Minus the ghosts, there are some common images that suggest a haunted house, and you can spot them in any neighborhood. An overgrown yard with a dead lawn choked with weeds. Chipped and peeling paint. Windows with constantly closed curtains, blinds, or shutters. Nothing about such a home says Welcome, friends and neighbors! But a house doesn’t have to be haunted to look like that.
Houses are much more likely to be haunted by bad memories and a feeling of being trapped in the past.
Houses can also be haunted by power struggles, shame, constant fights, or occupants who have nothing to say to one another.
Myself, I wouldn’t mind a ghost so much. What’s it going to do, whisper in my ear at night or write on a foggy mirror? Leave my cabinets open? Pfft. I had student loans for twelve years so nothing scares me now. I’d much rather live in a house that WAS haunted or LOOKED haunted than in one that merely felt that way.
We do it to ourselves as often as not.
When I do clutter work during home visits, I almost always come across haunted relics. A sheaf of love letters, never mind the terrible breakups that followed. Random junk left behind by that roommate who left without paying the rent. Swag from every former job, especially the worst ones. Paperwork from...from everything:
Benefits folders from a decade ago
Collections letters from three years ago
Credit card statements from *gulp* today
Negative performance reviews
Scary medical reports
One of my very first space clearing jobs included an entire box of parking tickets, paid long ago, but there they were. An adult career woman carrying the guilt of a busy college student’s ancient mistakes.
We punish ourselves by keeping constant reminders of the worst moments of our lives. We don’t usually even realize we’re doing it. Either we’ve completely forgotten this stuff is hanging around, we have no memory of it, we’ve buried it in harmless junk mail, or we are avoiding it.
We know it’s there, we think about it constantly, and yet we can’t bear to face it or deal with it.
That right there. That’s the feeling of being haunted by your own stuff.
There is another category of stuff that haunts us, and that is the category of grief clutter. This is the hardest clutter of all to clear, and in fact I’ve failed at it every time. When the subject comes up, I tell people that I have no idea what to do about it. I have no suggestions. I don’t know what to say because nothing I have said has ever done any good.
In the worst example of this that I have yet seen, the surviving daughter sat on one couch cushion every night, because the rest of the couch had boxes on it. Both her parents had passed away, and she had ALL of their worldly goods packed in boxes, stacked four feet high, completely packing her home. Only a narrow goat path was available from the front door to the bathroom, the bedroom door, and the kitchen. You had to turn sideways. The bedroom was full, too.
She lived in a monument to the dead.
This impulse is universal. Death turns the survivors crazy, at least temporarily. Siblings will cut each other off for life. Entire extended families will disintegrate, just when they need each other the most. All that’s left is the stuff.
Hairbrushes with hair still in them
Prescription bottles on the nightstand
Old worn-out slippers
Every single stupid pot-holder and fridge magnet
We believe that these objects hold our memories, and so we turn them into horcruxes. It’s not a baking dish, it’s my childhood! We’ll drive ourselves to penury paying for storage units to hold stuff we don’t need, because we have no appropriate ceremony for letting it go.
It’s harder when it’s the residue of multiple lives. I know someone who moved into a family home hoarded up with at least two generations of grief clutter. The grandparents died, and the parents never dealt with it their entire lives, and then they died, and guess what. Pass the buck.
What I’d like when I go is a park bench, or ideally an entire park. I want my memorial to be a place where friends sit and talk together, where young people fall in love (or old people for that matter), where kids climb on and off their parents’ laps. I do NOT, for the love of all that is holy, want my memorial to be a bunch of boxes filled with my old clothes and dishes. Ugh.
One of my biggest fears is that this will happen, that nobody will throw out my old socks or my toothbrush and my spirit will be caught in purgatory for an extra generation.
It’s the time of the year to think about this stuff, how there is a time for every purpose and how the seasons come and go. We’re here for just a little minute, and then we’re gone. Why, then, does our old stuff hang around for so long?
Thinking of grief clutter, we can use that energy for some positive procrastination. We simply pretend that it’s finally time to deal with all those boxes, and then instead we find ourselves sorting through our own haunted junk. The clothes that we quit wearing because they remind us of a bad incident. The broken ornament or decoration that we can’t make ourselves throw out. The dead houseplants. The papers!
Unhaunting your house is getting rid of anything that serves only to hold bad memories. If even thinking about it makes you feel sad, guilty, or depressed, why do you have it? Because you’d have to look at it again as you were trashing it?
Unhaunt your house and do it soon. Maybe there’s a bonfire coming up and you can burn a bunch of your old papers and photos, like I did with my old wedding album. What if your house was clear, and only for the living, and facing toward the future rather than the past?
Have you ever had a bad houseguest? It’s okay, you can tell me.
I’ve had a bunch, because I’ve had a lot of roommates over the years, because we used to host a lot of Couchsurfers, and because we tend to like an open house. It helps to make a person patient and flexible. The more people who are around, the more likely that some of them are more demanding than others.
The one who left huge clumps of hair in the drain every day. The one who left their notifications on high volume and got pinged several times an hour, all night long. The one who basically ate everything in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. The one who rearranged the furniture while we were gone. The one who invited a bunch of people over, one of whom looked at me when I came home and asked, “Who are you?”
Um, I live here? And who are YOU?
We have to ask our stuff the same questions that we would ask of a bad houseguest.
What are you still doing here?
When are you planning to leave?
