The Urge to Purge

Urge to Purge image

Being clean just isn’t enough anymore: the new path to godliness is lined with wicker baskets and devoted to a life without clutter.

I was watching one of those shows recently where the wife is a hoarder and the husband is an enabler and the house is a billboard for junk-heap living. Then the Clutter 911 team arrives, which is always a rewarding segment, because there’s a good cop and a bad cop, and the good cop does the soulful listening, and the bad cop makes the felons toss the empty mayo jars.

I happen to be a fan of home invasions shows, so I’m hardly in a position to judge those who willingly submit to  a televised flogging. Still, whenever they’re on, I can’t help wondering, who are these people? And why am I so addicted to watching them?

I have my theories, which I’ll get to in a moment, but first, a few words about the massiveness of the decluttering trend. Historically speaking, the word itself is relatively new to the lexicon. Until we began to psychoanalyze the process, tearing the house apart and donating boxes to Goodwill used to be called ”spring cleaning.” Call it what you will, the phenomenon is here to stay. Aside from the shows, magazines, Web sites and blogs on how to simplify your life, and the endless array of baskets, bins and boxes required to live it in alphabetical order, there are clutter-management courses and decluttering support groups and bookstores filled with volumes on how to throw stuff out. There are professional organizers and – I kid you not – visualization exercises and deep-breathing routines to conquer the urge to hang onto your things. There are even clutter bugs in recovery.

I’m not sure when tackling the junk drawer started requiring enrolling in a 12-step program, or accumulating too many Baggies became a moral failing, but I think it may have something to do with the fact that we live in a culture addicted to consumption yet terrified of indulgence. Toss in the relentless need for self-improvement, and it’s not so hard to see why so many of us feel obliged to put our house on a diet, or hire a clutter trainer to whip it into shape.

I’m not a psycho-hoarder. I did have  a basement once that required an intervention, but even at my lowest, I’ve never felt the need to hire a professional to help me let go. What interests me more is the idea of becoming one. In fact, if this writing thing doesn’t work out, I’m considering clutter counselling as a second career.

To a writer, being a clutter counsellor seems like the ideal job. Unlike writing, it offers instant gratification, it gets you out of the house, and it gives you ”carte blanche” to boss people around, which looks like a lot of fun, especially after years of solitary toiling. More importantly, having downsized my life to fit comfortably in a storage locker, I think I have the creds.

In anticipation of my career move, I decided to go Web surfing in search of insider knowledge that only a clutter counsellor would know. I searched and searched. Then (on http://www.flylady.com), I found the 27-Fling Boogie.

The 27-Fling Boogie works like this: you grab a garbage bag. go through the house, and throw out 27 items. then you close the garbage bag and pitch it. YOU DO NOT LOOK IN IT!! If you have two of any item, and you only need one, you dispense with the least desirable. While you are purging, you sing ”Please Release Me, Let Me Go” – from the stuff’s point of view.

Next stop: wwwclutterbug.net. There, a ”cheerful and non-judgmental professional organizer” related a story about how one of her clients told her how happy she’d be if she could get rid of her clutter, and the organizer replied, ”You don’t have to keep it,” and the client said, ”I don’t?”

By then I was totally psyched, because apparently people are willing to pay for this advice.

I don’t mean to mock. Well, actually I do. But it’s not the extreme hoarders I’m making fun of, many of whom look as if they could use a few hours on the couch. It’s our earnestness about their ”issues” and insistence upon healing them. After all, we’re talking about cleaning cupboards here.

The urge to contain disorder is now so widespread – and a lack of control viewed as so morally reprehensible – clutter can actually stall a career. Organizational psychologists have found that if you have a messy desk, you’ll be perceived as a lousy time- manager and a muddy thinker, even if you’re not. Once you’re forced to wear the scarlet M, it’s game over.

What worries me most about our current compulsion to punish imperfection is that some people actually thrive in a certain amount of chaos. I once worked with a brilliant food editor at an award-winning city magazine whose cubicle was legendary for its tottering books, tempest-tossed paperwork and buried phone. Today, management would probably march him off to clutter rehab, but back in the day, he was viewed as creatively eccentric, an impression he pulled off because he was superlative at his job. (The Stratford Chefs School recently established a scholarship in his honour.) His desk may have looked like a disaster zone, but his mind was meticulous, he knew exactly where to find everything, and he had the most breathtaking command of English grammar that I’ve ever seen.

Tell that to the Clutter Police!

Source: House & Home Magazine, March 2008, by Wendy Dennis.

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