How I Know I Need Clutterers Anonymous

posted November 12, 2007

People often ask me how I am able to do so many things. The answer is: I almost never clean my house. As they say, something has to give, and in the Nields-Duffy house, it’s housework.

Don’t get me wrong. We only have a few ant colonies and the rats only show their faces at night. So far, the toys from the playroom haven’t migrated so far into the other rooms that doors can’t open, and so far no one has killed him or herself tripping over things, but it’s pretty bad. My friend and co-Day Planner inventor, Bonnie, made a suggestion to the group at one point that, “when things get kind of whacky, I sometimes take all the papers and loose ends and just put them in a box to file later.” I took that suggestion, only my box keeps growing—in fact I just added a second box—and I keep them both under the futon in my office. Lord knows what manner of important papers are in there.

I just paused to Google Clutterers Anonymous. I took their test: How Do I Know I’m A Clutterer? Twenty Questions. If I answered three or more as yes, I was probably a clutterer. I answered 15. Uh oh.

I have a closet overflowing with clothes. Old maternity things hanging hopefully (OK, not hanging—perhaps “crammed” would be a more accurate term), clothes from when I was ten pounds lighter than I am now; winter clothes, summer clothes, shoes in a heap. Piles of clothes, halfheartedly semi-sorted at one point to go to Good Will, get filched from regularly. I have a box in my bedroom marked “off-season clothes” that at one time was organized; now, it’s a dumping ground for the outfits I try on and reject when I’m actually getting dressed up to go somewhere.

I didn’t use to be this way. Honest. I went through a long phase where I studied Feng Shui and decluttered accordingly. In Feng Shui, there is a concept called a Bagua, which is a nine-celled map of your living space. You overlay it onto your home or apartment according to where the front door is and it makes a kind of grid. Each of the nine areas of your home has a corresponding point on the Bagua—areas such as Fame, Money, Children, Romance, Health, etc. The theory is, wherever you let clutter build up, there you will find problems and be stuck; the chi cannot flow freely in your home, and therefore you life, if you have clutter in any section.

Since I had clutter everywhere, I went to it. I decluttered my whole house, room by room, drawer by drawer, surface by surface. I sold excess and refrained from buying anything unless I simultaneously got rid of something else. It helped that I was going through a divorce and could pawn off lots of stuff onto my ex-husband, who LOVES clutter.

I got to like the new decluttered me. I liked leaving the house completely clean before going to bed. I kept my desk neat and my papers filed. I got a thrill from throwing things out.

So what happened? How did I fall off the wagon? Well, first of all, like a person who was overweight as a child but lost the baby fat at puberty, I was always one toss-of-a-sweater-onto-the-end-of-the-bed away from regressing. Conditions had been pretty perfect during my days of grace in the de-slobbing department. Rock the boat a little, and the sleeping monster would surely be woken.

It’s certainly a cop-out to blame a person who isn’t even yet three feet tall, but I point to my 18 month old daughter and cry, “J’accuse!” Here’s a typical day: she wakes up just when I am rushing to make my morning phone calls, so I juggle her on one hip while I or her father makes her eggs and toast and applesauce. These she generally throws on the floor, though occasionally some of the above makes it into her mouth. But not until she’s thoroughly wiped applesauce into her hair, which won’t be washed until evening. Then we do the dishes. As we put plates into the dishwasher, she methodically takes out the utensils and bangs them on the floor, spraying bits of food all over. (As I type this, I notice there are small red drops on my screen—remnants of yesterday’s new discovery: pomegranate seeds.) I take her into the playroom to start cleaning up her toys. Before I can say, “Picasso” she has dumped her basket of mangled crayons all over the floor.

Don’t get me started on the time one of those crayons found its way into the laundry. It was dark blue. Dryers and crayons do not like each other.

It’s not really Lila’s fault. The bigger problem is that I have a negative time balance that greatly interferes with my already shaky ability to throw things out. Plus, just when I have convinced myself that I don’t really need that shirt, that old piece of wrapping paper, that Yoga Journal from 1999, I suddenly come up with a purpose for it, and I renounce my renunciation. True clutterer that I am, I have the notion that that box the Lands End stuff came in might someday be useful. I could be creative and crafty. Really. It’s happened. So I don’t throw it out, nor do I throw out the ribbons from the gifts I get, or the gifts themselves, even though I know I will never use them. I have stacks of random things that might someday be part of as yet unmapped creative project.

Last Friday morning, I was frantically cleaning up Lila’s bedroom because a new babysitter was coming over, and I didn’t want her to see the real me yet. I wanted her to see the me I was ten years ago; the me who would have folded and sorted all Lila’s hand-me-downs in some kind of clever color-coded seasonally appropriate way. As I cleaned, Lila toddled off to my office (I will spare you the details of my office). I vaguely heard her shaking something. I figured it was my bottle of Advil, which makes a great shaker, and fretted not, thanks to childproofing. I heard Tom come up the stairs, enter my office, saying, “Hi, sweetie, oh, look at you, uh AH AAAAAHHHHHH!!!! OH MY GOD!!!” I raced in, to find Lila sitting in the middle of a circle of Advil tablets and an open container in her hand.

We raced her to the emergency room, which she found delightful, played with the Johnny they gave her to wear and she ate her first chocolate in the form of pudding used to disguise the sweetened charcoal the doctors gave her to absorb any of the Advil she might have ingested (which appeared, after all, to be none.)

So much for cleaning! We returned home, and I dug around in a big pile of miscellaneous clutter until I found a medium-sized square box. I drew four circles at the top, cut a door out of the side and labeled it Lila’s Oven. She’s been calling it her “Kitzen” ever since. Clutterers Anonymous will have to wait.

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  1. Love your story and sense of humor. I’m studying Feng Shui, saver of ” I could make that into something clever”, that’s too cute to toss, etc, etc. My craft room door must stay closed because my boyfriend thinks it’s haunted. It’s just all the unfinished, in progress projects calling my name. Susan.

  2. Thank you for this. This is me. I am feeling like something is really wrong with me and I’ve been like this almost my entire life. As a teenager, I used to clean up my room, which usually meant I had just papers and magazines everywhere that I would grab and put under my mattress so it looked like I had cleaned up. I have a hard time throwing things away and I also keep things thinking that I may need them for a creative project.

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