When we got married six years ago, my husband and I had both been maintaining our own households for years. We each had our own furniture, lamps, kitchen utensils, books, tools, and pets. Yet somehow, adding his houseful of stuff to my houseful of stuff resulted in one houseful.
Our new house was slightly larger than the square footage of both our previous places put together, and cost exactly half our previous combined rent. It was really more space than we needed, so there was no obvious reason to get rid of anything. Having a “living room” and a “family room” (although arguably, we lived in both and were a family in both) meant we could both keep our couches. We both kept our dining tables and chairs. We both kept our kitchen appliances and favorite knives and pans. It was a houseful, all right.
We answered a call for donations from a friend who was coordinating a group home. Four men in transition would be sharing a house, and they didn’t have a single stick of furniture. In under an hour, we had a stack of boxes for “the dudes,” with pots, pans, pot holders, and extra kitchen stuff. We never missed it. We removed a houseful from our houseful, in the same way that a glacier calves an iceberg. It was like mitosis, or brushing a cat until the pile of hair is the same size as the original cat.
After four years, we had to relocate. We had just two weeks to find a house and complete the move to our new city. We looked at five houses in one day, before finding the disclaimer on the application that the rental agency did not accept “exotic pets,” including my parrot but not, say, a donkey. (A donkey might have been a better choice, since it could help with the move and mow our lawn, too, but there is a certain charm in having a pet that can whistle the Indiana Jones theme). Through the miracle of social networking, we were able to connect with a friend who had a house to rent, took it on the spot, and were done in time for dinner.
The new house was half the size of our first house. Most of the missing space came from the kitchen and garage. The move was a disaster, including setting off the security alarm, stacking boxes on the lawn just in time for the sprinklers to go off, and watching a puddle form under the washing machine minutes after the installers drove away. Professional movers are great for packing and hauling, but unpacking is left to the end user. This is understandable, as there are no easy ways to fit a houseful, x, into a house that is .5x. The dining table filled the dining room from wall to door; if we put in the leaves to have extra guests, latecomers were going to have to climb in the window. Over the next couple of weeks we calved off another iceberg of things that weren’t going to fit, wasting an entire Saturday to hold a yard sale that grossed us $4/hour apiece.
Three months later, we got the notice that we were going to have to relocate again. To Alabama. 2300 miles by moving van. An entire region where we knew nobody and had no family within hundreds of miles. Neither of us had ever lived in tornado country, although a tornado would surely be within an order of magnitude of the chaos of our most recent move. Learning about the coral snake and the way it demonstrates its personal charisma gave us the motivation to seek out an alternative solution. My husband negotiated a competing job offer, and so we moved again, to our new home in SoCal: A home with half the garage and half the kitchen of our second house.
This time, we had three months to plan, and we spent much of that time going through the house and giving away everything we didn’t think we needed. It wasn’t enough. After a few weeks in the new house, we had another stack of boxes in the hallway for donation. The glacier had calved again. Yet somehow, with a garage and kitchen ¼ the size of where we started, we still have a houseful.
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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.