There’s an elephant in my living room: a pachyderm-sized heap of banker’s boxes, research folders, three-ring binders, clothes, shopping bags, books, books, books and a thousand etceteras that have steadily accumulated until the space looks like the Fresh Kills garbage dump—minus the old cars. When an electrical contractor came the other day to survey my apartment for rewiring, I had to waylay him in the corridor and warn him of the hoarder’s nest he was entering and what he could expect to find. “Don’t worry, there are no dead cats or old hamburgers buried in there,” I joked. He was not amused. A look of panic crossed his face, and I had to coax him inside. Even then, he refused to step beyond the foyer.
It’s not that I’m blissfully unaware of the stuff. Only the blind wouldn’t see it. And it’s not that I haven’t fretted about it continually and made plans for a giant purge. I have the stock of garbage bags to prove it. The desire is there, but the follow-through has been lacking. The trouble is, when clutter gets to this point, short of a court order from the health department or the threat of eviction, there’s little that could override the crippling sense of overwhelm that has kept me from tackling the job.
Years ago I actually attended a de-cluttering class in a room full of other New York hoarders—many of whom worked in publishing like me. I even wrote a magazine article about de-cluttering: one of the experts I interviewed was a social worker in California who described going into one hoarder’s house with a backhoe to clear out the mess. I’m not quite at the backhoe state, but clearly there’s a problem.
De-cluttering is all the rage now. The bible of the mess patrol is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a surprise best-seller by Marie Kondo, a Japanese “tidying consultant.” The urge to purge has also spawned an interest in smaller houses. I’m hooked on the TV shows Tiny House Nation and Tiny House Hunters, which follow newly-minted downsizers as they try to cram the contents of 2,300 square feet or more into 500 square feet or less. I identify with their angst as they’re forced to part with shoe collections, 10-foot tables, and other trappings of a prosperous life.
In another sign of the times, friends who wouldn’t dream of keeping up with the Kardashians refuse to miss an episode of the reality show Hoarders. I avoided watching, afraid I’d see myself in high-definition and living color. In our land of plenty and overconsumption, the hoarding problem has reached sufficient proportions for DSM-5, the latest edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, to for the first time identify hoarding as a distinct condition, a subset of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
When I finally watched Hoarders, to my relief I didn’t see myself in the lady harboring 49 sickly cats or the one with a freezer stuffed so full she has to duct-tape the door closed, or the woman sleeping on her patio because every room in her house is crammed with stuff, or the head of a condo homeowners’ association whose own home is so cluttered it would lead to any other resident’s eviction. Still, the signs are there: perfectionism, disorganization, compulsive shopping, procrastination, to name a few.
For me, the stumbling block is paper: books, research files, manuscripts—predictable detritus of three decades as an editor and writer. Never mind the digital age and the paperless office: any editor over 40 knows that unless you’re covering late-breaking news, editing on screen is a stopgap at best. Why do you think there are so many typos and egregious errors in 95 percent of what you read? (Tricycle excluded: we have a team of beady-eyed editors and proofreaders combing through the copy before an issue goes to press. That was standard procedure in the pre-digital age.) Granted, much of the paper in my apartment could go.
Books are another matter. I think anyone who throws away books should be arrested, though admittedly a lot of what is published now is rubbish, getting into print only because the author—who may have hired a ghostwriter for the text—has a platform and a following. Most of my library predates trash-for-cash in publishing, though, so I’m not about to part with a single volume, thank you very much. Then again, this becomes an indefensible position once you do the math: packing 3,500 or so books into 350 square feet. Right there is one obvious answer to my clutter problem, but that’s where my denial creeps in.
I need them, I insist when anyone suggests culling the piles. It’s a working library; I use it for research. There are a lot of Buddhist texts there, I protest. You can get all the information you need online, they counter. Not true, I shoot back. And I’m partly right: most of the books published in the last century have not been digitized and made universally available online. But even if you grant my semi-specious reasoning, there’s a bigger issue at stake here.
