Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Surrounded by... stuff

I have never been, nor ever will be, a minimalist. As much as I enjoy clean, spare spaces in other people's homes, I'm meant to be surrounded by color and clutter. Both make me happy. Of course, there's good clutter, and then there's bad clutter.

The good clutter is the stuff that I love: books upon books upon books, kitchen tools/vessels/machines, shoes. The bad clutter is the stuff that makes me feel trapped: precious memories that I've saved because they're precious, only they're unmarked in a box that hasn't been opened in two years, in a closet full of said boxes. The bad clutter includes papers I mean to organize in a particular way but never quite get around to, clothes that instead of being hung up exist in carefully arranged stacks in odd places (or, um, disaster piles), one computer that doesn't work but is full of writing I want to keep, another that doesn't work but is full of graduate school research and photos. And more books. And more boxes.

(What can I say? I come from a family with barns and storage units and attics filled to the brink. I can only remember a handful of times that one car has been able to fit into my parents' garage, and it's never been able to hold two cars.)

 As co-clutterers, T and I have learned a really important lesson: we operate well within highly structured organizational systems. Figuring this out has been huge (and hilarious for two fairly mellow people who don't respond well to top-down hierarchies in any other part of our lives). Our stuff feels less overwhelming - and is much easier to put away - if there's a specified place for it, preferably with a label. We cannot trust ourselves to remain organized without structure, and knowing that is half the battle. Enter our biggest money hole:

At this mecca of places to put things, we've spent a small fortune over the last two years in an attempt to organize our lives. Walk into our pantry, and you'll find dozens of labeled plastic containers that hold the treasures from my bulk grocery aisle binges (grains and beans and pasta galore). You'll find additional shelving made for fresh spices. Baskets for larger items. Lights affixed to walls. Walk into our closet, and you'll find shoe shelves, tie racks, bins for sweaters. Open our closets, and you'll find bins for extra sheets, guest pillows, and more. This is all well and good (and a huge improvement over what came before it), but it's still an effort for me to put certain things away. Before I know it, there will be piles of shoes at the top of the stairs or a stack of newspapers taking over the table. I really have to make a conscious effort to put things away (it's only natural for me to do so in the kitchen), yet our structured systems really do help. But then there's the biggest problem.

The Clubhouse. This is the room downstairs that was initially meant to be an office and writing space for me, but which I hardly ever use. The cats took it over as their hangout space while we're at work, which is how it got its nickname. Up until about a month ago, it contained a desk that held miscellaneous items I hadn't figured out where to put yet, a fold-out couch that collected clean laundry we hadn't folded yet, a chair with more laundry, and lots of bookcases. Today, it contains all of the above, plus a mattress, box spring, and bed frame that we don't have anywhere to put since our building took our storage away. They're stacked against the couch, with an unfolded ironing board being the only accessible thing in the room. It is a clubhouse of insanity.

We've decided to give away the couch and set up the room as more of a bedroom, a project we've put off because our go-to donation organization, a local women's shelter, can't pick up pull-out couches for insurance reasons. Once we figure this problem out, we're going to attack The Clubhouse in earnest, because at this point, if you can actually reach the closet, you can barely open the closet door that hides all those nightmarish boxes of stuff that I mentioned.

Re-doing the room as something that better fits our needs is a fun decorating opportunity, but also a nightmarish chore. Most importantly, though, it's a much-needed opportunity to further minimize. We are trying to move, after all, and the less stuff we have to move when the time comes, the better. But the real task of organizing the paper and research and stuff I've collected over the last fifteen years? It gives me an instant headache. And makes me feel anxious. And makes me feel trapped and unable to lead a proper adult life while carrying around entire filing cabinets of things I don't look at anymore.

What, not everyone has panic attacks due solely to old college papers and vacation souvenirs?

Here's the fear: as soon as I throw out some of my notebooks full of random academic articles on a certain subject I thought I was done with, I'll end up in a new city in a PhD program desperately trying to find the exact research that I threw away. As soon as I throw out precious relic #476, a friend will ask me if I still have it and I'll feel like a bad friend for letting it go. So instead I just go the Container Store, buy a plastic container to hold all of my wrapping paper and gift wrap ribbons, and feel like I'm at least trying. (Although let's be honest... that container is not yet filled with the wrapping paper thrown around the Clubhouse closet. But it is waiting beside the closet door.)

The true vastness of this project, it occurs to me, is that however wonderful a truly organized Container Store-d Clubhouse will be, it's really only another small battle in a lifetime of battles against stuff.

Wish me luck.(And send Container Store giftcards.)


  1. Have you thought of taking all your old notebooks and scanning them to digital files? That what I did with 3 years of law school notes!

  2. Kate, need more details? Where, How, How Much, How Long?

  3. that is... "need more details." Declarative.

  4. Oh my lord, you're singing my theme song, Miss Maggie. I wrote about it a few months back, too, mainly because writing about it felt like doing something about it (but the ACTUAL doing -- cleaning, organizing, etc. -- didn't begin until Labor Day and is ongoing).

    Anyway, here's my link:

    Miss you!

  5. Whew- that overwhelms me. I am such a packrat-procratinator. I still haven't returned/opened half of my wedding gifts. Maybe your organization will be my inspiration.

  6. well as you know i am on the exact opposite of this fence, but I didn't always used to be. I used to keep EVERYTHING but then one day just snapped out of that habit. Weird I know.

    Anyway, the container store saved my life. also, i have to ditto kate about scanning your notes!! saves so much space.


  7. Maggie, I hear your pain. I have been tackling my office for the last 9 months. Its much the same-- grad school and pre-grad school paperwork that I have to sort through before I can shred/recycle/re-file it. I hit the wall and have left a pile of things in the middle of the floor for at least three months now. Meanwhile all of my books have been boxed up and are taking up space in my living room, and all of my day to day office stuff has taken up residence on my kitchen counter since that's my new office. Its a gigantic mess and literally makes it look like a crazy person lives in my house. Not quite Grey Gardens, but getting close! All I can say is that it's terribly rewarding when you do get rid of a lot of it, and its hard to sort through so many years of your life all at once, so don't get discouraged.

  8. I am bipolar when it comes to organization. I try to take on so much in my life that I don't have time to keep up with general neatness... it's not in my nature to be tidy. But I am super organized at the same time. If that sounds odd I guess the best way I can explain it is that my laundry hamper is almost always over flowing, but my files from undergrad are neatly filed by course in a clear acrylic file box and my case studies from grad school get scanned and backed up on my external hard drive.

    I adore the container store, and in fact I worked there for 2 years when I was trying to make ends meet early in my professional life. I could spend thousands on custom elfa and design my dream pantry.... That being said, I think that there is something to be said for a good old fashioned "purge". I started making annual goodwill trips with a car load of stuff 2 years ago. Honestly I never missed a single thing that I donated. It was kind of freeing.

    Good luck figuring everything out!

  9. Good luck! We're co-clutterers too (love that term!), and I think I may finally be learning to embrace it rather than be embarrassed by it. A huge step. Now to move somewhere that's less than 2 hours away from a Container Store...

  10. I have been feeling the pressure of clutter lately as well. And also grew up with a packrat family... but I think that is what has caused me to try to avoid being a packrat. My clutter comes from an apartment that is WayToSmall with the smallest amount of closet space and cupboards. It has me torn between being a city dweller and moving out of the city for a cute house that has more than 4 rooms.

    The suggestion above to convert paper notes to digital is really good. I would imagine that if you don't have a scanner (or want to spend the time) you could have this done at FedEx Kinkos.


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