Consider drawing a comparison between the act of de-cluttering and washing dishes.  Here’s what Geneen Roth wrote about washing dishes in her book Women Food and God:

“…If you focus on getting the dishes done so that your kitchen will be clean, you miss everything that happens between dirty and clean.  The warmth of the water, the pop of the bubbles, the movements of your hand.  You miss the life that happens in the middle zone—between now and what you think your life should be like.  And when you miss those moments because you’d rather be doing something else, you are missing your own life.  Those moments are gone.  They will never come back.”

Whether our clutter is in the middle of the living room or hidden away in a storage unit, how often have we’ve told ourselves, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of all this stuff, I’ll be free!”?  Heaving it all into a trash bag seems like such a tidy solution, but it doesn’t solve the clutter issue.  In fact, it will most likely come back and probably with a vengeance.  If we are determined to deal with our clutter, we must immerse our hands in the stuff we’ve accumulated from the past.  We must pull it apart piece by piece, admire it or disparage it, and determine what to do with it.

When we focus on the present, the clutter right before our very eyes, rather than on the shame or embarrassment for having it, we have the opportunity to be curious about ourselves.  Roth writes, “You become curious about feelings and sensations.  You start listening to your body.  You stop bossing yourself around…”  We enter into the sensual moment, what she calls the middle zone.  We touch, smell, see, hear and maybe even taste the no longer fresh or crisp past.  Is it a bit stale, maybe even rancid?  Dusty or crumbling?  Wrinkled or torn?

The Crux of the Issue

Take the example of paper clutter.  Let’s say we’re dealing with a pile of disparate papers; some are unpaid bills and financial papers; others uncompleted drafts of short story we’ve written; still others are cards and notes from friends. Just looking at that pile can evoke a tightness in our solar plexus or an uptick in our heart rate.  These physical feelings we usually ignore, or if they’re too distressing, we’ll shove them into the deepest sinews of our body.

Many of us can’t wait to jump into that pool of self-condemnation, the leap from the physical to the mental.  How am I going to pay for that water heater?  I still have to update my will.  I’ll never be a good writer, so why even try to finish that short story.  All those cards from friends I must write to or at least call!  That harsh litany of self-castigation is painful.  We want to avoid it, and this is where we get stuck!

Roth nails this situation so well in her book:  “If you get stuck, it’s usually because you’re having a reaction to a particular feeling—you don’t want to feel this way, you’d rather be happy right now, you don’t like people who feel like this—or you’re locked into [a] comparing/judging mode.”

She distinguishes between feelings, which are in the body, and reactions, which are in the head.  “A reaction is a mental deduction of a feeling…In an attempt not to feel what is uncomfortable, the mind will often rant and ramble and tell us how awful it all is.”  And that is the crux of the issue!

The Energy of Feelings

Dealing with clutter often, if not always, evokes uncomfortable feelings.  It’s dealing with the undealt with—the stuff we didn’t want to deal with when it first appeared.  Not everything has to be acted on when it first shows up, but eventually action is called for.  And if we don’t handle it, someone else will have to.  You can choose.

But what if we allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable?  Why not honor the uncomfortable feeling?  Where does it show up in our body?  Does it have a color?  How big is it?  Is it moving or stationery?  Is it hard or soft?  Does it have a shape?  Ask these questions and any others that come to mind.  Give yourself time to sink into it.  Breathe into it.  When we do that, we are in the middle zone.

A feeling has energy.  By honoring it, we allow it free expression. If we were to anthropomorphize it, it would most certainly want to speak its mind.  Once it had its say (and one time might not be enough), it would lose the air it needs to speak, like an inflated balloon whose opening is no longer knotted.  It becomes flat and lifeless, allowing us to move forward.

Asking for Help

If it still seems difficult to face the feelings clutter evokes, then get help.  If you have a trusted friend or family member who can serve as an objective witness to your facing your clutter, enlist his or her help.  If you believe a professional de-clutterer will serve you more effectively, don’t hesitate to call on one.  But sometimes the feelings blocking you are deep and complex.  If they continue to impede your progress, seek the help of a therapist.

Physical feelings and mental reactions are all part of the de-cluttering process.  Deciding whether to throw our clutter into a trash bag or “donate” box is just one aspect.  To get at the root of the clutter issue, a holistic approach is needed.  Even though our goal may be a clear, clean, clutter-free space, we benefit the most when we immerse ourselves in the present, letting the past drift off into the ethers and the future approach at its own pace.  We live our richest life when we’re in the middle zone.  Maybe we should all wash more dishes to get there.

