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Clutter: A House Multiplied Against Itself Cannot Divide, Much Less Stand
by Marjorie Dorfman

Do you find yourself overwhelmed by all the clutter that resides in your home and doesn't even pay rent? Do you dare to face it head on (if you can find your head) and alter the power that disposophobia (not being able to throw things out) has upon you? Read on for some courage and a laugh or two.

Clutter is the aftermath of no afterthought.
. . . The Dorfman Archives

Remember the Collyer brothers from the 1950s? For those of you who don't, they were two recluses who died in their enormous New York City townhouse from an accumulation of years of clutter that fell on top of and eventually smothered them. The police had to break down the doors and wade through years of papers and assorted garbage to get to the bodies. Does this sound familiar? Is your house a mess because there is no place for anything and nothing is in its place? Do you have trouble finding even yourself there on occasion? Are you unable to locate phones, remotes, papers, letters and the like, and are you willing to swear on a stack of bibles (if you could find them) that they were in your hot little hands just a few moments before? Well, relax. You are not losing your mind. You're just clutterized.

What is clutter anyway? It is the residue of life; what's left over at the end of every day's normal routine. Clutter is insidious and arrogant and often goes by other names. Aliases include: garbage, some momentos, old TV Guides and newspapers, single gloves, used ticket stubs and coupons, pens that don't work, parts of things, most broken things and everything in that catch-all hall closet or in my house, that extra bedroom.

Clutter is a serious condition that usually rears its ugly head shortly after birth. (To date, as far as I know, there have been no scientific studies conducted concerning tendencies towards clutter developing in the womb). A mother who saves the umbilical cord as a momento of her experience has a definite problem. If her toddler heaps all toys in a pile, he/she should be carefully watched. Young children who won't relinquish toys they have outgrown may be suspect as well, but one should proceed there with extreme caution. From the pre-teen years to maturity, clutter develops slowly like acne, one pimple at a time across the face of the family living room.

Clutter falls into four distinct categories: paper and ephemera, clothing and accessories, bric-a-brac-this-'n-that and closet clutter. For one who has fallen in and out of any of these categories, the road back is possible, but littered with debris. Paper clutter is most problematic, for it begins rather innocently. A newspaper is brought home and placed by chance on a table, or, perhaps, it's an advertisement that no one in the household really wants but can't bring themselves to throw away. It gets thrown on top of the newspaper and thereby begins to live there, starting the vicious cycle upward, downward, sideways and any other direction I might have left out. My father's waste paper basket was directly under his desk right beside his feet, closer in fact than the sea of papers on his desk that he always chose to place whatever he didn't want on top of.

Ephemera are tricky. It's fancy paper stuff and should be hung on the wall, put into scrapbooks or at the very least, heard but not seen. I am referring here to significant garbage that one has trouble relinquishing. This might include dead flowers from a long ago prom, expired calendars that mark a special date, soggy or stained playbills that conjure memories of other and better acts one, two and three, articles pertinent to family interest that no one had time to clip and Christmas cards from dead relatives and friends who were so dear. Get my drift? Need I go on? I thought not.

Clothing clutter usually begins in the pre-teen years. When I was in elementary school, I would come home, remove my dress and petticoat in one single movement and leave them both standing on end in the middle of my room. There they would stay until my mother noticed them and made me hang them up. Leaving clothes out (unlike other forms of clutter) has its own advantages. In case of fire or a sudden invitation to a party, my clothes are right there, ready to boogie. (Why this is significant I have never been able to establish, but old habits die hard.)

Bric-a-brac-this-'n-that clutter is a bit more obscure, but don't let it fool you. It's still clutter. This might include that antique tea set Aunt Natascha stowed aboard the Moscow-Coney Island Express while running from the Bolsheviks that smashed into one hundred and forty-six pieces thirty-five years ago and is still sitting somewhere awaiting repair and admiration. Heirlooms are fine, but they should be intact in order to convey a sense of unity to the family. A broken heirloom is, sad to say, GARBAGE! (If you must, keep one piece and put it away in a drawer somewhere, but get it out of sight, at least until it's time to clean out the drawer and re-evaluate its contents. (Could take years, if you play your cards right.)

So how can one who has fallen out of the fold find it again and do the right thing? As a sufferer from this malady myself, I am not exactly sure, but three or four options come to mind that I am willing to share. First, go through every room in the house on a search and destroy mission. Do not carry a big stick or worry about speaking softly, but do bring two big garbage bags to each room, one labeled "throw away" and one "give away" and place them by the doorway. Go through everything and ask yourself for each and every item you come across: 1. Do I really, really want this? 2. What is this anyway? 3. Leave me alone. 4. Could you repeat the question? Working with closets and clutter requires a specific strength. Here there is only one question to ask when faced with what to do with all your hanging things:

"Have I owned whatever this thing is for more than two years and never worn it or used it?"

(Price tags in place are a dead giveaway, even if you don't want to face the truth.) Older pieces that may be of vintage quality should be evaluated further before making a decision. Be strong. Take it off the hangar or shelf (I'm making an assumption here, I know) and put it in one of the two bags. Make a decision and stick by it. Either the same day or the next day arrange to get rid of it as you have designated. This way you won't have time to change your mind.

If you do all these things, I can guarantee that your life will be clutter free (at least until the next accumulation.) I am not convinced the condition is curable, as the situation seems to grow back every few years. I suppose organization as well as de-clutterization is a big part of the picture. Well, I just might write an article about that sometime in the future, that is, if I can find my notes on the subject and my computer!

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Copyright 2002