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Embracing the Art of Decluttering

With help from a lucky library find, I learned to embrace the art of decluttering -- and discovered opportunities for rebirth at the bottom of the pile.

Text by Susanna Sonnenberg

It was an accident. I was looking for something else, but at eye level on a public library shelf, one book stood apart by virtue of its small size. "Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui," the jacket counseled, commanded. 

Although I considered myself far too pragmatic for feng shui, I couldn't resist author Karen Kingston's subtitle: "Free Yourself from Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Clutter Forever." A tall order. That's how transformation happens, in those first sleepy steps before you know you're on a path. I opened the book and read.

The Pile lived on a counter in our kitchen, a hulk of cascading papers and motley objects. I'd given up trying to tackle it, thinking I was just overwhelmed by the busywork it represented. Kingston, who defines clutter as "anything neglected, forgotten, unwanted, unloved, or unused [that] will cause the energy in your home to slow and stagnate," made me see that The Pile had been draining me. 

The book also said that The Pile occupied the Love & Marriage corner of the "bagua" (energy map) of my home, meaning there was a good chance things with my husband were stuck.

Instead of energy, I felt dread. "Clutter," Kingston writes, "drags your energy down, and the longer you keep it, the more it will affect you." To get to the street-cleaning schedule or the school directory, I had to dig through batteries, plastic lids, Monopoly hotels, more batteries, erasers, a mini bottle of Tabasco. When I actually needed batteries, I went to the hardware store. The clutter rendered every object in The Pile useless.

Our family of four had so much, but we could never find anything. To reach the snow boots, I'd wrestle the vacuum from the closet, push aside outdated coats, rehang lacrosse sticks. Embarrassed by our surfeit, I'd resolve occasionally to "have less!" Other people could use these, I'd think, surveying 10 blankets. Oh, but this one is real wool, and this was a wedding gift. Each made its argument, and I listened. In the end, I'd keep them all, refolding them as if to make them smaller.

Until I read Kingston I'd never decluttered with the goal of opening. Now I siphoned off a handful of the kitchen-counter mess and sat down: RSVP for the benefit, pay the insurance bill. The work took time, but as I transformed clutter into purpose, I felt engaged, hopeful, like starting a diet to boost my body for a marathon rather than to fit into smaller jeans.

Eventually The Pile was no more. I scrubbed the counter, set up a framed photo of us before we had kids, filled a red lacquer bowl with oranges. The corner percolated. I took on a kitchen drawer (three whisks?), the cavity under the sink (multiple buckets?). I grew lighter as I moved through the house.

It was easy to get rid of florists' vases and my college textbooks, but what if I needed that old coffeemaker, its inner well salted with mineral deposits? What if our French press broke? Fear kept a hold on possessions. Looking at empty boxes in our basement, I thought, What if I need to ship something? "What if" was a cement block around my feet. I broke out of it, broke down the boxes, and put them in the recycling bin.

My house became a living thing, bursting with instruction. Now the medicine cabinets! Now the bookshelves! Would I listen to Bonnie Raitt again? I never thought of her, much less the girl I'd been when she'd provided my sound track. I uploaded "Have a Heart" for sentimental reasons and passed on 10 CDs. 

The clutter book was firm about sentimental value. If the sentiment nourishes your spirit, fine, but otherwise, free up this precious space and allow something new to bloom there. Many of my possessions, I realized, had accumulated before motherhood, inert memorials to a self frozen as the rest of me cared for my sons. I didn't even know what I liked or wanted anymore. Decluttering urged me to forge new definitions.

Objects imbued with difficult history were the hardest, even negative associations their own sort of contract. The floor-length coat in the hall closet -- my hand brushed against its marine-blue wool almost every day. I was living in London at 24 with a man I was trying to impress. My grandmother had taken me out for the sort of day we'd shared all my life -- lunch at a fashionable restaurant, then a slow procession into high-end shops, her insisting on my wardrobe with impeccable taste. 

We chose the billowing blue coat, and, swaddled and buttoned, I stepped into London's winter day while my grandmother paid the 700-pound bill. I was abashed by the price, and she swatted away my concern, which I'd hoped she'd do.

In 15 years, I'd worn the coat twice, yet whenever I'd considered purging it, I remembered its cost. I took it to Goodwill. 

