Finding sunshine in a cloudy life - Mental Health

The life and times of a clutter expert

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post called, “there appears to have been a struggle.” In it, I detailed a piece of my life-long wrestling match with clutter and tidiness.

One of my favorite memes reads, “My housekeeping style is best described as ‘There appears to have been a struggle.’” The kitchen counter has a filing shelf over-filled with papers. The sunroom has bulbs I’m sure I’ll never plant. Don’t even ask me about my basement.

46 year old me

Today you find me peeking around the corner at forty-nine, with new papers (and yes, new bulbs) adorning my counters and the sunroom. I do appreciate you not asking about the basement. It means a lot to me.

I know I am not alone in this struggle. When I searched books using the keyword “clutter,” over FOUR THOUSAND results came up. (Full disclosure: I have four books on the subject in my personal Kindle library. Hey, at least they’re only gathering metaphorical dust, amiright?!)

In addition to my small (for me) digital book collection on how best to approach the issue, I have owned, read, and donated countless paper books on the same subject.

What is it about the mishmash of belongings we call clutter that enables it to creep into our homes and lives? No one wants it.

If I have misjudged, and you are someone who actually wants clutter, please email me with your mailing address. I have plenty and I’m more than happy to enrich your life while simultaneously simplifying mine.

George Carlin on Stuff Foul language warning, in case you are unfamiliar with George Carlin (

It’s probably safe to declare myself a clutter expert, in the sense that I have been in some state of battle with it since no later than age eight. I am, by no means, a clutter clearing expert. You would think that after forty years of practice, I would have that part figured out, but you would be wrong.

Even when I’m not actively engaged in the pursuit of order, it’s never far from my thoughts. These thoughts run the full gamut: from burn-it-down-and-start-over to give-up-and-live-in-squalor. I research it, read about it (obviously), obsess over it, tackle it from new directions, and blog about it. I may not have figured out how to conquer it, but I have figured out a thing or two about it.

Number one: corralling clutter isn’t the answer

Working under the theory of “contain what you cannot tame,” I’ve dropped more dollars than I care to contemplate into the storage solution industry. Plastic bins, shelving of various materials, file cabinets, shoe holders — you name it, I’ve probably owned some form of it.

I took this shadowy photograph at a major store in our area. I know what they were trying to say, but their advertisers might want to rethink this campaign.

I haven’t kept a tally of how many “storage solutions” have made their way into my home, but the math is pretty simple anyway. More bins, shelves, cabinets, etc. = more stuff overall.

In other words, “storage solutions” aren’t “clutter solutions.”

Number two: the fear of being without cripples my ability to part with belongings

This is actually a two-part problem.

Part one pertains to my long career as a military dependent. When you move every few years, home is not your residence. Home is your stuff.

Home is where you hang your hat.

This idiom may bring to your mind images of someone who is content to live wherever they happen to be. Military families do have a more casual relationship to their abode than some others, but it doesn’t really become “home” until the hat (and other belongings) are in it.

Defining your home by your possessions sounds materialistic, but it really isn’t. Those possessions are an anchor keeping you from feeling adrift in the big, wide world. It isn’t about the dollar value or status attached to them. It’s one hundred percent about continuity.

Take this amazing seascape, painted by my mother. (I mean that figuratively. Don’t really take it. Do. Not.) A wedding present, it has hung in every single house/apartment of my married life (eleven unique places in nearly 27 years, for the record).

This gorgeous painting was a labor of love, created to commemorate a meaningful occasion. Clearly, it does not fit into the clutter category.

By way of contrast, I present this basket.

The folk art on the cover represents a decorating style I love but never fully adopted. On the side, not visible in this shot, hangs a product tag dated 2004. Fifteen years ago! This is both amusing (because I see the humor in the absurd) and horrifying (because I never fail to be shocked by the extent of my clutter problem).

Until moments ago, this basket lived in the basement. It was lovingly (ha!) nestled between a middle school woodworking project and a stack of papers I did not stop to identify.

A place for everything and everything in its place.

Tidiness proverb, the application of which continues to elude me

It is interesting to note that the tag is still attached for the simple reason that I never used the basket. Not even once. Is this clutter? Without a doubt.

Even so, I never thought to question the value of moving it from Florida to here. Why? Because it was part of our collective possessions. It had no particular sentimental value, but, by default, it was part of our definition of home.

As a matter of record, said basket is currently sitting on the kitchen table to be cleaned and donated. Don’t ask when those things will happen. Why would you make a grown woman cry like that?

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.

World War II slogan

Part two of my fear of being “without” has nothing to do with personal attachment. Instead, it’s all about a mindset of lack.

Nearly ninety years ago, The Great Depression began in America. The slogan above was not a cute rhyme explaining the first two Rs in the reduce, reuse, recycle campaign. At that time, it was a hard reality. People made do or did without.

While my lifestyle isn’t that of the 1%, I’m far from living in the extreme poverty that characterized the 1930s. This fear isn’t generated by my current reality. Rather, it’s an heirloom passed from generation to generation since the Depression hit.

I might need this someday.

my father and my father-in-law, independently and repeatedly

A brilliant illustration of this point is the standing gift exchange my father (retired Air Force) had with my father-in-law (retired Army).

Each of them would look around in their own garage until they had located the most useless item they could find. There were always plenty of choices available. Let me be clear: neither man made a habit of storing useless junk. When these items were first stored, they were potentially useful.

There were perfectly functional motors from various appliances that broke in non-motor-failure ways. (I have no personal knowledge of any of these motors EVER being used.)

Another gift option was the leftover hardware from some project or another. (One such project was the disassembly and reassembly of a Volkswagen Beetle engine — there are no circumstances under which this project should have resulted in extra hardware. Regardless of this fact, the Beetle ran fine.)

The half-used cartridge of fireplace sealant couldn’t possibly have been thrown out, in case a new area needed sealing. (By the time it was exchanged as a “gift,” it was rock hard and could have been used as a murder weapon.)

One gift was a lawn mower catcher bracket, that the other actually needed! One (1) useful item out of all of the actual gifts, selected from a plethora of possibilities.

This minute ratio of useful to useless items is more than high enough to give life to a mindset of lack. “I might need this someday,” begins to echo through your entire being as you contemplate letting go of anything remotely useful.

Looking face-on at some of the realities of this ongoing clutter problem is a step closer to dealing with it rationally, rather than emotionally and/or impulsively.

After all these years of examining the issue, I have more thoughts about it than you have time to read in one sitting. But as the country song says, it’s time for a little less talk and a lot more action.

Brightest blessings, Sunny

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