When Frank went back to school this morning (in the snow, after 12 days at home), he said, “Stay away from my Legos.” He isn’t worried I will spend my day playing with his stash of plastic blocks; he’s afraid they’re going to disappear. It has happened before: the boys go back to school several weeks before I go back to teaching, so I start throwing things away. I scour closets for the shoes no one wears. I clear out cabinets and toy bins. I empty the freezer, the linen closet, and the 17 junk drawers in the kitchen. And it has happened: my children’s toys become causalities in my war on stuff.
January seems like the right time of year to start fresh, to clean the proverbial slate. It is a popular idea this time of year: Pinterest boasts 560 “decluttering” pins. Real Simple and lifeHacker offer checklists and expert advice. Even Lance Armstrong’s website LiveStrong makes the wild claim that getting rid of clutter will make us healthier, saving “time, money, and emotional stress.” Psychologists say that getting rid of our extra stuff has tangible benefits; clutter causes us to feel anxious, frustrated, and guilty. We will feel more productive, creative, and relaxed if we can keep our junk under control. Not to mention the obvious source of immediate gratification. New Year’s resolutions take some serious commitment, but purging is impulsive, fast, and instantly rewarding.
The experts are probably right. Most of us feel better in tidy spaces. Most of us have too much stuff. Most of us could stand to be more organized. But let’s be honest about the motivations. Purging our life of garbage may feel good, but it’s hard work that looks a bit like a small rodent on one of those exercise wheels – round and round and round. It’s a never ending chore. Those of us who are good at it are likely just feeding a maniacal need for control and order. We’re also lucky – the DIY world has made us into a bunch of organizing heroes.
I am almost too good at getting rid of things. I have thrown away key pieces of electronic equipment and federal tax documents. I nearly trashed my husband’s service medals and he is still upset about the mix tapes he found in the dumpster. But I married a keeper (sometimes less affectionately called a ‘hoarder’). Cody is organized – his elementary school report cards are alphabetized and filed – but he keeps everything “just in case.” I’m not sure which case might call for all of the unidentified keys in the bowl by the back door, but we are ready.
We have managed to train each other a bit. Cody’s favorite thing to save is wood. He’s built (a huge) chicken coop and two compost bins from the wood he’s salvaged, so I’ve learned to walk around the piles of lumber in the garage. And last week he let me take a few of his fifty thousand t-shirts to the Salvage Army. I will make off with the rest when he is at work tomorrow.
I like to remind myself about the experts and the benefits of decluttering. It makes me feel less crazy. But the truth is at this time of year I feel a bit desperate to take control of something, to make visual progress. After the chaos and stress of the holidays, the world is slowing around me. The ground is frozen and the trees are bare. It is cold and quiet and the longest and darkest part of the year is just abating. Emptying drawers and closets feels like a reasonable coping strategy. Besides, I will never be able to give up on coffee. Or chocolate. Or beer.