See, while I’m roundly defending my clutter against challengers, all that’s shoring up my defense is denial. Once the rationalizations run out, there’s only selective blindness to fall back on. Imagine that your living room was wall-to-wall carpeted with stuff. In order not to see it—never mind trip over it—every time you entered, you’d have to don psychological blinders. It’s a variation on the emperor has no clothes. Like an image in the blind spot of the retina, if I refuse to see it, it doesn’t exist.
Related: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Little Peugeot
But paradoxically, I know full well the clutter’s there. As the Zen saying goes, Things are not as they seem, nor are they otherwise. And so it was that one day, something clicked, and I realized that the mental and emotional legerdemain required to make the piles disappear left me little time and energy for enjoying the important things in life.
That’s where meditation practice comes in. I knew that mindfulness and lovingkindness alone weren’t going to make the clutter disappear. The only recourse, I thought, was to sit down and make friends with the mess. With time and diligence I hoped the structure of denial would crumble and the clutter fall away—without a backhoe.
Once I committed to tackling the mess head on, I had a revelation. I was in the midst of meditating on the clutter piled up under the windows like a snowdrift when I saw that what I was looking at was the kitchen midden of my life—the refuse heap of bygone days. Here lies material evidence of the activity, creativity, reactivity, and accumulation of decades.
Accumulation is attachment, Buddhism tells us. So now, like an archeologist, I’m sifting through the residue of a life lived for too long in too small quarters. Herding the mess into garbage bags is not the answer. Instead I’m combing through the shards, painstakingly dusting off each item I unearth. As I turn it over in my hand, it gives off memories, a hint of what was going on in my life when I acquired it.
“Everything you own wants to be of use to you,” Marie Kondo writes. “Even if you throw it away or burn it, it will only leave behind the energy of wanting to be of service.”
With that in mind, I ask each object: Why this? Why that? Where did you come from? Why did I need or want you? How do you serve me now? I’ve been surprised by the feeling of warmth that arises, the sense of intimacy with my stuff.
Anthropomorphizing? Sure, but so what? Marie Kondo makes it sound like the most natural thing in the world to see our things as living objects and thank them for serving us. At the end of the day, as she tucks the jewelry she was wearing in a drawer, she says, “Thanks for all you did for me today.” How fitting, when her criterion for keeping something in your life is “Does it give you joy?” If I think of each object in my apartment as something that wanted to be of use to me, how can I be cavalier about tossing it aside? If it no longer gives me joy, I can still thank it for its service before I let it go.
In pondering how my possessions have served me, I wondered if the converse was also true, and if so, whether I am living up to my side of the bargain. As Rilke wrote, “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” Years ago, I interviewed an interior designer who said, “Every 10 years you should take everything out of your house and put it on your lawn, and only take back in what you use and love.” Now, as I sit gazing at the top layer of my kitchen midden, a wave of tenderness washes over me.
Just as too much clutter obscures my ability to function, obscurations in the mind cloud my ability to think. And just as meditation clears away obscurations in the mind, I trust that friendly attentiveness will loosen my resistance to letting go of clutter. Piece by piece, layer by layer, bit by bit, I’m working on both.
Resistance to de-cluttering, as Marie Kondo points out, is tied to nostalgia for the past and fear of the future. Happily, practice is about being here and now. Only in the present can I surrender an object. And gone is not forgotten. “Freed from its physical form, [your things] will move about your world as energy,” Marie Kondo writes, “letting other things know that you are a special person, and come back to you as the thing that will be of most use to who you are now.”
None of this will happen overnight. Already I have fits of acquisitiveness and rage at letting go. I’m just beginning the process. But cuddling up to my clutter and expressing gratitude for its presence feels like a good way to start. Who doesn’t want to love and be loved? That includes my stuff.
If you’ve got a clutter problem of your own, check out this advice from personal organization expert Andrew Mellen and watch him put it into action in a 2012 video of him reorganizing Tricycle executive editor Emma Varvaloucas’s apartment.
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