Clutter is Nine-Tenths of our Tension
In 1994 Peter J. Menzel published a book containing photographs of families standing in front of their homes with all their worldly possessions. The cover of the book presents a family of four on a cul-de-sac with their lovely home behind them and a tidy display of sofas, tables, chairs, dressers, lamps, beds, a piano, bookshelves, photos in frames and every movable appliance, not to mention two cars parked in the driveway and a family dog. Not shown in the photograph are all the books, papers, tools, binders, boxes, scrap wood, scrap shingles, scrap ANYthing, grilling equipment, pet toys, children's toys, knickknacks, dishes, glasses, snow shovels, power tools and lawn mowers. In other words, the clutter has been removed from the equation, and what’s left is a display that makes American consumerism look reasonable, orderly and completely healthful.
But clutter is the culprit for much of the exasperation and tension in our lives. My days are spent piling through bills, party invitations, receipts, CDs, homework, art projects, charity brochures, jumbo-sized paper goods packages from Costco and, more recently, microscopically-sized Legos scattered throughout every room of my house. If my family and I were to put all our possessions in front of our bungalow, the Legos alone would take us into the next county.
But despite my toil, I feel like I’ve made strides from the insane saving tendencies of my father. He's a SAVER, as important a word to describe him as husband, father and grandfather. He's a step away from one of those people you see on Dr. Phil who can’t throw out anything and therefore has thirteen years worth of daily papers piled in his kitchen, or stacks of garbage sorted by matter-types, because you just never know when you’re going to need two-hundred and thirty two Styrofoam egg cartons.
In my father’s basement you’ll find a piece of broken brake line from a ’49 DeSoto that nearly cost him his life in the late 50s, two bedpans and a polio leg brace from his illness in 1949, a urinal that he recently justified having saved for sixty years by using it after knee surgery (I can hear him telling his wife, “See, I KNEW I’d put this to good use.”), papers he authored in college, screws and nails sorted neatly by type in old baby jars, classical LPs, a slew of binders and boxes upon boxes of negatives and prints. Walking into his basement is like visiting a museum in which nothing is interesting. Actually, that’s not entirely fair. I do like his collection of beer bottles, childhood toys, old radios and cameras. But then there’s the 8-foot by 4-foot model train display he and I worked on over thirty years ago but never finished; it still rests on its side, the plaster mountain we’d so carefully created during the 70s having been accidentally smashed during the move into his present home in 1988.
My mother, by contrast, is a DISCARDER, and she lives an orderly life in an orderly house with no basement and only enough room in her garage for two cars. It’s as if each of my parents purchased a home that only exasperated their ailments: my father can surrender to his saving illness because he’s got the room, and my mother can heed her discarding tendencies because she hasn’t got the room to do otherwise.
Despite the idiom, “opposites attract,” SAVERS and DISCARDERS mix together about as well as water and sodium, and my childhood was therefore marked by two time periods: the Accumulation Period, when my father’s predilections won out more often than not; and the Dumping Period, when my mother was finally free to listen to her “inner discarder,” starting with anything that contained a hint of my father’s existence. An art project I brought home during the Accumulation Period likely rests to this very day in a box stored in my father’s basement. An art project I brought home during the Dumping Period was likely disposed with that day’s dinner scraps.
So where does all this leave me? I appear to have inherited both the saving and discarding traits to alarming effect: when I save, I’m tortured by a desire to organize and clear away the clutter to give me some semblance of order. When I discard, I’m tortured by loss, sure that a piece of me has been left to rot in a landfill.
There are moments when I imagine the sense of liberation that might come if my house were to suddenly burn down while the family is away. Gone would be any ties to material things that matter nothing in the end: the piano books I learned from as a child, the drinking glasses I stole from an English Pub in 1989, the letters from old girlfriends, the papers I authored during my sophomore year in high school, the first pieces of furniture my wife and I purchased together, the photos, the LPs, the books. And then I imagine Peter J. Menzel coming over the following day to photograph my family standing arm in arm, smiling proudly in front of the smoldering ashes, where a clutterless hole awaits to be filled by next year’s purchases, tension in waiting.