Clutter, Clutter Everywhere

September 28, 2015

Everyone has clutter. For some it’s not visible, but the mental residue of unwanted thoughts and worries rests in their mind. For others, a pile here and a pile there are periodically swept away and then a new pile is born.

But what about the person who feels the need to cover every flat surface in her home with a multitude of crystals, knickknacks, and tchotchkes? Or the person who has so many clothes, she cannot fit them all into her closets and bureaus? Or the person who cannot get through the endless stacks of paper that confront him in his home office, on his kitchen counter or covering his coffee table?

Why does clutter exist?

What I’ve learned during the past 10 years of helping people de-clutter is to listen to each client’s back-story, because in that story lie the reasons why the clutter exists and persists. In most cases there is loss or trauma hidden underneath all the stuff. How much clutter there is at the present time and how it is handled depends on the degree to which the trauma has been dealt with.

Those who have undergone a loss or a trauma have a critical need to feel safe. Job loss, death of a loved one, a sudden disability, or a violation of any sort is an example of such trauma. Tangible, physical items, like clothes, shoes, cars, or even paper, can give the illusion of safety and control. Since most of us determine what we bring into our home, the single act of buying an item we want but don’t need can give us a sense of control—control that didn’t exist when or after the trauma occurred.

Why is there such resistance to addressing clutter?

Most people don’t realize there is a whole lot more to clutter than just stuff. Having possessions is a wonderful distraction. Anything you own means you have to manage it, store it, maintain it, repair it, use it, clean it, or display it. When you have too much of it, it becomes clutter. We Americans have the wherewithal to buy lots of stuff we don’t need. Why do we do it? Because we can and because it soothes us temporarily. I suspect, though, there are other reasons.

If we were to probe more deeply, we might discover the feelings that propel us to acquire unnecessary, excess stuff. If we were to face these feelings squarely, we might call a halt to the endless influx of stuff we allow and usually welcome into our homes. This is not easy to do. In fact, this is a profound realization, and when people get it, they are willing to start dealing with their clutter in a deep and lasting way.

A Drawer Full of Bracelets

September 26, 2014

I had been working with a client for two days when we gathered all her bracelets together and put them into one drawer.  It measured about 14″ long, 10″ wide and 6″ deep.  One drawer with these dimensions would surely hold all her bracelets, but it didn’t.  We had to move to the drawer below it to handle the overflow.

How man bracelets are we talking about?  Maybe 200, 300, I don’t know.  What kind of bracelets?  Bangles, charm, ones with elastic, plastic, glass, semi-precious stones, gold, silver, oh, so many!  Delicate, clunky, colorful, tasteful, quiet and tinkling.  If the bracelets were candy, you could satiate your sweet tooth for years to come.

The Excess Made Me Ponder

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I left my client.  In fact, it’s troubled me.  If those were my bracelets, I wouldn’t be able to remember what I had.  They would have to be in some order for me to see them and to choose which one(s) I would wear.

We had simply consolidated them.  They had been scattered throughout her bedroom.  Because they were now jumbled into two drawers, my client would have to “paw” through them to find the bracelet she was looking for.  In the process, she might come across one she had forgotten and probably pull that one from the pile, losing interest in her first choice.  If she were determined to find a particular one, I suspect it would take precious time to find it.

The excess made me sad, and, please forgive me, but I have made a judgment. No one needs this many bracelets, not even Lady Gaga.  Jewelry is an easy thing to purchase.  Earrings, bracelets and necklaces are portable.  You don’t need a truck to cart them home.  Once you’ve paid for the merchandise, you can slip these pieces into your purse or pocket and off you go.  What, I wonder, inspires my client to buy so many and so often?  Perhaps it is that sense of instant gratification.  Or the fun of feeding her “guilty pleasure” to have a new piece of jewelry to “jazz up” her outfits.

There is More to This Picture

My client told me she likes to dress up when she goes to work.  Her clothes, jewelry and shoes are all part of a picture she enjoys composing every workday morning.  For her, putting together outfits is like artwork, and the fact she can create a unique and different picture every day is important to her.  I respect her desire to look good and her ability to tap into her creativity.  Still no one needs this many bracelets to feel as creative as Picasso.

