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Guest Writer

Enough about you
The secret life of clutter
by Rachel Mendez

he problem is that I am inherently not neat. I am a clutterer and do not know the secrets of neatness.

There must be ways to change my messy nature! I am on one knee, like Joan of Arc, looking up at the heavens, tears rolling down my cheeks. Please, O Lord, help me see the way!

My brother and sister think they know the secret: decluttering.

"Get rid of at least 30 percent of your stuff," says my brother. He confides that my sister says my problem is that I have too much clutter. Such a lie! I ask my brother what constitutes clutter and he says, "Well, books."

Books are not clutter! They sit on shelves!

Besides, just today, I threw out an empty pencil-lead case, three barrettes and a dried-up tube of Krazy Glue. I'm making progress.

I am, in some ways, an innocent in this whole cluttering business. By that I mean to say I really never had a chance. Both of my parents create clutter, live in clutter, engender clutter, excrete clutter.

My mother used to live in an old, mouse-infested, four-bedroom farmhouse. Over the years she filled one cupboard, one closet, one room after another. All the junk made great nests for mice, so there was always the smell of mice.

As each child grew up and left, the clutter took over our rooms, one at a time, until they were all full. When you'd go home for a visit, you'd have to clear books, clothing, old newspapers, chairs or boxes off your bed if you wanted to sleep on it.

I won't talk about the fridge or the kitchen cupboards, or the lean-to out back, which finally sort of imploded upon itself.

Eventually, she moved and we all came to help clear out the stuff. I remember clearing out the closet in my bedroom and finding a mummified nest of baby mice. I think mother mouse got lost and couldn't find her way back in all the clutter.

My mother moved up the road and built a tiny house on a hill. One room plus a tiny kitchen and a loft.

The idea: small space, no room for clutter!

The trick: she has added rooms every few years. More rooms as in more room for clutter.

But she did the smart thing and married a Dutchman, who helps her keep things tidy and throws things out when she's not looking. So it's a lot better these days, but still, you look in the fridge and there will be three loaves of bread and three heads of lettuce. We'll be at the store and she'll say "I think we need cheese." You get home, look in the fridge, and in the back are three bricks of cheese.

My father grew up in South America during the depression. This is his excuse for keeping everything. I never really thought about it, but there probably weren't a lot of children who had to rinse out paper towels and hang them on the laundry line to dry.

Last time I visited, I saw one of his flannel shirts. Even when I was a child it was soft and silky with age, and I'm nearly 40. It must be nearly 60 years old by now. In the laundry room hung some of his cotton undershirts, equally ancient. They don't die, those undershirts. They just get worn until they become "cloths" instead of "clothes."

My father has taken over all three rooms in his basement. Screws, pieces of wood, old greeting cards, jars, newspapers, newspapers, newspapers, bits of string (must never be discarded!), books, books, books, things made by children who are now old enough to have their own grandkids, buttons from old Democratic presidential campaigns, portraits of Simon Bolivar (his hero), pieces of cardboard (must never be discarded!), boxes of scrap paper to reuse ...

I can't even begin to describe what all is there.

Worst of all is his compulsive hoarding of newspapers. The garage is so full of stacks of newspapers that only the driver's side door of his car can open. Passengers must exit the car before it goes in the garage.

He loves reading news on the Internet, which you'd think would help with the newspaper collecting habit. Sadly, no. He prints out news from the Internet every day because, he tells me, "the stories don't stay on there."

Did you know that the library in his town sells him a month's worth of old newspapers for only SEVEN DOLLARS? Such a deal! They can see him coming, that's for sure.

My own basement got pretty bad until I cleaned it out recently. It had gotten so that I started just throwing things down the steps because they were blocked with stuff.

One day I threw a box down the stairs only to remember, while it was en route, that it was full of Styrofoam peanuts.

"Never throw a box full of Styrofoam peanuts down the basement stairs!" I said cheerfully as it snowed Styrofoam peanuts. One day I threw a picture frame down the stairs. When it broke upon landing I said, "The true test of a picture frame is whether it lasts when you throw it down the basement stairs!"

Sometimes, it's like I'm a drunken person, only with mess instead of alcohol. Je suis une personne malpropre. Je me déteste.

So, what's wrong with clutter? In fact, there are different personality types, and some of these include the clutter component. When I learned that I was relieved. I no longer felt guilty for being a slob as I recognized it was merely another aspect of my personality. Just like some people are anal.

And who says anal is better than cluttered? Anal certainly sounds worse. I would wager that Freud didn't like anal people. If he had liked them, he would've called them "really good" people or "pretty" people. Not "anal."

Still, operating on the theory that the clutter of my home/car/office/yard is only indicative of the deeper clutter of my bank account/emotional life/work efficiency/soul, I endeavor to begin to declutter.

So, like a microwave oven, I start from the outside and work my way in. Letting go of stuff is the goal. Here is what's on my desk:

  • An empty package of fat-free-no-sugar-added hot cocoa mix
  • A "Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui" recorded book
  • A tube of hydrocortisone cream (leaking onto desk)
  • A piece of plastic from some packaging
  • A receipt for floor paint I bought in August
  • A pile of already printed-on paper that should be recycled
  • A bigger pile of printed-on-one-side paper that I can use for printing on the other side
  • A parking ticket
  • Two more parking tickets
  • Instructions for building a power-generating windmill
  • A piece of handmade paper that my son made by hand
  • A roadmap of Oregon and Washington
  • An empty, unmarked CD case
  • The empty wrappers from a chocolate binge I had earlier this week
  • Two business cards; one mine, one my former lawyer's
  • A container of sewing machine needles
  • One AA battery
  • Dental floss
  • Terratints chapstick in a bad color that I never use
  • An empty coffee cup
  • A broken paint brush (the brush part fell off)
  • Another battery
  • A bottle of Windex multi-surface cleaner (with vinegar!)
  • A starfish
  • A completely broken Imation disk drive that has been broken for two years.

OK, I will throw that last thing out right now. And the choco wrappers and the broken paintbrush handle and a few other things.

There. That's a start.

Find more from Rachel in our archives.

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