"How to Practice": Ann Patchett's move-out in place

Photo: The Sunday Times Magazine

Ann Patchett, a supple and insightful writer, went on a marathon binge of divesting her goods. In "How to Practice", (The New Yorker, March 8, 2021) she writes of her clean-out spree, initiated after helping a childhood friend, Tavia, clean out her father's apartment after his death.  

Some months later, she and her husband Karl got the itch to move house. One evening she asked him, "I wonder if we could just pretend to move. Would that be possible? Go through everything we own and then just stay where we are?"

So, they did. I will not able to look away from a bulging kitchen shelf again, thanks to Patchett's wry, tender essay. (She never mentions Swedish Death Cleaning, but that's exactly what she's up to.)

Nor does she seem to be guided by Marie Kondo. She simply went through everything one drawer at a time, and, as she says, "assessed, divided, wiped down, replaced"— then carried what they didn't want or need to the basement, waiting until the sorting was done to find a place for the castoffs.

Kondo recommends starting in the bedroom; Patchett hit the kitchen, beginning with the lower cupboards.As anyone who has waded in knows, it's like washing that one dusty glass you've grabbed from the cupboard: suddenly you'd never drink out any of the others and there you are in rubber gloves.

I'm not going to give too much away—but I know the question on everyone's mind, whether for yourself or for Mom's needlepoint forest: Where do I find someone who wants this?

Here's a hint: Patchett and Karl genuinely enjoy giving things away. And this is the woman who bought eight place settings of silver for herself at age fourteen, with an insurance settlement.

I thought of our big move, exactly ten years ago, when I put effects like Patchett's on our house's basement shelves and invited our neighbours to take what they could use. My favourite memory is of Ian from across the street hoisting two cocktail shakers like maracas and singing "When My Baby Smiles At Me (I Go to Rio)". We got rid of at least two-thirds of everything, and I am still wary about bulking up again. During this restricted time, I've routinely opened a drawer or two for merciless scrutiny.

The sentence of Patchett's that chimed amid many wise passages concerns a colleague of her husband's who was invited to bring her young adult daughter, and choose what they wanted from the basement bounty. After helping them ferry things to the car, she says, "There they stood in the light of the late afternoon, thanking me and thanking me, saying they couldn't believe it, so many beautiful things."

Patchett uses "practice" as in the sense of preparation, and says, "As in any practice, there will be tests. That's why we call it a practice—so we will be ready when the time comes." But I sense she is also referring to its meaning as a discipline, a 'spiritual practice'.

The practice of inviting friends and acquaintances to carry away part of your life, without asking anything in return, embodies open-handed giving. At this point in my life, that activity is more attractive than accumulation.



susan said…
i've read ann patchett's wonderful essay and have just had occasion to practice what she suggests. i've moved from a spacious 3 bedroom apartment in louisiana to a smaller vacation condo in denver to be near my grown kids. the condo was already furnished so i had to get rid of many of my furnishings. i opted to invite my friends to choose and was able to give everything away that i will not have room for in my new life in denver. it made very happy that my lovely things will have a new life with my dear friends. things like kitchen ware, clothes and books were donated to v v a, which i've used for years and find efficient and businesslike. the whole process was emotionally satisfying and even enjoyable.
Jane in London said…
Thank you for highlighting this marvellous piece by Patchett - I enjoyed it immensely.

I have always enjoyed editing and paring down my possessions, even as a child. I find clutter and crowded cupboards quite disturbing, and disorder makes me feel edgy until I can return it to order again. Oh dear - this makes me sound a bit odd...

But I'm not a minimalist and don't like bare or characterless rooms. I suppose that, as with so many things in life, I seek (though don't always find) the happy medium.

It's funny how "stuff" can creep up on you; I feel I have to be constantly vigilant, so as to avoid cupboards filling up from my husband's reluctance to throw things away :)

That said, every couple of months I mentally revisit the 12-place Edwardian dinner service, decorated with sweetpeas, that is carefully packed away in a cupboard in the guest bedroom.

Used with pleasure every Christmas in my childhood home and then later in my own home, I ceased to use it several years ago as I could no longer be bothered to end each dinner party with a mammoth pile of hand-washing-up.

Everybody loves it, but nobody wants it. Which leaves me with a dilemma that I cannot, for the moment, resolve!

Jane in London
LauraH said…
The idea of moving but not going is brilliant.

Before during and after a major renovation about 10 years ago, I went through most of the house and did a major weeding. Including the books - that was a huge task! Luckily I was able to find people and organizations that could use most of the unwanted items. As for the rest - here in Toronto it's accepted practice to put your unwanted items at curbside...and everything found a new home. It makes me feel good to think those things are enhancing someone's life.

I estimate there is only about 1 or 2% of those give aways that I later regretted....most I don't even remember owning.

