“Don’t own so much clutter
that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.”
We live in a 1,000-square-foot 90-plus-year-old millhouse in Mayberry, which originally had no closets. The first occupants had no need of closets, begging many questions:
- Did people in the early 20th century have a lot less clutter? Answer: definitely. The only book might have been the family Bible; clothing was limited to one or two of each thing; furniture itself was sparse; and utilitarian items were expensive and carefully guarded. The culture of yesteryear was not a “throw-away” society; indeed, such a notion would have been shocking to our frugal grandparents.
- Did they organize their stuff differently? Again, yes. Each hammer or hairbrush was a treasured hammer or hairbrush, bought or built to last a lifetime and set in a certain place. People carefully wrapped their axes and other small tools in oiled cloth, convinced that cold or heat or light would weaken the metal or rot the wood. Protecting household items and food from vermin was a constant battle because each item was vital to survival.
- And most importantly, is clutter a result of too much stuff, or too little organization? This is the chicken/egg mystery in another guise. We do “need” a certain array of things, but perhaps we do not need more than one of anything.
- Is the solution to buy more things than I will ever need, or to buy things only when I need them? Or just to (shudder) organize that clutter?
One way to begin with number four is making lists. I do believe in making lists, if only because I suspect that the making of lists is so tedious that it will have the blow-back effect of helping you get rid of stuff you don’t need so as not to have to list it. If the contents of every drawer were on a list, and every list was stored in a computer file (or an ordinary notebook) we would be a happier household. I can say, with embarrassment, that I often look for something such as a battery, for example, and failing to find one I rush to the store and buy two packs. Invariably, once I get home, I open a drawer and find it filled with batteries.
My sister has refined listing to a high art, I believe, by listing and then marking all household items with the name of the person who is to inherit them. Thus when her children confront her clutter after she passes away, they can view it as treasure gained rather than chores to be done. I admit that the idea of my offspring having to clean up after me is an incentive to fight clutter and encourage my less organized (he would say “more spontaneous”) husband to do likewise.
A friend told me that his family’s grand homesteading adventure began with residing in a chicken house; everything that the family possessed was stacked up in containers along the walls. What was envisioned as a temporary arrangement stretched to two years. He opined that the lack of closets, while not seen initially as a problem, gradually grew to greater proportions of annoyance as time wore on.
My experience from my feckless youth tells me that after a certain period of time of living out of boxes and bags and hooks, one stops caring what one puts where; that the designations of the piles of stuff cease to have meaning; and that looking for anything becomes frustrating, bliss-killing drudgery. This method of “housekeeping” gradually ceases to be charming, and ceases, at last, to be bearable to the orderly mind. So either the mind becomes disorderly or order is achieved.
I am re-reading the good book, Simple Living, by Wanda Urbanska and Frank Levering, who once occupied an old farmhouse near Mayberry, just over the line in Virginia, where they operated the family cherry orchard. You will recognize Wanda’s name because of the “Simple Living” series on PBS (and because I have written about her before on Homestead.org). The Levering/Urbanska book (written in equal portions by both authors) ceaselessly propounds the “more is less” philosophy, with examples of the many people they met that practiced simplicity in its many forms. “Always we felt reinforced, as the Quakers would say, ‘held up into the light,’ by seeing the numbers of individuals who were thinking along our lines, who were bucking the blandishments of fast living and consumerism and defining their own wants, needs, and lives.” Simple Living provided inspiration; I could be a better person! I could declutter!
I also recently discovered Jack and Marilou Dody, who train missionaries and others, including wannabe homesteaders, in the skills and arts of living with less and adopting alternative technologies.
