What happens after we die? Is there an afterlife? As endlessly fascinating as I find these questions, the answer doesn’t really matter. In particular, it doesn’t really matter whether we are reincarnated or reborn in some manner, or whether we did live a different life at some point in the past.
Obviously, the important thing is to live as well as possible in the present moment. More on that in a bit.
What if I am the reincarnation of someone who lived a terrible life and died in a horrible manner? It would be hard to imagine how remembering or becoming aware of any of that could improve my current life in some way. I still have to do my best to be a good person and live a good life this time around, whether I was the villain or the victim. Bad experiences in the past don’t let me off the hook in the present. That’s true whether we’re talking about stuff in the 1980s or the 980s. There is plenty in one lifetime to process. We have plenty to learn about forgiveness and healing in the present day.
What if I am instead the reincarnation of someone illustrious and famous? That just sounds like a moral hazard waiting to happen. Going by the numbers, most people (i.e. possible soul-lifetimes) either died before the age of 7 or lived lives of total obscurity. The chances that I was ever anyone famous – famous then and famous now – are vanishingly small. But if I was, say, Cleopatra* or Florence Nightingale, there are two major hazards for 21st Century Me. I can’t go around resting on past accomplishments or expecting special treatment. Just like the only workout that counts is the one I did within the last 48 hours, the only reputation that matters is the one I’m building today. The other problem is that, if I was incredibly famous in a past life – famous in a good way – I should be doing something even more awesome than that in this lifetime. If that was my foundation, I’m not doing all that much with it…
What if I die in this lifetime and I’m reborn at some time in the future? So what? Presumably I won’t remember anything from this time around. I won’t have the same biography or the same social network. The only thing I would have to go on is whatever spiritual lessons I was able to learn and make permanent. Are there separate degree programs depending on whether we live one lifetime or many? I doubt it. It seems to me that what makes a good life is likely the same either way.
Love thy neighbor. We have to try to learn to love others. The harder we have to work, the more points we get. We have to find a way to stop judging and blaming and comparing and just love. We have to learn to be aware of the outward ripples of our thoughts and speech and actions, and be considerate of the impact we have on others.
Live the best life possible. The world is here for us to experience and appreciate. We have to learn how to stop worrying and distracting ourselves and chasing material goodies, and just be.
Express the spark. Each of us has something special to give, and just a brief window of opportunity to get it out and share it with the world. Whatever it is that we’re here to contribute, it’s our job to put it out there and squeeze out every drop of creative output that we can.
Make the world a better place. What legacy do we leave when we’re gone? A patch of garden? An image of true friendship? An inspiration of courage or loyalty or patience? A creative project? A resolved problem? An innovation? A lifetime is enough to leave at least a tiny mark of positive change in the world. If we can do this, it’s a win, no matter what happens on the other side.
* Plutarch says Cleopatra spoke at least nine languages and rarely needed an interpreter.
The trouble with clutter is that it’s really a bunch of individual items. We may have realized that there’s too much stuff in the house; we may be ready to make a change. As soon as it comes to picking up an item and deciding whether it stays or goes, the party is over.
· How can I get rid of this? It might come in handy!
· It’s perfectly good!
· It was a gift!
· I could sell it on eBay!
· I love it!
· It’s my favorite color!
· I collect these!
· I was going to read that!
· So-and-so might want it!
You know something funny is going to happen on Hoarders when the marimba music starts playing. This is often when the crew starts carrying things out onto the lawn and the protagonist is supposed to decide whether to keep them or toss them. “Keep… Keep… Keep… Keep… Keep…” It’s like a Gregorian chant performed by crickets. Of course they’re going to say “Keep”! That’s what we do! The reason we brought all this stuff home is that we like it and we want to keep it! We just have a very hard time accepting that there’s a finite amount of space and resources for it all.
This is where the good old-fashioned rating system comes in. We’ve become accustomed to rating everything on the entire Internet with 1-5 stars, with the possible exception of Facebook friends. We can rate books and movies and restaurants and kitchen sponges. It never ceases to amaze me the way people will write a three-page review for something they are giving just one star. When prompted, we are automatic rating machines, ready to quantify our appreciation of every object, location, and experience across the galaxy. Pluto: 4 stars, because I still have lingering irritation over that whole planet/not-planet thing.
