I have a lot of stuff. Or, perhaps I should say, I live among a lot of stuff. I'm talking about the kind of stuff generated by a household of two adults, two children, a dog, three aquatic frogs, one tree frog and a fish. (Thankfully, the toad has taken up temporary residence at my son's school.) Papers, books, newspapers, art projects, potential art projects, clothes, backpacks, towels, laundry (clean and dirty), scraps of paper, small toys, helmets, boots--you get the picture.
There are times when my house seems like a giant vortex of clutter. As I walk through it, I think of the scene in Snow White when she runs terrified through the forest and the trees seem to come alive, their branches reaching like gnarly hands.
My clutter comes alive, too: The stacks of papers teeter menacingly toward me, the vacuum cleaner thrusts out its silver wand to trip me, my children's artwork leers from the fridge.
When I begin to feel suffocated and claustrophobic in my House of Stuff, I start to suffer from a nearly irresistible desire. Like a zombie voice in my head, I think, "Must organize."
And when I say organize, I do not mean clear off the front of the fridge, box up last year's artwork, throw away unneeded items, give outgrown clothes to the thrift store, put papers in files and stash the vacuum cleaner in the closet.
No, what I want to do is go out and buy organizing paraphernalia. You know, cunning little boxes made for paper clips, woven baskets to attractively hide piles of paper, brightly colored bins for the children's toys.
I want go out and buy some stuff for my stuff.
The obvious insanity of this does not escape me. Nor does it faze me. If I were the kind of person who cleared off the front of the fridge, boxed up last year's artwork, threw away unneeded items, gave outgrown clothes to the thrift store, put papers in files and stashed the vacuum cleaner in the closet where it belongs, I wouldn't be in this situation to begin with, would I? No, I am a person who likes stuff, and given the choice between cleaning up this mess and getting some more stuff that makes me feel like I'm cleaning up this mess, I'll happily choose the latter.
There's a whole industry based on people like me.
It is a perfection of marketing and American lifestyle consumerism. Pure genius. It satisfies my acquisitive urge while giving me a justification for doing so. I have the appearance of doing something about the clutter without the work or hard choices. Which of my son's first-grade fingerpaintings should I keep? With a large enough plastic tub, I don't have to make that decision!
And, like the marketing of cigarettes, the marketing of organizing is self-perpetuating. Because you've actually worsened the problem (there's no container large enough to hold everything), soon you will be out buying ever more mesh trays and leather-covered desk caddies. Or you become convinced that your problem (if you can admit to having a problem) is not your addiction to stuff but rather your failure to find the perfect organizer.
And it is out there. Those plastic tubs, no doubt originally made for some pedestrian use, now come in all shapes and sizes: You can get them on wheels, flat enough to fit under your bed, with tops that are hinged in the middle to open just half of the lid at a time or sized perfectly for all your holiday wrapping paper. Bill organizers have slots for large and small envelopes; do-it-yourself wire shelving can be cut to fit any room, with add-ons like white melamine shelves and pull-out wire baskets.
I find it irresistible--and impossible to avoid. Triggers are everywhere. An insert in the Sunday paper says, "Imagine your home TOTALLY ORGANIZED." I can, I can! I want a talented designer to design my custom system based on my home's unique organizational requirements and designed to maximize my storage space. I want it now!
In the checkout line at Kroger, the women's magazines promise: "Clear the Clutter: 65 Organizing Ideas" and "Dump the Junk: 19 Simple Solutions." (19? I wonder. Not 20?) And I feel myself reaching for a copy, wanting those 65 ideas so badly I can taste it. Because I am not thinking that this magazine will join the stack of New Yorkers dating to 1983. I am thinking, "I need to get organized." (Of course, readers of women's magazines are no strangers to paradox: Each issue promises not only to "Erase Belly Fat in Just 1 Week," but also the "Best-Ever Chocolate Cake Recipe.")
Although Martha has been widely vilified, the true culprit in the magazine category is Real Simple, which offers the feel-good appeal of simple living with the Pottery Barn aesthetic in such a fabulous way that you forget that it's nothing but stories about rich people and ads for things you need to accessorize your simple life.
And ultimately, of course, this is the real lure. I don't really want to be able to find my kid's Social Security card when I need it. What I really want is to have the beautiful linen closet with matching towels, identified with labels written in calligraphy. (Instead of what I do have: A giant ball of stringy towels in a laundry basket on the back porch.)
More than that, I want to be the kind of person who has such a linen closet. Because it's not just about the stuff, really, is it? It's about who we are. And who wants to admit that, deep down, they are a giant ball of stringy towels?
Sally Hicks lives in Durham and works in communications for Duke University.