Jewelry and all the other materials we clothe ourselves with are—in a word—a cover.  These external items, some of which are beautiful, can distract us from something more important—our inner self.  When we preoccupy ourselves with stuff, be it jewelry, clothing, cars, or stacks of paper, we lose sight of this inner self and the balance required to lead a healthy life.  We choose to look outside ourselves, where our ego’s voice can be heard loud and clear.  We compare ourselves with others, coveting what others have and judging ourselves, which causes unrest and anxiety.

My client lives in a state of distress.  How do I know?  I’ve worked in her home.  Home is a reflection of one’s inner spirit.  When clutter litters the home, it sends the message that something is out of balance.  In my client’s case, something is seriously out of balance.  It wasn’t just an abundance of bracelets, but also clothes, shoes, purses, and books.

In her seminal book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, Karen Kingston lists the many ways clutter can affect us.  Here are a few:

  • Clutter can congest your body.  My client has digestive issues.
  • Clutter can cause disharmony.  My client’s husband wants the clutter gone as soon as possible.  He openly criticizes her and finds her clutter intolerable.
  • Clutter can make you feel ashamed.  My client never invites friends over to socialize.  There’s just no room to do so.
  • Clutter can cost you.  My client does little, if any, cooking.  Most meals are eaten out.

Why Does My Client Have Clutter?

I don’t know and I cannot guess.  What I do know is that something deep within is troubling her, something that requires a cover-up.  Kingston writes, “Usually it is loneliness, fear of intimacy or some other buried emotion which feels easier to submerge in clutter than to cope with.”

Whether we ignore all the stuff we acquire, neglect taking good care of it, or immerse ourselves in the maintenance or orderliness of our stuff, we are choosing not to deal with our own inner issues.  All this stuff becomes a shield, which blocks our way to facing our fears and living a balanced, healthy life.

Life in my client’s apartment had become intolerable.  She could no longer see the way out of her clutter.  It took courage to invite me to cross her threshold.  All that stuff she considers valuable was strangling her most precious possession–her inner self.  If she didn’t get help, she would succumb.

My working with her was an important first step.  If she continues, and that is a critical part of this de-cluttering work, she will transform her life.  I’ve witnessed life-changing transformation in clients who were committed to releasing their clutter.  They literally create space for new and wonderful changes to present themselves in their life.  Job promotions, improved health, revitalized marriages, and even an art exhibition that was years in the making are examples of those changes.

It is my clients’ personal transformation that keeps me doing this work.  If you need or someone you know who needs help creating a home for the heart, and if you live in the greater Washington, DC, area, consider taking my Consciously Clearing Clutter class.  The fall session is starting on October 8, 2014.  It can open doors you never thought would open for you.

Do you have a junk drawer?  Most Americans do.  If I were standing in front of you right now, could you tell me the items that are in it?  You would probably give me a general listing of things, but I suspect if you were to go there right now, you would find something you’ve forgotten you had put there and haven’t used in years.  And I hesitate to ask how long ago that was.  Perhaps it’s time to peek inside that drawer you rarely open and review its contents. 

And if I were you, I’d have a little trash bag by my side, just in case you discover a tidbit of clutter. 

Sarah Ban Breathnach’s words on simplicity from her book Simple Abundance, A Daybook of Comfort and Joy gave me pause, especially when it comes to junk drawers.  Perhaps they will do the same for you. 

“I began to search for the common thread in the lives of the world’s great spiritual teachers and traditions:  Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, the Hebrew prophets, the Moslem Sufis, the Catholic saints, the Hindu rishis, the Shakers, the Quakers, the Amish.  None of them had junk drawers.  That’s because they all embraced simplicity.  Spirituality, simplicity, and serenity seem to be a sacred trinity; three divine qualities of the orderly soul.” 

Develop a Good Forgettery

August 11, 2014

My friend Lynn (not her real name) is strong-willed and whatever she sets her mind to, she does.  I have known her for 30 years.  About six years ago she had a fall, which confined her to a wheelchair.  In and out of assisted living and rehabilitation residences, she had had enough of residential living and set her sights on the house where she lived before the fall as her next and last destination.

Her house is the one where she returned to live with her parents after her second divorce, approximately 40 years ago.  Not long after her return, her father was killed walking down a neighborhood street by a hit-and-run driver.  Years later, her mother battled cancer in a hospital bed in the dining room.  She later succumbed in a nearby hospital.  The house held a lot of sad energy.

