Book review: Stuff

authors Gail Steketee, Randy Frost and "Stuff", plus a level-4 cluttered space I have a long and complex history of interactions with stuff.

Long enough that it's hard to pinpoint where the more fraught interactions started, although there are artifacts that suggest certain "hot" times: a bright yellow filing cabinet I requested (and received) for my thirteenth birthday; a dedicated "quotes and lists" journal I created during my junior year of college, after a particularly difficult summer.

Complex enough that just thinking about it brings up a variety of disturbing feelings: shame, guilt, confusion, anxiety. My anxiety is bubbling to the surface right now, as I type this, even after a full year of actively sorting through, thinking about, and releasing stuff. My heart is beating faster. I'm warm, a little dizzy, and feel as though it's harder to breathe. I feel "fuzzed out", dissociated, instead of present and fully integrated, like a part of me that didn't want to deal just ran off somewhere else, and now I have to coax it back.

According to Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, co-authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, and preeminent scholars of hoarding as a behavioral disorder, my symptoms are fairly common. While I'm not a hoarder, or at least, compared to the hoarders I've known and the ones I've been (obsessively) watching on A&E's gripping show, Hoarders, I have significant attachment issues around stuff, and exhibit many of the behaviors and much of the wiring present among compulsive hoarders: perfectionism, distractibility, depression, difficulty making decisions, and, hallelujah for at least one happy trait, a highly creative personality.

Stuff does a superb job of explaining why it is we get attached to things, and why some of us become pathologically attached to things. The authors use a series of case studies to illustrate the various ways the disorder manifests: there are the "opportunity addicts," who see potential in everything; there are people who use their stuff as visual reminders, who use it to make them feel safe, or valued, or in control. The stories are fascinating and often heartbreaking. But while they describe life at the extreme end of the acquiring spectrum, they're also fairly illuminating about the general valuation of objects over experiences, even relationships, that are part of a consumer-driven economy and the culture of materialism it fosters.

In other words, while Stuff is of particular interest to someone who is a hoarder, loves a hoarder or is just interested in learning all about hoarding, it's also a mandatory read for anyone interested understanding more about the fallout from living in this age of unprecedented access to both goods and information. It's gripping from beginning to end, and haunting thereafter.

xxx c

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Photos, clockwise from top left: Steketee; Frost; book cover; a level-4 (out of a possible 9) cluttered space.

Moving toward vs. getting rid of

a LOT of ice cream flavors posted on the wallDuring last night's first meeting of the Big Artist Workshop, gentle genius Chris Wells (hey! he won an Obie!) shared the most useful hack I've ever heard of for dealing with one's art as a focus-challenged person:

Don't worry about letting go of things; think instead of what you would most like to move toward.

Like most shifts in thinking, it will probably end up being profound because it is so simple. I have trouble letting go of stuff, because the decisions are too painful. So I don't: I now turn my attention toward the one thing I am moving toward right now. Those other things? Those other ideas for projects and stories and songs and books and demands on my limited attention? We'll talk about what they're for later, when we understand it. For now, it's enough to know that I can safely move toward this one thing.

The class was full of so much goodness, it fairly blew my mind.


Image by olliethebastard via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Book review: Unclutter Your Life in One Week


There are two ways of looking at clutter, and they're equally important to getting a handle on it.

The first (which for most people ends up being the second) is the under-the-hood way: what's really going on between you and all that stuff you've stockpiled? What holes are you trying to fill, what anxieties soothe, what fears hold at bay? What, in other words, on the inside needs a little thought and attention. This is the kind of root-causes stuff that shrinks use to help facilitate change, the thought being (I think) that for many of us, identifying the root of the thing helps to illuminate the path out. (Or at the very least is that bell in your head that cannot be unrung.)

It's what I'd call the "inside-out" way: like Method acting, you work on the interior landscape first, which helps you to project the truth of the character on the exterior.

For this kind of examination, I fall firmly in the camp of my friend Brooks Palmer's clutterbusting ethos, as outlined in his excellent book and blog*. And there is a beautiful sort of symmetry to a decluttering methodology that is as spare and quiet as an uncluttered room itself.

