When I was a kid, my extended family on my dad’s side owned a dairy farm which was, at the time, just outside of Memphis, Tennessee. My grandparents lived in the main home, and one of my dad’s older brothers and his wife in another right next door. There were many siblings and cousins in that family – my dad was one of fourteen kids. Most of them stayed in that general area of the world orbiting the roughly 80 acres that included the fields, barns, a small farmhand house, garden, and those two main homes right next to each other – one for my grandparents, and one for my aunt and uncle who helped work the farm.

After my grandparents passed on (sadly, I never had the honor of knowing them), my uncle and aunt moved from the smaller home, known as “The Greenhouse” (due to the paint color), into the bigger brick home. For whatever reason, The Greenhouse morphed into the unofficial stuff repository for everyone in the family needing to make more space in their own homes.

I suspect there was a lot of Depression-era “I might need that someday” thinking happening. Over many years, it became the final home for boxes of books, trunks of clothing, the odd appliance or four, toys, records, paperwork, back issues of National Geographic, knick-knacks – you name it.

I thought it was absolutely amazing.

When we visited every summer for the annual July 4th picnic/Smith family reunion, I’d always find my opportunity to sneak away from the festivities and explore The Greenhouse. Mind you, the heat of a Memphis July is no joke, and initially, neither of the houses had air conditioning. It had to be over 100 degrees inside, but I didn’t care. I’d pull the creaky old screen door open and smell that magic smell of life-already-lived, and I’d be in heaven.


Black and white photo of women coming out of old house.
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This is my aunt and my mom coming out of the screen door of The Greenhouse. Sadly, I have no other photo of it.


No one ever minded me being there, and as I sorted through black and white photos, dusty cookbooks, and ancient Ladies’ Home Journals, I would usually find a prize that I would be allowed to keep. I distinctly remember a copy of a Time-Life Nature Library book called The Fishes, and a small framed print of a horse. Once, I rescued an old bottle of Jean Nate perfume. Solid finds for a 9-year-old.

Eventually, the aunts, uncles, and more than a few cousins moved away or passed on. I grew up. The family sold off the farm bit by bit, and I believe a bank now stands where the Greenhouse served as Smith Family self-storage. I have no idea what happened to the remaining stuff inside, but I still think fondly about those summer excursions.

Where am I going here? I think many of us have had the experience of entering into an old space in childhood – attic, basement, barn, whatever – and finding it fascinating. What would we see? What would we uncover? Then…we all grow up, and somehow the wonder of exploring stuff turns sour. Sorting through old things shifts from the opportunity to playfully investigate a space into a distasteful, laborious, and possibly shame-filled chore.

Instead of “Oh cool, I wonder what’s in this box?”, it goes to

“Oh God, what am I going to find in that box?”

As if every container is booby-trapped.

Admittedly, none of the stuff in The Greenhouse was mine unless I claimed it – it was a whole household crammed full of other people’s postponed decisions. The stakes, for me, were low. Still, I think there’s something to consider regarding how we might approach our decluttering work. How often have I been working with a client, and we uncover something really valuable to them?:

  • A family video thought to be long-lost;
  • A sweater adored, forgotten, and now remembered;
  • The key to a safe;
  • The missing charger for the iPad; or
  • Cold, hard cash.

Every single time (and so much of that last one, in particular). That all seems pretty positive to me. And yes, there’s usually a lot that is no longer relevant or helpful – but isn’t that an opportunity too?

Instead of, “Oh God, there’s so much junk here I don’t need,” why not

“Oh, excellent! Look at all the things I can let go of today.”

Instead of anticipating how awful sorting through a closet or cabinet will turn out, what might happen if you could assume that you’ll come across good stuff? Maybe it’s a stretch, but if you could approach the job with a tiny smidge of childlike wonder, or a sense of exploration, what would open up? Not all clutter is clutter. Sometimes it’s stuff waiting to find its next adventure.