Am I your personal maid or were you ever planning to pitch in a little?
You wouldn’t believe the stuff I’ve seen, both in photos and in home visits. Piles of stuff covering half the bed, so the owner only has a little sliver to sleep on. Piles of stuff covering most of the couch. Piles of stuff blocking doorways, blocking the stairs.
If this were a person, we’d be inclined to say, “Excuse me but could you please MOVE?”
When it’s our stuff, it blends into the background, taking over the joint while we just make our own space smaller and try to ignore it.
Stuff doesn’t just hog the couch or bogart the dining room table. It leaves the kitchen and bathroom a mess, has no intention of cleaning up after itself in the laundry room, and furthermore, it’s taking over the garage.
Sometimes it even rents out a storage unit and starts billing you for it.
If stuff were a person, we’d be writing to advice columns about it. People all over the country would be reading it over coffee and dropping their jaws. Oh my gosh what next?? The nerve of some people! Then what did they do??
Stuff can be so outrageous that way.
It doesn’t earn its keep.
It never helps out around the house.
It has no intention of ever getting up off the couch.
It has no future plans or goals.
It will just sit there and let you do all the work, no problem.
It will expect you to step around it and it’s never going to move itself out of your way.
It doesn’t care if it sets a bad example for your kids.
It doesn’t care if it embarrasses you in front of your friends.
It doesn’t care if it gets into your photos and messes up your shots.
It’s happy to let you pay for all the household expenses, and it will never pitch in.
It’s never going to cook you dinner.
It’s never going to walk your dog.
It’s just going to make your life difficult until you finally decide to do something about it.
What’s going on in our heads when we tolerate an annoying situation? I can tell you what I’ve thought when I’ve had bad houseguests. “She’s having a tough time right now.” “It’s only for a few more days.” “Our dog loves them.” “Well, they didn’t set anything on fire.”
I had a supposed roommate when I was 19. He moved in, and not only did he never pay any rent, not one dollar, but he also ran up my long-distance phone bill and refused to pay it. I had a two-bedroom apartment, and the rent was about 80% of my income at the time. I couldn’t afford to carry both of us, nor should I have had to, since this guy was just a friend of a friend.
I felt bad for him, though, and I didn’t want to make my friend mad, and I believed all his stories about why he quit or got fired and all the interviews and new job opportunities he had coming up. It never crossed my mind to just say, “Pack your stuff,” and get a different roommate who would actually pay.
Finally my boyfriend got mad for me and took action for me. He even found me a replacement roommate, a friend of his who needed a place.
I had a typical young person’s passive attitude, not realizing that a lot of things were my responsibility because not long ago, “real adults” handled those things in my life. I focused on the stuff a teenager would focus on. It didn’t cross my mind that nobody else was in charge.
Sadly, a lot of “real adults” have the same attitude even when they are decades older than I was in those days. They don’t notice things in their situation or their environment because it hasn’t occurred to them that nobody else is in charge.
What things? Things like falling into debt, missing tax deadlines, leaking pipes, infestations of insects or rodents, mold, asymmetrical power dynamics, or, of course, piles of clutter.
What, you mean all that stuff is up to me to deal with?? What are you saying??
Taking full accountability can be very painful at first. It requires a perimeter check.
Going to the dentist after several years, checking bank balances and figuring out how much you owe to how many lenders, writing a list of overdue action items and understanding how much work it will be to dig out. Getting a bunch of bags and boxes and starting to haul clutter out the door. Setting boundaries with people, including those pesky bad roommates and houseguests.
It’s a good thing, though. Clarity about what to do is a huge part of finding motivation. What do I do next? This, this, and this. Clarity leads to solid boundaries, and boundaries lead to peace of mind.
Is your stuff being a bad houseguest? What are you going to do about it?
The thing about goals is that they’re often too small, too easy to reach. It takes something on a grander scale to be really exciting and worth chasing, and that’s the visionary scale of a dream. Just like goals, though, dreams may not be what we had imagined when once we actually make them real. As time goes by, we may not realize that what we really want is something entirely different.
That’s when it’s time to release an old, expired dream and start chasing a new one.
When I was a kid, like a lot of children, I wanted to be a veterinarian. It’s fun to say big words and impress adults. As I started to realize what veterinarians actually do, I changed my mind. All I could picture was having to give shots to puppies and kittens all day, and owie! Now, as a middle-aged person, I know a few vets, and the truth is that theirs is a very difficult and often sad profession. It’s been over thirty years since I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I was okay with letting that dream go.
(But thank you ever so much to those of you who pursued it!)
Optimists like myself have a fairly easy time of it, recognizing and letting go of expired dreams. We’re future-facing, and we’re more interested in moving forward, toward something appealing. The reverse is true of a lot of people, those who lean toward melancholy and regret. Releasing an expired dream can feel achingly sad in these cases.
I have a dear old friend who is at the top of his profession. This is funny to me, because I’ve known him since he was a university student, filling his study area with towers of cola cans. He is literally working his dream job, the only thing he’s ever wanted to do with his life, and he’s wildly successful at it. He’s making more money than he could have imagined, living in his dream city, married and traveling the world. Yet he’s constantly wistful about his teens and twenties and in some ways feeling like life is passing him by.
Why? What could have been better than the outcome he got? Staying twenty forever, battling bad skin, being broke and not knowing how to cook?
