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Conquer Clutter

Get rid of the junk and make room for your marriage.

Which character more resembles you?

A) Martha Stewart, weaving her own carpets from dryer lint, then dyeing them with berries grown in a greenhouse she built using discarded toothpicks.

B) Homer Simpson, lying in his underwear, eating pork rinds he found under the couch cushions, while the kids throw candy wrappers on the floor and Marge reads a magazine: Better Homes Than Yours.

If you answered "A," you don't have time to read any further. You have to tie holiday bows onto every piece of silverware you own. The "B" group probably would prefer to remain anonymous. That leaves most of us somewhere inbetween, in a world that doesn't appreciate housekeeping and then wonders why we feel so restless.

The main enemy is not Twinkie stains in the Berber carpet or tarnished silver chafing dishes. It's clutter. Conquer clutter and your trophy will be an orderly, inviting home that offers a husband and wife refuge from everything outside of it.

At our house, my wife and I recently declared war on clutter. Possibly because just sitting in the family room to watch TV or read a book required a ten-minute clean-up job, just to clear enough space to sit. Or, maybe it was because every one of those debris piles represented another Hefty bag in a growing landfill of unspoken resentment—sometimes toward each other, sometimes toward the kids, sometimes toward the invisible elves who make those messes and then fool us into blaming the kids.

Thus far, the war is at a standoff, with both sides holding ground. We've come up with new and better ways to store everything from canned peaches to paint tarps, but only just now are we realizing that our problem is less about storage than it is about hanging on to useless junk.

I write this from a home office piled with fifteen years worth of Sports Illustrated magazines; four shoeboxes overstuffed with hundreds of unsorted, unlabeled snapshots; and heavy, once-expensive textbooks I haven't touched since college. Sitting down to write at the computer required clearing a pile of medical receipts off of the chair and a larger pile of my kids' school reports from the desk. The office is our next battleground.

We cleaned our kitchen cabinets recently and found twenty coffee mugs promoting newspapers, colleges, banks, and even the 1984 Olympics. No one in our family even drinks coffee. Out went eighteen of the mugs.

From the basement came several twenty-gallon plastic tote boxes stuffed with ribbon, yarn, and fabric. Also the exercise contraption, available at finer garage sales everywhere. Out.

Still behind the garage, covered with a sheet, rests the old washing machine that I was too cheap to pay Sears twenty dollars to haul away when they delivered the new one. It's going soon.

Back to the office: complete sets of Topps baseball cards from the early 1970s, along with stacks of Chicago Cubs memorabilia from back before being a Cubs' fan was trendy.

Now, there's such a thing as going too far. We're getting rid of clutter, not precious childhood memories. The baseball stuff stays.

My ten-year-old daughter's 100-plus stuffed animals, or my twelve-year-old son's 1,000-piece rock collection? We'll move slowly and carefully on those.

Finally, from the garage, my prized pop-can collection, also from the early 1970s. Gulp. To the curb. This one hurts—but maybe it also signals that, after a series of false starts, we're serious this time.

Kindred spirit

Sandra Felton feels our pain. The author of The New Messies Manual (Revell) spent the first twenty-three years of her marriage fighting clutter, often without even knowing it. She finally coined the term, "messies," to describe herself and people like her, because it sounded less harsh than "pack rat."

"After a while of living that way, it gets pretty tiresome," she says from her Miami home. "It's debilitating, in that it pulls a lot of good stuff from your life when you're always climbing up hills of clutter."

Felton reached a breaking point twenty years ago, when she noticed water trickling from under her kitchen stove. Tracing the water, she found a leak under the sink. The water had been dripping for a long, long time but had been hidden by a pile of newspapers she'd been saving (she's still not sure why). Floor boards had rotted, water was everywhere, and Felton and her husband had to remodel their kitchen.

"I got mad—really mad—at the whole situation," she says. "I don't know if I was mad at the house or myself, but I decided I'm not going to live this way anymore. I've got to change."

She compares her epiphany to that experienced by any person with an addiction who finally acknowledges the problem and gets angry enough to say, "No more."

Part of the problem is cultural. Our world devalues housework as menial labor. "Being perceived as excessively domestic can get you socially ostracized," observes Cheryl Mendelson in her book, Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House (1999, Scribner). And, without realizing it, we've become a society that values home but often doesn't know how to make one, where keeping house only happens when things get out of control.

"Inadequate housekeeping is part of an unfortunate cycle," Mendelson writes. "As people turn more and more to outside institutions to have their needs met, domestic skills and expectations further diminish, decreasing the chance that people's homes can satisfy their needs. The result is that there are far too many people who long for home even though they have one."

The warning signs

As with any long-term condition, the first step toward solving chronic messiness is acknowledging you have a problem. Classic symptoms of messiness: constant clutter and habitual disorganization. You can't find things when you need them. You don't want to invite people over because you're embarrassed about the way the house looks. Or, when you do have company, it's a huge production to get the house ready. Then, when your friends leave, the mess reappears almost instantly. (A friend of mine had a boss who used to stuff the oven full of dirty dishes before company came over.) So you isolate yourselves, and soon you don't look forward to being home, either.

