Sisyphus. You probably know the Greek legend: The poor guy keeps rolling a small boulder to the top of a hill… but always, well before the top, or sometimes nearly right at the top, it rolls back down again. Every time. I bet I know where the first story of Sisyphus came from: Surely some poor storyteller had been feeling crazy from clutter.
As for me, I remember well: Once a week I would finish my work-day, right next to a cheap all-day multi-plex theatre, but I never lingered to see a good film: I’d “have to” go home because I meant, at last, to de-clutter. But “at last” never came. Next week, I’d miss a good movie again. Each time, as I passed the cinema going home, I never stopped hoping I might one day live without clutter, each time. I should have remembered Sisyphus.
Papers. I had lots of 81/2 by 11 papers. Part of my “be prepared” ethic was to save tons of wise handouts: I couldn’t merely take them to the recycling, not after Chairman Mao had advised taking great pains. Ah, but now that I’m older and not trying to be such a “prepared” Boy Scout—the papers have mostly gone. To honest recycling, or merely to the garbage on days when I’m too unhappy to do more.
Of course my clutter began during childhood. As a grown man, I once asked my dad, calling long distance: “In our family, do we believe that if there is just one thing wrong with you, then you are no good? Dad said “No…” and then, “Your mother just came in, you can ask her your question.”
“No, Sister said not to ask her.” Because Mum would worry… Because during my childhood Mum would rant and loudly rave, like a rolling storm with deadly lightening, insisting my clutter meant I was “not good enough.” Looking back, it was crazy: Jesse James could rob trains and still be the “good enough to love” but as for me, God forbid I should have any clutter. My feelings at the time? Sad! Later? Grrr! In fairness, some of my peers—the queer sort of kids who changed daily into “play clothes”— truly had rooms that looked just like in some pretty magazine. So for other children, obviously, living clutter-free was possible.
Meanwhile, despite Mum’s annihilating rage at my clutter, our whole house was an archeology dig. As I child, of course, I did not know the word “hypocrisy.” I just knew I would open my eyes in the morning instantly feeling bad and guilty. Too bad Mum never noticed the teenager’s room in the Hi and Lois comics, never compared notes with other parents and never got counselling. Today the family counselling experts offer hard-learned advice: Just keep the children’s bedroom door closed. As a tired parent, you have to pick your battles.
My parents tried to motivate themselves by calling their stuff “junk,” with an ugly special sneer, but this self-hatred never succeeding in causing them to act, it only succeeded in lowering their morale still further. The opposite strategy would have been to joyfully consider what stuff gave them joy, and what didn’t, but they never thought of that. Marie Kondo (footnote) hadn’t been born yet
Year later, as a grownup, “if I really wanted to badly enough”—Mum’s ugly phrase, Grrr— then hypothetically, I too would have a nice pretty room right out of Home and Garden. But first, to make a peaceful, silent space, I would have to destroy my beautiful books. Like drowning my cute puppies, calling them “junk,” merely because they make a little too much noise… Or, to consider my pretty books as being part of my room, I could use that Vietnam phrase, “We had to destroy that room (village) in order to save it.”
At the thought of puppies and Vietnam, my head would spin, I’d plunk into my chair, my eye resting on a book about Sisyphus.
In my previous home, “my ships cabin,” I had my bonny books piled on every raised surface, crammed in every closet. A visiting married couple, with even worse clutter at their house said, “At least you can see the floor.” A visiting Buddhist said, “You aren’t messy, you just have too much.” He was right: When I prepared to move to my new place I just had to laugh: From one corner to another, as I crated my books, I dug up six—count ’em, six—books on getting organized.
The most interesting such book was by a man with a background in self-help groups, where desperate hopeful people share tales that are far stranger than fiction. He shared how his girlfriends would never last: “You love your stuff more than me!” That sounds like something the spouse of a person in Alcoholics Anonymous would say— “you love your booze more than me!” I wondered: Did that writer have a problem worthy of a 12-Step group? He did, he looked, and he found his group: Yes, there is such a thing as Clutterers Anonymous, (CLA) which he attended, but unfortunately, there is none for me in my city.