As we get older, the past starts to put on this golden, hazy glow. We forget the bad parts and the rough edges. This really seems to start to kick in after we hit our sixties, and it’s part of why older people tend to be happier. We can see it in action if we compare the stories someone tells us with the version they were telling ten or twenty years ago. We can compare their notes with those of their friends and family who were there, we can compare it with photos, we can compare it with journals and letters and news headlines. Gee, that sure isn’t how you were telling it when it happened!
Come to think of it, *I* was there, and that’s not how I remember it either!
It’s probably for the best. Our shiny new versions of tawdry old events are part of what keeps us going.
Nostalgia isn’t a very good bargain, if you ask me. Why trade future visions for feeling like our best times are behind us? I know that isn’t true in my life. I wouldn’t even want to go back two months, much less two years or twenty years. I look better today than I did in old photos. My life is easier and better, and why? Because I’ve always chased my dreams and continued to dream bigger.
I live the life I do because I’m specific about what I want, and that motivates me to go out and get it.
The easiest of the expired dreams to let go is the dream of being with your old crush. One of the greatest things about social media is that it’s easy to find people and see how they’ve turned out. In my case, my crushes are now of an age to have grown vast wizard beards, which is awesome, but my husband can do that too.
Any single one of my old crushes would not result in the marriage that I have today, and that’s a thought that makes me feel small and panicky. Trade this for that? No thank you.
Dreams can be of any size or duration, just exactly like clouds. Is yours continent-spanning majestic size, or a house-sized bit of fluff? Is it going to drift away before you can grab it?
Here are some dreams that I’ve released, and why.
I used to dream of having an electric car, when they were new and uncommon. I’ve released that dream because I hate driving! My dream is not to have a car at all, and I’ve been living that out for nearly three years now.
I used to dream of being 5’10” - six inches taller than my adult height - and I’ve released that dream. Now I understand that my size is efficient for things I like to do, such as distance running and backpacking. It’s easier for someone of my size to do pull-ups and other body weight exercises, too.
Once upon a time, I dreamed of earning a degree in Classics. I released that in my senior year, when I changed majors, because I finally realized that nobody understood what it meant, and I got tired of explaining it. Also, it struck me that I could spend my time learning modern languages rather than Latin and Attic Greek. (I did come away with rather splendid Greek handwriting, though).
It’s interesting to picture myself as a tall woman driving around town in an electric vehicle and wielding a Classics degree. What am I doing? Am I a professor of antiquities? Hmm. A valid life, an intriguing dream, but... nah. I’ll take what I have today, thanks.
Aspirations usually show up in physical form, and they’re far more likely to manifest in small consumer items than in bigger things, like acceptance letters or class syllabuses. We buy little trinkets as placeholders for our wildest desires. I see this all the time, and in fact I can usually pinpoint someone’s expired aspirations within minutes of entering their home.
Foreign language dictionaries, unopened packages of art supplies, dusty fitness equipment, books with pristine spines, mute instruments, clothes that don’t fit... signs and relics of unlived personas, untouched fantasies, untested dreams.
These are objects of power, mind you. There is vast energy stored in these sigils, these artifacts of past dreams.
Let’s all agree to forgive ourselves for having lived our actual lives. Let’s let go of this idea that things might have been better if only we had been someone else. Imagine if everyone you loved was someone else instead: would anyone be left to love you? Love yourself the same way, just the way you are. Then box up your old aspirational clutter and offer it to someone else, someone for whom that dream still has bits of sparkle to explore.
I just moved, and this book was a big help to me. What Your Clutter is Trying to Tell You, sometimes, is “either pay for a bigger apartment or get rid of some stuff!” Unlike most clutter books, this one focuses more on the inner work and less on the routine organizing aspects of space clearing. In this sense, it’s a better pick for those of us who sometimes struggle to let go.
Q: Why is my house so full of stuff?
A: I have no idea!
Kerri L. Richardson gradually downsized from a 2,000 square foot house to 500 square feet. I’ve done a similar process, and I can verify that this experience definitely clarifies what you do and don’t need! On the other hand, I’ve also found that when people discard a lot of stuff in a short period of time, they can feel so distraught that it becomes traumatic.
This is exactly why it’s so important to focus on the emotional aspects of why we care so much about our stuff.
What Your Clutter is Trying to Tell You covers everything, from sorting through clothes and books and papers to setting boundaries with people. This is a very rich topic, because so often a person’s family members have made more choices about the stuff in the home than the owner has.
Richardson’s book is an excellent companion for the intense work of space clearing. If you’ve been feeling stuck or struggling with why you can’t seem to motivate yourself to get rid of clutter, maybe you should find out What Your Clutter is Trying to Tell You.
I define clutter as anything that gets in the way of living the life of your dreams.
What am I tolerating in my life?
Organizing your mental clutter begins the process of establishing realistic expectations.
Once my clutter is gone, I’ll be able to _______________.
How long would it take to wear everything you own at least once?
This is a bit of math that always confounds my people. I have them do an assignment called “How many shirts?” We count off how many they need, according to their own standards and preferences, and then we count what’s in the closet and compare the numbers. They always have at least triple what they thought they needed.
Then when it’s time to sort and cast off some of the excess, they freeze.
There’s another classic indicator of unwillingness to proceed, and that is the concept of taking inventory.
Count everything you have in this category.
What if you needed to file a claim with your renters insurance because the upstairs neighbors broke their waterbed?