It was not conducive for a wheelchair-bound person.  So, before she moved in, she had an extensive ramp installed at her back door and a lift from the first floor to the second floor.  There is no bathroom on the first floor and the washer and dryer are located in the basement, accessible only by stairs.  It is essential for her to have help if she is to live in a clean, healthy environment.

Welded to the Past

I know Lynn better than most.  We have shared our victories and vulnerabilities consistently throughout the years.  She listens with great understanding to the questions I grapple with. I listen to hers.  I respect her opinion and find comfort in the constancy of our friendship.  Lately, though, I am frustrated, at times even angry, with Lynn.  She has forgotten how powerful she is.  Instead of moving forward with life, she seems to be making a “too comfortable niche” for herself in the past.

During the past few months she requested my help by going through her papers, photos and clothes and advising her on what to keep.  I have worked with her for more than 20 hours, and in my estimation we’ve made little progress.  She remains firm in her choices:  Ten-year-old bank statements must be kept.  Books that haven’t been read in 20 years and more than likely never will be must be kept.  Gizmos and tchotchkes she doesn’t know what to do with must be kept.  The dining room has become a warehouse of bags and containers storing memorabilia she feels she must keep but doesn’t look at.  From my perspective, it feels like she has welded herself to the past.  To hell with the present!  The future be damned!

The Conundrum:  To Hold On or To Let Go?

I have thought long and hard about this conundrum:  Her hiring me to de-clutter and her vice-like grip on her clutter.  It’s not easy living in a wheelchair, and I have the utmost respect for her determination to live independently.  Working with another disabled client helped me understand Lynn better.  I started noticing his references to the past when we talked.  It gave me pause.

Both clients are in their eighties.  Both had successful careers.  Both were more able-bodied in the past.  Lynn traveled the world.  Even with “bad” knees, she climbed the Egyptian pyramids.  She ducked to safety when terrorists bombed the Rome airport.  She’s been in every state in the union except two.  She found great joy, excitement and freedom in her travels.  From today’s wheelchair perspective, the past looks rosy and the present grim.

What about Now?

If Lynn wanted, she could still travel.  She would need an aide and it would take an amazing amount of effort, but she could do it.  She keeps thinking someday she will make it to those two states she missed.  In the meantime, she chooses to surround herself with stuff of the past–her very own composition of clutter.

Clutter is dense, sticky energy–filled with memories that cloud the mind, fog our vision and suffocate our energy.  It slows us down.  It blocks our way.  It keeps us glued to those memories and averts our gaze away from the present moment, the only moment where our power resides.  Eric Butterworth in his book Spiritual Economics nailed it:

We should not try to get fulfillment from past successes nor be bound by past failures.  Consider people such as Lincoln, Churchill and Edison.  They respected their minds too much to clutter them with thoughts of failure or bitterness.  They had good ‘forgetteries.’  So if there be any virtue or praise, think on these things, file them in the memory mind and forget the rest.  Develop a good forgettery and you will find yourself with an amazingly good memory too, for the two conditions are indissolubly linked.

Our Power is in the Present

Lynn has forgotten her power is in the present–in her choices of how she spends her time, who she hangs out with, and where she chooses to go.  It’s not in all that dusty, musty stuff.  It’s not in those bittersweet memories she clings to.  What keeps her in this mode of stuckness?  Fear.  Fear of letting go of things she believes constitute her identity.  Fear of breaking the boundaries of her disabled life.  Fear of no longer claiming she is a victim.  Fear that she will be more alone than she is with all her clutter.

Stripping away the clutter makes her feel vulnerable.  The protection it gives her is an illusion.  She wants it because it’s tangible.  It’s something she can hold and tell herself, “Look, I accomplished this.  I had these friends.  My mother loved this ring.”  In contrast, what if she chose to make new friends by joining a group at her church?  What if she found a place where she could exercise with professional help?  What if she arranged for a drive in the country?  Her power is in the now–not in the paper, gizmos or clothes.  Only Lynn can decide what’s best for her.  Only Lynn can change how she sees her stuff and ultimately herself–a powerful woman who happens to use a wheelchair to get around.  Only Lynn can make these changes now.

Are We Owners or Stewards?

