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Paring back the Great Big Life

Posted by BJ Roche  June 2, 2011 12:52 PM

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My husband and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary this summer, and to honor the occasion, we are cleaning the house. You have to clean the house once every 25 years, whether it needs it or not.

You know what I'm talking about. A pretty big dig. Cellar. Closets. Pantry. Shed. The bins in the front hallway. (Bins. This is where the trouble begins.)

It's like an archeological excavation. Maybe you're familiar with the stuff classifications:

Old technology that might be worth something someday: A Mac Classic, three dial telephones, stacks of record albums. Antique martini shaker. And what's with all the old stereo tuners?

Better lives I could have had but didn't: The book Overcoming Underearning. Size 6 Levi's, new with tags. Ellen Tracy shoes I lusted over for a month, bought for ten bucks on eBay, and then found that I couldn't walk in. Four Estee Lauder blush compacts, wrong color. A hundred bucks worth of expired flower seeds. Pans whose purpose I can't remember. Gourmet magazines from the last century. Tandoori seasoning.

Things we might need when the whole sh*thouse goes up in flames: (Which we've been predicting for years. But this summer looks increasingly likely.) Five winter jackets, four empty 50-gallon water jugs. An extra set of battery cables. Four bicycles in varying degrees of repair. And those Gourmet magazines from the last century.

You spend the decades between 30 and 50 building a Great Big Life, and nobody tells you that you need to spend the next 30 years getting rid of it all. It's not like you start out thinking, hey, I think I'll cram my life full of stuff. It just happens. You fall in love with something and can't say no. Again and again.

It wasn't supposed to be this way: we were the generation that celebrated Earth Days, right? Somehow, a lot of us we gave up: Partly, it was having kids, partly it's because shopping became a hobby rather than a necessity. This culture and economy, from the shelter magazines to Michael's, encourages clutter. You'd have to have beeswax in your ears and blinders on your brain to resist it all.

Maybe future generations can avoid all this stuff; one of my husband's students, who is struggling to help his fifty-something mom empty out her house, told us about a blog he likes, about a guy who only had 100 things. Total.

That's probably pushing it. And, as you get older, it is nice to have some nice things in your life. But there are other ways to possess them. These days, instead of buying pretty things, I take photos of them. I started accidentally last year while traveling in France; though I didn't really need nine French sugar bowls with a very nice serving tray, I'm glad I have this.


In fact, I created a photo essay of Things I Wanted to Buy in France, But Didn't. It's almost as nice as having the real things, and I don't have to clean them.

Last weekend I started a Vermont tag sale photo gallery. Here are some pretty plates I passed up.They may still be there, if you have the room. (Or you could just download the picture.)


I've also found that it helps to establish a beachhead, one room that is really cleaned out, that you can return to when you get discouraged about the rest of the house. I started with my office, using the paper organizing tips from the book Getting Things Done. (First you buy a labelmaker. It will change your life.) The desk, five days later, still clean, and it already feels better sitting down to work.

Leo Babauta, who writes the blog Zen Habits, passed along this tip.

Still on my list: cutting my flower garden in half and switching perennials to shrubs.
Here's a rundown of the advice offered in Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser As You Grow Older:


I'm going to borrow it from the library.

Find community and stories of interest at the Fiftyshift Facebook page. Find more fifty-related essays by writers from all over the place at And for interesting fiftyshifting stories about career, technology and eldercare, follow me on Twitter.

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About the author

BJ Roche is a writer and teacher who lives in Western Massachusetts. She’s a senior lecturer in the Journalism Program at UMass Amherst, where she teaches writing, new media and More »

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