Clutter gets in the way. That’s why it’s called clutter. It doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s uncut diamonds on the stairs or a bathtub full of mink coats. If there is too much of something or if it prevents something from being done effectively, it’s clutter. One of the many problems with clutter is that it lowers our situational awareness.
When I lived in Portland, I had this great umbrella with a shoulder strap. I would ride the bus with my giant backpack and this umbrella and whatever I was juggling in my hands. One morning, I sat down, and the guy behind me said, “HEY! You nearly poked my eye out!” I hadn’t realized that I had effectively created a backward-facing spear that had just menaced everyone sitting on the aisle. I apologized and felt abjectly horrible for the next 20 minutes. What if I really had poked him in the eye?
For many years, I routinely carried about 15 pounds of stuff with me everywhere I went. I also had chiropractic issues (go figure). Now I could go on a weekend backpacking expedition with that kind of weight. I don’t even remember what-all was in my bag in those days, just that picking it up would make me go OOF! It was even worse when I traveled. I had this huge purple suitcase that was big enough for me to fit in. Once I was trying to drag it up the steps of the light-rail train, and a man stepped out to help me. He said, “That’s a big bag for such a little girl!” I was over 30 and it embarrassed me so much that I went out and bought a smaller suitcase. I never gave a thought to the way that my giant bags displaced other people’s stuff and infringed on common areas. It’s probable that I also missed occasions when my bag swung into someone or pressed against someone’s body or belongings.
I work with squalor, hoarding, and compulsive acquisition. My people are frequently gobsmacked by the sort of stuff we find in their homes. Rodent droppings. Wet, black mold covering the wall next to a child’s bed. Dead mice. Live mice. Insect infestations. Dry rot. Water leaks. Mysterious carpet stains. That’s just stuff relating to the house itself. We also tend to find collections notices, expired checks, and other urgent paperwork. The clutter disguises all these things. “I had no idea” is one of the main rallying cries. “When did this happen?” is another. “Oh, no!” is the most common.
Clutter fades into the background. The longer we live with it, the less able we are to see it. We accustom ourselves to shuffling through piles and picking our steps through our little goat paths. We forget what we have until it’s held up to view. We don’t realize what outsiders might notice right away: that it’s creating a fire hazard, that it’s a safety risk and we might fall on it, that it’s obviously affecting our breathing. I’ve known no fewer than four people who were evicted for hoarding, some more than once, and they simply can’t see that it’s a problem.
Not everyone is in such an extreme situation, although for some people, it’s progressive and will continue to get worse over time. Most of us are simply dealing with a little clutter here and there: on the kitchen counters, on the dining table, on the desk, on the coffee table, on the bathroom counter… Well, okay, on every possible flat surface. Once we look around, we start to see it for what it is. We leave stuff spread out hither and yon for Future Self to deal with later. It’s already started to impact our situational awareness.
I wake up every day to an organized home. In fact, every time I finish a major space clearing job I go home and clear something else in my own house! The benefit is that when I walk from room to room, anything out of place sends a clear signal. I know I’m not forgetting anything. My husband and I can send each other messages by leaving something on the dining table, such as a little gift, a note, or something that needs to be carried out the door. If there is a spider in the house, we can find it and take it outside. The day a pipe burst on the water heater, it got noticed right away. Emergencies can happen without turning into epic disasters. Our situational awareness is high. Clutter makes everything in life more difficult. Minimalism makes it easier.
[Note: I had to stage the above photo out of my recycle bin].
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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