November 22, 2012

‘… But we never really own anything, do we?’ he (Vianello) asked, looking directly at Brunetti.

‘I’m not sure what you mean, Vianello.’

‘Think about it, sir. We buy things. We wear them or put them on our walls, or sit on them, but anyone who wants to can take them away from us. Or break them.’ Vianello shook his head, frustrated by the difficulty he had in explaining what he thought was a relatively simple idea. ‘Just think of da Prè. Long after he is dead, someone else will own those stupid little boxes, and then someone after him, just as someone owned them before he did. But no one thinks of that: objects survive us and go on living. It’s stupid to believe we own them. And it’s sinful for them to be so important.’

–From the novel Quietly in Their Sleep by Donna Leon

I recently got hooked on Donna Leon mysteries. They take place in Venice with Commissario Guido Brunetti as the protagonist aided by his sergeant-assistant Vianello. In the above excerpt, the two sleuths have just emerged from visiting Mr. da Prè, “a horrid little man” who lives and breathes his collection of snuff boxes. Vianello is commenting on da Prè’s obsession. This brief exchange between Brunetti and Vianello made me wonder, “Are we owners or stewards of our things?”

So much emphasis in this twenty-first century society of ours is placed on ownership.  If we don’t own a car, we strive to own one, at least in areas where public transportation can’t get us to where we want or need to go. The mark of a successful, middle class American is ownership of his/her own home. And what about our clothes, furniture, businesses, and investments?

Who is Responsible?

I’ve grown up thinking the items I possess are items I own. I am responsible for housing, using and disposing of them, but maybe this discussion about ownership is limited to people over sixty, people who have had to dispose of their deceased parents’, spouse’s, relatives’ or friends’ possessions. When my mother died, I simply assumed ownership of her possessions. I was 42 and didn’t think beyond this point.

After her death, I held a yard sale for many of the items she had and I couldn’t use. Who are those people who bought her linen tablecloth and napkins, her chafing dish, or her cookbooks? What are they doing with them now? Are they taking good care of them? Have they relegated them to boxes in the back of a closet—or, worse yet, ended their life by throwing them away?

When I was younger, in my thirties and forties, I would never have admitted I am a serial owner of things. So focused on my own life, why would I think about who would take ownership of my stuff after I am gone or that my stuff has a life beyond me? I know that’s why wills and last testaments exist. They perpetuate the illusion we are all owners of our stuff, but the more I think about it, I see myself as a steward. I am simply the overseer of my possessions.

The Leadership Metaphor

The metaphor of leadership comes to mind. For me, the mark of a good leader is a smooth transition. He or She plans for the next person to assume the role of leader-successor, so business can continue as usual. Changes do occur with new leadership, and under good leadership they are usually accepted and not resisted. Without a plan or good leadership, breakdown can devolve into chaos.

I see a parallel when it comes to my stuff. Do I identify who I want handling my stuff? Are there certain items like my car or condo I want particular people to have? Do I inform my designated heirs while I am around or do I wait until the will is read? It comes down to whether I am willing to relinquish my sense of ownership.

And if I don’t have a plan? Relatives I haven’t designated or disinterested parties like the State come in and deal with my stuff. What does it matter? I am gone. Actually I believe it matters. Being a good steward, I need to let people know the plan—my plan on who gets what and how stuff is best handled. The more decisions I make, the fewer decisions others have to make. A definitive plan reduces conflict.

A Subtle Shift

Since this owner-steward distinction is new for me, I haven’t tested it out. When I engage in my next de-cluttering project, will I make different decisions being a steward, rather than an owner?

For example, I have been struggling with letting go of a doll and her wardrobe for years. It was a gift from my father, who died when I was 10. Operating under the illusion that it holds a special tie to him, I remain locked in indecision. If I let it go, I fear I will lose that special tie. It’s a false belief, I know. Nonetheless I use it as my excuse to keep holding on to the doll and all her dresses. Ever since I received the doll, I considered myself its owner.

Now, five decades later, maybe I can shift my role from owner to steward. If I am a good steward, I can exercise authority on how to get it to the right and perfect next steward. My term as doll-steward has expired. Someone else who can love the doll and her outfits needs to assume the steward role. Perhaps this subtle shift from seeing myself as an owner to a steward will allow me to let go. I am hopeful it will.

Is Your Trunk Unlocked?

