Filing systems—paper or not—are notorious for things going in but never coming out. Just remember the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” They bury the Ark of the Covenant for all time by filing it in a government warehouse.
If you’re under 18, you may be wondering what the fuss is. Give it ten years. As you find stuff that’s too valuable, too legal, too fun, or too incriminating to throw away, you’ll want to keep it. One time-honored way is by using a filing cabinet. And yes, even if you’re under 25, you’ll find you want to keep some things that can’t be scanned into the digital world. Besides, your online file folders are probably as scattered as most of the paper ones.
For us, it's not just the files or the paper, although the volume of paper itself is pretty daunting. No, it's all the stuff that accumulates for a given project or stage in life. Those interests and passions that generate more material that seems important at the time, then quickly turns into less-important junk after we've moved on to other things. It's like an archaeological dig, sometimes, going through all the layers of our past lives. Poetry, videos, information and instruction, half-completed projects, bumper stickers, notes, maps, books, packages, commemorative pins, decorations, pieces of games, thirty years of drawings and paintings, old diplomas and trophies, screws and renovation materials, and even (oh god!) legislation.
And the thing that keeps me from moving on, aside from the nostalgia, is deciding what is no longer useful or deciding where it needs to go. Somebody might find this useful, so should I try to pass it on or just junk it? Or try to get some money back out of it? Freecycle and Craigs List, here I come. FlyLady, help!
My parents (no surprise there) are bad about passing on stuff that might be better thrown away. I'll never forget the day (some twelve years ago just after I had cleaned house) that my mom dropped off several boxes of childhood memorabilia including cards of congratulations from when I was born. It didn't even know those existed! I didn't need to know they existed! There the boxes sat for weeks in my otherwise clean living room, depressing the hell out of me. I found myself paralyzed by the need to decide of how much of this to keep. It's the all-holy family history, but the torch had been passed to me. Me with the house a third of the size of my parents', I should add. Me with half a house of my sisters and BIL's stuff stored in my basement. Me with clutter tendencies of my own. Me with several previous career/lives with accompanying materials.
I can't remember what happened to the last of those birth cards, but I do know that when my mom passed on a plaster hand-cast from my kindergarten years this Summer, I said, "That's cute" and tossed it in the trash. After all, I realized, no doubt I will have my own child's plaster hand-print in a few years, and I really, really, really don't need my own.
The decision-making can be hard, but I am slowly learning to be ruthless. Ruthless about tossing things, ruthless about refusing other people's cast-off stuff that they can't bear to get rid of. It makes me less-inclined to pass off my own junk, because, really, who wants it?! I need to make my own decisions (as hard as that is), and just do it and don't look back. And I don't want to deal with (throw away) other people's deferred decisions either. Thanks but no thanks.
It's not just that the decisions are many. I'm fighting against a lifetime of conditioning to Not Throw Anything Away. My Depression-era ancestors are still nagging me in the back of my psyche. Okay, there is merit in being thrifty, but not if all those things you save just in case take over your brain and your house. Saving for later use is one thing. Hoarding is quite another, but the line between the two is pretty damn thin. I know it's not just my family, either.
There is also the circumstantial stuff of Neglected Household Blending. Years of books and boxes that have not been sorted for the last nine years. College stuff that has not seen the light of day since it was shoved into the basement lo those many years ago. Stuff that we didn't have time to think about when we first moved and is now quietly moldering below. I guess we could categorize this as Stuff We Could Deal With Later that never found the later! There is no later; it's all junk now.
Then there is the holy Documentation Gene that gives some erroneous justification for keeping old stuff from the past. Thou shalt not throw away history. It starts with old family photographs, borderline-antique ancestral items, and then moves on to "notes from your grandmother when she was in college" and leftover antique-buttons-that-you-can-keep-for-years-for-no-reason-at-all. And...and... mileage from trips from when you were in junior high and recordings from when you were four years old and trying to tell a joke, or one of those times you graduated: four hours of music, speeches, programs, conversation and background noise. Good God! Stop it already!
I feel like I am in a 12-step program to declutter. You really have to live it every day, consistently, persistently making choices about what to keep in your life, what to throw away, what to refuse. And if the decisions are neglected for a while and the piles of junk and clutter start burning again, you have to gird yourself and dive back in with no regrets or recriminations.
It's so tempting, so easy, to put off the decisions. What to do with this or that. Whether it fits with your life purpose, whether it's truly useful or just a stand-in for some ambition or good intention. I don't know the answer. Or rather, I don't know the answer for me. But I know I can't keep accumulating stuff, whether it's stuff I buy or stuff that just moves in and stays. It's suffocating.
We have a small house. We need more storage, no doubt. But I'm saying these days, it's not that we need more storage; we need less stuff. The tidal wave of kid-stuff is about to begin. Save us!