Embracing Clutter And Keeping My Chair

We sat in the near-dark of the living room Saturday night talking about what we need to do, wish to do, and dread doing regarding the maintenance of our house. Although there’s nothing particularly awful or imminent, it all feels hard, expensive, and overwhelming.

“Sometimes, I daydream of cleaning it all out, of simplifying, of making it all clear so life’s not so complicated,” I said to my husband, grasping at words to convey how I felt about house repairs, confusing health insurance policies, piles of papers to file, and so on.

“Having only one bowl and one spoon?” he said.

“Yes! Exactly!” That’s exactly what I meant. A totally unrealistic and probably unsatisfying daydream of boiling our exterior lives down to the minimum essentials and thereby achieving a constant calm inner life. But one glance at our shoe rack by the front door, and already I wondered, “Just one pair of shoes? Or one for each occasion, like: running shoes, dressy shoes, everyday shoes …”

Sunday morning, my husband read last week’s Modern Love essay aloud to me. At the end of it, Ada Calhoun writes:

…I found myself daydreaming about the one-bedroom apartment [she would have instead of the complicated family home she actually has] looking out onto Powderhorn Park. After waking up alone, I would brew some coffee, switch on one of my many ceiling fans, grab a robe from my largest cedar closet and head for my breakfast nook.

This is what I daydream too, a life free of clutter and complexity. Bright morning light, coffee, simple one-bedroom studios, no clutter, no confusion or doubt, just me–existing.

I used to think this was not only possible, but that a lot of people lived this way, and I only needed to try harder. I blame it on the catalogs.

When we first moved into our house, catalogs arrived in our mail every other day, mostly from Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn, and they enchanted me with their depictions of bright, light, tidy spaces.

I studied these magazines, tearing out pages for our “house notebook” of everything from bathroom towel racks to a dining room wall decorated with giant white plates. (Trust me when I tell you that this is truly an ill-fitted idea to our little, low-ceiling home and tiny dining room.)

Soon, these magazines left me frustrated, dissatisfied, and grouchy. And then I had my epiphany:


One day, there it was–or actually–there it was NOT. I suddenly noticed what was missing in those catalog images. Not only were early mornings never depicted as dark and dog hair was always missing from the couch, the lamps and computers, stereos and TVs had no cords!

Desktop computers perched cheekily on rustic farm tables as if they’d turn on and accomplish work without cords from keyboard to monitor, from monitor to tower, from tower to wall. Lamps hovered nearby, angled to suggest the light they would emanate if they had a cord and it were plugged into a socket (which also don’t exist in catalog pictures). The space looked uncluttered only because each device lacked its three-to-seven cords necessary for functioning.

This broke the spell, and I finally saw the images for what they were, skillfully shot photographs of completely fabricated scenes. I couldn’t see it initially because the creators of these catalogs understood me and the clean-line, dust-free ease with with I wanted to exist in the world.

While I do still believe I can calm my inner mood by ordering my exterior surroundings (a tidy desk fills me with optimism and capability), I think instead I should work on de-cluttering my head and heart.

I mean, if you could create one of those imaginary spaces and put me in it, I might revel for a day, but then, there’d be some dirty laundry, a plant to water, a counter to wipe, and where are all the books? (Most definitely not wrapped in light-to-dark slate-colored butcher paper and shelved by size.)

Besides, ultimately, I’d still be me, alone with myself and my head still cluttered and doubtful.

Maybe that’s it–if I can achieve a calm, serene mind and heart, it won’t matter what kind of space I’m in. I’ll carry light, open, cord-free, clutter-free space within me.

NOTE: This is crazy timing. I first drafted this post on Sunday, July 26, but by Wednesday night, I’d read the hilarious essay at The Toast, “How To Get Rid Of Clutter And Live Abundantly” by Mallory Ortberg. Her sarcastic poke at the ever-growing “genre” of “mindful living” is hilarious and a great antidote. Here’s my favorite part:

Have you ever owned anything? This is why you cannot forgive any of your former lovers. Things like ‘having chairs’ is preventing you from living your best life, …


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19 Responses to Embracing Clutter And Keeping My Chair

  1. Katie says:

    Yes! Yes! Yes!!! I frequently fantasize about just throwing all of it out, especially now that Rosie has taken over all rooms of the house with her little people, random princesses, burp cloths (now repurposed as baby blankets), and literally envelopes staring at me from the floor for days before I pick them up. I love the idea of de-cluttered spaces but feel naked without all the random gewgaws that I’ve collected over the course of my life. They are like little souvenirs from different periods and evoke times, both good and bad, and people I love or used to love or who have tangled themselves into my life. I will be checking out Mallory Ortberg’s essay today. And start working on my clutter-free space inside, where I can always sit at that clean table and gather my thoughts.

