You thought the spokesmodel was going to be me, didn’t you? Aww, that’s sweet of you. Actually, what I have in mind is a common feature of, ahem, “pre-minimalist” homes. When people are introduced to the idea of clutter, they immediately put forward their absolute favorite, most valuable, prized possession as an example of their personal belongings. I have antique furniture; therefore, I don’t have junk mail. I have art books; therefore, I don’t have old magazines. I have an heirloom quilt; therefore, I don’t have excessive amounts of craft supplies. I really, really love some of my stuff, so I’m quite positive there is not a single item in the house that doesn’t need to be there. It’s clutter as synecdoche: the part represents the whole.
The hardest thing to understand about clutter is that it has nothing to do with the value of the item. It has to do with whether there is too much stuff for the available space or if it’s disorganized to the point that it interferes with normal activities. “Can’t see the forest for the trees” and all that. We grow accustomed to spending half an hour at a time looking for misplaced items. We get used to having to move bins and boxes to get to other stuff that we want. We aren’t even bothered when we have to tiptoe our way through the occasional narrow pathway, or turn sideways to get past something. Considering how 2/3 of the garage space in this country is kept, and the size of our storage unit industry, it would be fair to say that many of us must actually enjoy shuffling all that stuff around. We like being surrounded by nests of our things. It’s cozy. It makes a nice excuse for not socializing, too.
Skeptics tend to suspect that someone wants them to “get rid of all their stuff.” That may be true, if it’s a roommate or other person whose life is being negatively impacted by it. There may be a legitimate grievance. But the goal isn’t to “get rid of” anything at all. The goal is to have useful, beautiful things that improve our lives. That means that anything that doesn’t meet any of those criteria needs to justify its existence. Obviously, the antiques and the art books and the heirlooms are earning their keep. They’re off the table. (Well, maybe not literally off the table… )
Part of the appeal of working with clutter is that it’s so fascinating the way people get emotionally attached to things. It can be pretty surprising what people pick. The watch from Pulp Fiction is understandable; the little kangaroo, though? Almost never do I see a prized object that someone else would care to have. The specialness of our clutter spokesmodels is visible only to us. That’s fine. It would be scary, though, if we felt that strongly about all of it. There’s a real vulnerability there. What if it breaks or gets stained?
The physical possessions that concern me the most are the ones that I feel need to be protected, because it would be a major inconvenience (or worse) if something happened to them. I’m talking about my passport, my ID, my bank cards, and my phone. All of those items can be replaced; the inconvenience is having to worry about identity theft. Then, of course, there’s my wedding ring. I’ve never taken it off, and I hope to wear it to the end. But the ring is not my actual marriage. It’s just a symbol. There are no other inanimate objects in my entire house that rate that level of symbolism for me. Stuff is just stuff. We have to remember that what we’d go back to save in a fire or flood would be our kids and our pets. There’d be no time for anything else: certainly not for the books or the fabric stash. We can keep whatever we choose, knowing it’s fine to like it, but that what we feel for it isn’t love.
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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.