Decluttering the house, clearing the mind

When I told my best friend that I was writing an article on clutter cleaning, she told me that when she was cleaning out her attic she had found no less than three copies of Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, a decluttering classic by Karen Kingston. 

I laughed so hard that I couldn’t resist telling a mutual childhood friend that tale. “I found two copies of it in my box-of-things-to-get-rid-of that I never got rid of,” she confessed. “What we’re dealing with here is a perennial problem. It’s like knowing you should eat your vegetables, but grabbing the bread basket. Or telling yourself you’ll feel so much better if you went for a walk, and but then kicking back with some inane social-media stalking on your phone instead.”

I have read Kingston’s book, and several others on the art of feng shui, and I’m awakened anew every time, motivated to haul the advisory tomes to the dump, the recycling center, the Goodwill, or the library book fair-shed. My copy of the book remains, collecting dust on the bottom rung of a coffee table or nightstand. 

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Our energy is impacted by what we surround ourselves with, whom we surround ourselves with, and what kind of environment we are surrounded by. That has never been more apparent than this past year, when we were asked to shelter in place, work remotely, be schooled remotely, exercise, dance, and socialize remotely. 

We were on an island of our own making. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. We had ample opportunity to look at our surroundings day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute. 

I applaud all of you who took that opportunity to purge and cleanse and slap on a fresh coat of paint or finally tile those clapboard floors or prepare the soil for your new vegetable garden. Bravo. Three cheers. Good for you.

If you were not one of those people, we can be friends. Like me, you still have piles of unread mail and magazines stacking up, bags of clothes that should go to the Salvation Army, a treasure trove of knick-knacks, broken picture frames, a drawerful of unmatched socks, an array of bizarre items that wash up against the floorboards and corners of rooms and on top of surfaces that you have no clue what to do with, and a closet you’re scared to open. 

Like daily exercise and eating well, we all know that being more organized, clutter-free and clean will make us happier, lighter, more motivated, and less stuck in our own lives. What do we really need? Food, water, shelter. A little love is nice, too, and some natural light, which we can get more of if we clean off our window ledges and wipe down the glass.

I’m no expert, but here’s the test I give myself when I get inspired to declutter. Do I need it? Do I use  it? Do I love it? If I can’t answer yes to any of those, then I’m supposed to get rid of it. If I were someone who didn’t care much about the waste stream and just wanted to throw, I would be fairly clutter-free. 

My sticking point — and we all have our sticking points — is that I don’t want to be wasteful and therefore want to compost things, donate or give them to a good home, recycle them, or — and here’s where it gets tricky — simply throw them out. It’s not that I think my stuff is too valuable not to be thrown out, it’s that I feel guilty putting it into a landfill. 

(Flickr/Spykster)

Play that in reverse. I have to take that same approach whenever I bring something into my home. What about mail and the kids’ projects from school or gifts from loved ones or the plastic containers that your flower pots came in, or those clamshell containers of fruit and vegetables that claim to be recyclable but really aren’t? I tell myself, “Progress not perfection,” and try to keep the throwing to a minimum.

I think it’s critical, at least for me, to start small, to start where I am. If that means cleaning for five minutes a day, starting with the sock drawer, the pantry, the half-empty bottles of shampoo that no one has used in years, then that’s where I start.

I wish I were a homesteader. I wish that I was so on top of my game that I grew my own food, fed by my own compost and mulch, sheared my own sheep, wove my own wool and made my own clothes and blankets, and lived in a cob home. I wish I were so handy that I could create my own wind-power, collect water from a rain barrel, and utilize the sun to heat and cool my house.

I am none of those things. Sadly, I can’t even sew a button onto a shirt or handle a screw gun. I’m not even cool enough, although I aspire to be cool enough, to model myself after one of my friends who has never purchased a new item of clothing since she was 16. She only buys used clothing and makes any alterations herself. I’ve never seen anyone so beautiful and stylish and unencumbered by crap in my life.

Those might be the big goals — a tiny house, an airstream, a solar-powered greenhouse, and an electric bike charged from a miniature wind-turbine. That’s admirable. Or maybe I could design and build my own home from locally sourced  materials and have a wall of glass facing west and a bluestone walkway with a zen-inspired garden and a minimalist interior design that’s fantastic.

In the meantime, the less stuff I bring in, the less stuff I have to organize and the less stuff I end up having to get rid of. It’s kind of simple, but as I write this, I see clutter everywhere. It makes me feel heavy, claustrophobic, dirty and lethargic. In places where there is no clutter, and I have those spaces, too, I feel airy, happy, expansive and focused.

Yes, cleaning is hard to start. I want to persuade myself that getting rid of things or sorting out personal relics and refuse can make me feel other than nostalgic, sad, shamed or defeated. In the end, when it’s all sorted, thrown, returned, removed and cleaned with some hot water and soap, I want to persuade myself that I will feel great. There’s no end game. It’s a constant process. Building in some joy with the decluttering — maybe a family member or a buddy or a podcast or a free-wheeling playlist — can help make the dust-busting easier. Whenever I roll up my sleeves, take the plunge into the dirt, grime, mess and maelstrom, the activity takes on its own rhythm. 

I’ve never truly gotten to the feng shui level. I hung a mirror in a corner once or was mindful of emptying a section of our house that let some cash come flooding in. With three kids, two jobs and a dog, I was just trying to find my way through the beginning and end of a day.

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We rented an affordable Airbnb on the outer Cape this past week, just before Memorial Day. It was actually affordable. The place was what people who own beach houses call a cottage. It’s much larger than our home in New Paltz. 

What I loved about this house inspired me to get myself clutter-clearing again. Everything in it was functional, comfortable, or pleasant to look at. A big comfy couch with throw pillows and blankets. Beautiful artwork that varied from prints to driftwood to oil paintings and vintage French perfume advertisements. Because the bedding was clean, soft, and plain, the artwork stood out more. 

The kitchen was large, open, functional. No bells and whistles. The living room was spacious, relaxing, with a small bookshelf that made people you actually want to read the books and a well-placed television that would allow some of us to watch the NBA playoffs while others caught up on their e-mails. Whatever was actually needed was accessible and easy to locate and use. Whatever was mot needed wasn’t there. 

I think that’s the goal. Have what you need, some of what you want, and the energy to create the rest.