(Update: There is now! Since the summer of 2015: I’ve just found their local website. Maybe I’ll go to a meeting, just to make sure I don’t backslide into cluttering again)
For years my clutter hovered close to me, like a dark drone, kept me from seeing movies, and… and if I wouldn’t change then there could be some psychological reason. Maybe I was avoiding something. The writer shared to his group that he had stuff everywhere, even on his bed, because, as he came to realize, he clung to his stuff as symbolizing love.
As it happened, my struggling best friend had stuff on her bed too. (Single mother, small kids) I never asked my friend about her clutter. No, because I assumed she was merely overwhelmed, nothing too psychological. I liked her, she was OK… it was only me who had enough stuff that I wasn’t “good enough.” Interestingly, my friend was “out of the closet” to herself and others. She told me once, “To be gay and in the closet is to live with a constant low grade depression, and not even know it.”
I wonder: What did I “not even know?” Maybe I was avoiding life, maybe I was using clutter the way an addict uses substances to depressively dull my feelings, to “medicate.” Or maybe not.
In the end, I de-cluttered not with any group’s help, and not by changing myself on the inside, but simply by sheer brute force over a long time. Now that most stuff is gone, “good enough” success looks like this: Underneath my two sinks, kitchen and bathroom, is now stacked only a single row of books, not double; my freezer is book-free now, the passenger area in my car is book-free and I can close my trunk. Barely. In the hallway is a nice tidy tower of shoeboxes I hope to steadily work through… (Update: hall boxes gone, car trunk empty)
De-clutter expert Marie Kondo wrote: “Once your house is in order, your life can begin.” Well. After many, many moons of ongoing effort, at last, I have de-cluttered… Seriously, I have, almost. Now I feel so strange, so blank… I wonder what’s next?
Posted from central London
Others like books too. For this quote, Palo Alto is the anchor town of Silicon Valley, and Cambridge is the university hub of Boston. Here is Paul Graham from his web essay Cities and Ambition:
One of the exhilarating things about coming back to Cambridge every spring is walking through the streets at dusk, when you can see into the houses. When you walk through Palo Alto in the evening, you see nothing but the blue glow of TVs. In Cambridge you see shelves full of promising-looking books. Palo Alto was probably much like Cambridge in 1960, but you'd never guess now that there was a university nearby. Now it's just one of the richer neighborhoods in Silicon Valley.
~Of course I don’t say “Grrr” about my dear family anymore. Those days are far behind me.
~I suspect Marie Kondo’s decluttering book, reviewed in Oprah’s magazine, is very good. I say this not because I’ve seen how people will blog while reading the new-to-them, exciting book, (although I have) but rather, because I found a respected blogger, Penelope Trunk, who still swears by Kondo a full year after first trying the book.
~Update: My home town no longer has a Clutters Anonymous meeting; the website was old, had not been updated. Drat! Oh well, those grapes were sour: I didn’t really want to say my first name to the group and then announce I was “powerless over clutter.”
~Another Update: I am visiting “Central London.” Here in the heart of London we have a Clutterers Anonymous, one that has a “website in progress” blank page, giving a telephone number to call. Forget that noise: After my Calgary experience I know better than to call that number. Instead, a month ago, still in Canada, I went on the web for the U.K. Clutterers Anonymous to tell them I was going to London. Besides asking for my e-mail address to reply, they wanted my website too. Forget that noise: I left out my site, and rightly so, because Clutterers Anonymous U.K. is gone too—they did not e-mail me back.
I am not surprised. Maybe they all got cured. You think? More likely, group help for cluttering was a passing fad… But group help for life-threatening problems like alcohol, (AA) cocaine (CA) and narcotics, (NA) will always be with us.