Inspired by the book “The gentle art of Swedish Death Cleaning” By Margareta Magnusson.
I came to the book on döstädning after a conversation with some of my Norwegian students. I was impressed by how easily the topic of death cleaning slipped into conversation over coffee during one of our tea breaks at a “Write your Way In “ workshop in Oslo last year. My grandmother would have rubbed her hands, rolled her eyes and said “Tu-tu-tu” at the forbidden subject of death. She was horribly afraid of invoking the evil eye. Death was not a subject you discussed as you dipped rusks into coffee with friends. The Scandinavians though, seem to take a pragmatic approach to living and dying, and I was fascinated to discover that a ritual in Sweden begins with their 50’s to begin the process of clearing out your earthly possessions before you die so that your family won’t have to fight or stress over what to do with the things you leave behind.
Margaretta Magnusson’s age, she says with soft humour, is somewhere between 80 and 100. Mine is in the somewhere between the roaring 70’s and the feeling 50’s, so the time feels a little between just-ripe and over-ripe to begin the task. I have to remind myself that it’s all come to me at a perfect time, just as I am in the process of examining my life in ways I have never done before. What do I want to be remembered for? I hum as I cook, as I dress, as I drop notes to friends. How to get to the point where only the important stuff matters?
The “examined life” as I see it, is of course, more than organising skräp as the Swedish call it. (Our English word sounds so much more crass). I think of a gentle-but-ruthless commitment to take 100% responsibility for every aspect of all I own, and have stewardship over. A paring down to this level of honed honesty, which to be honest… feels like digging up a mountain with a teaspoon.
Where to even start?
“Where stories start” my elusive Bushman nanny whispers ( she’s the character in my unpublished novel). “Where the wind starts” is her other bit of useless guidance.
“Ask for help” an expert in overwhelm suggests. So…
I’m thinking of every tidy person I know and asking them to enter my quantum field. I’ve even invited Socrates. “Help me to Know Myself” I say as part of my morning mantra in amongst the Buddhist chant to remove obstacles – om gan ganna patta hee namaha.
“What makes you happy?” my teachers whisper.
I take a deep breath. Yes, I have to agree, the sense that my home is organised, that everything I own carries a sense of belonging and validity in my life as it is today. The feeling that my children will not have to dig through my disorganised drawers and dismembered bits of jewellery makes me happy. The feeling that everything I own will have a home, helps me have a deeper sense of being settled. I love the dream…now to the reality – the skräp colonic.
A study entitled “Stuffocation” was done in 2000 by a group of anthropoligists, archaeologists,psychologists and social workers, came to the conclusion that the average 2 bedroom home has 2,260 visible items not including the skräp behind the closed doors of drawers and cupboards. Yikes. That was almost 20 years ago, before our world became flooded with Chinese imported cheap skräp.
We have a mortgage on our souls, on our freedom. I’m inspired to take a surgeon’s knife to all I own, to empty every junk drawer, answer every email, finish every novel… Margaret warns not to start with the box of photographs waiting to be sorted through. “Start with easy” she says.
Someone else suggests using a timer, and setting it on a mere ten minutes a day to begin with – unless the heart longs for more. Start with one room, one drawer. I had an organising angel named Judith Penny help me pack up my flat in Cape Town before my move to Hermanus a year ago. She did something godawfully cruel. She took my drawers and emptied them out on a table. Then said, with a wicked glee on her smasher – “choose a pile” as she pointed to the four corners of my room. “Recycle”, “Chuck”, “Give”, “Keep”. I added a “Cant do this right now” pile for later. Disclaimer: Ten boxes of which I still have not looked at one year later.
She introduced me to translucent bins. They stand tall on all my shelves. Some big enough for a folded sweater, others small enough for the organic turmeric to stand on the ginger to keep the Rooibos company.
I even have one called “These things need a story.” I know my daughter would love to hear why the bottle of sand remains in my possession. I’ll tell her it came from the pyramids in my granny’s suitcase. The box of teaspoons I never use because they are too precious, too baptised with tears. Granny handed them to me on her return from Egypt and they were not the walkie talkie doll I had dreamed of every night of her six months journey to faraway lands. More than sixty years later they still have not stirred sugar into tea.
I love the suggestion to have a bin entitled: “Please discard when I am gone.” This will be filled with journals and other personal items like birthday cards and special notes I cannot grind into the recycle bin at this juncture of my life. I need them for dismal days when I sink below sea level and need reminding that I once was loveable. No one else needs to dig through them when I am gone.
Then of course, there is the famous “I cant do this” bin, which is now an overflowing cupboard, threatening to become a room.
What about the precious things? Will anyone want them? Margaretta suggests taking pics of them and sending them off to the family. See who wants what. What a great idea. This way the desk I inherited from my mother in law will perhaps keep inspiring another writer in the family. Or perhaps not, in which case, I will instruct it to be sold.
We had a family meeting the other day. Faces of apprehension looked up at me when I said it was about Swedish death cleaning. I tried to make it fun by providing Swedish tea rings, rich foamy coffee and other homebaked delights. Nothing wiped the look of dread off their faces. They don’t want to think of us dying and my heart bled with them. But, I put a Scandinavian look on my face and we bravely went through the list I had typed out, of the map of our lives. Everyone volunteered to take on an aspect of the list to create an “Overview Binder” which will have details of every aspect of our lives, including where to find the passwords and codes, bank accounts, important people’s numbers… the list goes on. I felt happy that this overview includes us all. My children left the meeting determined to begin their own binders.
An organisational expert (new career path) suggests some interesting tips. She says to see every space and counter in the home as real estate and check for “visual chaos”. Horizontal surfaces get cluttered – go vertical. Put doors over open shelves that get messy. Make note of the “hot spots” in your space – the things you notice everyday that need attention but never get attended to.
Know what works for you to bring happiness, spark joy, bring peace of mind and then, rubber gloves on, sleeves rolled up, commit to doing the do, gently and with ruthless honesty. Someone’s gonna have to do it. Let it be me.
And then…when the life is so examined that the brain cells feel stiff and creaky, take some time out, put your feet up, or as I do, headphones on and listen to Sir John Gielgud reading a Shakespeare sonnet. The Bard addresses every aspect of life, love, death, and fear. His message is clear and simple: Wake Up! “To thine own self be true” . This is what it’s all about. I am here for something greater than the accoutrements I have surrounded myself with. But to reveal the truth of who I am, may take some space-making, some air. This cleaning is about freedom.
Now excuse me, I have to go, the timer she ticks…