If the thought of taking inventory is overwhelming, then the stuff is taking over. Your home is for you, not for a bunch of inanimate objects. YOU live there. The stuff just takes up space.
I’ve been very aware of this lately because we just moved into a much nicer, slightly larger apartment with about half the storage of our old place.
I’ve started the Wear Everything project.
The goal is to put together an outfit featuring each article of clothing in my wardrobe at least once. When I wear it, I can take notes. Do I like it as much as I did when I first got it? Do I still have at least three other garments that I can combine with it? Does it fit the same? Is it getting worn out?
As an under-buyer and someone who hates shopping in general, I tend to hang onto things until they are really getting past the point of acceptability. I had to reluctantly put something in the rag bag a couple of weeks ago because I realized the entire chest area was becoming threadbare, exposing undergarments that I did not intend to become outergarments.
That’s one thing for pajamas, and quite another for a professional wardrobe.
Unlike most people, I was carefully taught how to do mending, ironing, and stain removal. I can even darn socks. The trouble with this is that I lean toward a Depression-Era sensibility. I don’t need to be walking into a conference room looking like an extra from Oliver Twist.
In my closet, things tend to fall into two categories: Stuff I rarely wear, and Stuff I wear until it’s ready to fall apart. The Wear Everything project is meant to bring attention to both categories. Should I be wearing certain things more often, or is there a solid reason they aren’t in regular rotation? Are there things I rely on a little too much that have served their time?
For the past twenty years, I’ve followed a cost per wear formula. How much did I pay for something, and how often would I have to wear it for it to work out to $1 per wear? If I pay $50 for something, I should then wear it about once a week for a year, or twice a month for two years. The exceptions to this guideline are formal occasions, like evening clothes or, most especially, an interview outfit.
How much is appropriate to pay for a garment that helps you get a $10,000 annual raise?
This was a challenging lesson for me to learn. I remember waffling over an $80 discounted interview suit for weeks, going back to visit it three times before I shakily handed over my debit card. I got the offer ten minutes after the interview, and that suit had paid itself off by the end of my first day on the job.
BUT… think of how many thrift store outfits I could buy with $80! (not the point, knock it off, Scarcity Brain)
Scarcity is the single biggest issue behind the clothing issues that my people have. With a single exception, all of them have had absolute mounds of clothes. Three dressers in one bedroom is standard for my people. Most will have a range of at least three clothing sizes - I personally have retained six sizes at one time.
Why? Why do we keep things that don’t fit, that we don’t like to wear, that we may never have worn even once?
Example: a brand-new pair of men’s formal slacks, the inseam of which had never been sewn together, due to postponed alterations
We keep things because we like how they look (on the hanger, not on our bodies), because they were gifts, because of what they cost, because the act of sorting is overwhelming, because we strongly identify with the aspirational image that these clothes represent, because they remind us of a moment in time, because we can’t even see or find them in the depths of the wardrobe.
We should be keeping them because we wear them regularly, they fit great, they work well with other things that we also wear regularly, and we look good in them.
There can easily be a wide gap between these two standards!
Most of my people wear a small selection of clothes over and over again, pulling them out of a laundry hamper, when 80-90% of their total wardrobe languishes on hangers, in drawers, on top of the dryer, on the floor, scattered across a dresser, piled on the couch, in the back seat of a car, et cetera.
Get rid of everything that doesn’t get worn and a huge series of problems magically disappears!
What I’m finding as I methodically Wear Everything is that I don’t always LIKE everything. I wore a top the other day and felt like, This is so low-cut, why did I even buy it in the first place? (The answer: it probably didn’t fit the same way when I bought it four years ago).
As I do the laundry, I pull out the awkward space-fillers in my wardrobe, fold them, and put them in the donation bag. Inevitably they will suit someone else better than they suit me today.
Or not. Excess clothing is a global problem. What we really need to do is to slow our roll, to buy fewer things in the first place, cut back demand and manufacture less.
Bulging closets are one symptom among many. When we have too many clothes, we often also have too many books (yes there is such a thing), too much in our pantries, too many papers, too much in our bags weighing down our shoulders, and too many demands on our time and attention overall.
At this transition between one season and another, I’m Wearing Everything because some of it has to go, just like autumn leaves turn color, fall off, and turn into soil. It’s time for me to replace many garments that have served me for several years - ten years in a few cases! Considering what I will be wearing this fall, and the next few autumns as well, helps me to look forward, imagining fun times to come. I release what I no longer need, making space for the new.
Free isn’t free. It’s better to understand that going in. Anything you take, any object that you handle, has strings attached.
One of the great paradoxes of clutter is that it’s usually harder to get rid of “free” stuff than things that we bought at retail price. Why? No idea, I just know that it’s true.
We had a give-away party after our last move, and one of the items in the pile was our last set of plastic shelving from when we had a garage. We were 100% sure the shelves would go, and we were astonished when they didn’t. The other half-dozen sets had so much traction on Craigslist that we probably should have sold them for cash.
We don’t look at it that way, because we don’t necessarily want to advertise our home as a place full of valuable stuff. (It isn’t). Giving something away attracts gratitude, while selling something seems to activate scarcity mindset in everyone involved. Do I really want to spend my free time dickering over $20? Do I really want a lot of random strangers driving to my specific home address, wondering what else I have?
