"Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them." --Henry David Thoreau
Seeing all your belongings barely fit into a U-Haul roughly the size of Rhode Island is faintly shocking. That experience, while I was moving from a large two-bedroom apartment with a wealth of closets and a pantry to a one-bedroom home with half the storage space, convinced me I needed to downsize my life. Always helpful, my mother said, "Think of it this way. All that stuff you've accumulated ... it's not much for almost 30 years of life."
As I moved, I became aware of my Victorian-like tendency, the irrepressible urge to populate every surface with trinkets (though I draw the line at potpourri). Boxes kept filling up with baubles that I could not expect anyone else to appreciate. Exactly one year later, I was reading the July 2001 issue of National Geographic. A picture of a Hindu ascetic, or sadhu, was accompanied by a cutline that said the holy man's only accouterments were a bowl and a feather duster.
I again took stock of my material possessions and decided that there were two solutions to my bulging closets: find a larger home or downsize my life. So began my quest for a clutter-free home.
Looking for advice on this subject, I turned to classical philosophy texts like Walden--and the Internet. Thinkers from the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius to Benjamin Franklin have tried to turn philosophy into not just mere concepts, but an exercise in living. In his autobiography, Franklin touts 13 virtues, which include temperance, moderation, frugality and simplicity. By contrast, as a mirror of myself, my home said, "excess, excess."
If Thoreau could live happily in a 10-by-15 shack he built for less than $28 and furnished for little more, I could at least get rid of some of my junk.
My next inspiration was Buddhism and its four central truths. One of these tenets is, roughly paraphrased, desire is the root of discomfort and suffering. And the prince who became the Buddha, Siddhartha, addressed this by renouncing his worldly goods.
As I tried to distinguish my material needs from my wants and trim my closets, it became apparent that I am far from nirvana. Yet I was successful: I pared down my drawers of clothing that still bore price tags, had seams that will not budge to accommodate me, or hadn't seen sunlight in a season. Those items were boxed and delivered to the Salvation Army. Mission One was accomplished and would win me a nice tax deduction in April.
Then I turned to iVillage.com, which touts itself as a network made up of "busy women sharing solutions and ideas." There I found Regina Leeds, author of The Zen of Organizing, which helps readers create a "peace-filled, joyous environment" in their homes or work areas.
This personal organizer extraordinaire gives tips on how to eliminate clutter and started a five-month "Get Organized Community Challenge" and support groups for those who can never throw anything away. (If you're still not sure about whether you are indeed a chronic pack rat, you can take a quiz at the iVillage.com Web site, to find out.)
Though I had made a good start on my closet, Leeds had more tips. To de-clutter, she suggests dividing clothes into charity cases, a dry-cleaning bunch, give to friends (who may have admired that sequined monstrosity), and destined for the dump. Other ideas: If you have a tall shelf running along your closet, create another one with a stackable or plain wood shelf available at any unfinished furniture store.
She also suggests moving coats and jackets to a hall closet, and organizing sliding-door closets so clothes you're more likely to grab appear first. Upon Leeds' advice, I dashed out to the local five-and-dime and bought a shoe rack to hang on the back of the door to save shelf space. I wish I had invented it myself.
Once I had dedicated the required five hours to my closet, I moved to the room in most need of help: my home office. Stacks of paper from it had somehow migrated into the kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom. When it comes to a Zen home office, Leeds is way ahead of me. She speaks in terms of color-coded, labeled files, while I was dealing with piles.
But I scavenged these tips from her Web counsel: First, write out a list of what files you think you need. As always, read and revise; see if you can consolidate any topics. She suggests these general files: medical, insurance, and separate ones for product warranties. Then comes the hard part: turning piles into files. For the initial sorting, Leeds says you should start out with "archival files," which contain information you won't access regularly, and "action files," which store items you may need quickly or require response. Action files can be labeled: calls, to do immediately, to do next week, to do low priority, bills and reading.
By this point, Leeds' hyperorganized approach became tedious and very un-Zenlike. And since organizing is so time-intensive, I turned to the fun part: easy decorating ideas for the small home.
A large part of my clutter consists of undisplayed crafts from around the world. Resting from my organizing frenzy, I pondered which folk art objects held the most meaning for me: a large South African textile that was the first item I ever bartered for; a sun made from a salvaged freon barrel, a birthday gift; my boyfriend's painting of a clown; and beautiful posters of refugee children from Somalia and Sudan. Though I had lived in my apartment for a year, the walls were bare and I realized I had been underutilizing my creative space while drowning my beloved objects in clutter. I began assigning the "hangable" things to walls, imagining that I was taking a documentary approach to someone else's life. The unhangable things went into another DIY project: a charming little shelf that fits neatly into a corner.
Without the help of a decorator, I figured out that corners are not anti-space; they are unsung prime real estate of a tiny home. My corners had been obscured by stacks of books, and I suddenly recalled an old segment from a Martha Stewart Living show about how book stacks can become centerpieces. I organized a group of coffee-table books and my most cherished reads on top.
Who says clutter can't be attractive? OK, if Buddha were an interior decorator, he'd raise his hand. But some people have comfort food; others have clutter. And Buddha doesn't live here.