Stories for a new year: The Decluttering Diaries

In 2019, I made my first attempt at decluttering.

Or I thought about it. I made a mental list of things that needed to go, starting with a box of plastic laminated coasters that came free with a supermarket purchase. For some reason, I didn't throw anything out, but I kept adding to my list. Every couple of days, I remembered with a jolt of guilt that I was supposed to be clearing my shelves and bagging old clothes.

Minimalism was the new mindfulness back then. The act of disposing had to have intent. We thanked our threadbare ankle socks for sparking joy and forgave our cat-shaped paperclips for being useless at fastening papers. By streamlining our stuff, we would achieve equilibrium in our lives.

I longed to be one of those people who had an intended place and purpose for everything in her home, but I found the task of decluttering very arduous.

"Have you heard about this new virus?" my friend asked in early January, 2020. "They say it has the potential to mutate and become really potent."

She and her husband were visiting from Australia. We were strolling along Changi Boardwalk, and the chances of a full-blown pandemic still felt hypothetical. Our attention turned to a cluster of buildings in Johor Baru across the sea. The sight of another country just within reach was surreal. It occurred to none of us that this was a scene of foreshadowing.

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Months later, when the first border closures began, a waitress smiled through tears as she poured my coffee. Her daughter was in Malaysia and she didn't know when she would be able to see her again.

As I lay down next to my sleeping toddler that night, my heart wouldn't stop pounding. His was the room with most potential for decluttering – all those outgrown clothes and toys – but a sense of great scarcity was beginning to sweep over the world. People were hoarding toilet paper and tinned food. Everything I wanted to get rid of suddenly gained new importance.

You were there, so I don't have to tell you what happened next. The dark unspooling of what-ifs. The constant scrolling and updating of news numbers. How many cases today? Lockdowns, exoduses, quarantines. So many nights of sleeplessness and restless wandering. Melatonin became a precious commodity, as did baker's yeast and Ikea products to expand our confined spaces into entire worlds. We lost all sense of proportion and accepted the grim absurdity of attending funeral wakes via video call and becoming deeply invested in sourdough starter.

The circuit breaker period seemed like a good time to start decluttering, but as soon as I started, I realised my priorities had changed. Surely I'm not the only person who feels a fear of remorse at throwing out something they might yearn for later. When the world is scorching at the edges, this fear is more acute. How do we decide what to bring into the future, when we don't know what the future looks like?

On social media and elsewhere, there were platitudes about the nature of uncertainty – we could never predict the future, welladjusted people smugly reminded us. Remember them? I bet they fold and store their underwear the KonMari way.

After a year of false starts with my decluttering mission, I decided to set aside just 15 minutes each day to clear things. I figured it would be less emotionally taxing to tackle decluttering in bite-sized portions.

So far it's working – I've packed two large tote bags full of clothes to donate to charity and parted ways with some yellowing paperback books. The shoebox previously overflowing with junk mail is now a hospice for my son's plastic dinosaurs with missing limbs. Soon, those toys will also be thrown out.

Artmotion Asia

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