Getting Things Thrown: Reading About Decluttering

Readers,

Between looking for a house to buy in Columbus, Ohio (where I am writing this), and preparing our house in Minneapolis for sale, organizing is on my mind.  I have a lot of decisions to make about what’s worth keeping, packing, and moving, and what’s better to let go.

I’m not intimidated but am actually deeply interested in this whole process, and have wanted for years to go through our house, top to bottom. But it’s taken a watershed moment–moving–to put this project of projects at the top of my to-do list.

Dispense with the flotsam and jetsam!

Dispense with the flotsam and jetsam!

Jack has already done his part, taking out shelf feet of novels and plays, literature anthologies and English grammar reference sources, many of which were gifts or examination copies from publishers. He seems not to have gone into a Hamlet-like paralysis of indecision over toting duplicate Jane Austens to Half Price Books. Out the door they’ve gone, with a lighter load and a fatter wallet as rewards.

Meanwhile, I’ve been brooding over how I will cull the home decorating clippings I’ve amassed over the last twenty years. But that’s about one cubic foot of storage space to ponder–not exactly a lot to lose sleep over.

Then, of course, occupying a few more cubic feet–okay, cubic yards–are the equipment and supplies in my sewing space.

And here’s my big question.  Should I automatically pack all of my sewing accoutrements for our new home, or should I subject them to a greater scrutiny of soul-searching intensity? Is any of that stuff clutter?

What is clutter, anyway?

The word derives from the Middle English word for “clot,” which puts one in the mind of obstacles, stuckness, clogs. Are my UFOs clutter, or are they simply works in progress? How about my serger, barely touched since its purchase in 2007 but holding out the promise of a new sewing frontier? How about my stashes? Am I kidding myself that I will put them to use? Are they actually clutter in sheep’s clothing?

Never one to miss an opportunity for introspection, especially if it involves fabric, I decided to inform myself about this perplexing topic.

And that’s why I found myself in the stacks of the Whetstone branch library in Columbus a few days ago, mesmerized by the books in the Dewey Decimal 648s: Housekeeping.

That section was roughly divided between books addressing how to edit your stuff–decluttering–and books helping you make your stuff more accessible–organizing.

To me, organizing is function-based and fairly free from emotional highs and lows (unless you get a charge out of alphabetizing your spices). Organizing is about “what” and “how.”

Browsing the titles in decluttering, you can see what an emotional minefield it is. Decluttering is about “who” and “why.”

The decluttering books I chose promised to help me identify the stories I’d attached to my stuff, the excuses that kept me in a state of inertia, the shopping addictions I hadn’t owned up to, and even the mental clutter that was keeping me from the life I was meant to live.

I walked out of the library with nine titles and have spent several days immersed in them. They’ve been absorbing reads.

No, really. I thought I would read a lot of guilt-inducing, finger-wagging moralizing, but that style is apparently out of fashion. No, these books earnestly want you to live a great life, and I’m all for that.

Peter Walsh writes,  “The key question you should ask yourself when looking at the clutter that fills your home,” in It’s All Too Much Workbook, “is ‘Does this item enhance and advance the vision I have for the life I want, or does it impede that vision?'”

“You’re attached to the story that you’ve attached to your belongings,” write Mark Brunetz and Carmen Renee Berry in the oddly titled Take the U Out of Clutter. “In order to live clutter-free, you need to organize your stories, not your stuff. Truth is, once you’ve organized your stories, your belongings will organize themselves.”

In Live More, Want Less  Mary Carlomagno describes clutter as “piles of deferred decisions” and “the antithesis of decision-making.”

Gail Blanke writes in Throw Out Fifty Things:

The point is to have a reason for both–keeping and throwing out. That’s where the deciding comes in.

Remember, if it makes you feel bad, it doesn’t add anything to your life, or you have to agonize over your decision too long, let it go. If, on the other hand, it makes you feel good just to have it; if there’s a positive emotional attachment to it, regardless of whether you’ll ever ‘use’ it again: keep it. Our aim is not to create a merely tidy or well-organized life. Our aim is to clarify who we are now, to decide what’s important to us now, and to answer the question, what the heck am I doing here?

“What the heck am I doing here?” Hamlet never did come up with an answer for that. I bet he had a lot of clutter–especially of the mental variety.

Well, it’s easy to poke fun at decluttering books, but actually, I found them bracing and inspiring.

The one thing I did not find them was helpful in determining how to evaluate my sewing stuff. The closest I came was a section in Unclutter Your Life in One Week by Erin Rooney Doland called “Hobbies and Making the Most of Your Personal Time.” That section was based on a couple of posts on the blog Unclutterer.com, which can be seen here and here, both followed by dozens of readers’ comments.

One comment on the first post of the two-parter, by a reader named “mud,” caught my eye. “Mud” felt that sewing and gardening, both previously considered essential household tasks, had been downgraded to hobbies. I thought that was quite a valid point, and helped me see my sewing in a new light. Or, was it an old light?

Because “mud” got me reminiscing about a time-tested system, part art, part science, that I’d worked with that, I think, can be applied to a sewing space at least as effectively, and possibly more effectively, than the clarifying-who-we-are-now approach. (Being a dropout of two leading life coach-training programs, I know my life-clarifying stuff, by the way.)

I’d write about that system in this post, but that could take another 1000 words. So I’ll save that for next time.

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4 thoughts on “Getting Things Thrown: Reading About Decluttering

  1. I have often thought that I would make a good decluttering coach–but then who needs a coach when you have all those books? For some reason, I love culling my possessions–but my husband certainly doesn’t. Maybe that dilemma needs another kind of coach.

  2. This topic has always held a fascination for me. We were once jokingly called “minimalists” by a clutter loving friend. Now, however, after being in the same house for 18 years I’m afraid we have slipped off that lofty description . Somedays I feel the old …don’t know where to start…feeling creeping in. On others I feel as if I could throw out the whole of it without a second glance and be quite satisfied with myself. Moving gives you a wonderful excuse to break through and really decide, as the books state, what should go and what should stay. Not an easy task but ultimately a rewarding one. Good luck !

  3. I too have to move house soon and my sewing room has been occupying my thoughts. I have decided that it will all go with me as whenever I have thrown something out I find that a couple of years later it is exactly what I need! I loved the idea of the stories that go with our possessions, no pejorative words like clutter please, my fabric in many ways tells the stories of my life so it is coming with me, Oh yes and my knitting yarn! Good luck and how lovely to be planning a new sewing room.

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