The trick is to use this rating system to surround ourselves with only five-star things and cut away everything else. If you’ve heard of the Pareto Principle, it says we get 80% of the results out of 20% of the causes. We also use roughly 20% of our stuff roughly 80% of the time. It might be hard for us to differentiate the four-stars from the five-stars, at least at first, but it should be pretty easy to spot the one-stars.
· Never liked it
· Doesn’t fit
· Doesn’t work
· Don’t have all the parts
· Belongs to someone else
· Has bedbugs
· Possessed by demons
I’m consciously avoiding the pitfall of trying to come up with guidelines for the two-, three-, and four-star items. The very impulse to do so is a sign that we’ve slipped into a gray area. There is no room in the house for gray area items. Let’s talk about what rates five full stars.
· Use it on a daily basis
· If it was gone, it would have to be replaced immediately
· Could list it off and describe it from memory
· Has a clearly defined storage space all its own
· Clothes: makes you look and feel fantastic; perfect fit; goes with everything
· Tools: totally reliable, easy to use, gets the job done, would recommend to everyone
· Is awesome
Every house has items that are merely also-rans. The stuff we only wear on laundry day, or not even then. The kitchen utensils that remain in the bottom of the drawer and are only there to get tangled with the good stuff. The billion old magazines and decorations and random objects that we carry in and just never carry out again. These things make it hard to clean surfaces and find the truly important objects. They’re basically just insulation. We take all this clutter for granted, year after year, until we find out we have to move and get all of it into boxes. Why not get rid of all the ‘meh’ objects and keep only the fabulous ones?
David Houle’s Entering the Shift Age came to my attention in a way that affirms the message of the book. I had just boarded an airplane and started checking out the in-flight entertainment offerings on my smartphone. That was the first I heard that not just movies and TV episodes, but also music and books, were available. It was also the first time I used onboard wi-fi. Here I am, a middle-aged person, teaching myself to use a handheld computer to pull a book out of thin air.
As I am writing this, I am eavesdropping on a 10-year-old girl teaching her mother about the inductive charging rings at Starbucks. “That is so cool. What will they think of next?” Indeed.
Entering the Shift Age is the 2013 follow-up to Houle’s 2008 book, Shift Age. I’d go back and read it, except that I have the sneaking suspicion the author would find that redundant. It would just be reinforcing concepts that were clear enough from the sequel, while he’s busy working on his next book. Futurists look forward.
This book excited me so much that I want to quote massive sections from it and steal all the charts and diagrams. It’s a fast read and it’s really cool. I’ll let you find that out for yourself, though, and summarize. The “Shift Age” is a time of rapid historical transition, as any adult should realize from personal experience. I’m about to turn 40 and I remember rotary phones, punch-button car radios, cars without seat belts, smoking in restaurants, cigarette vending machines, record players with LP and 45 settings, and lots of other things that seem antiquated now. I’ve used a slide rule, a transistor radio, and a suitcase-sized “portable” radio that took D-cell batteries. I learned to type on a manual typewriter with an ‘l’ key that also served as a numeral 1. I also watched the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV, as well as the end of apartheid. When I think of how much is going to change during the rest of my lifetime, it makes me shiver all over.
One small point from Houle’s book was perhaps something of an afterthought from his perspective, although it seems incredibly significant from mine. He points out that material possessions will be less important to people in the future. This is partly due to how much of life is done on a screen now, and partly due to how mobile people are becoming. I can speak to this. We are living in the third city of our five-year marriage, and it has definitely made us question how many tangible objects we need. All forms of media, photos, and personal documents can be digitized. People are already starting to see clothes, handbags, and other accessories as transitory (even more true when you start rapidly changing sizes). Virtually any good or service can be ordered online and delivered within 24 hours. One day, we may be able to use 3D printers to make any common object on demand. “Stuff” is so easy to get, and less expensive than at any previous time in history. Let’s start asking ourselves what we’ll really need tomorrow, next year, and five years from now, and letting our personal environments adapt to the new reality.
There is a vast gulf of misunderstanding between the two extremes of housekeeping, with passive-aggressive anti-cleaning memes on one end and Pinterest royalty on the other. My people often have a very narrowly circumscribed image of what ‘clean’ looks like, and they don’t like it. It’s a static, lifeless stage set. The picture usually includes something like plastic slipcovers or doilies or white shag carpeting. What we are rebelling against is a strict standard of perfectionism. I don’t like it either.
