Confessions of a Former Hoarder


By Jock Lauterer

I love stuff.

Old stuff — books, hats, cameras, typewriters, photographs, magazines, tools, odd-shaped rocks, broken mugs full of pens that I haven’t used in years. Twenty-year-old sticky notes, gee-gaws, bric-a-brac and mementoes crowd my bookshelves like shrines to myself. I clutch my stuff to myself like Linus’ binky.

But then comes COVID-19, coupled with sorta’-retirement — and time, once in such short supply, stretches out in front like a blank canvas.

Time to think and time to remember. Like when my mother, only 51, died suddenly, and how my wife and I had to clean out her cluttered rental house. She too loved her stuff. The clean-out took three months, during which I time I vowed: I Will Never Do This To My Kids.

So here I am. Confronting myself at last. Let it go, old son.

My inspiration comes from one of my oldest college chums from the ‘60s, my spirit sister, Danielle Withrow of rural Hollis community out in rural Rutherford County. The retired town planner of nearby Forest City, Danielle was a classic hoarder, talking about decluttering for years, but actually doing very little of it.

Notice I said she was a hoarder. Not anymore. Taking advantage of the shelter-in-place mandate of this spring, she pitched in, recycling literally thousands of books and tossing countless bags of flotsam and jetsam from her life, plowing relentlessly through her house, every day, room by room. The results are stunning.

On a recent visit to Rutherford County to renew our long friendship, I listened with a mixture of admiration and shame as she shared the story of her transformational break-out: one box at a time. One corner of a room at a time. Don’t let the task overwhelm you. Look at each object and decide if it brings you joy. How often do you use it? Would it bring joy to someone else?

Danielle, who prefers the term “clearing” rather than “decluttering” because, she says, “It sounds more noble,” offered some strategic tactics: “I have little signs posted everywhere in my house to remind me of my goal. The best one is, ‘Everything I own will one day be lost, stolen, broken, donated, outdated, sold or thrown away.’” Another sticky note reminds her to “identify your ideal life, then clear away that which does not serve that vision.”

Danielle is also a world-class traveler, spending much of retirement time traveling overseas with only a carry-on, or touring on the road out west in her little van with just a 4 x 5 living space. “And I don’t miss or need a thing in my 2,300 square foot house back home,” she said with a laugh, adding, “that should tell me something.”

To our meet-up she had brought three items. One, a clipping from my former newspaper in Forest City dating back to 1970. Second, a faded pink child’s ballet tutu, and third, a photograph of 7-year-old Danielle in that very tutu, taken at her third-grade dance recital.

The clipping from the old newspaper, she gave to her spirit brother.

The photograph, she is keeping.

The 65-year-old tutu, along with her baby clothes, got a proper send-off, meeting their end on a celebratory funeral pyre. Danielle concluded, “It felt good.”

Inspired, and remembering that vow I made to myself 50 years ago, I went right home and stormed through a junk drawer. A small start. But it felt liberating, therapeutic. And way overdue.


For decluttering/clearing inspiration, Danielle’s recommends:

  • Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.”Danielle says: “I got the message, remembering having lived in Japan where there was no furniture in the bedroom except a futon bed that was rolled up every morning and stored in the closet.”
  • “Two guys who call themselves The Minimalists. They write a blog and their main premise is to get rid of stuff in order to make room in your life for more important endeavors. I traveled to Charlotte eight years ago to hear them speak. They are my heroes.”
  • “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” by Margareta Magnusson. “Actually, a humorous book that says: Don’t leave your stuff for your family to clean up because your children don’t really want most of what you have!” 

Jock Lauterer began selling newspapers for Jim Shumaker and Roland Giduz on the streets of Chapel Hill at the age of 8. For the last 20 years, he has served as a senior lecturer and adjunct professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, teaching photojournalism and community journalism.

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2 Comments on "Confessions of a Former Hoarder"

  1. Jock,

    Fine article. Thank you.

    I knew Danielle when she was in arts management–Director of several community arts councils.

  2. Well said, Jock.

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