Since then, like you, I am conscious of not bringing many new things into the house. And when the mood strikes, I go through cupboards and drawers and use the curbside method if friends and family don't want the give aways. And there was another significant book weeding about three years ago. So satisfying to re-organize and make space by moving all that along to a new owner.
I'm so glad to read this piece. I've always been cluttery, but did a major clearout of books and papers some time ago, along with some collections. More recently I had an odd sort of stroke caused by a problem assimilating vitamins. I had no appetite and the tasteless hospital food certainly didn't help. I lost a lot of weight (not a bad thing, though I'd deliberately lost more beforehand). Most of my jeans and trousers and some skirts were too large to alter.

I did a huge cleanout for both psychological and physical reasons, but now I actually have to purchase certain clothing items and a few other things; I have to find the energy to do a bit of careful shopping. The cleared-out cupboards are a pleasure though.

I adore reading your articles on magnificent things like dark pearls, though these days am just looking for fairly simple garments - that fit properly - and don't want to spend a lot. Nothing splashy.

Ms Patchett understands what's most important! My small black Livia is sleeping on my desk. But she also lounges in the garden.
Jean Shaw said…
Wonderful essay indeed.
Once upon a time, a woman in my yoga class said that every now and then she would imagine she was moving 3,000 miles away and would go through her house with that in mind...
Laura J said…
Thank you for not only reminding me that this article was on the to be read list but also your own comments. We lived for a decade in a small Toronto apartment just fine and now somehow stuff is creeping in! Time for another sweep!
Allison said…
How timely is this essay to the beginning of my journey preparing our house for sale next year. A big house that we have owned for 36 years and filled with the detritus of 45 years of marriage, two children and now grandchildren. As well, we inherited items that we didn’t realize that we didn’t really want …the piano sent from Toronto by my parents for a grandson who the following year changed his allegiance from the instrument to the guitar. A silver tea service from a long ago family friend, boxes of very old photos and letters taken from my grandparents home to my late uncle’s to my parents to me! Since those are family documents I need to go through them put names on the photos ( those who I know) and decide what to do with letters over 150 years old that discuss departed family members and shine a light on our family history. There are the cupboards of toys and playthings, clothing and general bric a brac. We plan on moving to a condo so a lot of furniture will not make the cut and the 25 rubber maid bins of Christmas ornaments ( these are $$$ not dollar store baubles) will need to find homes. I like the idea of setting up an area for friends & neighbours can choose what they like. I prefer to donate clean, gently used clothing to shelters instead of carting it off to Value Village if I can help it.
My brothers, sister in laws, my husband and I spent many weekends in early 2019 emptying out my parents townhouse in preparation to sell…you’d think that after owning six houses over 68 years they would have divested themselves of everything but necessities. To our horror and the delight of the owner of the dumpster company that visited four times, we found out they had dragged around pretty much everything they had accumulated with them over the years…lesson learned.
Mardel said…
I have done some of this, donating a lot to a homeless shelter which sold everything they did not distribute directly to the community at $1 a piece. I also took two trips to Replacements to sell china that I no longer wanted but which I knew someone would. Books to a second hadn't bookshop or a library. My kids don't want much: no china, no books, even good kitchen equipment gets a no. Oh well.

Many new young families are moving into my neighborhood, and I do like the idea of inviting friends and neighbors in to collect things. I am about to start another sort. I find that each major change in life, being it a move or a health issue, brings with it a rethinking of priorities. I like Patchett's term. Yes, it is a practice.

On the opposite tack. I do like expresso and make it almost exclusively for myself, using both espresso cups I bought myself and the various demitasse cups that came with sets of inherited china. But even if I were to serve espresso at a dinner party, which has not yet happened. I can't see myself using the 3 to 4 dozen cups that hide away in my garden. When I was young I thought the "complete set" was a joy. Now It is mostly a burden. There are pieces I use and pieces I never use. Atypically for modern America. I do use cream soups. And I want to mix and match my seats. I do not set the table the way my mother or my grandmother did. So, to some extent I understand my children's point of view.

We never know who we will be when we grow up, and growing up seems to be a series of stages. When I moved from NY to Tennessee 10 years ago now, I sent my step children lists of things that belonged to their mother, or items from their youth or childhood, of their dad's or mom's that we had decided we no longer wanted. I offered to move or ship them all. I kept the original list and all their responses, and also recorded where the items went.. Now when they ask whatever happened to X and say "I would like that if you still have it" I simply show them the list and say I am sorry. Maybe it is better to be like the young woman who took everything, and then to let her divest on her own. We need to discover and forge our own paths.
Duchesse said…
susan: When we moved, friends (around my age, which may be a factor) took little for themselves but their young adult children did so. It's a particular joy that your things are now in friends' homes.

Jane in London: We have common foibles! I've always said I can't think straight if there's clutter around, much as I enjoy some friend's riotous displays. Your china story reminds me of my friend Vicky, who has similar set. I saw her put it in the dishwasher, and asked her if she was aware of the risk. She said "No one is going to want this, so I might as well use it—and if I wear it out, it doesn't matter."