The thing about shelves in particular is that they have no intrinsic value. They are not beautiful to look at, and their only use consists in storing and/or displaying other items. Nobody just wishes for a house full of empty shelves, and then leaves them that way.
I had a good laugh the other day because one of the apartment units in our building is visible from the pool. What we could see from our perspective was a wall of built-in shelving with about a dozen paperback books on it. There was room for several hundred and they looked a little lonely, all on their own.
This is dangerous, an attractive nuisance. Nature abhors a vacuum and for this reason, empty shelves attract clutter like nothing else.
Once clutter is stored or displayed on a shelf, it never leaves. It merges with the shelving unit and becomes an unremovable part of the whole. It becomes impossible to imagine the object and the shelves separately.
The strangest thing about shelves is that they tend to be inexpensive and easy to find. Yet the people who need them the most never seem to have any. I have a theory about this.
When my eldest nephew was a little boy, we had a conversation about money and stuff. He came running in breathlessly asking to get into his piggy bank because a neighbor kid was willing to sell him a plastic truck for ten dollars. What the heck?? [insert static noise] I told him that sounded way too expensive and that he’d have to ask his dad. Then I gave him a homily about how we save money so we can get something really cool later.
“I like to buy lots of small stuff and then I don’t have to wait,” he replied.
Yeah, you and all my hoarding clients, I thought.
My people, caught in scarcity mindset, all share a knee-jerk reaction that goes NO I CAN’T AFFORD THAT. They are unable to process the idea that a $40 set of shelves costs the same amount as ten $4 items or forty $1 items, which I can clearly see scattered, stacked and piled all over their home.
I “can afford” infinite amounts of $1 and $5 items. Never in life, in no alternative universe, could I even hypothetically afford any item over $X.
That’s the line. That’s how it works. In the scarcity paradigm, there is a permanent cutoff of any price tag over a certain amount, forever and always, for all time, the end.
The other issue with something like a set of shelves is that it needs to go somewhere. Any set of free shelving is virtually guaranteed not to match either the existing furniture or the dimensions of the room. In a cluttered room with a lot of big furniture, it’s never obvious where such a thing could go.
Our utilitarian beige plastic shelving wouldn’t look good anywhere except for a garage, and none of our friends has a garage, because few of the homes in our region do. We live in small apartments or condos because that’s mostly what is available. Who wants to live in a small place dominated by an ugly set of shelves? We all operate under the assumption that our homes should be comfortable and reasonably attractive.
My people, on the other hand, plan everything around THEIR STUFF, what they already have and whatever else they might carry in.
How could I set up these shelves? I’d have to move all these bags and boxes first.
The free shelves that are easy to get are only free because there’s something wrong with them. Either they are rickety or unappealing, or the original owner tried them and found that they didn’t do the job. They’re designed for a purpose. Our shelves are designed to hold medium-sized moving boxes or storage tubs. They work great for that, but they’re too tall for most stuff, either in the garage or indoors. Other “free” shelves might be designed specifically for DVDs or paperback books or some other standard size unit.
A standard shelf will either attract more items that fit it, because it feels right, or it will fill with random clutter that has nowhere else to go. It’s either manifest destiny or lebensraum.
Ideally, a shelf empties and refills. Clean dishes, clean towels, fresh groceries, they’re all supposed to come and go. It’s hard to tolerate clutter on shelves that are constantly in use, because anything that isn’t being used is always in the way. That’s what clutter IS, of course. So what is it that we think we’re doing with any shelf if it’s filled with stuff we don’t use?
The goal is always to be intentional. With something like shelving, it should be clear what is being stored, why, where, and for how long. Then it’s simple enough to find a set of shelving of the right size and dimensions. Maybe sell off some existing clutter to pay for them, thereby solving two problems: too much stuff, and nowhere to put what’s left. Good luck finding any free shelves that will magically do that job.
This summer has really done a number on our waistlines. We went on three trips out of town, adding up to over a month. Between that, moving, and my series of oral surgeries, there hasn’t really been a normal day for us in months. Like most people, that means we haven’t been eating normal meals, either. We’re in our new place, which has a mirrored door on the bedroom closet, and we’re thinking, Oh dear.
Note that I said “normal” meals, not “regular” meals. This isn’t about missing any mealtimes, oh no. It’s more about restaurant food, eating at the airport, and half a metric ton more French fries than we’d normally eat in a year.
This is what happened. We moved into our new apartment, literally were unpacking boxes until 11:00 PM the night before we went to the airport, and then left the country. When we came home, it was a lot like walking in the door of our new home for the first time.
We walked in, and we were both at our highest weight of 2019.
Not everyone cares about this, and if you personally don’t have to care for health or financial reasons, well bully for you. In both our cases, we’re at the point where we either need to replace our ENTIRE WARDROBES or we need to slow our roll.
Since we just moved and went on vacation, we’re not in any hurry to spend money on anything that isn’t a strict necessity.
I don’t enjoy the feeling of the waistband of my pants trying to do stage magic and saw me in half, so the sooner we can make some changes, the better.
The good news is that we’re benefitting from three things. One, we both know we want to have good news to report in four months for the New Year, so we’re intrinsically motivated. Two, we’ve collectively lost 100 pounds and we know what to do. Three, and probably most important, we are structurally supported by our new kitchen.
One of the main reasons we moved is because we were both sick and tired of the tiny kitchen in our old studio apartment. We could only be in the room one at a time. We had one square foot for meal prep. It was hard to reach anything and removing one item, like a bowl or a pan, required moving other stuff out of the way. As a consequence, we started relying on a lot of frozen food.
