’ll keep you posted.