I keep a clean house because I work at home, and I don’t like being surrounded by clutter or dirt or sticky surfaces. I have also learned from experience that cleaning a clean house takes a fraction of the effort it takes to attempt to do housework in a dirty, cluttered house. I also see it as a form of rebellion in its own right. It irks people, and I find that funny. If you could stop being annoyed by my perceived perfectionism for a minute, you might learn a few neat little tricks. I mean, it’s not like my house has a “fast metabolism” or good genes.
My goal is to get the maximum benefit out of the minimum amount of work. My home environment is a supply station and base of operations, as opposed to a storage unit. Every room is there for a specific use. For instance, our bed is for sleeping, and that’s why we don’t pile laundry on it. We eat 3-4 meals a day at the dining table, and that’s why we keep it clear. It takes about 45 seconds to make the bed or wipe down the table, and 30 seconds to wipe down one kitchen counter. It would be easy to add a bunch of throw pillows, stuffed animals, place mats, dried flower arrangements, cookie jars, canisters, vases, appliances, stacks of junk mail, dirty dishes, and other random items, whether intentionally or not, that would add a lot of cleaning time to the stopwatch. None of these things are part of the system of using each room for its assigned purpose.
Almost all the labor involved in keeping our house free of dirt is performed by machines. Like most people we know, we have a dishwasher, washer and dryer, and vacuum cleaner. We don’t have to slop the hogs, chop firewood, pump water and boil it, make our own soap, wash dishes or clothes by hand, carry sheets down to the river to beat them on a rock, or even hang-dry laundry if we don’t want to. (I often do during the summer, because it dries faster). I didn’t have access to these modern labor-saving appliances as a kid, so the novelty has not worn off of the miracle of not having to make weekly trips to the laundromat. To me, it is seriously no big deal to spend 4 minutes emptying the dishwasher or 8 seconds loading a single dish after I use it. I’ve timed it at 3 minutes to load the washer, 3 minutes to move wet clothes into the dryer, and 2 minutes to empty clean clothes into a basket. I think the reason people get behind on the laundry is that they let it pile up until it takes an hour to fold and put away. The root cause of that is owning enough clothes to support those large piles.
I’ve made some weird choices based on my preference for maximum efficiency. I don’t have a coffee table. My belief is that coffee tables exist for two reasons: collecting clutter and stubbing toes. I don’t generally put my art in frames, because it’s one more thing to dust, and a potential safety hazard here in earthquake zone. I don’t have window treatments because they’re a hassle to wash. A lot of our furniture choices are based around the needs of our Roomba. Perfectionists, I can only assume, care about impressing people. I care about making sure my house is easy to live in.
There are three parts to my housekeeping system. 1. Buy-in from my husband. 2. Clutter control. 3. A schedule. #1 was easy because the system is its own advertisement. The house is at least 80% clean at least 80% of the time, and our weekends are free. We don’t argue or quarrel and we don’t have to panic if someone drops by for a visit. I spend about 20 minutes cleaning the surfaces of one room each weekday and about 20 minutes putting away laundry and emptying wastebaskets. When I’m done with a room, I don’t bother with it again until the next time it comes up in the rotation. If we go out of town or get the flu, rooms just get skipped for the week, but they don’t take any longer to clean than usual. At any given time, there are probably some dog hairs on the couch, parrot feathers on the floor, and muddy paw prints and/or shreds of chew toys somewhere in the house. It’s definitely not “perfect.” At least they are different individual hairs and feathers from one week to the next! The goal is maximum comfort, maximum enjoyment, maximum relaxation, minimum stress, and minimum hassle. That’s perfect for us.
The existence of Objects of Power is something I only discuss with certain clients, if they seem open to that sort of thing and ready to work at that level. Most of the objects in a cluttered home are just “stuff.” They don’t have any particular significance; they just made it into the house somehow and nobody took them back out again. One of the reasons this happens has much to do with Objects of Power.