LauraH: The "one thing in/one out" rule is working well. I still have some large silver platters and have no.idea what to do with them. I'm looking for a charity auction so their sale price goes to a good cause. This worked well when I lived in TO and had bags of jewellery too good to give to a thrift.

lagatta: Notice Patchett does not say that she included her jewellery in the practice? When a friend lost a great deal of weight, she bought most of her clothes at thrifts, until she reached the point she now assesses as stable.

Jean Shaw: That's brilliant! Same strategy, different image.

Laura J: Stuff does creep in. In our apt. that's books. Family know that we appreciate gifts we can consume, not store; of course thre are exceptions but as I said to my sons, "Who needs another candle?"

Allison: The family archives are a job in themselves. Another writer suggested buying two boxes, one for things that interest or pertain only to yourself, and one for family history that you know (or hops) others will be interested in. I had the Christmas ornament dilemma too and tried my best to place them with son and daughter in law who "do" Christmas. Nothing doing. Then about 7 yrs later he asked me for them. They were long gone. So be it.

Even before Coivd, shelters here stopped taking clothing donations, I suspect because of limits on storage.

Mardel: We invited everyone on the street who we knew to a party. I had the things on basement shelves, with lots of empty bags for them to use to take the things home. We had spent 25 years there, so it was also a chance to say goodbye. A few days later our sons threw their own party, and that took care of everything but a few odds and ends that went to Value Village.

I like your idea of keeping notes re who has been given what.

Allison said…
Thank you Duchesse for the advice about using the two boxes to help separate the items when archiving material. I might also add that shelters are not only for humans..various animal shelters and especially rescues are open to donations of old but clean towels and blankets. Our vet appreciates donations of small blankets/throws to lay pets on as they are euthanized. Our old cat went out on a lovely soft fleece blanket that ironically had Happy Holidays emblazoned on it! Never the less his bereft family appreciated the gesture. Settlement groups (helping new Canadians) also might like kitchen ware and small appliances as well as sheets and towels. Shelters for women do appreciate children’s items and clothing as well as winter coats and boots that are clean and in good repair. Having helped my son and DIL recover from a devastating fire and sort through a packed garage of well meant donations I can see why some shelters are declining clothing etc. The donations ran from brand new or barely used to clothing with holes and filthy toys that were broken and unusable. (We did not know everyone who donated items it was a well publicized fire and many anonymous folks stepped forward) It was during the pandemic but we ended up taking two or three packed SUV’s to Value Village (who were still accepting) the rest filled our trash bins for a couple weeks. I took over the sorting as my son& DIL were busy working, looking for a place to live or caring for their very young children. One fellow, when he saw our large garage crammed to the top as he was preparing to off load, turned and gave me $100.00 saying “I’ll drop this at Value Village and save you the trouble” he was a total stranger to all of us but I was very grateful for his insightful compassion.
I donate to an association nearby (short bus trip south with big bags) called Le Chaînon, that helps women in crisis. They have a shelter nearby on a quieter street (on a park) in the same neighbourhood as their charity shop, and longterm housing in a more residential neighbourhood. They also do specific collections of upscale donations, sold for higher prices or raffled off.

I haven't had much luck with charity shops for the basics I need now. Certainly not for bras and panties, or even jeans. I'm looking for plain garments, but in natural fibres if feasible (too much nasty synthetic in a lot of thrifts). I've actually had more luck with "garage sales", actually held on front steps or tiny front yards, in central Montréal. I've found some treasures when people were moving.
pinkazalea said…
My husband and I just moved from Texas to NM. Although I thought we didn't have all that much, we were both surprised by how much we actually had. Fortunately he has two daughters who were happy to take some of the discards - sisal rugs, some kitchen items. I don't have children and have begun to think of what to do with some of my things - tiny scrolls from 1947 that were souvenirs at my parents wedding, great grandmother's ring holder and porcelain cup, a cup and saucer my great-uncle brought back from England after WWII, etc. I will have to make some plans for these things because I don't think my stepdaughters will want them. My mother-in-law made a set of 6 bargello seat covers for my husband and his first wife. Neither girl wanted them but we've decided to have pillows made from them for the guest room intended for our grandchildren. It willl be fun to tell the kids their great grandmother made them. Seems like our generation's kids aren't too interested in antiques, silver, etc. "You mean you don't want great grandmother's fabulous loveseat?" I imagine many of us have had that experience. Thank you for your blog. It is one of my favorites. I don't often comment, but I am grateful for the quality of writing and the connection with your readers.
KPD said…
We had to sift through our belongings almost nine years ago after our neighborhood and home was damaged in a hurricane. Friends helped us sift through what we wanted to keep and everything else went to the curb. It felt really good to be pared down, and most of our decisions were made because items, sentimental or otherwise, were too damaged to keep.
Our kitchen is small, but almost perfect. My husband took our utensils and designed drawer deviders that fit our needs perfectly. If something isn't where it's supposed to be I probably lent it to someone. There is no space to add anything, but we have everything we need. Nevertheless, it's amazing how easy it is to accumulate.

The posts with the most