Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Musings of a Decluttering Agnostic

Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat?   I confess to having spent too much of the past couple of decades immersed in clutter--both actual clutter, and the emerging pop culture fixation on clutter.

From my quick and dirty online search this morning, I learned that, unlike the poor, we have only had "clutter" with us (as a term, anyway) since the 16th century.  In using the word as a noun, we are referring to "a disorderly heap or assemblage; litter."  "Declutter," a verb having to do with the removal of the aforementioned noun, has not yet made it into most dictionaries, despite being ubiquitous on bookshelves, in blogs, in magazines, and on business cards.  

The earliest mention of decluttering that I have come across was in this thirty-year-old book entitled Cleaning and the Meaning of Life : Simple Solutions to Declutter Your Home and Beautify Your Life by Paula Jhung (1980).  Ms. Jhung was way ahead of the pack, predating the voluntary simplicity movement, which a 2008 New York Times article traces to 1980s Seattle.  According to Wikipedia, that movement, with its admonitions of simple living, has roots in Iron Age India (1200-272 B.C.).  Recent years have produced what we might term "a disorderly heap or assemblage" of books and articles and TV programs and experts holding forth in all available forums on clutter and decluttering.  And I have read and watched and listened to more than my share.

I feel spiritually drawn to images of decluttered space.  You know the ones--warm diffuse light washing over clear shiny surfaces, unfurnished spaces, gleaming floors and windows.  And of course, the obligatory single floral stem in a clear vase of water.  But I feel sinful and unredeemed as I gaze at my own surroundings.  Two teenage boys, a work-obsessed spouse and a shedding Labrador/greyhound, along with having lived in the same house through two marriages and three kids, are not exactly conditions for maintaining an uncluttered look.  

I have not sunk to the status of the hoarders we have begun to identify among us, and on whom we have trained the fascination usually reserved for train wrecks.  These individuals are held up as negative examples on shows that document the horrors of their material imprisonment, counsel them to repent and reform, and take them through exorcisms ("purging") designed to cleanse their souls and their environs alike.  Properly shamed and penitent, they vow to do better in the wake of their broadcast interventions.

I suspect that many of us who do not qualify as "The Messiest Home in America" still fall short of the decluttered ideals to which we are so universally exhorted.  And though we are urged to take on massive makeovers of our lives and our habitats, how many of us have the time, or the emotional stamina in this stressful era, to mount this kind of effort?  What are we to do, in the face of this cultural obsession with order and economy, in the midst of a society which proliferates goods and entices us to buy them?

For myself, I have determined to keep decluttering in its place.  I still aspire to the aesthetic.  And I want to continue to give myself and my family the gift of order and spaciousness that results from focusing on straightening one room, one drawer, one corner.  But I don't want to sit in our home, as I eat and talk and play and work and relax with the people I love, and lash myself, or them, for our less-than-perfect state of affairs.  Decluttering as a religious scruple is mental clutter I cannot afford. 

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