Confessions of a Compulsive Declutterer
I adore items with multiple uses, especially paper towels. In my house, these magic little squares moonlight as dinner napkins, place mats, sponges, dishrags, sometimes toilet paper, and, occasionally, ambitiously, maxipads. But even paper towels I cannot stand to stock up on. Since I discovered Amazon's Subscribe & Save service, they arrive on my doorstep monthly, in a perfectly synchronized dance of use and replacement.
One thing I've been unable to get rid of is the outdoor garbage can that my home's previous residents left behind. Do you know how hard it is to throw away a trash can? I've tried cute notes with smiley faces; I've stuck the can inside my own, but the garbage collectors refuse to take the thing. It grates on me daily to see that green monstrosity leaning against my house. Sometimes I force myself to use it, to justify its existence.
To me, making do with less-almost to the point of deprivation-feels like a slightly demented badge of honor, a silent scream that says, Look, Mom, no extras! But more often than I'd like to admit, it turns out that I actually do need an item that I've given away, and I'm forced to repurchase it. Two years ago, I donated my treadmill because I joined a gym. A year later, I quit the gym because I wasn't spending enough time there-and paid $1,400 for a new treadmill. Two springs ago, I donated my space heaters to my children's school, because...well, it wasn't cold anymore. As it turned out, the frost returned the following winter, and I had to shell out $70 apiece for four new heaters. I once donated a Pakistani cookbook to Goodwill because I had the distressing feeling there might be another one somewhere in my house. I realized later that I'd written some family recipes on the back, so I had to repurchase my own book.
My greatest de-cluttering challenges are Zain, 11, and Zach, 8, who adore useless stuff just as much as I abhor it. On some days, I fantasize about tossing all their toys and books and papers, the daily avalanche that flows from their backpacks. It's a pipe dream I know I will regret entertaining once they are grown.
And grow they will, into men who will tell their balanced, bewildered wives that their mom never let them bring home stuffed animals or pogo sticks or water guns from their grandparents' house. They'll recount that they owned one pair of sneakers at a time, plus dress shoes for holidays, because I didn't want the hall closet cluttered. That their desire to display Lego creations and chess trophies buttressed against my obsessive resistance to blemished surfaces. "I can't stand so much stuff everywhere," I recently blurted, surveying the four books and magic wand strewn atop Zach's nightstand. "Stand it, Mom,"he replied, not unkindly.
Zain, meanwhile, defiantly displays a framed photo of his fourth-grade Wizard of Oz cast party on his desk. I once hid it in the laundry room, hoping he would forget about it. A year later, I felt guilty enough to return it to him. Now he is lobbying to put up a Harry Potter poster. I have engineered a compromise: He can put up whatever he wants, but on the inside of his closet doors.
Occasionally, I worry that I'm depriving my sons of the same sense of control over their environment that I longed for as a child. I cringe at the thought that they might not want to come home for spring break to a house with no television to watch the hockey game on, and no coffee table to prop their feet on while they watch it.
My former husband, who recycled himself two years ago, never shared my fear of clutter but kindly kept his collection of African masks at the office. The first thing I noticed about his new digs was the decorative table that existed solely to display photos of our boys: dozens of pictures of their fully frame-worthy faces. He also had flat-screen TVs. For a moment, I admired his ability to balance his own aesthetics with the needs of others. I doubted that, with his full larders and healthy attitude, he'd ever have trouble drawing anyone into his home to lean against a throw pillow and watch the game.
Then I retreated to my own gloriously uncluttered home, whose clarity rises up to embrace me as I enter the front door. I picked up a stray sneaker and admired a drawing poking out from a backpack. Eventually I sat, with a mug of coffee that had no words on it, on a couch with just enough pillows to make a decent nest. I thought about how lucky I am to live in this perfect, unencumbered space with my two perfect, if cluttery, children. I thought about how everything in this house is here because of a carefully considered decision. Myself included. Ironically, I've lived for the past two years in my parents' real estate clutter, an extra home in a great school district they purchased when I was 3 and held on to for the absurd reason that someday, someone they loved might need it.
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