Friday, April 29, 2011

Thoughts on Clutter

I've said it before, I'll say it again... neatness is not my forte. OK... that's actually a somewhat generous statement. The truth is I'm a total slob.

I come by it naturally though. My mother was the queen of slovenliness. In fact, now that I think about it, "hoarder" might be a more appropriate term for her.

I never really experienced horizontal surfaces in my childhood home. Every table, shelf, counter, and even most of the chairs, beds and floors were covered in a thick layer of clutter. The worst was the basement "rec room".

When I was little, the rec room actually served as a place where recreation took place. There was a fireplace, and a stereo, some old furniture, and even a pool table. I've seen old photos of social gatherings down there with friends and family, and I can even remember playing tag with my brother in what seemed like vast expanses of space.

But then my parents divorced and the pool table disappeared along with pretty much all social interactions. And the room that had once been a place for people to gather and have fun became a repository for things... a seemingly infinite store of things.

By the time I was 8 or 9, it had gotten pretty bad. The floor was long gone and the stuff was about 3 feet deep down there. I didn't really mind this as a kid... heck, I didn't know any different. At one point my friends and I decided to embark on a great adventure and carved a path all the way to the mysterious "back room". We were pretty sure it would hold some sort of pirate's cove of treasure and jewels, but alas, just more junk.

When I was in junior high, I decided that I wanted to re-claim the basement for myself. It was an arduous process, one which provoked a great deal of my mother's rage, but I persevered. I built shelves, I organized, I forced my mother to make purging decisions, and after many months of work I had converted the back room into my bedroom and the rec room became a hang out for me and my friends.

Still, I'm haunted by the memories of that old rec room, and also by the hoarding habits that, despite my best efforts, seem to have winnowed their way into my being. I try... lord knows I try, but it's a constant battle for me.

Sometimes I cruise the minimalist blogs and gaze in disbelief at the photos of spotless homes. Check out these images, or these, or these, or these. Seriously, do people really live this way? Sigh.

Anyhow, I recently decided that the clutter was just getting too much for me to deal with, so I've been purging (again). Oy vay! Did I mention this isn't easy for me? For some reason I always feel some sort of strange fear that I might regret getting rid of something.

Minimalists tend to use a standard of "if your house burnt to the ground, would you replace this item?" Ha! I'm afraid that most of the junk I'm holding onto isn't even close to meeting this criteria.

Let's see... would I replace this item if I had to go buy one for full price? No.
Would I buy it if I found it for a bargain at a thrift store? Um... no.
Would I respond if somebody offered one on FreeCycle? The truth... no.
If I was at a rummage sale and I found it in the free box, would I take it home with me? Actually, not.

So what on earth is going on here?!? I mean, if I wouldn't even take the trouble to carry one home, why on earth am I holding on to it? Most of it is not even stuff that I want, it's just junk that I feel like I "should" keep for some reason. Maybe I could use it some day, wouldn't it be wasteful if I had to go get another one? AAARRRRGGGHHHH!!

Then, I was reading the comments on a post over at Zero Waste Home. A woman was talking about how she was getting older and didn't want to leave it to her children to have to deal with all of her stuff after she was gone. Now, we've all heard the pithy phrases like: we didn't inherit the world from our parents, we're borrowing it from our children... and stuff like that, but somehow, that comment made something click for me, and I had a revelation, an actual epiphany, in fact.

Here it is: I don't really own these things. In fact, nobody really owns anything!

I realize that may fall into the category of the absolutely obvious, but it really hit me like a ton of bricks. This isn't my stuff, I'm simply using it while I'm here. When I'm gone, the stuff will remain, and perhaps somebody else will use it. I know this might sound overly philosophical, but I don't really think it is... I think it's a practical reality, and I'm not sure why it has taken me so long to realize it.

