The decision to clean up a cluttered or squalid house is a big one. It requires waking up to the situational blindness that has developed. We can stop seeing it, and after a long enough time, we can even stop smelling it. It takes real courage to pinch ourselves and say, WAKE UP. The trouble is that everything gets worse for a while after this decision. The shame seeps in. The magnitude of the task starts to become clear. It’s so tempting to quit. Roll over and go back to sleep. Sit and cry, feeling helpless to carry on. Find the anger, let it boil up, and affix it to the straw man of societal pressure or some specific judgmental critic. What’s so interesting is that after a concentrated period of intense effort, all those emotions can simply vaporize in fresh air and sunlight. Here is a secret:
After it’s cleaned up, there’s no record. It can be as though it never happened.
Nobody can tell, looking at a dining table, that it ever had a single pile or stack on it. If the surface is scratched, throw a tablecloth on it. Sand it and refinish it. Get a new table. Throw a blanket on the grass and have a picnic instead.
Nobody can tell that a tub was black with grime, once it’s scoured clean again. The grout can be replaced for a few dollars and a couple of hours of effort.
Nobody can tell that there was a puddle of brown ooze in a refrigerator crisper once it’s hosed out.
Nobody could ever guess what was in a filing cabinet once it’s purged and everything is recycled or shredded.
Nobody will ever have to know how much was spent on a storage unit, or two, or more than two. Once it’s emptied and broom clean, someone else will come along and rent it. Let them spend their vacation money storing stuff they never use or look at.
I snapped my closet rod once because there were too many clothes weighing it down. I was alone when it happened and the noise was terrifying. I already had a wooden rod of the right diameter, so I used my saw and my Dremel to cut it to length and replace it. I threw the old one away. My landlord never knew. I actually threw the broken one away as soon as I was done! It was like it never happened.
(Except that it only took me 20 minutes to replace the closet rod, but two hours to sort and hang up all the clothes…)
The thing about clutter is that it belongs to the past. We bring it home because we think we’re going to want it in the future. We hang on to it because we start to forget it’s even there. The minute it’s held up to our awareness again, whatever emotions and intentions we had attached to it shine forth, like an aura that only we can see. It’s like we just got our wisdom teeth out and we’re seeing colors and talking random nonsense, and anyone else would giggle at us, knowing we were out of our minds at the moment. Why do we have such strong emotional attachments to things we keep hidden away in boxes, drawers, cupboards, closets, garages, and storage units?
So many of the things we keep refer to rough spots in the past. We don’t want to look at them or make decisions about them because we don’t know how to shut the door on the waves of stale old emotion that come wafting out. Musty, mildewed memories. The interesting thing about this is that the past isn’t here. The only remnants we have are the stories we tell ourselves about it. Otherwise, it’s like the past never happened.
I know I was a baby once because, hello, that’s how babies work. Now I’m 5’4” and I have gray hair, a driver’s license, a credit score, and a university degree. Where is that baby? There’s certainly no baby putting away laundry or cooking dinner tonight. Looks like an adult woman to me. The only evidence I have that I was ever a new baby is biology, the testimony of people who knew me then, and my baby album – but technically that could be a forgery. Just because there’s a lock of fine hair and a set of hospital bracelets in there doesn’t mean they’re mine. Right? Stay with me here.
Where is the evidence of the bad years?
I was divorced in my 20s, and it made a ding on my credit report. I won’t go into it other than to say that I have always taken my credit and my financial obligations very seriously. Years passed. Whatever note was on there is no longer there, and my credit score is something like 830. No evidence. It’s like it never happened.
I don’t usually think about my divorce unless I need an example for something I’m writing, and I’d rather throw my own past self under the bus than tell stories about someone else. I was divorced 16 years ago and I’ve been with my current husband for a decade. I threw my old wedding ring in the river, changed my name, my physique, and my hairstyle (not to mention my credit…) It’s like my first marriage never happened.
There are times when bureaucratic or physical evidence tends to hang around. I’m no longer obese, but I still have stretch marks from my hips to my calves. They’re there, although they’re hard to see unless you’re looking for them. I’m proud of them at this point. I saw another woman in athletic gear – I would describe her as ‘sturdy’ – and noticed her calves had stretch marks, too. It made me want to ask her to train with me. It’s like another version of the ’26.2’ tattoo. Guess what? This isn’t genetic, honey.
There are only two things that don’t go away, and those are a criminal record and the grudges of those we’ve hurt. Whether the first one defines your life or not is a personal choice. What we’ve done in the past isn’t really who we are in the present, or who we’ll be in the future, unless we refuse to take accountability and continue to act in the same way. As for grudges, we often find that the other person has forgiven us long ago. When the grudge is still there, it’s either because we’ve never made amends and the person doesn’t feel heard, or because this is a person who clings to resentment. Making amends can be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry I hurt you and I wish I hadn’t.” I have done this on a few occasions in which the other person had no hard feelings and didn’t even remember what I was talking about. Better safe than sorry, though, I say. Saying ‘sorry’ should come as naturally as saying ‘thank you.’
How much of the stuff we keep reminds us of apologies we’re still waiting to hear? I have an inkling of an idea that a lot of people hang on to family heirlooms because they’re attached to a vision of happy family life that isn’t represented by their actual memories. The teacup or ring or whatnot is our true family legacy, because we have a birthright to dignity, respect, loyalty, and gracious living. I think it’s in the back of the china hutch under the souvenir spoon case. Oh, but surely there are happy people living with family heirlooms? Of course there are, but happy people don’t live in messy or smelly homes. We’re not worried about them.
The question is whether we’re totally satisfied and content with the present, and whether we want something better for the future.
Something better than not being able to find things? Something better than a secret box of grief clutter we can’t bear to sort, or even handle? Something better than a feeling of defensiveness about our surroundings?
Sometimes we contemplate a change and worry over “being the same person.” This has always puzzled me. Isn’t the purpose of life to change and grow? Why on earth would making a positive change have any negative impact on my identity? I used to be fat, which is hardly a moral issue, but in my case it came with a lot of migraines. When I got rid of the excess body fat, the headaches accidentally went in the bag and got thrown out, too. I used to carry a bit of credit card debt, and after I paid it off, I found that I felt more generous and gave more to charity. I used to have boxes and boxes of stuff I didn’t need. I got rid of it, made some money off some of it, and now it takes less time to clean my house. That’s all. Now nobody can tell that any of that used to be true about my life. It’s like it never happened.
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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.