    • TRISTA says:

      Yes, even if/when I manage to de-clutter my head and heart, I still need ONE space in the home that is tidy. A respite from the piles of papers and scattered toys, tupperware, and shoes.

  2. Rose L. says:

    During 37 years of marriage Clay and I lived in 4 different homes. With each move we got rid of stuff through garage sales and donations. But then, since each move was into a larger home, we gained more stuff.
    When Clay died Nov 2012, I knew things would change drastically. There was no money left from his retirement as he had cashed it in 10 years earlier when not able to work and disabled. He had no life insurance. At 60 I was starting over. I had to sell our home and moved into a manufactured home. While preparing to sell, I had to go through all the accumulation of those years and decide what I really wanted and what I could part with. I had to set aside sentimentality and decide what really mattered and what I could hold in memories. Not every gift needed to be kept. Even my best friend was surprised at how much I parted with. I had to move into temporary housing in a friends basement so rented a storage locker for what I had decided to keep from a 4 bedroom, 2 story 2400 sq. ft. home. It was strange to see it all whittled down in a small one room storage locker.
    I would like to say my new home is simpler but I ended up replacing furniture, and making things my own. I still have some boxes to go through and decide on items, but for the most part, it was good for me. Now I am making this place reflect ME and it is not easy as am still trying to figure out who I am after 37 years as a wife.
    Lighten your life and keep what matters, REALLY matters. Total clutter-free will never happen, especially since there are 2 adults and a child in the home. But you can do some work. Just do not expect immediate results as it does take time.

  3. weebluebirdie says:

    I yearn for a bigger house so that the heaps of Stuff would look smaller with more space around them. A bigger house is bound to have cupboards, so I could shove it all out of sight. It’s one of the reasons I don’t clean and tidy as much as I should because there will always be stuff with nowhere to go. I couldn’t live in a minimalmist kind of place though, too sterile with no personality. And I don’t trust people who have no books in their home!

    • TRISTA says:

      HA!! This is so funny because I find myself thinking the opposite. When I walk around the city and start to feel envy for the giant, refurbished homes I pass, I think: “Too much to clean, too much room for clutter to hide, better off in your manageable little home.” But I agree with you, magazine pictures of minimalist homes used to “wow” me, but now, I think they seem sterile too.

  4. nf says:

    Trista, that is such a great insight about no cords in the catalog photos! It makes me realize: I’ve practiced Feng Shui for years, and my home looks nothing like the western decorating magazines’ idea of what that is. I mean—there are lots of bright colors, there are bikes parked near the front door, and our “living room/den” is in a back bedroom! I hold that our homes are our own to arrange according to what feels good & serves us. (Intrinsically, rather than what a store catalog—or even tradition—says.) Which, come to think of it, feels freeing to me…. But I also LOOVE clearing clutter, haha!

    Thinking on that word, “clutter,” I think I usually use it to mean something that negatively bogs down the household in an ongoing or subconscious way (like, we find ourselves inexplicably cursing every time we shut the bathroom door, but aren’t sure why until we notice the screw is poking out of the hinge, that kind of thing). I’m with Katie—it’s not always the volume or age of a thing that makes it “clutter.” It really does depend on our love for & value/meaning of a thing or collection. I hear Marie Kondo’s philosophy on clearing clutter is something along those lines…

    Rose, your courage is so inspiring…. What have you discovered emerged from your items as the ones that matter most to you? (If you wouldn’t mind sharing.)

    • TRISTA says:

      Naomi–this is exactly it: “negatively bogs down the household in an ongoing or subconscious way”! Yes. It’s not like I need a perfectly spotless house, but certain kinds of clutter stress me out. I actually don’t mind piles of clean laundry filling the entire sofa waiting to be folded. But stacks of papers … ack!

  5. Amy Daileda says:

    I’m reading: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up (can’t figure out how to underline the title!) by Marie Kondo right now, and I am ready to sort through everything in my home and to simplify…I believe the article you mentioned is making fun of this book. It addresses everything you are talking about.