The new kitchen is woefully short on drawers, there is only one cabinet deep enough to hold a lot of bigger stuff like baking pans, and we still don’t have enough space for a pantry cupboard. The spice rack is on top of the fridge. BUT!
There is plenty of counter space, it has a full-size dishwasher, the sink is deeper and it has a sprayer, it’s better lit, and it looks much nicer all around. We basically went from 1980s kitchen to modern overnight.
For the first time in our marriage, my husband can find ingredients and utensils without having to ask me where they are. That is momentous.
He cooked a proper meal the second night. I had already unpacked the kitchen well enough that it was functional. In fact I had managed to heat up a can of soup for lunch while the movers were still hauling things in. We were both more interested in getting the kitchen in order than we were in anything else, at least once the bed and shower were operational.
When you enjoy cooking, it’s relaxing and fun. When you walk into an inviting kitchen space, the first thing you think is, What would I cook in here? I often cook at my parents’ house and sometimes I cook with friends, too. It’s a lot like how musicians display their instruments, and sometimes their friends ask to pick one up. It’s also a lot like Sewing Room Envy.
We were still in the unpacking process and we were already stacking carefully labeled leftovers in the freezer.
There is nothing like eating home cooking after a long absence. DANG this is good!
We had been consciously eating down our provisions for a couple of months before the move, planning to avoid leftovers and finish off containers without replacing them. Our fridge and freezer were almost completely empty the day of the move. This left us with a more or less clean slate in the new place.
Right now the fridge is full of a bunch of chard, a head of cauliflower, and the biggest cabbage that we’ve ever seen, almost the size of a watermelon! When I say “full,” I mean that the main compartment is mostly produce. This is fairly typical for us; we’ll eat the chard and the cauliflower over two meals. The cabbage might take three.
What happens when two good cooks share a kitchen is that they start working to outdo one another. A particularly fine meal inspires a follow-up. As bachelors, we both would occasionally eat cereal for dinner, and of course we could do that any time we like, but it seems really depressing now. Why settle when you have the time, space, and resources to make something better?
We were at the grocery store, stocking up, when I noticed a new kind of frozen pizza. I pointed it out. We both shook our heads, Nahhh. We also walked right past the mini corndogs.
Most people don’t have functional kitchens. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main three are: at least twice as much stuff as necessary, power struggles, and lack of a system. People with far larger and better equipped kitchens than ours are not appreciating them at all! My suggestion would be to rate your mood and energy level against what meals are actually emerging from your kitchen, and then reevaluate all the stuff on your countertops.
It doesn’t take actually relocating to get yourself both a new kitchen and a new dinner!
It’s that time again, time to move! We’ve been eating up what we have on hand, and this has led to some interesting revelations. What are we doing when we’re coasting along in default mode, and how does it compare to what we would rather claim to be doing on some sort of survey?
Our freezer is almost completely empty right now. We decided to get ready to move immediately after coming home from vacation, when we hadn’t been shopping yet. That was the first disruption. HALT! Eat what we have and try to avoid bringing home anything new.
The second disruption happened when I also skipped my occasional “stocking up” trips. One of our frugality tricks is to wait until certain staples go on sale, and then buy as much as we can fit. Since we haven’t had a pantry for the past couple of years, this means freezer stuff. It keeps, it’s at eye level, and it’s a very limited space, so we know we can’t overdo it.
This would definitely be the point when I would plan to fill up the freezer with entrees to last 1-2 weeks.
The third disruption was when we noticed we were running out of oatmeal and declined to go to Costco. There is truly no point to going to a warehouse store immediately before loading a moving van, especially when you plan to live closer to said warehouse store afterward.
As with any area of complexity, there are multiple inputs here, all with different causes and all with different effects.
As our freezer has gradually and steadily emptied out, it is becoming apparent that I harbor some major fantasies about leisurely hot breakfasts. Now more than half of what is left in there consists of breakfast foods. That does sort of solve the low oatmeal reserve problem.
It has also become apparent that we tend to eat certain foods more quickly than others, and some orphans have been hanging around. I discovered, much to my surprise, that there are two containers of homemade soup in the freezer, and one of a special katsu sauce that I batch-cook because it is incredibly messy.
This makes it theoretically possible to eat an actual “home-cooked” meal in our new place the very night we move in!
Something else came up in the surprise pantry assessment. My hubby found my carefully hidden, freezer-burned non-dairy chocolate brownie ice cream. It’s probably been in there, what month is it? Six months or more? It was under my stash of vegan white chocolate chips from New Year’s Eve 2017.
Yes, it’s true, no matter what I eat or claim to eat, I always have a stash of dessert foods hidden away somewhere. Twenty-five years ago it was a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies in the back of my desk drawer, kept at work so I wouldn’t have to share with my boyfriend. Now it’s - well, it’s whatever I feel like - considerately hidden from my abstainer husband.
Abstainers have to avoid temptations entirely, because otherwise they will immediately cave in. Moderators like me prefer to have the temptation on hand, just to know it’s there, like a fire extinguisher. It’s just as unfair for me to prominently display treats around my husband as it is unfair for him to require me not to keep any in the house.
