In 2012, I lost my father and my older sister Sheila within the space of a few months. If you've ever lost a family member, I don't need to describe the wrenching emotions that accompany the death of someone so close or the tears that still come unexpectedly. But one thing nobody tells you about is the stuff. As the bossiest of my parents' nine children, I had to oversee everything my dad and Sheila left behind. Months later, I was still picking through my father's military records, his guns dating to the Civil War, his 15 Bibles and Sheila's art supplies and pawnshop finds. It took every bit of inner strength I had to figure out what to do with these things that had great value for my father and sister, who now weren't around to answer my questions: "Why'd you buy that? Who do you want me to give it to?" The guitars Sheila collected, the family gumbo pot I'd borrowed and then sent back to New Orleans after Katrina wiped out my dad's kitchen, the crucifixes he carved from tree branches—you can't just throw those things away! And so my living room began to resemble a Catholic gift shop, my grief became inescapable and I sank into a mild depression.
I started thinking about my own basement and closets. I moved to Washington, D.C., at age 21 and have saved almost everything I've accumulated since: racks of clothes I can't fit into (or wouldn't want to); thousands of books (including 18 copies of Shirley Chisholm's Unbought and Unbossed); enough spatulas to host a celebrity cook-off, minus the celebrities; and a collection of vinyl, cassette tapes and eight-tracks—Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Nina Simone, Boz Scaggs, the Temptations—that fills an entire room of my house, because apparently when I got into music, I got into music. Then there are files from the political campaigns I've worked on: My garage is lousy with Bill Clinton and Al Gore. A year ago, when Joe Lieberman called to ask whether I had his stuff, I said, "Probably, but it's not on top."
I can imagine one of my 17 nieces and nephews walking through my door someday and having no idea where to start. My significant other is an 11-pound Pomeranian; I'm the only one who knows what in my house has real value and who will treasure it when I'm gone. So I made a decision: I'm getting rid of it now. I'm 54, in perfect health. But I never want someone else to have to go through my stuff and decide what's important. I want to be the boss while I can.
I started by digitizing my music so I could give it to the New Orleans Public Library, which lost a lot of records during Katrina. I hope some young girl from my old neighborhood will wander in, listen to Ella Fitzgerald like I did and just shut out the whole world. I'm gifting my diamond studs to my nieces on their 21st birthdays. The music that shakes my soul, the books that have kept me going, my best reserve wines: I want to share them now.
This process has been a major undertaking—and an exercise in gratitude. I've seen and experienced so many things, and I want to help others experience them, too. I'm saving memorabilia from my activist days for the new African American history museum in D.C.: a program from the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington, the signatures Rev. Jesse Jackson used to get on the presidential ballot in 1984.
My load already feels lighter. I've unearthed my dining room table and can now welcome guests into my home. The other day I dropped into Macy's and left with just two pairs of stockings. I'm too busy getting rid of things to be interested in accumulating any more.
Considering one's own mortality is a great reminder that today's all we've got. There's nothing wrong with stuff. But I want to spend less time cleaning, organizing and thinking about mine. I have too many other things still to do.
More Clever Ways to Give it Away
My grandmother's Project 296 is named for her Ohio address. She invites one of her children per weekend to help tackle a closet or a section of the basement. (Only one—any more, she says, and they'll stay up late talking and lose focus.) With their help, she's digitized her photos and recipes and made books that tell family stories, like the reason we eat oysters on Thanksgiving. And she's assigned colored Post-it notes to each kid's family, which we can use to claim furniture we'd like to inherit. I've got my eye on the four-poster bed my mom slept in as a girl.