    • TRISTA says:

      I read it too, Amy, and I thought I’d love it, but I did not. I was surprised to find that I felt the book was too extreme. I think reading it maybe helped me find some balance. Although I loved her tenderness toward socks!!! I also wanted her to say more about what to do with all the stuff she wants us to get rid of — not put it in the garbage but pass it on if it’s still useful. (And now that I’ve typed this, I wonder if maybe I was resisting some of her tips because things have started to pile up around here. Hmmmm.)

      • Amy Daileda says:

        Well, I’m halfway through the book, and I can’t wait to try her method. We’ll see how it goes. I totally agree that she leaves out what to do with the stuff. She says to throw it away which would be my last resort (or maybe not even an option.) Getting rid of things can be quite time consuming if you have a conscience! Good luck with your quest.

  6. I’m fascinated by the people who live in those “tiny homes”. But I’m really just gawking. For me it’s the adult version of my childhood fantasy of living in a treehouse. Once I consider the logistics, it all goes out the window.

    I will say that a life-altering event was emptying out the basement. It was full of old furniture (I’m going to re-finish that!) non-working appliances (I can fix that!) odds and ends (I can make something out of that and sell it at a craft show!). One day I called the 1-800-GotJunk people and arranged for them to clean out everything. I stayed upstairs the whole time. I also cried a little bit when the truck drove away with my stuff. But a few years down the road, I am utterly relieved to have it all gone; the only thing I’ve really kicked myself for letting go of was a grease gun and a lamp. 🙂

    Visiting via the A to Z list, BTW. Cheers!

  7. Cristina says:

    Your insight about no cords delighted me. Those catalog pictures are unreal, and give us an unreal image of the “beautiful” home. Our move to Oregon was to a much smaller place, so we let go of a great deal — gave it away. We don’t have children, so tend to keep the house fairly clean and clear. My closets have been too full, and my studio space is my nemesis; my creative endeavors tend to spill everywhere. I read Marie Kondo’s book mid-summer and loved it. I love her approach of thanking the things we discard, it honors choices we made in the past — it’s a way of honoring ourselves in the present and the past. She estimates 6 months to “tidy up” your house, I figure I will take at least a year. I have to do it in stages, but every bit of KonMari I’ve implemented has paid off big-time. There’s a visual pay-back (my bureau drawers are beautiful), less time looking for things, more space, and I am relieved of trying to make certain possessions work for me when the reality is they’ll never work. There’s also been some financial gain, from good clothes and shoes I never wear and good books I’ll never read. Marie Kondo may not address recycling, but we all know how to recycle. I don’t throw away anything — a whole lot has gone to our local Humane Society Thrift Store, many books to Friends of the Library.

    • TRISTA says:

      Cristina — When you’re finished tidying your home, will you come do mine? Or, can we just swap houses? Hee-hee! I guess for me, our home fluctuates just like everything else in life, and there are moments when most things are put in their proper place and everything’s tidy, and then there are other moments … ! I’m learning to not only accept the other moments but enjoy them. That’s a big step for me.

      • Cristina says:

        Brava, dear Trista. I am currently swamped by my studio. I’m not accepting or enjoying my inability to bring order to this space. So I’d like to swap my state of mind for yours, and say to the sea of paper and notebooks and stories-in-process: yes, and this is okay. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Alex Hurst says:

    Haha, this is great. I was just telling my partner that we should throw away half our dishes because the dishes seem to be getting unwieldy (no dishwasher). Same goes with the dusting, and closets always bursting full. I like to declutter twice a year, but with a huge move coming up, the energy required for this next round is going to be painful…. Hopefully I can just go with the flow and everything will find it’s perfect place in a box that will be shipped to Canada for a pittance (not likely!!)

    • TRISTA says:

      Oh man … I don’t envy you, Alex. Moving is soooo hard! It is super nice to get settled in a new place with your well-chosen keepsakes, but the process of getting there is emotionally, intellectually, and physically draining. PLUS you have the added challenge of shipping things to another continent.

      You know one thing that has ALWAYS annoyed me in movies and TV shows? When a character has lost a job and is shown walking out of the office with one box of stuff, usually including a basketball, a framed picture, and a plant. What? Even one small office yields more stuff than that. Grrrr….

      • Alex Hurst says:

        Hahaha, yes, you’re totally right! I always have at least two days’ worth of boxes to walk out with.

        I’m currently researching moving companies, so we’ll see how it goes. I’m hoping one of them will do door-to-door AND be cheaper than my doing it one-by-one, but I also don’t want to get my hopes up. 😛 And yeah… it’s pretty draining. I was depressed for almost an entire week after I packed the first round of boxes.

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