March 15, 2012

I love reading novels.  They introduce me to ways of thinking I hadn’t yet explored or probed deeply enough.  Why characters act the way they do broadens my understanding of human behavior.  They—authors and their characters—help me to be more compassionate.  In certain situations I catch myself being judgmental.  That catch allows me shift my perspective from anger or hurt to appreciation.  I am not always successful in the moment, but I find myself arriving at a place of greater understanding sooner than in the past. 

Thoughts about Strength, Security and Things

Recently I finished reading The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.  Early on in the novel Blake introduces Emma, a newlywed married to an up-and-coming doctor in the small Massachusetts town of Franklin in the early 1940s.  Blake shares Emma’s reflections now that she is married.  One passage caught my attention because my work with ALIGN, A Unique & Integrative Approach to Clutter & Balance, is all about why we keep the stuff we feel we must to feel secure.  Here are Emma’s thoughts about strength, security and things:

She had always thought that having a house would be a source of great strength, like a trunkful of memories one never unlocked.  Her own family’s house had been sold along with all its contents, except for some photographs and the child’s christening set of silver and her mother’s little seed-pearl wedding ring, which hung loosely off the third finger on Emma’s right hand.  She had wondered sometimes where the things had ended up.  She didn’t begrudge her great-aunts’ decision—she had lived off the proceeds, as they reminded her, after all—but sometimes she wondered whether she might feel less lonely, somehow less anonymous, if, when she woke in the morning, she opened her eyes and saw the same bureau her father had, for instance.  Or, even less grand, used the kettle her mother used to boil water for their junket. 

I suspect Emma’s reflections mirror many of our own.  Think back to the house or houses you grew up in.  Did those homes give you a sense of security?  Not all of us can claim they did, especially if family dysfunction overwhelmed us, but many of us can. 

A Trunkful of Memories

Blake’s simile—having a house is “like having a trunkful of memories one never unlocked”—spoke volumes to me.  Emma’s family’s house was inhabited by her and her parents, people (I’ll assume) who loved Emma.  The house was a structure that held the many items they used and perhaps treasured. 

Since her parents were no longer alive, Emma’s memories of what transpired in her family’s home held meaning.  The illusion of having a house and her parents’ possessions inspired feelings of comfort, safety, and a sense of family.  Blake underscores this point by suggesting Emma might not feel so lonely if she could wake up to her father’s bureau or see her mother’s kettle.  She believes those items could comfort her.  They might resurrect a feeling of security within her. 

The Illusion of Security

Those feelings, however, are an illusion.  My own story supports this fact.  When my mother died, I carted a huge truck load of her stuff from Florida to Virginia and put it in storage.  I thought I could keep her alive by holding onto all that stuff.  Like Emma, I thought I wouldn’t be so lonely, now that I had her stuff.  But, my resistance to “unlock the trunk” overshadowed any comfort I could gather from holding onto my mother’s possessions.  I visited the storage unit twice in the nine years I rented the unit. 

For years I didn’t understand why I couldn’t address my mother’s stuff.  My storage unit had become a “trunkload of memories I never unlocked.”  If I unlocked it, I might have to confront my mother’s death and the loneliness it inspired.  No one ever loved me the way my mother did, and no one will ever again.  Her death meant I had to learn how to mother myself.  The grief that her death caused was swimming in and among all of her items I so neatly locked in storage.  Emptying the unit meant rupturing its containment.

Only after nine years—a number that means completion—was I able to unlock the trunk.  Somehow I knew I could face the grief and finally take the necessary action of deciding what to do with all the stuff I had stored. It meant touching each and every item and placing them in the appropriate pile—keep, donate or discard.  Many of those items held a memory I had to say goodbye to.  In some cases, I relived an experience, which I often found exhausting.  Sibling rivalries, adolescent struggles, and childhood achievements became the stew I stirred as I worked my way through her stuff.  This was my way of dealing with my grief—piece by piece.

How Little Are We Without Our Stuff?

Blake’s next paragraph gives us clue as to why we don’t unlock our trunks.  Emma’s husband has gone to volunteer his medical services in London in 1941, the height of the German blitz.  She finds herself alone in her husband’s and now her house.  She had just heard a radio report from London about a boy in the blitz.  Here is what Emma thinks:                   

But here—she sighed—out there and upstairs, there was nothing of hers.  She felt for the first time in her life the danger of other people’s things—how they might erase her if she weren’t careful.  A sob caught at the bottom of her throat.  It was that report on the boy in the blitz; she leaned toward the coffee table to get her cigarette case.  The report had reminded her of being little, that was all.  She lit the cigarette and drew in a deep, long drag. 

