Emptying the Nest: How We Decluttered Our Home of 30 Years

Turns out there’s no magic shortcut to cleaning out a longtime living space.

Illustration by Greg Clarke

Emptying out the five-bedroom house where you’ve lived for 30 years is a little like giving birth. As soon as it’s over, your mind wants to black out the memory.

In our case, the process was mercifully quick. We had signed a lease on a cool loft apartment not far away and had two months to get our house ready to sell. Or put another way, we had 60 days to clean up our mess—one day for every 180 days of accumulation.

That would mean, in the end, going through every item that lived in our house. Every book, shoe, hanger, lightbulb and power cord—oh the power cords!—but also Mother’s Day cards, toddler handprints and videotapes of elementary school holiday concerts. And then, of course, there were all the things secreted in our home’s extremities: the NordicTrack and paint cans in the basement, and the congratulatory signs from long-ago high school graduations jumbled together with maternity clothes and forgotten luggage in the attic.

The densest black hole of all would be the room we had identified for years as the playroom. Our grown children used the opportunity to tell us that the book-lined room had never really felt like a playroom to them—despite a collection of Disney VHS tapes and a game of Twister. In their worldview, we should have at least had an IKEA kids’ rug to throw away.

As it happened, that now-famous Japanese titan of tidying, Marie Kondo, launched her Netflix series at the exact time we began our project. And so Kondo not only became a verb in the popular culture—as in, “I hope you’re not Kondoing that window shade!”—but my husband’s personal nemesis.

RELATED: Marie Kondo’s Army of Organization Experts

“Marie Kondo says,” I would begin, ready to dispense a nugget of wisdom—“You don’t need the manuals that come with your appliances; if you can’t see what you own, you will keep collecting it; there’s no point of lugging family photos from house to house if you’re not going to stop and look at them”— and Warren would roll his eyes and peer heavenward for the closest available lightning bolt.

The real trick to emptying the nest turned out to be nothing that Kondo said, but serving two solid months of hard labor. 

In the end, having a tidy house filled us with bliss. Without the clutter, our rooms looked gigantic. In my newly austere closet, I could pull together an outfit in less than five minutes. And even Warren, who was given the chore of emptying out all the drawers and shelves that contained hardware, had to admit that we did have doubles and triples and quadruples of all the things we couldn’t easily see. 

And so we have managed to shoehorn ourselves into a two-bedroom apartment. But we’ve been reminded that you need this and that when you move into a new place. And what—besides new things—could show off our muscular new urbanist sensibility? The other day, shopping in a Housing Works Thrift Shop in Brooklyn, I found some really sharp, MOMA-worthy serving plates. I turned my gaze to Warren with that look of eager acquisition he has come to know, lo these many years. He sighed significantly and appeared to peer upward for another thunderbolt.

Who knew my husband would so completely absorb the lessons of Marie Kondo?

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