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How to make a clean break Add to ...

I married into a family of collectors. They've never travelled light. They have gathered many treasures through the years, and can't bear to part with them. When my in-laws were finally forced to clean out their basement when they moved, we made some real finds. My life would be infinitely poorer without the stuffed grouse that my father-in-law bagged 50 or 60 years ago. We also salvaged a small table lamp, hand-carved from oak, with a carved deer standing on the base and a genuine birch bark lampshade on top. You just can't find those any more.

When does stuff turn into junk? In my experience, the process can take decades. I moved my mouldy Beatles records six or seven times before I conceded that turntables were obsolete. Now turntables are enjoying a revival, but, alas, my Beatles records are too warped and scratched for anyone to play.

"You are what you can't get rid of," says Brian Scudamore. He is the founder of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, a phenomenally successful business that turns trash into cash. Our colossal over-consumption habits have spawned entire new lines of enterprise. His stroke of genius was to professionalize the junk trade. Instead of a smelly guy who drives a beat-up pickup, shows up late, and haggles over the price, you get friendly men in clean uniforms who show up on time, explain what it's going to cost, and take it all away in spanking-clean trucks to be recycled if possible.

So what am I? A book junkie, for sure. A person who deludes herself that one day she will fit back into a Size 8, or that those power suits from the eighties might come back. A person who is obviously proud of her honours English thesis on Northrop Frye, despite the fact she can no longer understand a word of it.

Someone who vowed to work out on the treadmill every day, but never did. A well-travelled sort, with tasteful handicrafts from all around the world, although it is sometimes hard to remember what comes from where. A kind woman, with a fine collection of flowered sheet sets (acquired during her mercifully short-lived chintzy phase) that she intends to pass along to somebody who needs them. An outdoorsy type, who was going to get back into cross-country skiing any time now.

All this stuff (and much, much more) resided in our basement for years and years, out of sight but never quite out of mind. As time went by, the accumulated mass of stuff grew increasingly oppressive. I knew I should clean that basement out! But the very thought of it overwhelmed me. Eventually, I began avoiding the basement altogether. It had become a metaphor for my chaotic, messy, uncontrolled subconscious, and I didn't want to go there.

My husband wasn't any help. He still has his old TV production budgets from 1976.

"Our family motto is 'Hold Fast,' " his sister says. "And that's what we do."

One day, after we'd been married for a few years, I asked him about the bill he got every month for $98.52. "It's for my storage unit," he said. He couldn't recall what was in there, or when he'd last paid a visit, but it had been quite a while.

This behaviour is not at all unusual. Our entire culture has succumbed to rat-like hoarding. One filmmaker, Cami Kidder, even made a documentary about it. Many of the people she interviewed broke down when asked what they would save if they could keep only one thing. "It was like being asked to choose which child they would save," she said. "They would say, 'I can't imagine not having all my stuff.' "

Even though we live in the world's biggest houses, the North American self-storage industry is enormous. Its annual revenues are around $20-billion. If self-storage were a country, it would rank 99th by GDP - somewhere between Jordan and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"I'd love to get the stats on how many people really reconnect to their junk," says Brian Scudamore, who told me that his own life is serenely clutter-free. He prefers his space without a lot of stuff in it. He's one of those people who actually goes through his closet every few months and throws out the clothes he no longer wears. (I just move it to the spare closet, and when that gets full I move it to the basement.) "If five years goes by and you've had no communion with your junk," he says, "then it's time to say goodbye."

One problem is that people hate to throw out things that might be useful. They'd rather sell them for a few bucks at a garage sale, or donate them to a good cause. This is why all our used clothes wind up in Africa, where they have the perverse effect of depressing local clothing production and employment. Or we think we'll get around to selling Aunt Minnie's family heirloom on eBay.

But the toughest junk to part with is the sentimental junk. I still have a handwritten book of poetry that a boy gave me when I was 17. How could I possibly throw that in the dumpster? I'll probably have to adopt my sister's approach. Last week I was helping her de-junk her apartment because she'd completely run out of room. "Here," she said bravely, handing me a dirty old stuffed Snoopy dog from the back of the closet. "I am going to leave the room now, and you do whatever you think best."

One day a few months ago, I woke up with new resolve. I phoned GOT-JUNK and two friendly men appeared that very afternoon. "Make it go away," I said recklessly. No sorting, no culling, no good deeds, no ruminating about eBay. I just wanted a clean break. An hour later, it was gone. I felt a mighty surge of exhilaration and empowerment, even though I kept the honours thesis and the book of poetry. Some things you have to work up to. I also kept the clay print of my hand that I'd made for my mother in kindergarten. She gave it back to me when she moved into her condo, and I try not to feel bad that she doesn't want it any more.

I asked Brian Scudamore if there's anything he's clung to that's completely useless. He had to think a minute. "I've got a hockey card collection," he finally said. "I don't care about it at all. It doesn't have any value, and I'm sure I'll never go through it again in my entire life. But it's a memory I have of childhood, and of collecting those cards. I couldn't possibly get rid of it."

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