Swedish Death Cleaning

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Several years ago I had a sudden change in my attitude to things we have acquired over the years. Things like art pieces, antiques and decorative items that came from a place we visited for work or pleasure.

I still have a strong affection for some items and other things I can’t care two cents about. There is no rhyme or reason for the response to these accumulations of a lifetime. Some, like Oscar, the Vermont Delft marble sculpture of a heron by Jane Armstrong still has my affection as strong as the day we first saw him. But the bronze of a Native American woman and her lamb no longer has an emotional tug for me. Another piece, a young Hopi woman we named Momo-li (Miwok for Running Water) by the same sculptress has a place of honor on our hearth.

So I slowly started to clean house. Got rid of old things I don’t value any more.

One evening I started on my small bookcase of cookbooks. A high school friend had given me a cookbook of Southern recipes years and years ago. I had never made one recipe from the book. In retrospect, the “friend” had been an awful user of people, including me. Out it went. The cookbooks of medieval recipes I kept, though I had only used a few recipes, because I found the unusual combinations of food fascinating. Someday I will make the oyster and lamb casserole again. Delicious!

In only an hour, I cleared out half the cookbooks into bags for the library book sale. I was left with the books I valued — like the 1961 copy of the Joy of Cooking, my bible. It felt very good.

Flush with success, two days later, I decided to tackle the library — a room with two walls of bookshelves collected over years. I anticipated a similar freeing of past history.

After three hours of scouring one title after another — from biography, history, essays, religion, coffee table art books, anthropology, women in science, and two bookcases of novels — I had managed to find five books I could give to the library. All the rest still had meaning to me.

Some things just don’t let go of you. Or vice versa. Giving away a book is like giving away a part of your past — when and where that book was important.

I began to see that divesting oneself is not a simple process.

But the impetus to declutter persisted. Now I have become more impetuous.

Our computer guru was working on my new laptop when he admired the antique coffee grinder that was sitting on a bookshelf.

“Would you like it?” I said, immediately.

He likes items that are handmade and have history, so he agreed to take it. (And insisted on exchanging it for his time!) Now it grinds his breakfast coffee.

Next was a carved gourd that Marge Rainwater had fashioned. Toby Rodriguez was fixing something in the kitchen and admired it. He took it home.

A friend really liked the woodcut we brought back from Arusha, Tanzania. She will pick it up tomorrow.

I am happy to have these items go to people who have a feeling for them.

I wish I could get rid of all my possessions to someone who will treasure them, as I have, for years.

My fantasy is to live in a monk’s cell or a Japanese tatami room with only a bed, a book, and one beautiful object to contemplate.

I was totally taken aback, when describing this process to my niece, she said, “Oh, you’re doing the Swedish Death Cleaning.”

What in the hell is she talking about?

Well, the Swedes have a term, döstädning, that roughly translates to “death cleaning,” meaning that you are getting rid of things so that when you kick off this planet, your heirs do not have a ton of stuff to get rid of.

Maybe I have the genes for paring things back to a minimum. My father had done that, in spades, for years, before he died at age 94. There was nothing extraneous in the house he had lived in for nearly 60 years, only what he immediately needed. In fact, we three kids had been stealing family photographs out of the house for years, for fear he would throw them away.

I am reminded of the final scene of Citizen Kane, when he is dying, and remembers Rosebud. Rosebud was the sled he had as a child, an object that was loaded with meaning for him — only him — a subconscious comfort blanket.

The key is to be able to distinguish between what objects nourish your psyche and those that are mere detritus. The objects change in value with time. Different ages bring different conclusions about what is important.

The Main Man gets antsy when I start a new round of getting rid of old things.


Please see: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson.










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