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March 29, 2010

The curious case of the continuing ongoing neverending movable clutter feast

Where does it all come from?

I try to keep the clutter level down to a manageable amount but after moving it's as if the contents of my life vomited onto the floor and into boxes and piled up in mysterious heaps. Once again I was surrounded and overwhelmed and wanting nothing to do with any of it except maybe to go shopping for some new and magical storage system that would solve all my problems, because of course the logical solution to a clutter problem is to do some more shopping. You understand.

In an ideal world I would have unpacked and gotten organized and done and decorated in just a few weeks, but in the real world I got the hideous pig flu and hideous book deadline back to back and so nothing got sorted or unpacked or put away, and before long it was the middle of November and I still had boxes and piles everywhere. I can't work in a messy, dirty, tumped-out office, so eventually I gave up and worked on my laptop at the coffee table downstairs or sometimes in bed with a cup of coffee, and hoped for a free weekend or five to sort everything out upstairs, eventually. One day.

One day has come! And gone. And come again!

I did not manage to fully organize and clean and polish and unclutter and gain enlightenment over the weekend, but I did unpack the final boxes, put things away, do eleventy-eight loads of laundry and vacuum everything upstairs including the stairs themselves and the baseboards and the corners and really, my neighbors are probably very tired of hearing the vacuum.

The room I'm using as a home office is quite small and oddly shaped, hugging the side of a rounded staircase and full of angles and curved walls. It has two small, inconveniently positioned closets and a wall of windows. The desk fits fine in the corner by the windows and I smooshed my sofa-chair-thingy into the corner just opposite, it partly covers the closet doors but that side of the closet has the rounded wall so hardly anything fits inside anyway.

Part of the problem with this room was my lack of bookshelving. Books aren't just brick-heavy to haul up three flights of stairs, they also pose a real storage problem. My old place had a huge built-in bookcase and I loved it and over time I got rid of my other mismatched crazyass shelves. So when I moved in here all my books stayed packed up, shoved against the wall in a giant towering mound of boxes. I measured the space along that wall very carefully and found a combo of some very inexpensive Ikea Billy bookcases that would fit -- just barely, I got the measurements down to an inch!

This is a tiny room, really. Once I put a bookcase together on the floor, I had to carve out space from the Box Mountain and carefully wiggle the bookcase against the wall. Since there wouldn't be room to walk with boxes in the middle of the room, I emptied each box as I went along onto a shelf with no order, no plan, no reasoning. Just open a box, throw contents onto shelves and deal with it later.

That's what led to this frantic mess:

(These pictures were taken back in November, using my old camera.)

Another angle of awful:

And the poor messy desk, dirty and lonely, surrounded by a rapidly encroaching clutter pile:


It was somewhere around the time I took these photos that I began to feel overwhelmed and anxious and shameful and borderline hoardy. I hate that feeling. Something about it takes me back to the months right after I moved into the divorce house and I felt trapped and pointless and scared.

So I took a break. I have learned one thing about clutter-anxiety: when it begins to feel like a silent scream is rising up from your deep, shameful horror-center, it is time to take a break. Get a breath of fresh air. Have a nice glass of wine or tea and watch an episode of 30 Rock. Step back. Regroup. All is not lost.

I took a step back and regrouped for, oh, what? four months?

The fear is that I will never be able to conquer my habitual clutter. My anxiety is that I want to have an orderly, pretty home and it doesn't feel either in clutterdom. My shame is that I have so much stuff and don't want to part with any of it. I've been feeling very fragile and tired lately, so I decided not to give myself a hard time about any of this. I decided to tackle this task in small bites, and I started by colorizing.

I love my books and I love visual harmony, so I started there -- organizing them by color, a trick I first tried a few years ago and fell in love with. It's a bigger task than it looks! I put on some good music and started taking books off the shelves and piling them around the room by hue, and then slowly re-populating the shelves. The upside of this technique is that you do find books along the way you can easily part with. I don't know how it works, but it does. Something about tricking your mind into focusing so fully on organizing by color makes purging less painful. Here's the result of my first pass:



Everything organized by color except the knitting and craft books which take up an entire shelf of their own, and the boxes holding office supplies and CDs. And of course there are some magazine holders and organizational doodads here and there, which didn't really seem to be working, but we'll get there eventually.

Notice that in these pictures almost all the shelves on the two bigger bookcases have a lot of space in between rows. Normally I like white space but in this case I wanted a functional wall o' storage, almost like a library wall, so I bought two additional shelves and re-jiggered all the books one more time. Afterward, my bookcase gained about nine inches of extra storage space:


But I don't like it. It's organizing gone wrong! I think I even somehow lost a little space, which makes no sense. By this time, though, I was too tired of moving books around and decided to leave it. I managed to get all my books on this wall, except for my cookbooks and my collection of vintage design books, which are in a tall, skinny bookcase in the living room. But that is another post for another day.

I did finally get the desk cleaned off and everything tidied up and now it feels better, though I didn't take a picture because I got distracted by the cuteness:


After hauling around and unpacking and organizing all these books, I have started to think more seriously about buying an Amazon Kindle. I could still buy books and support the author but they would take up a lot less space. I haven't decided yet because I love the feel of a book in my hands but they are not exactly portable en masse!

I am so glad I took Friday off and spent the weekend humming around the house, washing everything that wasn't nailed down and banishing the tumbleweeds. My life was starting to feel like a runaway train, and having control over laundry and clean floors feels really good. And there is something so zen and soothing about spending a few hours listening to good music and re-arranging books. I feel refreshed, relaxed, like I took a vacation in my head. I didn't think about work, I didn't think about stress and pressures and deadlines, I just focused on my house and my vacuum cleaner and my bookshelves.

All this cleaning got me thinking that when I do move again I'll look for a smaller space though, keeping a small house clean was much easier than a big space! But for now everyone is happy at home and feeling very peaceful:

Best Bob picture ever.

Posted by laurie at March 29, 2010 8:43 AM