"Who wants to come home to a house that's not supportive?" Felton asks. "It's supposed to be that when you come home, you can rest. Instead, when I came in I saw eight more hours of work." Before you know it, your cluttered house controls you, your marriage, and your family.

"For twenty-three years I'd been saying it was a temporary condition. Just as soon as I got a bigger house, things would change," Felton says. "And then I got a bigger house and it was too big—who could keep a house this big? I just kept making excuses. And then I had children, and that was really wonderful because you could make even better excuses.

"The problem was, I noticed my friends and neighbors also had children and they weren't living like I was living."

Washington cleaned here

Little by little, Felton put together a clean-up program that worked for her—and for others as well. Her program centers on what she calls the Mount Vernon Method of organizing a home, named for the housekeeping style employed by staffers at George Washington's Virginia estate. Starting at the front door, you work syste matically through the home, room by room, drawer by drawer. Use four boxes:

1. The giveaway box. For things you don't need but are too good to trash. Don't take anything out of this box once you've put it in. And give the stuff away—to friends or to charity— soon. Don't save it for a garage sale unless you have a specific date for the sale.

2. The throwaway box. Be serious about this. Pitch as much as you can. When in doubt, throw it out.

3. The put-elsewhere box. This saves you from the distraction of having to take things to other rooms while you're organizing this one. Leave things in this box until you reach the place where they belong.

4. The ambivalence box. For things you can't decide about. When the box is full, put on the lid and write a discard date on the side. If you need things from this box in the meantime, go get them. But once you reach the discard date, give the box away, unopened. This box serves as a transitional step for people who don't like to throw things away.

The Mount Vernon Method can take as much time as you need: days, weeks, months. Felton just urges consistency and determination to finish.

This and other portions of Felton's program turned out to work for other people, too. She eventually wrote books, did motivational speaking, and even started "Messies Anonymous" (www.messies.com).

Tough choices

One of Felton's first turning points was learning to throw away items with sentimental value, beginning with her mother's cast-iron skillet.

"You say to yourself, 'I'm a Southerner,'" she says. "'We make cornbread in skillets. This is my mother's iron skillet. This is part of my heritage. They don't make iron skillets like this anymore.' But I never make cornbread. And when I do, I don't make it in a skillet. They leave rust marks on everything. They're hard to clean. So I got rid of it. It was kind of a test."

Other items soon followed, including her wedding shoes that didn't fit and were missing a buckle.

"These were very hard things to do," she says, "but when I did it, it was like a breath of fresh air." And not just because there was one less dust collector in the house.

"It wasn't the getting rid of them—good as that was. It was that I had the power to," she said. "Before that time, it had the power. Now I could choose. If I wanted to get rid of it, I could. If I didn't, I didn't have to."

Aside from preserving the past, people also save to define themselves in the present. For instance, you'll find a worn-out pair of softball shoes in my garage, though I haven't played in ten years. My wife has basement shelves crammed with craft supplies, also untouched for years.

Felton believes we subconsciously try to define ourselves by what we keep.

"But we can't," she says. "All of these things that you're not doing and haven't done for years are not who you are. You have to ask yourself, 'Who am I really?' And come to terms with that. God made us who we are, and I think it's important we figure out who that is.

"Ask yourself 'Where are my strengths? Where are my interests? Who am I now?' And live that out. Don't try to hold on to some life that used to be or might be. That helps us get rid of a lot of stuff."

We also save for the future—just in case. That's especially true of perfectionists, who rank near the top among savers of useless junk.

"That's why we keep a peacock feather," Felton says. "Because if we don't, when we need a peacock feather in the future, we'll regret it. And being perfectionists, we don't want to regret it."

(Yes, I have a peacock feather. Let's just move on.)

Advice vs. Truth

The saying, "Cleanliness is next to godliness," does not appear in the Bible. "If it did," Felton says, "Some of us would be living in deep sin. I never make that point, because I don't think it's true. I think a person can be a very godly person and be a very cluttered person. There are just too many factors involved to make that a direct connection."

Of course, there are broader biblical truths at work in keeping a home orderly. It honors our mates. Also, when we organize, we make time and space for ourselves and our families to focus on spiritual things.

Just be careful to draw a clear line between Scripture and human advice, no matter how good the advice. Telling your kids to keep their rooms neat for Jesus probably crosses that healthy line.

"If I'm not careful," Felton says, "people could make a wrong connection and turn their homes into shrines. You don't want to live in a shrine, and you don't want your spouse or kids to have to, either.

The rewards

What's left when you get rid of all the clutter? Room to breathe. Suddenly, your stuff doesn't seem so out of control, because it's not in piles everywhere. And there's an even bigger payoff: An orderly home strengthens a marriage.

"Last week, my husband said what I suppose he had been thinking since I made the new changes, 'Honey, you've made a wonderful home here. The house is beautiful.' I was thrilled. In our marriage, the messy house, due to our shared messy habits, was the thing we argued most about because it made us nervous. A messy house makes everybody nervous. I regretted it, but I just didn't know how to do anything different. Now we look forward to resting together in the peaceful home we've created."

Jim Killam teaches journalism at Northern Illinois University. He and his wife, Lauren, have three kids. Now, you can find really good stuff at their curb on garbage day.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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