Most Objects of Power are not recognized as such. Their powers are dark. They cause anxiety, stress, flashbacks, depression, guilt, grief, sorrow, rage, and shame spirals. Some are so potent that simply catching a glimpse of them is enough to cast a cloud over the rest of the day. We unconsciously work to bury Objects of Power with whatever we can find, putting things on top of them, in front of them, and around them, blocking them from our conscious awareness.
Just what are these Objects of Power of which I speak, batty woman that I am? Collections notices. Bills. Scary legal papers. Unpleasant correspondence. Undesired invitations. Unwanted gifts. Possessions of former friends or housemates. Photographs of ex-lovers. Anything at all relating to a dysfunctional family relationship. Borrowed items that should have been returned long ago. Loved items that have been stained, shattered, or ruined beyond repair, only we can’t bear to admit it. Toys of a lost pet. Reminders of procrastination such as incomplete applications or unfinished dissertations. Boxes we suspect are moldy or full of rodent droppings. Medical test results. Clothes that don’t fit the way we wish they would. Things we couldn’t afford, bought anyway, and now can’t bring ourselves to enjoy. Evidence of past crimes, literal or figurative. Stuff that acts upon us exactly the way it would if it were cursed.
Stuff is just stuff. It doesn’t actually have any power over us. The emotional attachments and memories that exist for us are invisible to others. We can still process our feelings without the presence of the objects we use to store and represent those memories. We can confront both the dark feelings and the Objects of Power simply by saying, “You have no power over me.” We can choose to move on and create a different story, one in which we resolve past issues and let them go.
We can also bring in Objects of Power with positive properties. Weird as it is that so many of us keep things that make us feel terrible, we can acknowledge our sensitivity to objects in our environment and use it constructively. Some smaller items such as a bouquet of flowers or a decorative tray for incoming mail can transform a cluttered area into a showpiece. Replacing the ugliest piece of furniture with something beautiful always works. A new bedspread or towels can do wonders. Mirrors and light fixtures are some of the more potent Objects of Power. We can reward our excavation efforts by replacing spooky, dark things with beauty.
A red flag is a metaphor for something that should be seen as a warning. Have you ever come home at night to an open front door, only to realize someone had broken in? Have you ever seen someone collapse on the sidewalk? Have you ever seen an unattended child start to cry? There are a number of situations we run into that make us say, “Something’s not right here.” There are red flags that anyone would clearly recognize. What I’ve started to wonder about are what I call “pink flags,” or situations that could have tipped us off that something wasn’t right, if only we were paying enough attention. Usually we only recognize the pink flags in retrospect.
People are calibrated differently when it comes to red flags. One of the hidden gifts of anxiety is that it can lead us to take greater care and avoid risky situations that might ensnare someone else. We can get certified in first aid, save money, dispose of hazardous materials properly, or be the person who calls the police after hearing that single scream. Unfortunately, anxiety is more likely to get us all wound around the axle worrying about things that will probably never happen, like a meteoroid crashing through the roof, rather than worrying about things we can actually control, such as our blood glucose levels or our retirement savings.
Age and experience teach us to see red flags where we used to see only pink. We start to recognize unsuitable job opportunities, cheating lovers, or poorly made junk that isn’t a bargain after all. We tune into physical signals that we’re better off not staying up that late, having that last drink, or eating that third slice of pie. Then again, we also start to take for granted that with age comes infirmity, chronic pain, weight gain, lack of mobility, and all the rest. Just because we start catching more red flags doesn’t mean we catch them all.
A couple years ago, I got some routine blood work done. When I get these kinds of test results, I always read them over carefully and Google what is considered a healthy range. I saw that my blood glucose, while at a healthy level, had increased noticeably each of the last three times I had it checked. Since there are two generations of diabetes and pre-diabetes ahead of me, I take this particular health indicator very seriously. If the current trend continued, I’d cross the line in a few more years. I quit drinking soda, cut back on all forms of sugar, and lost 25 pounds. When I had my blood work done again a few months ago, I was pleased to see that I had reversed the trend and my blood glucose was back where it had been years earlier. Later, I learned that researchers have started referring to Alzheimer’s disease as “Type 3 diabetes,” and I was relieved that I had already taken action. When it comes to risk factors for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, sleep apnea, hypertension, angina, or glaucoma, I’m always scanning for flags of even the faintest pastel hue. I don’t want to put Future Self in the position where we develop a perfectly predictable health condition, given our genetic tendencies, and wish we had taken the warning signs more seriously. I can act on the information available.