The question that comes to my mind is “How little are we without our stuff?”  Do we need to keep it to secure our sense of identity?  It’s easy to say, “Oh, no!” but then take a peek inside your home.  How much stuff do we need to conjure up the past?  Aren’t the memories inside—not outside—us?  A T-shirt, teacup, or textbook won’t bring the past back.  In fact, all that stuff weighs us down and keeps us from opening fully to the present.

Unlocking a trunkful of memories might feel scary and not worth the trouble.  I beg to differ.  All that stuff from the past—physical and mental—keeps us from tapping into our deeper, more creative self.  There’s a goldmine down there inside us, but it’s probably buried under our past.  It’s time we unlocked our trunks.  I’ve opened mine and I don’t regret it!  You won’t either!

Four out of six women participants in a “Clutter Clearing is Spiritual Business!” class held months ago confessed they inherited their clutter habits from their mother.  Up to this point I had never considered my inclination to hold onto things a trait I inherited from my mother. 

My Mother, The Collector

Photo by Jo Naylor

My mother collected beautiful things like Lalique crystal, Dalton and Lladro porcelin figurines and sterling silver bowls, candelabra and flatware.  In addition to that, piles of magazines lay hidden under her bed.  Stylish clothes jammed her closet, while stacks of beautiful shoes in all colors and for all occasions found a home on their shelves and floor. 

Cookbooks lined two of the three counters in her kitchen.  Pots, pans, everyday dinnerware, containers, and all the other things that make a kitchen utilitarian filled hers to the max.  The refrigerator was always crammed full, making it easy for leftovers to be pushed to the back.

“Just In Case” Thinking  

Photo by dottygirl

I suspect what motivated my mother to accumulate her stuff was “Just In Case” thinking.  Passed down from her parents, this thinking rooted itself in the fear of not having enough.  My parents were teenagers when the Great Depression of 1929 hit.  At such a formative age they couldn’t help but be caught up in the financial panic that swept the country.  From that moment on, American culture drummed life’s tenuousness.  The only way to combat it was to save anything that might be used again.

The fear of not having enough was probably planted much earlier by my parents’ parents and their ancestors.  When the Great Depression hit, their fear, nutured and embraced throughout the generations, became a reality.

The Younger Generation Mirrors the Older

When it comes to clutter, I am my mother’s daughter.  My behavior mirrors hers!  My mother’s living and dining rooms looked good.  Really!  Maybe she had an extra plant or two, but no one would enter her home, point a finger and cry, “Clutterer!”  Her clutter was hidden from those outside the family. 

Fast forward into my time zone.  If you step inside my home, you wouldn’t point your finger at me either and cry, “Clutterer!” My clutter was, and still is to some degree, in my closets, cupboards and cabinets.  Isn’t that interesting!  That’s just how my mother stored hers. 

Nineteen years ago I drove a truckload of my deceased mother’s stuff from Ft. Lauderdale to Northern Virginia and put it in storage.  It wasn’t until I pulled my mother’s stuff out of storage and began dealing with it that I discovered I had clutter, too.  Peek into my linen closet where you’ll find soaps and creams from hotels I stayed in.  You’ll spy the ace bandage I used when I broke my wrist in 1996, makeup that friends gave me because they didn’t want it, and supplements I started taking and decided to put aside.  All this and more are clutter.

An Invitation to Accept

When I started addressing my own clutter issues, I began making conscious decisions to let go of my fear of not having enough.  This was first a choice, and slowly it became a discipline that, as I practiced, became a habit.   

I invite you to spend a few moments reflecting on whether your clutter habits mirror those of your parents.  If they do, and it may take time to admit, then sit with that awareness for awhile.  Aim to accept that you were and maybe still are a good student of your parents’ behavior.  Make friends with the notion you learned those habits early in your life.  If you can, find humor in saving things you will most likely never use again. 

When you are ready, decide whether you want to continue the pattern.  You may or may not be ready.  It took me awhile, but I know now I don’t have to stuff my refrigerator with leftovers anymore.  There is just no room in my closet to stockpile multiple pairs of shoes.  I can get my recipes online.  This feels like freedom!  How does it feel to you?