The divorce wasn’t my idea. Let me just put that out there. At least, consciously it wasn’t my idea. I cried myself sick when he made the announcement, and I thought my life was over. I thought nobody would ever love me again, you know, now that I was 24 years old and everything. It was funny, though, when one of my friends made the joke that I had just gotten rid of 200 pounds of clutter. I needed that laugh! It was the first inkling I had that 1. Maybe my ex wasn’t such a catch and 2. Maybe there was more going on in my clutter clearing than I had realized.
I found a book. It was kismet. I had gone to Powell’s to find something to read on the way home, since I had nearly a two-hour bus ride and I had already finished my library book. I wandered around the store, picking up various books, carrying them around listlessly and putting them back. Nothing grabbed my attention. Imagine being in a three-story bookstore that covers an entire city block and finding nothing to read. Something was off in my life and I still hadn’t picked up on that fact. After about an hour, I found myself in a back corner of a room I never browsed. I was staring at a row of books that were so irrelevant to my interests, it was surreal. Then my eyes wandered down to the bottom shelf. There, at my feet, was this funny little gray book called Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui. I picked it up, read the jacket, and thought, “Hmm, I should buy this for my mom.” I bought it, read about 40 pages on my bus ride, got home, set down the book, and immediately started bagging up stuff I knew I no longer needed. By the time I had finished that slender little volume, I had gotten rid of truckloads of stuff. Extra clothes, board games, books, decorations, all sorts of things.
About a week later, my ex asked for the divorce.
The claim of energy work like space clearing is that it shifts the energy in your life. I have no reason to dispute that claim. It seems self-evident. The more people I help on this journey, the more true it seems. One day you start to realize that it’s time for something to change in your life. That word CHANGE is highly charged and extremely powerful. It’s a light switch that flips ON, and the light goes into every crack and cranny. A cluttered living environment is one of the most obvious, tangible, physical examples of what is really an emotional, mental, and spiritual state. A happy, fulfilled person simply does not tolerate a messy, dirty, smelly, disorganized environment. I mean, would you pay to stay in a hotel like that? If not, then why pay rent or a mortgage to sleep in an environment like that?
What concerns me is when clutter work becomes an end in itself. We draw out the projects, and the work goes on and on and on and on and on and on. I call it “churning.” What we’re doing is yet more interacting with stuff, picking up and carrying stuff, taking stuff out of containers and putting it in different containers, labeling stuff, meditating on stuff, journaling about stuff, and looking at pictures of stuff we wish we had instead. What we are not doing is expurgating the reasons we got the stuff in the first place. WHY are material objects so compelling for us? Why not just go to an art museum and look at the most beautiful things in the world, and then go home and live in an efficient space? Why get so hung up on unused fabric, clothes that don’t fit right, uncomfortable shoes, old books, and holiday decorations?
I had clutter in my first marriage because I was seeking desperately for the secret to a happy, middle-class, suburban marriage in a nice home. I thought if only I could arrange my home in just a certain special way, I would figure out the secret, and everything in my world would click into place and I’d feel comfortable at last. I had a thing for board games because I associated them with cheerful family get-togethers – which almost never happened anymore because my ex only wanted to play video games and became childishly sulky when I made him go to any kind of gathering. I had a thing for thrift store clothing because I had no awareness that I had put on at least 30 pounds (zero idea how much, just guessing from photos) and I kept getting too fat for what I already had. I would buy random things I didn’t need, because it felt like I was getting a bargain, and that demonstrated how thrifty I was. I was trying to shore up my crumbling self-esteem, not realizing that my real issue was living with a critical, contemptuous person who was never satisfied with anything I did. My brain couldn’t hold the concept that I was married to someone who didn’t love, respect, or like me, didn’t enjoy my company, hated my sense of humor, and would abandon me the minute any serious difficulty came up in our life. I also had no understanding of what “bipolar” meant, and since this was before Google or Wikipedia were invented, I just thought my husband was “moody.”
The clutter work did what it was supposed to do. It shifted the energy of my home. Um, a lot. Looking back from the happy, comfortable perch I always wanted, I realize that I could never have married my second husband (my REAL husband) if my ex and I had stayed together. What a sad, lackluster life that would have been. I’m sure my ex would describe such a life in even more colorful terms. If that marriage had not failed, I probably wouldn’t have finished my college degree, learned to drive, learned to cook, run a marathon, gotten fit, written a book, or become a coach. I most likely would have continued to have problems with chronic pain and fatigue and migraine and all the rest. Of course, at the time, I felt like my life was in a tailspin. The next few years after the divorce were dark and difficult. It makes me think of going caving and walking under a natural skylight, where the heat of ordinary sunlight and the smell of garden-variety dirt seemed suddenly so intense and lovely. I knew it was up there but I had a lot more walking to do underground before I could climb up and find it.
Do the Obvious is my credo. Clutter is an obvious thing to me because I work with it all the time. In many cases, though, clearing clutter is not THE most obvious thing that should be addressed. Clutter becomes a stand-in for the most pressing problem, the one that seems the hardest to address, the dragon in the living room. Shh, don’t wake it up, or it’ll breathe flames and burn this hut to the ground.
What’s the real problem? Because I sincerely doubt it’s just stuff. Unspoken conversations? Relationships that are past their sell-by date? Adult kids who need to find jobs and move out? A dying pet who needs some help to get over the Rainbow Bridge? A stretch of unemployment that’s gone on way too long? Serious financial or legal difficulties? Denied health problems? (And that definitely includes being overweight, getting your teeth fixed, and procrastinating on surgery or physical therapy, among many others).
We shop for the same reason we indulge in recreational eating. We’re trying to manipulate our moods. When my people talk about material objects, their pupils visibly dilate. It’s a dopamine hit. OOH, STUFF! Hey, I have this bag of old fabric – do you want it? (j/k) This is why we tend to have clutter problems AND weight problems AND money problems AND relationship problems. When things aren’t working right, we try to turn all the knobs and dials of our neurochemistry rather than simply taking action and fixing whatever is bothering us. Love me, feed me, bring me presents.
Some things really are simple. In a bad situation? Get out of it! Need a job? Apply for jobs 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, until you find one! Overweight? Keep a food log and find out why! Too much clutter? Bag it up and haul it out! It is theoretically possible to completely unclutter a suburban home over a long weekend, if you really want to and you work like your hair is on fire. It is also possible to shovel out squalor, deep-clean, and make repairs, although that tends to take longer. Dozens of people have lost 100 pounds in a year. Hundreds of people have paid off tens of thousands of dollars of debt in a year. There are countless people who are just a few credit hours shy of a degree, and they could finish in a single term if they really wanted. The question is, why don’t we take action? When we have internet access that includes thousands of step-by-step articles, slide shows, videos, blogs, interviews, etc. explaining precisely how other people have already done the thing... why don’t we?
No situation lasts forever. Change is always coming for us. We think we can shut the door, stop time, and wait until we “feel like it” or we’re “ready” or “in the mood” before we take action. Sometimes we die first. Sometimes we get evicted. Sometimes someone asks us for a divorce. Sometimes we get fired. We really can’t choose to freeze the world and put off decisions as long as we like. When it isn’t right and it isn’t working, it’s just a matter of time before that fact becomes abundantly clear. Clutter work is important work; space clearing is very valuable, and the process has a lot to teach. It helps, though, when we focus on making strategic plans for our lives. Clutter clearing should really be a blip, something that’s completed over a defined span of time. We’ve realized we don’t have to live that way anymore, and we’re moving on to bigger and better things.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.