Peter Walsh’s Strategies for Decluttering Your Home for the Holidays
"Are you really going to use them this year?" Walsh prods gently.
"I might hang them up," says Teresa—and adds, as if it explains everything, "We're from the East."
The couple, an effervescent actress and a bookish lawyer, met at NYU and endured years of roommates and distance (Josh went to law school at Berkeley) before finally signing a lease together last year in Los Angeles, where Teresa does voice-over work and goes on auditions and Josh is a federal law clerk. In July he proposed. Now they practically radiate love-struck contentment. "We're in a nesting phase," Josh says, resting his arm on Teresa's shoulders. Teresa beams.
There is just one hitch: While they'd like to celebrate the holidays—and their engagement—by throwing a grown-up party for their new West Coast friends and some of Josh's coworkers, their loft is not quite ready for its close-up. O has enlisted Walsh to help organize and de-clutter the feverish accumulations of young coupledom, from Guitar Hero instruments to Bacardi bottles, whimsical aprons, Clue: Harry Potter Edition, and a jar of change marked HONEYMOON FUND. Then there's the makeshift junk drawer—i.e., the floor-to-ceiling shelving unit dividing the dining and TV-watching areas—which currently overflows with half-burned candles, WD-40, packing tape, mismatched Tupperware, tattered books, a squishy toy football, and the Clapper ("Clap on! Clap off!").
"Our stuff is just all exposed," Teresa says with a sigh. Meanwhile, her beloved holiday decorations—along with props used in a recent Web series she produced, a box of paper waiting to be shredded, and a large green exercise ball—hog what closet space the couple does have.
"Like with Like"
Walsh diagnoses the couple's problem as one of limits. To prepare for company—and the obligations of adult life—Teresa and Josh need to trash or donate things they no longer need, and set clear limits on volume to prevent clutter from reappearing.
Their first task is to group "like" items. Soon the dining room table disappears under a mountain of reusable shopping bags, two bins of random electrical wires, and boxes of paints and glue guns Teresa uses to make photo frames and holiday cards. Together the couple gamely purge what they don't use (Josh: "I feel like you have a lot of crafts." Teresa: "Josh likes to hoard weird spices").
But when it's time to tackle Teresa's stash of ornaments, colored lights, felt stockings, fuzzy reindeer ears, spangled maroon tree skirts, and the aforementioned snowman oven mitts, things get a little tense. The product of a holiday-loving clan outside Philadelphia, Teresa enjoyed mega Christmases compared with Josh's; his Buddhist parents erected a more perfunctory tree up in Rochester. Teresa's decorations remind her of the uneasy peace she's made with leaving behind snow—and her family—to forge a new life out West. She can't help grazing on cheap shiny balls at Walgreens ("Filler for the tree until we have enough nice ornaments," she says) and is reluctant to part with a fake wreath with gold pinecones, even when Walsh registers a "strong opinion" that real ones smell better—and don't consume closet space. Josh, meanwhile, ever diplomatic, states his view on decorating: "I don't have a strong feeling one way or the other."
Eventually, Walsh asks the couple, "What do you want from your holiday?"
After a pause, Teresa says, "The time and space to celebrate each other."
Last year, Josh explains, they were so thrilled to be cohabiting that they staged an impromptu Christmas before work on December 10, when they couldn't wait any longer to exchange gifts. Even Teresa agrees it felt as good as any childhood celebration.
"Then opening up your space is much more about the holidays than all this stuff," says Walsh. "We're clearing a table that says, Come have a meal. A bar that says, Come have a drink."
He suggests the couple cook an annual December 10 feast in honor of last year's spontaneous first Christmas together in their new home—and that instead of festooning the loft with red reindeer napkins and little wooden nutcrackers, they select a few ornaments to display in a large bowl on the table, thus paring down the sprawling detritus of holidays past to one simple, meaningful centerpiece.
This seems to soften Teresa. Soon she's parting with extra stockings, a few half-empty rolls of ribbon, and several ornaments that don't fit into a compartmentalized red box Walsh has provided for off-season storage. And the loft is breathing, its spare white walls softly illuminated by the late-afternoon sun. Walsh helps Teresa and Josh arrange the items they've deemed worthy of their new life—books they're dying to read, as much Tupperware as fits comfortably inside a polka-dot covered canvas bin—on their shelf. Things they use often, like cookbooks and upright files containing Teresa's wedding magazines, will occupy lower shelves, while board games and boxes of extra electrical cords are stacked higher. They agree that when they bring home a new book, they'll give away an old one; when Teresa's craft materials strain their allotted leather tote, she'll donate to Goodwill.
"Everything looks so much brighter now," says Josh, and the couple begin excitedly discussing their party plans, which include special cocktails ("We've recently become enamored of gimlets," says Teresa), cheese, dancing ("We'll push the table off to the side," says Josh), and maybe even gingerbread cookie decorating. Not in the plans? A gift exchange. "They're too much pressure," says Teresa. "And then you get the Clapper."
Next: See what Josh and Teresa's space looked like before Peter's intervention