The two most commonly procrastinated actions are planning for retirement and dealing with health issues. We like to dump that stuff on Future Self. Even someone who takes great pride in being well organized and never procrastinating on daily tasks may still ignore serious health problems for years on end. When it comes to money, we generally cover our ears and start singing “LA LA LA LA LA!” People who will open up about their darkest memories of child abuse, divorce, depression and psychoactive medication, hoarding and squalor, will shut down when it comes to obvious health risks and debt. We cruise past the red flags and ignore them even as they turn to black flags.
The missing piece is that humans are fallible, and we don’t identify with Future Self. When faced with the aftermath of our procrastination, we can’t connect with how we’ll feel tomorrow or next week, much less with how we’ll feel in ten or twenty years. If we picture ourselves elderly, poor, and ill, we feel fatalistic about it, as though it were out of our hands. We don’t understand the difference between fate, the circumstances that befall us, and destiny, the circumstances we create through direct action. We don’t always attend to the red flags, much less the pink ones, because we get distracted by worries from the past and superficial concerns from today.
I tried a dating website once, met a guy, and we started going out. This is a very efficient way to meet people you would otherwise never know even existed. The main drawback is that you meet them out of context. You may not meet their friends or family or anyone else who can vouch for their character. You only know what they choose to tell you about their past – or their present, for that matter. Another drawback is that dating websites have a lot in common with catalog shopping. You scroll through, find something you like, put it in your cart, only to find out later that it doesn’t necessarily match its photo or description. At least with shopping you can compare user reviews!
Anyway, when we met, this particular guy was lean and fit; he ran track in high school. I was… well, I was at about 95% of the heaviest and most out of shape I’d ever been in my life. My sport was marching band. What transpired was a lot like the ending of Grease. Personally, my heart melted when I saw Danny in the letterman’s jacket. I thought that was the happy ending. Then Sandy steps out with a cigarette, looking like a dominatrix, which is a very scary persona for a 9-year-old kid, and there goes my happy ending. I do live in a musical, but no, neither my Internet boyfriend nor I wound up choreographing any dance moves at a carnival. What happened was that we beheld each other, I decided to get fit, and he decided to relax.
About six months in, I was going to Curves and working out five days a week. He had quit working out with his personal trainer and quit running, too. He started getting anxious. “Don’t let your butt get too small!” he chastised me. He started trying to overfeed me and talk me out of workouts. At the same time, he started complaining about his own weight gain and his lack of motivation.
While we were together, I think he gained about 20 pounds. I lost 17 inches in a month and dropped three dress sizes. We were like two ships passing in the night, briefly at the same latitude and longitude, but ultimately with opposite headings.
When we broke up, he opened up. He told me my success had made him anxious. When we met, I was flat broke, fat, and out of shape. I quickly got my feet under me, started getting promotions and raises at work, and started getting fit. He felt insecure and thought that I wouldn’t want him anymore, that after I’d upgraded everything else I’d want to upgrade my boyfriend, too. So he deliberately tried to hold me back and undermine my efforts. I was the one who initiated the breakup, but still, this shocked me. What I felt was just a poor match was actually a deliberate, conscious strategy of sabotage!
This story is partly about why I don’t tie my body image to the male gaze. Different men have different tastes – you know that, right? – but one particular guy’s penchant for a certain hair color or figure type is irrelevant to my interests. I can’t simultaneously be a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead, while also being tall and short, curvy and lean. I have to be myself because trying to be anyone else is unsustainable for more than the duration of one costume contest.
The main point of this story is that my Internet boyfriend and I had completely incompatible beliefs about motivation, willpower, habits, goal-setting, and ambition. I thought he would be impressed, possibly inspired, by all my hard work and focus. Instead he felt threatened.
My physique was, and is, only one manifestation of my ambition. I’ve had the same improvement-oriented mindset over a 35-pound weight range. I have had maybe three boyfriends who prefer a curvier physique, who thought I was sexier when I was heavy, so I know those guys are out there. When I met my husband, I was in my largest clothing size. He accepted me as I was, but it definitely caught his attention when I became a gym rat. He appreciated my transformation from sedentary bookworm to endurance athlete; it gave us more in common. He’s been there to help me shop at every clothing size from 14 to zero. What he likes is seeing me at a higher energy level, with color in my cheeks instead of dark circles under my eyes. He sees the real me: passionately curious, constantly experimenting and changing, driven to experience as many facets of life as possible, with only my body and personal environment as laboratory.
