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Last week I bought several books from op.cit, my favorite used book store. The best one turned out to be Barbara Sher’s Live the Life you Love in Ten Easy Step-by-Step Lessons (1996).

In it, I discovered a great chapter titled “Clear the Decks for Action.” Sher points out that we cling to our stuff because we’ have the illusion that it will someday be useful and that a world of projects await us. We hold on to potential projects “so that we’ll never be bored”.
Long before the Marie Kondo craze, this bestselling author told the truth about having too much. To quote, “Clutter is a tribute to indecision” and it “gives the illusion that you’re surrounded by projects just waiting to be done.”
Her description of the seductive power of “stuff”describes my situation perfectly:
Everything in your house calls to you. There isn’t an item in your house that isn’t talking to you. It’s saying ‘clean me, read me, fold me, finish me, take me to Aunt Jane’s house, answer me, write me —get your messages, return this here, take that there — it’s a din…[but] for whatever purpose you were put on the planet, it couldn’t be to organize clutter.

These photo boxes were stuffed. Now empty, they’re headed for a garage sale

After countless garage sales, years of saying that I was going to downsize, and believing that I would someday get organized, I finally admitted that I needed help. Enter Wanda, a professional organizer. With her as co-purger. I began ruthlessly dredging through decades of acquisitions and archives. Donating, pitching, selling or otherwise getting stuff gone for good.
After conferring at the kitchen table for nearly an hour, Wanda and I agreed that photos and scrapbooks would be the best place for me to begin. We went through boxed photos from every decade of my life, beginning with the years before I was adopted. Wanda removed the photographs from envelopes and pitched duplicates and negatives. I reviewed stack after stack of photos, saving only one or two from every vacation, event, outing, rite of passage of my children, every marathon, ski trip or bicycle trek I’d ever taken. I started three small boxes of photos I’d keep – one for me and one for each of my sons.
I’ve discovered some treasures from the past that I didn’t realize that I had. They were buried under layers of the past, and they had to do with my adoption.
Here was an album that my birthfather, Giovanni Cecchini, had kept for forty years. It had photos I’d sent him as an adult (after our initial reunion), clips of articles I’d written, and highlights of my teenage and adult years. I’d had no idea he’d been keeping all of that. My stepmother, his second wife (after Velma, my birth mom) had saved it for me. Attached was a sticky note that read “I believe Elaine will appreciate having this album.”
Another surprise was a collection of album pages from my birthmother.They comprised pictures of Velma’s parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, none of whom ever knew of my existence. She was apparently a woman who kept the various compartments of her life completely separated. It amazed me that I’d never even seen that gallery of pictures. I’m not even sure how they came into my possession. The missing puzzle pieces filled in, but the puzzle still remained.
In previous purging campaigns, I’d mainly shuffled things around. Now, with the organizer by my side, I am actually removing excesses from the house. Photos were merely the beginning. Next frontier: the kitchen. Awaiting Wanda and me are the closets, the garage, the guest room and beyond. My new motto: Dare to be Spare!


Join Elaine on alternate Mondays for a fresh look at the world from an adoptee’s point of view. Her newest suspense novel Clara and the Hand of Ganesh, sequel to All the Wrong Places, is nearing completion. Do you have a decluttering story? Feedback invited.