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Richmond man's book advises Virginians to keep the memories but lose the stuff

Matt Paxton found his calling during an especially difficult year of his life. “When I was 24 my dad, my stepdad and both of my grandfathers passed away, and I had to clean out all their houses,” he says.

Paxton realized that Americans were hooked on buying. “Post World War II we were built on consumerism: building cars, buying cars, building houses and filling the houses with stuff.”

And it was pretty easy to ignore our overstock.

“When something bothers us, we just shut the cabinet or shut the door," Paxton explains. "We can postpone it for another year, and then all of a sudden we’ve got stuff in the guest bedroom closet for ten years.”

So he’s written a book that comes out next month called Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff. In it, he advises people to start small.

“One shelf or a junk drawer – something small that you can do in maybe 15 minutes, and then you can see that you’ve accomplished something. I remind people, it’s taken years to fill this home. You’re not going to empty it in a long weekend.”

As you sort, make five piles -- KEEP, SELL, DONATE, TRASH .

“And the fifth pile is the MAYBE pile, and what that enables you to do is make quicker decisions, because if you sit there and debate every single item, it’ll take a year to clean out your house, and what happens is at the end of the week you revisit that maybe pile, and the things that you maybe would have kept earlier in the week you realize you don’t need.”

Tell the stories of things that are especially meaningful. It’s counter-intuitive, but Paxton says the more you tell the stories, the easier it is to let those possession go – unless they’re on your legacy list.

“A legacy list is a list of maybe five or six items that tell your family’s story. For me it’s a cookbook from my great grandma that my mom filled out – recipes from my great grandma, my grandma, my mom, and then she went to the church, and all the women who raised me at my church – their recipes are in there too. Face forward – I’m with my kids and my step kids, and we’re cooking out of this book, and they’re making my favorite recipes from women they never met.”

If you find perfectly good things that someone could use, Paxton suggests giving them away.

“You’re right. Someone could use it, and they could use it right now. Donate it!”

Giving things to people who need them will probably make you feel good. On the other hand, giving things up can make us feel bad, so the author recommends writing down your reasons and putting that up on a wall.

“De-cluttering is very, very frustrating, and you will want to quit, so every time you want to quit you look up and you look at that why, and you’ll say, ‘Oh yeah – I want to be near my grand kids. Oh yeah, I want to live with my best friend..’ Whatever that why is, put it on there so every time you feel like quitting you’re able to come back to it.”

Legacy List
Jay Paul
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Jay Paul Photography
Homeowner Libby holds up a photograph of her grandmother posing next to her artwork.

And then there are the endless piles of photographs.

“Get rid of the generic landscapes. I don’t know if it’s Rehoboth or Virginia Beach or Nag’s Head. It’s just a beach!" he jokes. "Get rid of the pictures of people you don’t know who they are or you don’t like them. Get rid of the doubles. Get rid of the negatives. You never use the negatives. You think we’re going to start using them now? They’ve been in a shoe box for the last 15 years.”

The book, again, is Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff, and Paxton’s public television program – Legacy List – may also prove helpful. It began a third season this month, and will feature a couple from Gordonsville – two artists who have made their home in an old elementary school. They have 10,000 square feet but still need to get rid of some stuff to make way for relatives who will be moving in.

That episode airs:
Friday, Jan 21 at 9:00 pm on VPM Plus
Saturday, Jan 22 at 5:00 pm on VPM PBS
Sunday, Jan 23 at 4:30 pm on VPM Plus

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.