The subtitle of this book is What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth. And here we were, thinking it was Disneyland. I read this book after seeing the author, Lisa Napoli, interview Gretchen Rubin. What a cool and interesting person, with such a cool and interesting job. That isn’t the half of it. Radio Shangri-La is the story of how a chance meeting can lead to serendipitous events that can change the entire course of a person’s life.
If you had the opportunity to pack up and go overseas for six weeks, would you do it? Napoli refers to her initial trip to Bhutan as a midlife crisis around her 40th birthday. (Note: We both live in the same area, and I’m turning 40 next month, so it’s easy for me to identify with her). Most people would pass up a chance like this due to details like spouses, kids, pets, or simple anxiety. It’s particularly interesting to me that the possibility of the trip came up after a six-week happiness course and Napoli’s practice of keeping a gratitude journal. Maybe we only become open to noticing and considering these sorts of things when we are prepared with a certain mental attitude.
In the postscript, Napoli describes talking with a friend who wants to know where she wants to be in five years. “I didn’t want to make her feel bad, since she seemed to be one of those people who liked plotting her life. I just knew you couldn’t do that.” She goes on to talk about happiness, saying, “I didn’t feel good because I had a new romance or a new job that paid tons of money, or anything visible or measurable…. I wasn’t waiting for something to fall into place so that life could get started.” I’m definitely one of the plotting types, but I do agree with this to an extent. It’s the difference between fate and destiny. We can’t control things that happen to us. We can control our attitude, our actions, our speech, and our personal environment. We can control whether we make health a priority, whether we are accountable and responsible, whether we are reliable and emotionally available to the people we love. Part of why Lisa Napoli experiences Bhutan the way she does is that she’s dedicated to her work and a good friend to so many people.
The book is part travelogue, part memoir, as Napoli works out a terrible personal trauma and divorce. It’s a great example of subduing anxiety and emotional burdens to move forward and make space for adventure. It’s a terrific read. It’s funny and filled with gossipy details and a pinch of romance. I highly recommend it.
A friend complained to me that he couldn’t seem to find the motivation to go to the gym. He had been doing really well when he had a personal trainer, but he couldn’t afford the trainer anymore. Without regular appointments on his schedule, he just wasn’t going. He’d gained a bunch of weight and he felt out of control.
“You must not want it bad enough,” I remarked.
Two days after that conversation, he called me. “I couldn’t stop thinking about what you said, that I must not want it bad enough. It made me really mad. Yesterday I went straight to the gym and had this really intense 90-minute workout.” “See, there you go,” I said. “You just have to get back in the habit.”
The problem was, he didn’t go back after that.
Actually, there were three problems. 1. We both believed in the mystical, sparkly, fairy-infused hoo-ha of the fable known as “motivation.” 2. Neither of us understood the nature of habit. 3. Neither of us connected my friend’s chronic bagel consumption to his rapid weight gain. Basically, we believed in unicorns but not in horses.
“Wanting it badly enough” may be enough to get someone to the gym once. Being mad and trying to prove a point can indeed light a fire that will burn around 500 calories, or two bagel-units. What do you do after that? I would have been happy to provide Full Metal Jacket-style “motivational” speeches to my friend several times a week. We all know how that movie ended. If that stuff worked, every gym would have a poster in the lobby with a kitten meme, and every member would work out 5-6 days a week. You could buy a t-shirt with some quote that caused everyone who read it to become a power lifter or ultra-marathoner. Fortune cookies would change lives.
“You will conquer obstacles to achieve success.”
“YES! I WILL!”
There has only ever been one person who ever wanted something badly enough to be motivated to practice every day, and that person was Inigo Montoya. Just think. If his father had lived, he simply would have become a master swordsmith. Fezzik would never have been convincing as the DPR, and then where would we be? But I digress.
