Order Out Of Chaos

18th March 2011

The bookshelves groan (ironically) with titles such as Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui, Banish Clutter Forever, Clutter Busting, Clutter Rehab and Cut the Clutter. There’s even an organisation called Clutterers Anonymous, with a twelve-step programme for helping those with an unhealthy addiction to household hoarding. Scary but true.

LIsa Graff read the books and the blogs, and gave it a go, with mixed results…

As I saw the bags of rubbish being taken away, I felt lighter and breezier than I had in years. Clearing my house had cleared my head for bright new thoughts and fresh adventures ahead. But it also left me bereft. Were the contents of all those bags really rubbish… or were the home-made birthday cards, the tattered paperbacks, the Frankie Goes to Hollywood T-shirt a part of who I am?

I’m having major work done in my house this spring so I need to pack my possessions away so that the workmen can have the run of the place. A perfect opportunity to declutter. A chance to remove excessive books, files, photographs, Japanese vases, Guatemalan paintings and all manner of handicrafts produced by my children. I could turn my home into a palace of chic minimalism.

I expected decluttering to be relatively straightforward. It’s hardly possible to open a magazine or turn on the television without some Marigold-clad expert humiliating some poor victim into ridding their house of its treasures. Apparently the key to happy living is to tip the contents of your home into a bin bag and embrace the joys of Feng Shui.


I decided not to attack the whole house at once but to start my blitz in a small space where my efforts would be noticeable. Into my office I went.

I’d read that I should begin with visible items, otherwise things from within the cupboards and drawers would just pile on top of existing piles and the effect could be too overwhelming. Grateful for any advice and direction I started with the surface of my desk.

Discarding scraps of paper and various old newspapers wasn't too taxing – and putting all my pens back into the pot was astonishing. Seven rediscovered biros meant I didn't need to buy a new supply after all.

Then, I hit my first obstacle. Inside one of the note pads was a self-portrait that my daughter had drawn for me. I’d been holding on to it because it made me smile. But (major rationalisation here) there was no more useful paper left on the pad – and I do have several hundred other examples of Georgia's handiwork. Into the bin bag it went.

Throwing it away did caused me a pang of finality as it disappeared from view. Not wanting to be accused of weakness, though, or to fall at the first hurdle, I ploughed on. I must not hoard. I must not hoard.

Away with the old ticket stubs reminding me of family days out; away with booking confirmations of holidays taken long ago.

As the day went by I felt increasingly exhilarated. My desk was clear and my files were alphabetised. I had no doubt I would settle to my work quicker each day without first having to excavate my computer from
beneath the rubble.
However, as I rewarded myself with a tea break, I began to panic. What if I changed my mind tomorrow? Once these items, these momentous items, are gone, there’s no way to get them back.

It felt so ruthless. Did it have to be black and white? Precious or worthless? Was there no in-between?

Actually, yes. I suppose the pile of boxes in the spare room constitutes in-between. They’re crammed full of memories I can't seem to part with, but unopened for years and unlikely to ever see the light of day again.

After a brief look (aka a quick fix) of Lynne Mashhadi's clutter expert blog* I was reminded that ‘the risk of being overwhelmed with clutter is far greater than… the dubious benefit gained from keeping an object you don't use for twenty years’.

Encouraged, I closed the laptop, drained my tea and set to work on the kitchen. By the end of a very long day, I’d made a good dent in the project. I had organised all my detritus into bags for charity shop or tip, and my cupboards, drawers and household surfaces were looking more respectable.

I felt virtuous about streamlining my house but suddenly I wondered who I was doing this for. The advice I’d been reading all told me I deserved a big pat on the back for my efforts, but in truth, there was nobody to give me one. Just a gaping hole in my heart.

I did love having my house back, though. By removing all the ancient memorabilia stored in my spare room I had regained a bedroom. By discarding clothes I truthfully don't wear, I now had spare drawers.

What I didn't have though, was as many reminders of my life. The objects I removed contained memories. My son's old football kit may not fit any more but when I see it I remember him scoring his first goal. And my grandmother's favourite painting may not be to my taste but it takes me back to my childhood.

All these embellishments to life may be non-essential but they are warming to the heart. Was it really so awful to want some in my home? How would Lloyd Grossman have identified one house from another if we all practised perfect minimalism?

On reflection, however, despite the painful process, I'm sure I will survive quite nicely without much of my old tat. I am thrilled at the extra space that decluttering has created and at the forgotten gems that have been unearthed. It’s all about balance. I remembered the words of Cassie Tillett, a professional declutterer and member of The Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers UK. Organising your home should ‘make the most of your life today, but not eliminate your past, unless that's what you particularly want’.

I have promised myself that after the house is renovated I will maintain a more discerning approach. I’ve been advised to take a photo of each item and create an album of my memories without needing to keep so much physical evidence. I'm not sure that I feel that efficient – but I will try harder to prioritise my memorabilia and sort through it before it gets so out of hand again. Minimalist is lovely. Honest.

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