When you come to visit, everything seems nice and neat, but that’s my strategy. Everything in the public areas is in place. But don’t open a cabinet door without first taking a defensive martial arts stance. Stuff is gonna come at you.
Such is the case when two clutterbugs marry and cram two households’ worth of stuff into one household, when both already had two households’ worth of stuff to begin with. Our house is stuffed to the rafters, and beyond actually. Joe put stuff up in the crawl space too, because there wasn’t an empty horizontal surface in the entire house.
My sister wants to give me my grandmother’s desk. I’d love to have it. But where would it go? In the middle of the living room floor? That’s currently the only available real estate in the whole house, including the garage, which is also piled with stuff.
When clutter reaches critical mass, it feels like this: “Gaaaahhhh!!!” and pulling your hair with both fists. I was in gahhhh mode at the computer, when a little blip rolled down my Facebook feed, touting an online program: A Year to Clear What is Holding You Back, designed by clutterologist Stephanie Bennett Vogt. I don’t normally click on that stuff, but maybe because I had to push stuff aside to get to my keyboard that morning, I did.
Vogt offers a 365-day online program, pick your payment. The cheapacabra in me picked $10.
Eh, 10 bucks. It’s a glass of wine. Why not.
The only requirement besides the daily lesson was to record my reactions in a journal. I had a weekly calendar stacked on top of a pile of really super important papers and decided to just use that, because history has proven that if I need a journal, I’ll waste two weeks finding just the right one, and most likely be unable to pick just one, so I’ll buy three, and then still won’t be able to choose and will stack them on top of other stuff I don’t use, and forget that the initial goal was to get rid of clutter.
I’m a human Möbius strip of clutter.
But not today. I’m taking action, dammit. I’ll use this calendar right here. Let’s just do this thing.
I expected another sad, tired lesson on getting organized, recognizing that this strategy doesn’t work because I already know how to get organized — I just don’t want to. But Vogt’s angle was different: forget the clutter — feel the feelings associated with it, without judging them or trying to change them.
One of the first lessons was to select one piece of clothing that no longer fits or you haven’t worn in years, sit and hold it, and be aware of the feelings that arise from getting rid of it. You don’t have to actually get rid of it — just feel the feeling.
It took me 15 minutes just to pick something to think about giving away, before settling on a pair of socks. I held them, imagined giving them away, and felt a wave of anxiety along the lines of “But, I might need those socks some day (even though I haven’t worn them in 20 years) and oh my God, what will I do then, because it will be impossible to find a pair of brown socks anywhere on earth (because brown socks are truly rare)!”
I felt the anxiety and purged them anyway, starting a new pile of clothing on the floor to give away. My husband noted a new pile amassing, and I explained that this pile was different — it has a purpose. He just nodded quietly, and stepped the new pile taking care not to trip on it and crack his head open on the dresser, as all good husbands would.
The clutter lessons continued and one day, I was emboldened enough to set a goal of going through every dresser drawer and, by God, when I was done, those drawers would actually close without bits of sleeves and hems bursting through the cracks.
And, I did.
Every one. I filled up two huge bags with clothes to give away and another bag with clothes so worn and ratty, even homeless people would turn their noses up at them. I managed to — get this — throw those clothes away.
And then I got to the T-shirts.
T-shirts are unlike any other item of clothing, because every one was purchased on a vacation or at an event: my first Madonna concert; Bay to Breakers; the Monterey Aquarium when my kids were little; my favorite Thumper T-shirt from high school.
I was able to take the T-shirts out of the drawer. I was able to fold them neatly. I was able to transfer some to my cedar chest, which I had to sit on to close. I was able to put one T-shirt in the donation bag.
And I was totally aware of why: every T-shirt is associated with a happy memory, which I wouldn’t have recalled that had I not picked up that T-shirt at that moment.
Getting rid of the T-shirt equals erasing the memory.
Without it, I might not remember to remember!
And… cue the anxiety.
I’d like to tell you that I had an epiphany. That my irrational thinking suddenly crumbled, and I weeded out all the T-shirts. That I’m cured of clutter. But I can’t. But I am aware: Clutter isn’t about organization. It’s about anxiety. Fear. Sadness that those precious memories will disappear along with the T-shirts, and there won’t be any new ones. So, I guess it’s also about pessimism. Depression.
No. I’m not cured. But I’m only on Day 40 of Vogt’s program. Will I end up clutter-free a year from now? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe right question is “Will I work through the feelings attached to my stuff?”
I’ll let you know in 325 days.
— Email Debra DeAngelo at firstname.lastname@example.org; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.ipinionsyndicate.com