Nobody ever killed my father, thank goodness, but that does tend to leave me rather short on compellingly inspirational reasons to work out. The good news is that reality is ever so much more accessible and attainable than fantasy. In truth, I haven’t had a gym membership for the last five years, and it’s been two years since I even stepped foot in one. Keep a meticulously accurate food log for three weeks and you’ll find out everything you need to know about reaching and maintaining a goal weight. Knowledge is power. Whether you find that inspirational or not, at least it’s true and reliable. You can count on it. (See what I did there?) It’s less like a lottery advertisement than an actuarial table, but so be it.
There are three reasons I stay fit. 1. Force of habit. 2. Knowledge of how it’s done. 3. Feeling craptastic and going downhill fast if I slack off past a certain point. If there’s any motivation in there, it’s reverse motivation. I get a migraine and lie on my back crying into my ears, mentally cursing myself. I start getting a pinched nerve in my neck that takes weeks to resolve. Every morning I get out of bed and my joints sound like a campfire, snapping and crackling loud enough to hear yards away. “Better get back on it,” I say, grimly. And that’s a Grim Fairy Tale for you.
Most of the things we do are based on stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how the world works. My work with squalor and hoarding has exposed me to a rich and varied folklore about material objects and their emotional significance. Fascinating stuff. (See what I did there?)
“There are eight million stories in the naked city,” and at least as many in the average cluttered house. Every object has a story attached to it: Where it was bought, who gave it as a gift, what occasion it represents, what future aspiration it signifies, how it fits into a collection, what it does, and often how much it cost. It’s like everything has an invisible QR code that can only be read by the materially-oriented owner. Ah, but – in every house where I have ever worked, there are objects that turn up that nobody recognizes. Usually there are enough mystery objects to fill a standard moving box. Nobody can figure out where they came from or how long they’ve been there. I suspect interdimensional portals of some sort.
My people are versatile and resourceful. Pick up any object at random and they will be able to come up with dozens of potential uses for it. That’s part of the attraction behind empty packaging materials or doodads that someone else would throw in the recycling without a second thought. Might come in handy. Sure. I bet I could come up with a list of uses for a roadkilled skunk, a broken lawn chair, and a gallon of corks, but that doesn’t mean I need them in my garage. The irony behind these divergent thinking skills is that they lead to maximal stuff, rather than minimal. If you’re MacGyver, you can build anything out of the bits and bobs laying around in a parking lot. If you’re the Professor from Gilligan’s Island, all you need is coconuts. What’s with the warren of tottering box towers?
One of the sadder paradoxes of clutter is that my people are very territorial about their belongings, yet not very good about respecting the boundaries of other people in the home. Don’t touch my stuff, even the stuff of mine that I put in your closet. Don’t touch my stuff, even when it’s on the dining table, the couch, the kitchen counters, the bathroom counters, and the living room floor. I know children who are teenagers and have lived their entire lives with part of a parent’s hoard in their bedroom closet. There are always reasons why the stuff is there, reasons that boil down to “I am unable to respect that others are equally entitled to a fair share of the communal living space.”
Another paradox of clutter is that it tends to build up in inverse proportion to perception of financial stability. Poverty makes us cling to what we can. When we’re more financially comfortable, we start to realize that we could buy one of those any time, and maybe we don’t need it right now. Personally, I have a harder time letting go of things if I got them for free. When we’re broke, we like wandering around the thrift store or the dollar store or the library book sale, because these are places where we finally feel like we can splurge and bring home anything we like. We don’t realize that over the course of a year, we’re spending the same amount we would buying fewer, higher quality, more expensive items. Some of us are even paying a monthly fee for a storage unit we can ill afford, not realizing that after a few years, we could replace every single thing in there with a brand-new one for what we paid to store it all.
Clutter doesn’t make rational sense, by definition. Clutter isn’t about the nature of the object, or its value; it’s about whether it is disorganized or whether it gets in the way. Clutter makes it harder to clean up and harder to find important things. It’s also a safety hazard. Why do we create these high-maintenance living environments for ourselves? It’s because we value individual objects more than we value their collective utility or the function of the space we’ve cluttered up. We don’t realize what a burden our stuff places on other people around us. Life gets easier when we start to trust our ability to make do without a particular object, the power we have to troubleshoot and solve problems without money, and the freedom we feel when we finally have room to move.
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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.