Cluttered room
Photo: Geof Kern
What would your house look like if you never got rid of anything? Michelle Herman found out the hard way. But with the help of 360 garbage bags, one gigantic Dumpster, and tons of emotional fortitude, she finally reclaimed her home.
I'd like to say it was the mice that pushed me over the edge. It should have been the mice. But I ignored the evidence of their presence just as I ignored the towers of books and papers, the mountains of stuff everywhere.

Housekeeping has never been high on my priority list. By last spring, though, it had been years since I'd so much as glanced that far down the list. Even with the things a person needs to do to keep her family alive and non-naked, I was cutting corners, stopping on my way home from teaching a class to buy more underwear for all of us because that was easier than doing laundry. I had given up keeping house altogether.

Okay, not altogether. I was still making a token effort at tidying—stacking my daughter's schoolwork, my students' papers, my own manuscripts, books, magazines, newspapers, and junk mail, and throwing small items (a watch with a broken strap, a stray battery or key) into one big bowl or basket or another. But the stacks were turning into heaps, the bowls and baskets had begun to multiply, and by last spring, every surface in the house seemed to be covered. The top of the upright piano was piled with leaning towers of sheet music, and next to the towers was a jumble of things I had set down "just for now." To eat dinner, we had to shove aside stacks of papers to make room for plates and elbows on the table. And in my study—once a sacrosanct place, a writer's haven—I had to pick my way through shopping bags that bulged with my 13-year-old daughter's outgrown clothes and multiple baskets of laundry I had managed to wash and dry but not put in drawers. In the closet, there were cardboard boxes full of memorabilia, manuscripts, letters, and Grace's baby things, her schoolwork, artwork, and picture books.

And the closet was just for the things that had to stay clean and dry. Everything else we were saving was in the basement—a room I did my best to avoid. I didn't go down there unless I had to—and when I did, I kept my eyes trained straight ahead. I walked right by my husband's bed from before he moved in with me, and the two sets of rusting darkroom equipment and sagging cardboard boxes full of bottles of seeping darkroom chemicals. I didn't even glance at my daughter's disassembled crib and changing table and high chair, every bike she'd ever owned, two car seats and two booster seats, the plastic potty, the playpen, three broken vacuum cleaners, the motorcycle helmet, the space heater, and two window fans. I ignored the half dozen battered suitcases, some with broken zippers. The old tent. The four glass aquarium tanks. The grass skirt on a hanger, dangling from a pipe. The two shopping bags full of empty baby food jars in which once upon a time I had frozen my breast milk. I could go on, but I'm running out of space.

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