INSPIRED BY A SPATE of recent posts on personal finance/simple living blogs about the horrors of clutter, I have begun sweeping the decks with greater industry than I've shown in months. Although I successfully dump junk mail into the shredder within minutes of its arrival (unless it's not personalized, in which case it just goes in the trash outside the front door), there were a few feet of dead files and defunct paper in closets and file cabinets that no longer needed to exist.
Previous attempts to purge this crap were sidetracked by the twin scourges of sentiment and nostalgia. Both are fatal to a clutter-free domicile or workstation. There's only one type of love you should have for academic papers from 15 years ago, yellowed newspaper clippings long since made available on the Internet, letters from estranged friends, or clothing that you wouldn't wear even if you could fit into it: tough love.
I wanted to walk a straight line across my bedroom without what my pal Felix once referred to as "crap reefs" impeding my progress. When I'm beelining to the john in the dark at five in the morning, the last thing I need to find underfoot is a pile of hangers or a mound of unpaired socks. I wanted to face facts about the houseplants from the salt mine that were slowly dying, and free up room for thriving organisms of the human species to congregate. I wanted to weed my book collection of anything I hadn't touched in a decade and had no plans ever to pick up again. I wanted, in the style of TLC clutter-buster and author of It's All Too Much, to free up the mindshare and time that maintaining, moving, and negotiating all of this clutter was costing me.
I set a gradual process. I chose small goals. The filing cabinet was first. One folder per night. I selected my "A" folder one night before bed, instead of some reading material, and began making two piles of paper. The shredder would claim one of them. With only one folder to clean out, there was far less risk of my getting absorbed in some reading material and lose my momentum. I dug in my heels at sentiment, trusting my memory to recall the good things such-and-such a cartoon, article, or note had brought me. The shredding pile outweighed the remainder. A good start.
After getting a running start on the alphabet, I used some of my copious free time in the early evening to attack the kitchen. I had scored a huge success months ago by dumping what must have been 30 of those plastic 32-oz. yogurt tubs. I suppose I imagined using these as planters; indeed, I have some rubber plant clippings and syngonium sprouts growing out of them. But the number I was storing was sufficient to start a pot farm. Not looking forward to a stay in Federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison, I've not availed myself of that moneymaking horticultural career path.
Now, while examining the cabinets above my fridge (and a side note here; with half of my complex occupied by elderly women who can barely stand straight, how the hell are they ever gonna reach these fucking things if I can barely get to them from a chair?), I discovered that I had never chucked the lids from all of these yogurt containers. I had a teetering tower of lids in the back of the cabinet. Absurd. Out they went. Out, too, went a clutch of expired spice jars, a tube of instant rice I recall purchasing with a coupon a few months after I moved in, a half-bag of buckwheat flour, and a few more items I no longer wanted. I found a few more sealed, edible foodstuffs that will go out to the next food drive I spot.
Next on the block was a pile of plasticware: trays, those covered Versatainer things, and big bowls, all rescued from the saltmine. My previous office had frequent catering service, sometimes for visiting professionals who might be wooed with food to stock our books in their school libraries, other times by managers running out their quarterly budgets by buying themselves and their fellow suits sandwiches and snacks. The food came in the Versatainers and on heavy plastic trays or in bowls that uniformly got thrown away. This waste disgusted me, so I took the opportunity to stock my own pantry with enough plasticware to accommodate chips for the poker crowd or desserts for the holiday-party gang.
Well, I got a little overzealous. I must've rescued about a dozen each of the small and large covered containers, about 10 trays and bowls, and a stack of aluminum trays from previous Sterno setups. Unless I was planning on feeding the entire complex, and sending half of them home with a week's worth of leftovers, I didn't need all of this shit. So I took half of the Versatainers over to my parents' place and offered them as many as they wanted, and recycled those that they didn't. The trays and tinfoil shit just went into the trash. I can now see the wall behind the rack on which they sat, and my cabinets are shockingly free and ready to hold only what needs to be held — which, considering I was able to survive without using every container in the house, may simply be nothing at all.
Back to the bedroom. The shelf over my clothing rack was groaning with surplus matter. I snatched up a huge sheaf of papers and began sorting. It turned out to be a pile of my college papers. Digging through called to mind the many nights and weekend I had labored, spreading open three or four books at a time as I typed notes into my Mac SE/30, then holding my ears as the print head of my ImageWriter II screeched out undergraduate wisdom at a pokey pace. Doing these papers taught me how to organize, write and think. The skills thus acquired, the papers themselves could go the way of all things. For the most part I avoided reading the professors' comments on the work as I dropped the vast majority of them into my shredder. I was stunned, though, to see again how much some of them had written. It's tough to imagine any overworked academic, himself or herself pounding out prose to fulfill their own tenure, having the time to scribe a few pointers or compliments above and beyond the letter grade across the back of a paper. Like the act of writing the work, I had benefitted long ago from their compliments, critiques, and written wisdom. I had space for them in my mind; I no longer needed them in my apartment.
The job's not done yet. In slicing the labor into small bouts of productivity, it'll take many weeks to get this place as far down to the walls and rugs as I can make it. With more time during the day to do it, now that I work closer to the joint, and with being free of the need to maintain or ever move this shit to another apartment, the work is its own reward. Keeping the crap from building up again will be an ongoing process, but seeing this place in a state of minimal, easily maintained grace will support me in that quest.
And if I can apply that logic to my fat ass, well, that's like winning two wars with the same secret weapon.