All I'm really doing by holding onto this stuff is providing storage space for the human family. And why do I feel like it's my responsibility to do that? I mean, why can't I simply allow the thrift store, or the library or somebody else to store it? It's not like I couldn't go retrieve it from one of these other places if I really need or want it. I might have to pay a small amount to go get it from one of those places, but it's not like there isn't any cost to me to provide this storage space as it is. I pay every day in real terms (like mortgage payments for the house and money spent on heating/cooling the space) not to mention the emotional cost of time spent looking for things, and just general stress dealing with all of the clutter.

Holy Moly! What an amazing thought! The stuff won't all disappear if I'm not holding onto it... it will simply go live somewhere else, and I can go get it (or something similar) if and when I really need it. The whole world is my storage room... hence, I don't need to try to keep the whole world in my basement! Wow!

So... I've taken one carload off to the thrift store and I have a bunch more to go (like a whole house full). We'll see if I'm able to maintain this attitude, but for the moment it really feels like a breath of fresh air. Whew, what a relief!


  1. oh good for you! My dad has the same mind set, who he also got from his mother! Glad to see you come to such a great conclusion!

    Keep up the good work :)

  2. Yay! That's a tremendous step forward. My dad has hoarding tendencies (never been opened software from 1993, anyone?) that I want very much to avoid inheriting. The questions you're asking yourself are great ones. Our tastes change, and even if we did spend good money on it, if we're not going to use it, it's better going to someone who will.

    I'm not too much of a clutter bug, though I could be better about putting things away!

  3. "I think it's a practical reality, and I'm not sure why it has taken me so long to realize it." Um, I don't think I even realized it. Wowza. But, of course, right? Of course! Oy vey.

    My clutter is of the fire hazard variety. My mother is an uber clean freak and we had minimal clutter. Somehow, I turned out to be the opposite of her. Anyhoo, I can't get rid of paper, it seems. I hold onto scraps of paper. I have no idea why. Well, probably because I am insane, but still. OY.

    Also, the Zero Waste folks' home seems terribly cold to me. What's that about? It's clean, efficient--all those things we prize in this culture, but damn if it doesn't seem like the least inviting home on the planet.

  4. I fear purging may be a very long process. I got rid of a few more boxes of books, and a box full of T-Shirts (camp counselor 1990 - Oy!) But there's a LONG way to go. I hereby resolve not to bring any more crap into my house!!! (ha ha ha)

    NotEasy - Jennifer... I fear I may be giving your father a run for his money since I actually have a whole computer from about 1993. I did have a decent reason for keeping it (a client who was still using ancient software) but that reason went away many years ago and alas, the computer remains.

    CF - Aldra, I totally know what you mean about paper. My office floor is several inches deep in spots... you know, in front of the file cabinet where it's waiting to be appropriately dealt with. UG. And agree about the cold feeling of the Zero Waste home. But I figure that since the chances of my house ever looking remotely like that are hovering somewhere between slim and none, I might as well aim for "cold and sterile", and maybe I'll end up at "less of a disaster".

    Back when I used to have cable TV I'd occasionally watch the declutter program with that Canadian chick. At this point I can't remember either the name of the show or the girl who ran it, but one of the things she always said was that clutter was really just postponed decisions. Oh how very true!

  5. My wife comes from a family of hoarders. Every room of their house was packed to the ceiling but for a narrow pathway down the middle of every room. It was well organized clutter though.

    My wife inherited the clutter bug but not the organizing bug. I, on the other hand, have a purging personality. If I haven't used in in 5 years, I probably don't need it.

    The concept of just-in-time "borrowing" is actually more relevant and pervasive perhaps than you have noted. For example, the idea of on demand video versus purchasing DVDs, subscription-based music services versus purchased DVDs or MP3s, Google Docs versus MS Office.

  6. "I might as well aim for "cold and sterile", and maybe I'll end up at "less of a disaster"."

    ahahahahahahah Good point! I should probably try and do the same.