An undignified end, but the coat was a thing, and what did it really give me? Embarrassing reminders of my grasp for my grandmother's spoiling; a young woman striving for sophistication she never pulled off; the man who eventually left me; the guilt I'd felt wearing something that cost so much. Make no mistake -- this was hard, releasing such an objectively nice object. Then I did it, and nothing bad happened.

Space opened in our house, the closets, the bookshelves, and the rooms. Space inside myself. What would I put there? What is it about an empty spot that makes us fill it? We equate empty with nothing; but when I resisted refilling the space, air and light moved in, became a sanctuary. I brought home a few houseplants, which thrived and brightened the rooms. What if an airy nothing actually gives us more than the solid stuff? Our batteries were now stored in a drawer, and when I needed one, I knew where to look, pushed nothing aside, was blocked by nothing. Nothing helped me.

When I had decluttered our house, which took me a slow year, I itched to keep going. I loved the steadying work of assigning each thing a proper meaning, or realizing it had none. One friend asked me to help winnow his book collection, another to rearrange her bedroom. A dear friend felt defeated every time she entered her house. Her divorce was still defining her, three years later, a stuckness she couldn't escape. "We'll do your bedroom," I said. We flipped her mattress, jettisoned wedding presents and her ex's books. Under her bed I found papers pertaining to the divorce. "You're sleeping over this?" I said. We moved them to another room. We dragged out guitar boxes her ex had left, skis he'd forgotten. "He might need this stuff," she worried. "You don't," I said.

Visiting my mother-in-law, I caught her interest with these domestic adventures. She was alone in a large house, widowed for several years. I said, "What's really meaningful to you?" I'm not sure the question had occurred to her, just as it hadn't occurred to me. 

Soon we were hauling from the basement the headboard she'd used in her first apartment. We discarded 30 years' worth of magazines her late husband had accrued. ("But what if ...") In their place we set photos, beloved trinkets, books she had yet to read.

I'd always sensed a tremendous negative charge in my mother-in-law's bedroom, without knowing why, and Kingston prompted me to become attuned to those signals. I pointed to the foot of the bed, where a large camel saddle sat, a gift her in-laws had brought from Egypt decades earlier. "Do you like this?" I said.

She lowered her voice. "Not really." She avoided looking at it, she told me, yet it informed her path. I could tell she was nervous -- afraid of change, of family betrayal. I coaxed her through the steps I'd adapted from Kingston for each object: Do I love it? Do I need it? Does it bring me peace and energy or uneasy trouble? 

She hesitated, took a breath, then told me it could go. I marched it out, and she was cheerfully scandalized. The next day she moved in a deep chair, a lamp, a large plant. She embraced change and all its bright promise.

As we worked through main rooms and obscure cupboards, she told me her dreams and desires. We cried together and laughed. One night we unearthed a movie screen from the basement and projected slides. My husband had never even seen many of these images: his mother at the beach in a fetching one-piece; newly in love; smoking with girlfriends. The visit over, I hated to leave, to miss any vibrant pieces of this woman as they emerged.

This summer, days before she turned 100, my grandmother died. I have things she gave me, little paintings, jeweled rings, embroidered tablecloths. But when I learned she was dead I thought only of the coat, which was gone. It had joined other coats on a Goodwill rack, priced around $14, a stiff nylon thread sticking out of the cuff. Someone who wasn't me would be wrapped in it now, a woman insensible of my grandmother's zeal and spirit and spoiling and love, who couldn't remember London and lunches.

I berated myself for the fervent purging and wondered, suddenly panicked, what else I had sacrificed. Anticipating such regret, Kingston advises that a person trust each decision made during decluttering, even if the benefits are slow to emerge. In the whole process, I found parts of myself I had thought lost, eased movement in our house, helped friends, bonded with my mother-in-law, prioritized our needs, let go of stale hurts and worries; and, thanks to the cleared-out spot once occupied by The Pile, I had renewed with passion and vigor many aspects of my marriage (that's for another article!).

Only once did I regret getting rid of something, which was, after all, a thing. That elegant coat, which I never wore, no longer takes up physical space, but became the words you're reading. The act of choosing to discard it -- thinking about it -- gave it more value than it had in the closet, waking me a little more to the possibilities of our full world.

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