How to Unclutter Your Life | Are You Overwhelmed by Your Stuff?

Don’t let your possessions take over your life! Organize, donate, and recycle your unused things.

On a recent Friday night, my husband and son were downstairs avidly watching Engineer­ ing an Empire: Egypt, while I sat beside them battling to keep my eyes open and musing about how helpful this documentary would be during bouts of insomnia. Suddenly a noise resembling a shotgun blast exploded from somewhere upstairs. We all leapt off the sofa and looked at each other.

“Press pause,” my son advised, maybe so we could listen for other unsettling sounds but probably so we wouldn’t miss exciting engineering trivia.

“An exploding bottle?” I conjectured. 

One long-ago hot summer night a case of my parents’ homemade root beer had mysteriously shattered, shooting sticky brown syrup in all directions. The mess deterred my parents from ever again attempting to save money by concocting their own soft drinks. But on Wednesday night my son had bottled his latest batch of homemade brew. Ninety-seven bottles were fermenting in the kitchen above our heads.

“Maybe,” my son responded. But then he added that he’d heard an odd sliding sound right before the explosion.

Upstairs, the bottles were intact. However, the black metal base to our blender, which I’d left on the counter, was lying on the oak kitchen floor. A small prong had broken off the blender base and was lying beside it. The oak floor sported a new, splintery pea-sized dent.

What had happened? We don’t have mice, and the really big spiders never venture upstairs. I suspect our household clutter, swollen by carloads of sentimental treasures we’d hauled home after emptying and selling my parents’ and in-laws’ houses, had reached a critical mass that caused inanimate objects to try to escape. The sleek, black blender base recoiled at being wedged between a grungy old food processor and a cracked pink teapot.

At first, we’d managed to segregate our parents’ treasures. Crumbling albums of sepia photos; our fathers’ World War II U.S. Army uniforms; my mother’s sewing machines; textbooks my mother-in-law taught from in a one-room country schoolhouse—these things and more formed a formidable but contained cardboard-carton pyramid that dominated our basement family room.

Then, this summer, our house required remedial refurbishing. Our belongings migrated from room to room, merging into a monstrous hodgepodge, as we emptied one space and cluttered others to accommodate roving construction workers. The pyramid crumbled. Cartons of our moms’ favorite recipes became indistinguishable from ones containing current necessities that we distractedly swept off desktops. Car keys, printer paper, utility bills, and ink cartridges disappeared like the pharaohs’ lost treasures.

Increasingly disoriented by the disintegration of an admittedly weak organizational system, I sought solace from weird reality TV shows. Mission Organization, Clean House, and the truly horrifying Hoarders all spotlight messy people.  These shows taught me that others, too, have stumbled down the littered road to chaos.

Some of us hold onto deceased loved ones’ treasures, falsely believing we need talismans to remember the people themselves. Others refuse to surrender unused items from our own pasts in a futile attempt to preserve earlier versions of ourselves. The pharaohs did this, too, mercilessly conquering, robbing, and taxing their neighbors so they could erect enormous monuments in which to store their own shriveled, salted, and mummy-wrapped hearts.

Fellow clutterers, it’s time to let go. In the current economic climate, it’s small-hearted to cling to unused things that others might need. Eschew the pharaohs’ hoarding mentality, but embrace their engineers’ creative persistence. Inexplicably confident, Egypt’s early builders employed a simple trial and error technique. King Snefru’s architects constructed two defective pyramids for him before their third stood firm. Today, that creation, the Red Pyramid in Dahshur, still stands, the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to survive to modern times.

Courage, clutterites! Trial and error can work for us, too. National Clutter Awareness Week is March 21-28, 2010. From now until then, join me on a half-year journey towards a clutter-light life. Begin with these three tips.

1. Pick the low-hanging fruit. Some things are impossible to give or toss away and others merely difficult. Focus on the least difficult categories first. Junk mail, old newspapers or catalogs, maybe? Experiencing success in one area will embolden you to tackle more.

2. Respond generously to pleas for donated goods. Churches solicit donations of like-new coats in winter. They hold pink-elephant bazaars each spring. Women’s shelters need kitchen equipment. Families who’ve lost their homes to fire need everything. Help others and you’ll help yourself, as well.

3. Exploit community resources. My town provides free annual trash pickups. It also periodically holds low-cost citywide garage sales. On a recent Saturday, for example, I paid $8.36 to reserve a parking-space slot. Pricing to sell, I netted only about $20 but disposed of two tables’ worth of stuff. I sold my mother’s old microwave, a boom box, and other electronics that charity stores won’t accept. Best of all, I sold my grungy old food processor—I cleaned it up first—and gave away the cracked pink teapot. No more mysterious explosions for us!  

Need more inspiration to get uncluttered? Read Cheryl’s progress toward de-cluttering her life on her new blog at Look for updates from Cheryl at www.iowasource. com too.

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