The Dodys are big on the Urbanska mantra: “…simplify, simplify, simplify…before you go any further, figure out what you really need in your space. Get rid of everything else. No matter what tricks you use to maximize space, if you pack it with too much junk, it will be cramped and cluttered.” The Dodys teach prospective homesteaders to consider what they will actually be doing in their dream cabin, and set priorities for space based on reality. If you really need a comfy chair, don’t design a spartan living area. They advise that “the farther you can see into and through a space, the larger it will seem. Arrange furnishings to open up areas of floor… bring in more light… banish room-darkening shadows by uncovering windows and adding more light fixtures… use mirrors… mirrors can add sparkle and dimension to any room… use sheer fabrics… for window treatments.” They suggest plain colors and large pieces of furniture. They also teach alternative technologies and fuel-efficient, off-grid systems.
I feel a kinship with the Dodys when they advise: “Think multi-function… a cedar chest (or other chest) which can be used as storage can also be a coffee table. A kitchen table can also be a desk. A chest of drawers can hold office supplies, linens, CDs, or even stereo components.” I have long enjoyed figuring out how to make one piece of furniture serve many uses. However, I would caution that multi-use strategies, such as the desk/kitchen table, work best for just one person. Once the second person (my husband, for example) enters—or shall we say, stomps—into the room, there will be crumbs on the keyboard and disharmony on the desktop. It’s rare to find two people whose understanding of space vs. clutter is truly aligned. Usually, one member of a couple is a Japanese-rock-garden-of-contemplation kind of person and the other one is a Victorian-glass-Christmas-tree-ornament-collection kind of person.
On my quest for de-clutterization, I found a book that could have been (but wasn’t) a spin-off of the Urbanska/Levering book; it’s called Simpler Living by Jeff Davidson, a “work-life balance expert.” Unlike the more purposely literary Levering/Urbanska collection, focusing on people who pursue various forms of simplicity, Davidson’s book is big, bright, and photo-rich, dealing directly with the organization of stuff. I needed this book because my tendency to gather things that gather dust was beginning to overwhelm me. Addressing everything from garage clutter to suitcase clutter to office tech simplification to the big issue of closets, Davidson recommends starting with a self-assessment.
I found this useful. Clutter needs to be snipped back on the emotional plane as well as the physical. You have to know if and how you are personally equipped to handle the challenge of simplification. Will you divest, re-organize, or a combination of the two? Will you leap in all at once, or cruise slowly along, selecting different options as you go? There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as getting rid of things you don’t need; but be sure you don’t need them before you start (as the Dodys recommend: if you’re a comfy-chair person, don’t try to change that tendency—just streamline it). That’s the value of assessing first.
Davidson advises taking the long view of the often-massive challenge of de-clutterization: “Take a walk through your week” and identify ways in which you can rest, find personal space, and learn your own simplification rhythm. I would go further and say you even need to take a walk through your year and consider how to deal with seasonal changes: of clothes, bedding, even foods.
As much a how-to guy as a philosopher, Davidson baldly states, “There is no need for a junk drawer in your kitchen, because there is no need for junk in your kitchen.”
Following some—ahem—SIMPLE steps in Simpler Living, I began to examine the challenge of what I knew would be a long-term project to rid my house of as much clutter as I could bear to part with. The first step in this process I call Ruthless Parting, like the next to last scene in a romantic 1940s Hollywood film. You have to learn to mutter between clenched teeth, “I’m sorry, my dear, but it’s best for both of us,” as you sling the jacket you love but never wear onto the donate pile. Try not to dwell on it, recalling the day you purchased it, attracted by its saucy colors and its fleecy texture; instead consider how seldom you have actually worn it. Don’t stroke it or hold it to your cheek and for heaven’s sakes don’t try it on—I’m telling you this for your own good—just toss it and get on to the next item.
I set a goal: 50% MUST GO. 50% of my socks, undies, blouses, even—God help me—my books; with so much information available online now, why keep any but the most precious? Davidson agrees—you can also learn to limit your reading time, read blurbs and abridged books, and, of course, use the library.
There’s nothing that produces a sense of virtue so much as handing over a huge pile of perfectly good THINGS to the Goodwill Store. You can envision that your stuff will give others happiness, like it once gave to you.
