"You? Writing about clutter?" my friends asked me, incredulous. "But you don't have a problem with stuff!"
Yeah, I put up a pretty good front. To the average visitor, my house resembled a normal—if slightly disheveled—home for a family of four.
But. Upstairs we had this...room. How can I describe it? It was my picture of Dorian Gray. It was my Achilles heel; my albatross; my deepest, darkest secret. At 567 square feet, it was the largest room in our house. And it was entirely unusable.
Filled with the accumulated detritus of 20 years of living in our house, we called it the "Hell Room." When my friends expressed disbelief at my self-professed problem with stuff, I was half-tempted to show it to them, but then I remembered that they might need resuscitation afterward.
Every year, I made a New Year's resolution to win back the use of my room; to address the clutter habit head-on, square-shouldered, steely-eyed. Every year I failed spectacularly.
Then I had another idea. I made a promise to myself to spend an entire year thinking about, writing about, and dealing with clutter. In the process, I made several realizations on the subject of stuff.
I realized that there's an important difference between "clutter" and "mess."
A mess is something we know what to do with. If your kitchen is a mess, you can go put things away and clean it up, or get someone else to come in and do it for you. But clutter? No one can clean your clutter for you. Clutter doesn't have a place to go yet—it's objects in limbo that are the result of deferred decisions.
It's been theorized that keeping clutter is a sign of a fear of death—if I just have enough stuff I can never die!—but I think it signals other fears too. For me, clutter is about a fear of forgetting, of losing myself. It's about fear of being imperfect, of making "the wrong" decision and getting rid of something that I will, sooner or later, desperately wish I had kept.
That's the Murphy's Law of Clutter of course: Ten minutes after you get rid of the World's Ugliest Bridesmaid Dress, someone holds an Ugly Bridesmaid Dress party.
So that year, I made a deal with myself: I promised to forgive myself for the inevitable "mistakes" that were bound to crop up. I tried to remember that, in life, it's rare to make decisions that are clearly "right" or "wrong" and to remind myself that there won't be anyone waiting around with a red pencil to give me a letter grade on how I did at the end.
Another key was to remind myself to be patient. The mess in Hell Room had taken an awfully long time to accumulate, so sifting through it was also going to be a long process. In order to win back my coveted open space and make the room usable, I was going to have to get rid of a lot, and I couldn't bear to have it all just end up in the landfill.
So I made the rounds nearly every week, bringing items to consignment shops, the charity store, the book sale donation bin. I put large items by the curb and crossed my fingers that someone would be delighted to take my clutter, like a weird kind of popularity contest. For the more unusual items (Rug hooking supplies? Boxes of paper file folders?), I joined a local online marketplace and started posting items for a nominal fee or for free. I met people in parking lots to hand over unwanted lamps, folding coat racks, metal file drawers.
Perhaps the biggest revelation of my year of no clutter (one that seems so simple to me in retrospect) is that decluttering isn't something you've done. It's something you do. It's a conscious decision about how you want to live your life that takes up time and energy, like brushing your teeth or turning off the lights before you leave the house. With enough practice, it becomes a habit that you incorporate into your everyday functioning.
And when you see all that lovely, usable, livable space that opens up, I guarantee you, you know it is worth it.
To learn more about my decluttering journey, check out my new book, Year of No Clutter: A Memoir.