I learned to be a moderator from my dad, incidentally. He would get three Cadbury chocolate bars for Christmas, one plain, one with dried fruit, and one with nuts. They lived in a desk drawer next to his favorite chair. Sometimes, while reading a book, he would unwrap one of these, snap off one rectangle, and nibble at it. Just one. Not every day. Those chocolate bars - you can imagine how I knew, a little kid staring at candy - would last him for months. I learned to associate moderation with higher-quality candy! That’s probably why, in our fruit bowl, I still have a few pieces of candy left over from Halloween, over nine months ago.
What else do we have in our pantry, now that we’re aiming for nothing?
A dozen or so jars of homemade soup stock, canned four years ago when we had a much larger kitchen. Likewise home-grown and canned tomatoes and collard greens. Are we going to cook from scratch more when we move to a new place and have a conventional kitchen again?
A few different kinds of flours and sweeteners, kept in the fridge for lack of space. Again, bought when we had a bigger kitchen and more counter space for baking. Are we going to do more of that, or are we wasting money by buying more than we use?
Condiments, so many condiments. We seem to keep accumulating mustards and capers and barbecue sauce and salad dressings, no matter where we live or what we’re doing. At least they are current, since we definitely started from zero when we moved to this region.
Behavioral research indicates that moving is the best time to start new habits. Thinking about when we first moved to this apartment, things have been different. We’ve eaten a lot more prepared foods and we’ve done very little cooking. We’re fitter, though, because we started taking classes at a gym instead of leaving our workouts up to fate. We used to alternate which one of us cooked, but it’s been very haphazard in this tiny studio kitchen.
Now what we want to do is to set careful intentions about our new place, because if we don’t, we will certainly fall into default behavior. We’ll have our first grocery shopping trip to fill up our ghostly, echoing fridge. What’s going in the basket? What will we bring home, what will we cook, what will we eat?
Most importantly, where will I hide my treats?
We’re moving again. When? I dunno. I just know that this is not the place where we are going to retire. Our lease is up this fall and I want to go sooner rather than later. This is the method that I use when I want to shake things up a bit.
Most people don’t plan their moves. In my experience, this is one of THE most commonly procrastinated human activities. I know it because when I do home visits, there are universally always boxes still sealed from the last move, often many years in the past. Nothing personal. People just suck at moving.
One thing I know is true. If something stays sealed in a box, then nobody needs it.
If they did, they would have found it and opened the box and gotten it out.
I’ve moved, I think, 27 times as an adult. Add to that all the people who I have helped pack or move or unpack, and all the clients I have helped do space clearing years after the fact. It’s a lot.
Working with hoarders has been a great refresher for me. Every single time I come home from a home visit, I get rid of another bag of stuff. I even start thinking about my own belongings while I’m still on site. Why do I have so many books I haven’t read? Why do I insist on keeping certain garments even when they’re threadbare and it drives my husband nuts to see me wearing them?
I don’t have much as a general rule, because I formally downsize on a regular basis. Even so, I’ve found that moving requires a culling both before and after a move. First there’s all the stuff you shouldn’t pack in the first place, like empty paper sacks, and then there’s all the stuff that won’t work in the new place, like furniture that won’t fit.
The difference between me and most people is that I actually DO the work that should be done here. I actually DO go through my stuff and get rid of a bunch of things before we move. Then I DO go through it the second time while I’m unpacking.
This has been made easier by our tenuous existence inside of a 612-square-foot studio apartment over a year and a half.
When we first moved into this unit, we had three boxes left over that had nowhere to go. It was mostly pantry food (and, as it turns out, the sewing machine). I had them stacked up next to our dining chairs, and they were unbelievably annoying.
Too stubborn to throw them away, though!
(Many types of food can’t be donated to the food bank, such as flour in a canister, homemade soup stock, or anything in a container that has been opened).
I finally managed to unpack those last three boxes one day while my husband was at work. Let me tell you, he noticed the moment he walked in the door.
It’s easy to be a minimalist in a normal-sized suburban home. That’s because they tend to have tons of closets and cabinets, and you can hide all your stuff.
In a studio where almost all the available storage is on open shelving, suddenly you don’t look like such a minimalist any more! Anyone who comes over and uses our bathroom is going to get a view of our closet, with almost all our worldly goods, not to mention our laundry hampers.
I’m determined to get ready to move, and I want the unpacking process to be even easier than it was last time.
The last time we moved, I unpacked a lot of stuff as we went. We had a friend - a truly amazing person to whom we owe a major debt - come over and help us hand-carry our stuff from one building in our apartment complex to another. Every time I would bring over a load, I would put it where it belonged, starting with the shower and the fridge. By the time we finished late that night, the bathroom was completely unpacked, the bed was made, all our clothes were set up, and the kitchen was half done. We were able to get up the next morning, shower, dress, and make breakfast like nothing had happened.
The main area where I’m focusing as I manifest our next relocation is the kitchen. I’m planning around eating up everything in our fridge and freezer, including condiments. This means the only grocery shopping we’ll really be doing is to buy fresh vegetables. I always wonder how we wind up with so many different flavors of mustard and salad dressing, and that continues to be a question that will probably never be solved.
Doing the closet is a fairly quick job. It takes my husband ten minutes because he’s all about the capsule wardrobe. It will probably take me more like an hour. Then maybe a half hour for the bathroom cabinets.
The other big challenges are our paper file box and the books.
