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Clearing Clutter

     The cleaning frenzy continues: room by room, drawer by drawer, closet by closet. Even the pantry got a big make-over last week, which took both of us working for two solid days.  The longer we shelter at home, the cleaner the whole house gets, which is not altogether bad since we may be old enough to sell the house and move into assisted living by the time this pandemic is over! 

     Part of this frenzy, of course, is generated by the Covid captivation that everyone is experiencing: you’re at home all day, so you notice all these chores and projects that you have been meaning to do, but never had the time to tackle.  Now there is time and therefore no excuse. But honestly, I was dubbed “Miss Pick Up and Put Away” long before Covid came to pass; just ask anyone who’s known me forever, like my college roommate, or my husband, or my son. The fact is that I just can’t stand clutter. I can’t work, I can’t think, and I certainly can’t create in a disorganized mess.

     All this is not to say that I don’t generate a fair amount of clutter myself when involved in a project.  I read, so there are always books; I write, so there are always papers; I sew, so there are always fabrics; and I cook — boy, do I cook!— so there are always pots and pans. But at least I “pick up and put away” when I’m done. My mother-in-law used to say, “Show me a clutter-free house and I’ll show you people with no interests.” Well maybe, but what about the old adage that “a messy room equals a messy mind.” Can anyone get a positive impression about people whose clutter drapes from counter to floor over chairs and tables like so much household kudzu? Please! This is every listing real estate agent’s nightmare.

     I’m not talking so much about that kind of massive clutter, though, as I am about the kind that falls out of hiding from behind cabinet doors when you open them or spills onto the floor when you remove something from a shelf.  These are the “secret clutters,” the stashes of stuff even we neat freaks create in order to temporarily (always “temporarily”) tidy up visible spaces. Out of sight, out of mind, but not really. I reach for a fabric in my sewing room, and have fat quarters fall out of their stacks from the shelf; I pull out a box of stationery from the library cabinet and have notecards flutter to the floor. These insidious clutter clusters are the ones I have been tackling lately, or rather, that have been tackling me. 

     In housekeeping, as in life, one thing inevitably leads to another, so that a search for stationery leads to the stash of postcards leads to the collection of photographs and so on and so on.  You end up not only reorganizing a particular project, but getting drawn into going through ancillary collections and adjacent drawers and cabinets. Pretty soon, you’re rearranging and cleaning out an entire room; next stop, the garage! Just call me Marie Kondo. (author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up )

     There is no question that the urge to clean and simplify is directly related to the stress of daily life. In times of crisis, reasonable people generally undertake a reassessment, of their lifestyle, of their values and goals, of their popssessions, and of what really matters and what is superfluous. Ms. Kondo likens de-cluttering to psychotherapy for the home, as well as for the people in it. It can be refreshing, liberating, even somewhat pacifying to think that at least we have some choices and some “locus of control” over our own immediate environment, especially during a world-wide pandemic.

     I recently read an article about nostalgia during periods of trauma and the comfort people find in revisiting childhood memories, watching old movies, listening to old songs, reconnecting with old friends, etc. (“Why We Reach for Nostalgia in Times of Crisis” by Danielle Campoamor, The New York Times, July 28, 2020). The basic premise of the piece is that life was simpler, better, easier in the “Before Times” (meaning before the current corona crisis), and so recapturing elements of that past offers a kind of emotional pacifier in the present, much like a child’s security blanket. 

     Interesting idea, except that it doesn’t necessarily work that way for everybody. Now I’ll admit that am not a terribly nostalgic, sentimental person, and I don’t save absolutely everything I’ve ever owned, written, made, worn, or read. But as I go through drawers and closets, I realize that things have a way of saving themselves, and so nostalgia inevitably finds me. Bins of fabric have me recalling the draperies I made and the upholstery I used in my last house; boxes of sequins and holiday embellishments bring to mind the huge Christmas dinners that I will never host again and the elaborate decorations that I will never make; a lustrous, long silk-taffeta skirt in the back of my closet reminds me that my days of elegant black-tie events are likely gone forever; a Playbill from “Hamilton” on Broadway suggests that this could turn out to be the very last show I ever attend in New York. Somehow, this strain of nostalgia is not comforting.

     I love my life. I am proud of the work I’ve done, the people I’ve known, and the experiences I’ve had with those I love. But I live in the present, and I don’t agree that everything was necessarily better “back in the day.”  Everyone talks about a return to normal and the post-Covid “new normal,” but what they really long for is a return to the past. That is just not going to happen. Many things will change, perhaps permanently, and maybe not altogether for the worse. 

So for now, I have no urge to fly, even on domestic flights, no desire go out to fine restaurants (at 25-50 % of capacity), no need to shop and no yearning to go to bars or gyms or meetings or other gathering places. I don’t even want to honor routine hair and nail appointments, because all I can see in any of this is the risk vs. necessity equation. Moreover, all I can really see is the way things aren’t, and  I don’t need to be reminded of that. 

     Clearing out my clutter is doing a good enough job.


  1. Diane Thiel

    Sometimes the process of de cluttering reintroduces you to yourself. Being in “house arrest” can be mind numbing and going through closets at least helps you concentrate on something other than the dreadful daily news. Picking up a piece of my life pre Covid makes me long for “normalcy” but I have also been uplifted by the creative ways people are adjusting to what we have to do to just stay well. My 9 year old grand daughter just participated in a “drive by” birthday party for a friend. There was a parade of cars honking and singing to her Friend while she was on her front lawn. She loved it and was so happy to actually see her again. Maybe Covid is an opportunity for creativity and a time to reinvent ourselves.


  2. Yes, a different way of doing things is not automatically bad just because it is different; it may, in fact, turn out to be even better.
    Thanks for the comments.


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