Since our four closets are tiny (only one hanger deep and at most, five feet wide) I was pleased to discover a marvelous invention, the multiple hanger. Available new on eBay, these wonders will keep track of six shirts (or pairs of trousers, or vests) at a time. They have allowed me to color-coordinate and purpose-relegate my clothing and fit more clothes into a cramped space than I ever dreamed possible. This is important , even to you men, because in a small house with limited closet space, you still have to adequately store clothing for different seasons and various uses. I highly recommend multiple hangers, but with this proviso: go for hangers made of metal and cased in plastic or foam, not plastic. They are not expensive and you might as well order more than you think you need, because in fact, you will need more—everybody does. I was able to put twice the number of clothing items in my closet using these babies. Once you get used to using them, multiple hangers are the Clothing-Obsessed Organizer’s B.F.F.
Shoes can be arranged with any number of systems including hanging racks on the back of a door, and Davidson’s suggestion: a wine rack! But boots are trickier; they flop and tend to get mangled in the footwear shuffle. From my daughter-in-law, I learned to hang my boots on sturdy hangers with clips designed for trousers—it’s a boots-olution that works perfectly.
But what of closets that are not used for clothing? I had one in my study. I used to have to plow through a stack that rose from floor to ceiling, a stack in which the thing I wanted was invariably on the bottom, squished under a bulky pile of stuff I didn’t want. So I followed another suggestion in Simpler Living: I placed a set of ready-made shelves in my study closet. I was amazed at the result. Instead of cramped space crammed full of loose and unrelated items, I suddenly had a library of life’s necessities (suitcases, spare pillows and bedding, even musical instruments) just waiting to be “checked out.”
I’ve been practicing another of Davidson’s ideas for a long time: my husband and I always have a suitcase packed, with a toothbrush, meds, spare glasses, even extension cords at the ready (we travel a lot and we know from experience what we might need). So a spontaneous weekend trip is never a nightmare of packing woes.
Organizing clutter has an interesting side-effect. It saves time. If like me, you become enchanted like a character in a fairy tale when you open a cluttered closet and start to wade through its contents; if on your way to finding that brown-leather briefcase, you come across and must examine the collection of photos of you when you were five, or the rather racy diary you wrote on that trip to Barcelona, or even that vintage dress your daughter failed to take with her when she went off to college that just might fit if you lost a little weight… Suffice it to say, an organized closet with shelves where everything is in view will break the evil spell. The briefcase is either there, or it isn’t.
Shelving is important, too. I have found that big clunky plastic shelves that really are “easily assembled” are ideal for lightweight bedroom/rec-room closet storage. For our many home-canned goods, I chose ready-to-assemble metal shelves, slightly more pricey but unlikely to keel over once packed with produce.
In the kitchen, go for a baker’s rack. I was lucky enough to get one carpentered in when we finally got rid of the 1970s orange countertops our house had been cursed with, and hubby and I love it. I’m short, yet I have no problem accessing pots and pans and lids, and it’s so much easier than bending over to scrabble around in a dark cabinet. He likes being able to grab what he wants when he wants it without having to call me for help (men!).
In the amazingly sped-up world we inhabit, no one needs make do with a clunky computer and a snake pit of wiring under the desk. Get an iMac or a laptop PC. We’re all just waiting anyway for the time when computers are embedded in our frontal lobes at birth, but in the meantime, kill the big black tower with its spaghetti, and regain some of that spaciousness that the Dodys rightfully extol, in your home office. Space—an area cleared of clutter—not only looks good, it feels right.
I admit, I am not yet clutter-free. But I have acknowledged my weakness, and I am working on it. And I’ve stopped blaming my husband for MY clutter.
My daughter has an acquaintance who is 105 years old, of sound mind and reasonably strong body. This venerable lady (who, by the way, eats oatmeal every single morning in case you wondered) had a party at age 80 and gave away all of her possessions, believing she would surely be leaving this world soon and would have no need of them. Surprisingly, 23 years later, she has no regrets about that giveaway. Let her be our role model for de-clutterization!