At some point in our relationship, I seem to have passed the baton of book collecting to my hubby. Almost all my reading is digital these days, while he has been doing an unprecedented amount of business travel, which generates a lot of paperback books. Books add bulk and weight to the moving boxes more quickly than anything except clothes, so it’s worth putting in extra focus here.
As for papers, we try to be paper-free as much as possible, yet still they tend to accumulate. I keep hoping that one day we can scan and shred what’s left and be done with it entirely. Papers tend to take the most concentration, and the more they pile up, the harder the job is. That’s why I insist that we purge the file box every year. I refuse to spend more than an hour at a time on this odious task.
I’ll do an inventory of household cleansers and all the random boxes, bags, and bottles that our pets generate.
This time, we’re hiring professional movers again, at my husband’s insistence. I know the job will be easier for them if everything is orderly and streamlined when they arrive. I also know they’re going to unpack in the most random way possible, so the less we have, the better.
Watch this space as I demonstrate how quickly I can manifest a nicer apartment, or maybe even a house!
“Happy families are all alike,” claims Tolstoy, and it’s fair to say that organized people are all alike as well. Chaos, though, is personal.
This is the fascinating thing about working with the chronically disorganized. Their living and work spaces may have a lot in common, as far as the stacks and piles and dust. But the reasons they have for letting things get to that state are all distinctly individual.
The family with small kids and the confirmed bachelor. The teenager and the retired lady. They are only alike in that they can’t figure out what to do about their personal chaos.
You’d think, from all those squalor-sploitation reality TV shows, that all my people make the same mess. They don’t, though. Most of my people are not true hoarders, even though they think they are. They’ll cheerfully get rid of truckloads of stuff and never look back. They just need someone there to help them figure out what to keep and why.
There are usually isolated islands of calm amidst the chaos.
The one who owns a carefully curated capsule wardrobe with plenty of space between hangers
The one who keeps an immaculate living room
The one who is always photoshoot-ready (outside the home, anyway)
The one who lets go of hundreds of books but keeps expired food
Chaos is personal because stories are personal. We live the way we do because we’ve internalized messages about how the world works. We explain things to ourselves, or memorize the way others have explained them. Sometimes we even talk to ourselves, convincing ourselves all over again, in the sense of “how dare they!”
The one who had more stuff than any of my other clients, but somehow managed to keep a nice living room: I want it to look good when my friends come over.
The one whose hair, makeup, and wardrobe are always on point: I could never let myself go.
The one who hoards food but not books: I already read that and now it can go to someone else.
That one is fascinating because it posits that books are consumable, that they come and go, but that food belongs to some kind of longterm storehouse. It’s perfectly fine to read a $25 book once and then donate it, but it is never okay to throw away a five-year-old bag of pasta that cost $1.99.
In my fantasies, the ones I indulge when I’m working through a particularly gross and smelly forgotten area, in my fantasies I host a symposium of chronically disorganized people. They debate amongst themselves whose stories make the most sense.
Often I find myself challenged by these stories, because they don’t match mine, and sometimes my client has a point. For instance, the one who would never, ever leave the house without perfect hair and makeup. I’m more or less the opposite. I’ve left the house in my nightgown because I wasn’t feeling well, but I would never let my HOME go.
The first sign that something is wrong with me is when I somehow “don’t feel like” making the bed. This happens two or three times a year, and without fail, it means I’m either getting a migraine or coming down with a cold.
My client’s story is that the way you present yourself says everything about you. It makes or breaks your reputation.
My story is that I’m not going to bend over backwards to impress other people, and if they require me to look photo-perfect before they’ll talk to me, then I don’t want them for a friend anyway.
My client believes that real friends will accept your home in any state, that they come over to see you, not your house.
My story is that since I work at home, I need and want it to be orderly. I clean my house for myself, not for anybody else. My story is that my home reflects my mental state and my self-respect.
What if we’re both right?
What if everything about us has the opportunity to make a first impression? What if we’re better off attending to both our personal appearance and our homes?
I sure don’t want that to be the answer!
On the other hand, what if we’re both wrong? What if our real friends don’t care if we look a little sloppy OR if our living rooms do?
There’s no right answer here. It depends entirely on whether you care more about your own inner standards or about the judgments of others. It’s also true that people are different, our situations are different, and the values and opinions of our friends vary person to person.
People are often afraid to have me over, because they know about my work. There are people I’ve known socially for many years who have never allowed me to visit them at home. It’s ironic because out of everyone, I’m the *least* likely to judge! I have seen it all and I have smelled it all and I have climbed over it all. I know that people rarely manage to keep up with their own image of what they wished their homes looked like.
Part of what fascinates me about working with chronically disorganized people is that learning about them helps me to learn about myself. Every time I come back from a home visit, I get rid of stuff. I recognize that my clients’ daffy stories about why they “need” to keep certain things sound... hauntingly familiar.
So much of it is aspirational. I’ll wear that one day, I’ll read that one day, I’ll learn how to do that one day, I’ll file that one day, I’ll fix that one day, I’ll sell that at a yard sale one day, I’ll eat that one day.
What about today?
What are we doing about today?
If my stuff doesn’t match my routine, then why? Why am I not taking advantage of these opportunities that I’ve provided myself? Why do I plan to do one thing and then spend my time doing something else instead?
Only one thing is guaranteed. The stories I tell myself about why I’m doing one thing instead of something else are not obvious to anyone but me. My story is my own, and my chaos is my personal chaos.
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.
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