Clutter’s Continuity
July 12

Do you know how they keep the Golden Gate Bridge looking so neat and snazzy? They paint it a lot. “Continuously,” according to the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation Web site. Basically, no sooner do they finish painting from one end to the other then they start back at the beginning and paint it all over again. The corrosive salt air eats away at the surface otherwise, so they just have to keep at it. Year in, year out.

I find it works much the same way with clutter. I am forever decluttering — my files, my closet, my purse, my kitchen counter, my entry, my car — and no sooner do I complete one pass than it’s time to begin another.

As with salt air, there’s a corrosive quality to clutter. As it accumulates, slowly but surely, it eats away at my peace of mind, my confidence, my sense of order, my pleasure in my physical environment. On bad days, clutter pecks away at my whole outlook on life.

It starts with mild irritation: OK, where did I put that stupid receipt? 

It builds to a sense of annoyance: For crying out loud, there has to be two weeks’ worth of mail on this table! There’s no place to put a coffee cup! 

It swells to a peevish frustration: Argh! This drawer is too stuffed to close properly. Close, darn you! 

And pretty soon, it crescendos to a full-on red-alert: Nreeee! Nreee! Nreee! My god, how did everything get so horrible? My desk is covered in to-do notes; this closet is one big laundry pile; I’m scheduled to be in two places at once this afternoon — and what’s this? I thought I paid this parking ticket weeks ago! Good grief, there’s probably a warrant for my arrest by now. Well, fine. Great. Whatever. Let ’em come and get me. I doubt they can find me in this rathole of a house anyway . . .  

It’s about this time that I realize I need to do some serious decluttering. So I get up a little early and clear off the top of my desk. (I feel unexpectedly better.) Over the weekend, I fold and put away a big pile of laundry. (My cortisol levels drop, and I find I can breathe a little more deeply.) I file my paperwork and put a vase of flowers on the dining-room table where the giant pile of mail used to be. (Ah, my life once again seems manageable.) I toss out crusty old toiletries and take a load of not-often-used stuff to Goodwill. (I drive home with a renewed sense of  vigor and purpose.)

And so it goes, little by little, until things are starting to feel downright neat and tidy. Which lasts about 15 minutes, and then the whole thing begins again.

I have come to terms with this. I now realize that if my purse is clutter-free, it probably means my silverware drawer is due to be vacuumed out. If my closet is organized, it probably means my laundry room is overflowing. If my table is free of mail, my refrigerator is growing new life forms. And if my filing is up to date, it must be tax time. Which means everything will soon be coming back out onto the table.

This is just the way it is. When I get desperate or overwhelmed by the sheer scale of my clutter problem, I call up my sister, Andrea, for encouragement. She’s the amazing feng-shui-and-decluttering expert whose work is featured in our “Order out of Chaos” series (this month’s bedroom installment; our March issue for a car decluttering; January for a kick-butt closet makeover). And what Andrea tells me is always the same: “Just schedule some time, take on a single space at a time, do what you can. And if you need some help, let me know.”

But what’s amazing to me is, once I get into it, I can almost always handle it myself. I get a kind of crazy thrill from diving in to my own worst clutter piles and coming out victorious on the other side. And, on some weird level, I kind of like that this work is never done.

Perhaps it’s like that lovely bit of Zen wisdom: “Chop wood. Carry water.” I realize “declutter the dining-room table” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but I think the central message isn’t so different: No matter how caught up we get in “more important” things, life’s simple, mundane daily chores still need doing. And in doing this maintenance willingly, mindfully, continuously, there are some important rewards — perhaps even a measure of down-to-earth redemption. Here’s to more of that, and to less of whatever is feeling like clutter in your life.

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  • Clodagh

    I keep a give away bag in my laundry closet. My clutter can be someone elses clothing. Unwanted gifts which I receive can bring someone else pleasure. My rule is, with the exception of the two formal evening outfits I own, if I dont wear a piece of clothing for a year out it goes.  My books go to the Housing Works to sell to help to stamp out AIDS.

    Clutter has a habit of breeding in closed spaces. Watch your medicine cabinet and your closets and the unreachable upper cabinets in your kitchen where clutter fertility is rife!

    Before you go on a trip give away perishables which are in good shape the day you leave.