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April 8, 2008

Stuff and more stuff

I'm fairly certain I spent at least ten years of my life thinking the solution to my clutter issues (or piles of assorted bits, or disorganization, or whatever) was simply that I needed to find the right storage system to house my stuff. The perfect set of matching decorative boxes or bins or a carefully measured and assembled IKEA shelving system would be JUST THE THING! finally! to solve the problem once and for all.

And so almost every single foray into decluttering began with me measuring a wall or a closet or flipping through the Ikea catalog and making a list of stuff to buy. Then I would spend the whole weekend running off to stores -- the weekend specifically set aside for decluttering, mind you -- and by Sunday night at 10 p.m. I would be siting in my house surrounded by piles of excellent organizational tools, or pink boxes with little labels, or some wacky new Swedish shelverbären thing and interestingly enough no decluttering had transpired at all. Quite the opposite.

Yes, it must have been ten full years of using that particular clutter management approach. Talk about elevating procrastination into an art form.

I'm happy that living in such a small place forced me to deal with my clutter issues. At first I wasn't the least bit happy, I was actually intensely and urgently pissed off about it. I blamed the divorce, the ex-husband, the lack of financial stability, the shitty divorce lawyer, the government, the neighbors, the state of California and also the weather. Just because.

I mean imagine being too freaked out about your life to leave your house and at the same time being too freaked out about your overwhelming clutter to stay inside your house. Crazy! I spent a lot of time that year alone on the back patio smoking cigarettes and trying to decide if fleeing to Mexico was a viable alternative. And how many cats and shoes I could fit in the Jeep before crossing the border.

Those first few months in this house were almost untenable. I wish I had taken pictures of how bad it was right after I moved in, but even I was in such shock that it wasn't funny or photo-worthy or a "story to tell one day." At the time it was shameful and embarrassing and pathetic. It was 2500-square-feet of a ruined marriage moved into an 800-square-foot bungalow in the Valley.

I love my house now for being so small that it forced me to live within my means (in more ways than one.) The very boundaries created by this house outlined my new life. I would have to take responsibility for what I had, see what was really in front of me, make some hard decisions and get a move on if I wanted to have any life at all. It took over two years to really get the bulk of junk cleared out and now it seems manageable, even spacious sometimes. I can't believe I used to think this house was so small -- compared to places I lived growing up, it's a palace. I shared a room with my brother and lived in tiny dorm rooms and even when I first moved to Los Angeles my apartment was the size of a closet. You could make dinner, take a shower and open the front door all at the same time. But that was before -- before I maxed out my credit cards trying to buy happiness, before I tried to live up to some lifestyle I thought I wanted, before I began shopping to fill the void. Back before all that I lived pretty simply and it was nice. I love my little house for reminding me of that.

I haven't renounced stuff and gone off to live a monastic existence ("I am more pure and unsoiled by commercialism than you, you of the patent-leather handbag!") Stuff is great and I like stuff just as much as anyone. I love my new coffee table, for example. It's awesome and I like shining the kitty noseprints off it with a soft cloth. But that rampant drive toward acquiring crap has died inside me. There used to be a need, an impulse as strong as hunger to go out and buy something pretty, and that need is purely gone. I don't know if it was living within a budget for so long or just returning to a sense of myself or both. But the empty spot inside that I used to try to fill with treasures on sale is just ... gone. If I buy something now it's usually because I like it or need it or want it, but not because I think it will change my life. There's not a store out there selling what I needed to change, you can trust me on that one.

Rome was not uncluttered in a day so I do still have a few boxes and piles hiding around my house, mostly in the office. Partially this is from my medical condition, I have a terrible addiction to office supplies. It's 12-step worthy, really. At work I sometimes stand in front of the supply cabinet the way bored teenagers stand in front of the fridge and stare inside, waiting for something appetizing to jump out at me. In addition to the pens and hi-liters and post-it notes in every color, shape and size, my home office has been the repository of clutter and paperwork and tidbits. It's not cluttered in the meaningful and dramatic way it was back when I moved in -- that's a relief -- but it's a dumping ground anyway, the one place for stuff that has no real place or function. All that stuff I'm still trying to figure out what to do with it -- it's in the office.

Spring makes me want to clean and declutter and open the windows and get the cobwebs out (it's brief, so you have to harness the urge while it strikes, you know.) I've been doing a little work in the office every morning (in truth, all this was started by the dire need to find my paperwork for the scary taxes) and before long I was dragging boxes out of the corners and dumping clutter out of its assorted hiding spaces. Why do I have a box of zip drives from 1998? Why? It's that kind of clutter, the stuff you just don't want to deal with.

This spring I noticed something a little different, though, a nice change. Instead of running off to find more shelving and storage and clutter-hiding, clutter-holding, clutter-displaying contraptions to address the issue of my home office, I started actually removing the clutter. Bags of stuff for the trash, recycling, the shredder, goodwill, more trash. I finally wiped the hard drive of that ancient computer and found a place to donate it. Finally got rid of the power cord to nothing, the broken tape recorder, the papers I was sure I would need someday for a car I do not even own.

It appears I have finally given up hope that the solution to my clutter problem is buying more clutter. I don't need new shelves or a fancier office-supply labeling mechanism or a better closet organizer. I just have too much crap for one small room and need to get rid of it.

What a relief! I don't have to buy anything new or assemble complicated free-standing shelving components. I don't have to squint at pages of unreadable assembly directions illustrated with asexual creatures in overalls. I don't have to hope Target has some particleboard thingamajig on sale to hold my stuff. I don't have to scour Home Depot and The Container Store and OSH for new shelves that will fit the bizarro 1940s dimensions of my closet or new boxes that will fit on new shelves and conceal even more stuff.

I just have to pare down a little more. Get rid of some crap. It's really the solution to the problem.

Posted by laurie at April 8, 2008 2:48 PM