  7. John - You make an excellent point about on demand borrowing. I have a friend who has a real movie buff for a husband, and he is a DVD hoarder to the max. I've often thought that I could live for several years off of the proceeds of selling his movie collection on eBay. Anyhow - one day I stopped by to say hello and he was in the midst of a big DVD organizing project. At first I thought he was purging... but no, he had gone out and bought thousands of the new slim sized DVD cases, and was busy moving his entire collection into smaller cases so he could fit more into the room. Maybe I should get them a Netflix subscription for Christmas...

  8. I read your comment on the Zero Waste Home, love it and even left a comment there to mention it. Your post here is even better. I had so much fun reading it, you are a great writer. I think this is a revelation for me too. I need to sleep on it, but yes, this might be a way for me to let go of my stuff. Thanks.

  9. I love the analogy of the world being your storage locker. Found you via the comments on zero waste home, glad I did:)

  10. Anonymous - Thanks so much for your kind words. I spent a few more hours purging today and each time the "oh, but what if..." bug started to rear it's ugly head, I had to remind myself that I could always go get another 20 year old T-shirt if I decide that I really need one!

    Constance - Thanks so much for stopping by. I took several boxes of unused flat rate shipping boxes over to the post office today, and they were so happy to have them! Plus, they're free, so I can always to go the post office section of the "world as storage locker" if I need one. I'm gonna have to keep reminding myself of this though...

  11. I know I'm a little late reading this but I just loved this post. I have moved a lot in the past couple years, in and out of dorm rooms in college, several apartments, back to my parent's house, halfway across the country and back, into another shared living arrangement, and now into a new apartment. Every time I move I get rid of things. When I moved to Georgia (and back again) I could only take what I could fit in my car. Since I know that where I am not is not where I want to spend the rest of my life it keeps me motivated to buy/get and keep only what I truly need.
    My aunt is the exact opposite. After a bad break up in her early 20s she started hording. She loves shopping for "deals" and now has a 1 bedroom apartment nobody is allowed to enter because it is so full of stuff. She knows it is a problem but cannot emotionally deal with getting rid of things. Somome times I question getting rid of things because of the off chance that I might need it but I'm glad I don't have that emotional attatchment to stuff.

  12. Hey Nic, thanks for stopping by.

    I can remember a time when everything I owned would fit into my car. Moving a lot really forces you to stay on the minimalist side of things. Alas, a house with a big basement does the opposite!

    Your aunt's story makes me really sad. I think that was sort of my mother's issue too. Trying to fill an emotional hole with stuff. I fear it's a losing proposition.

    I am making progress though. Horizontal surfaces are starting to appear and I can open most of the closets without stuff falling out on my head!

  13. I just came to your space from another blog and this is the first post I read. It's great! What an insight. I'm crossing my fingers you can keep going with that mind set. My grandmother, too, is very good at giving things away - she actually has a lot of empty cupboard space! Though I sometimes regret that she didn't keep my mama's old clothes, which were just too cool. I've tried de-cluttering many times before, but excluding cosmetics and homeware that go unused, I find it incredibly hard to throw/give anything away, partly because of those potential regrets, partly because it takes a lot of time to take photos of things and put them online, or make the trip to a charity shop. Maybe I can learn from my grandmother and you both...

  14. Hey Marlene,

    Thanks so much for stopping by. I can totally relate to both the fear of regrets and the PITA (pain in the ass) of giving things away. I recently had a major FreeCycle meltdown ( and haven't been able to face it since. Instead I'm just designating a bag or box in the front room as the "get rid of it" station. As I go about my travels I'm putting stuff to donate there. When it's full I put it in the car and then the next time I'm out running errands I just stop by the Salvation Army and drop it off. So far it's working.

    The emotional part has gotten easier too. I'll write a post soon about my popcorn popper revelation, but suffice it to say it's become clear to me that if you never let go of anything, you never allow room for anything new to come into your life.


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