The other way of looking at clutter, it follows, is an "outside-in" way.** This is the route traditional organizers have taken, before we all started drowning in so much shit that cramming it in ever more tightly-organized compartments became unfeasible.

The new wave of outside-in people definitely nod toward the inside-out folk, in that they recognize a lot of the attachment issues we have with stuff. But they're chiefly concerned with the mechanics of getting on with it.

For my money, and like most of us, I'm paying closer attention to it these days, Erin Rooley Doland's new book, Unclutter Your Life in One Week is an outstanding example of the practicality school of decluttering. By her own admission, Rooney Doland was a wretched clutterer before a desperate plea from her spouse woke her up; since then, she's worked assiduously to change her ways, and been quite methodical in her examination of useful techniques and the order in which they need to be done.

She's also really good at documenting and explaining them. Part of that, no doubt, comes from her conversion, but I think she's just a damned fine writer and thinker, besides. Her blog, Unclutterer, is daily proof of that, as well as of her generous attitude and cheery disposition. (Never underestimate the motivating powers of generosity and cheer when facing a self-made mountain of crap.)

Unclutterer, the blog, abounds with useful advice, and is a nice way to dip your toes in the waters of decluttering before you're ready to plunge in (and to keep you honest afterwards). Unclutterer, the book offers a detailed map of how to get there from here.

As the title suggests, it covers the decluttering process by breaking it down into days. The weekend counts as one, so there are six chapters devoted to step-by-step stuff, plus one that introduces the basic concepts ("a place for everything and everything in its place" figures prominently in the catechism) and another to prepare you for the aftermath (a.k.a. the rest of your life).

Rooney Doland admits that some of the tasks will take you longer than a day; having looped around this hill a few times, I think most of them would. But there are excellent exercises and ideas, along with detailed charts and checklists, making this one of the most actionable books on any self-help topic, not just decluttering. Some of the more interesting and potentially useful items in the book include:

  • a quiz to determine the way you process information (visual, auditory or kinesthetic), which in turn reveals the best ways for you to order things for peace and sanity in the future
  • an extensive system for re-thinking and reorganizing your paper filing system
  • the most thorough and well-thought-out plan for processing stuff as it comes into your house I've ever seen (her "reception station" puts my landing strip to shame)

Having come from a blog, with its ruthless schedule of post post post, probably accounts for the wealth of juicy tips studded here and there throughout the book. There are scads of these little "lightbulb" tips, from creating triggers for certain tasks to a regular event she dubs the Sock Purge, which I am instituting immediately.

No system will work unless you're willing and ready. Once you are, though, you'll want to find a guide that really speaks to you. If you're an outside-in type, or looking for some help that elaborates on the core directives of a Clutterbusting approach, this might well be the book for you.


*First-runner-up prize goes to Peter Walsh, who is the slick and edgy snarkster to Brooks' sly, gentle charmer. Not a bad thing, and his style has worked remarkably well for some people. Brooks' methodology was what made the tumblers fall for me, though.

**For those of you into the acting analogy, this is more of what the British school of acting is like. Yes, they care about the underlying emotions, but they spend a great deal more time working on the externals, movement, voice, etc., with the idea that creating the right external parameters informs interior behavior. The female cast of the magnificent Mad Men (an American program!) has said that you absolutely act differently in the trussed-up, high-maintenance clothes of the mid-century middle-class Western woman.

Image by Ssmallfry via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 21: Butlers, books and room for what matters


Depending on your age, location and/or proclivity toward old shit, you may or may not have some experience with the mid-last-century cultural icon, Auntie Mame.

The character, drawn in fiction by author Patrick Dennis from his real-life experiences as ward of his real-life aunt, is a free-wheeling spirit (or maybe a high-spirited free-wheeler) who exhorts her buttoned-up nephew and anyone else in earshot to grab life by the horns and ride the shit out of it. I paraphrase**, but you get the idea.

What I didn't realize, and I'm a big fan of the film, as was my father before me, was how much Dennis took that message to heart. I dialed up Facebook this morning and found the most interesting post from my friend, the lovely and talented Polly Frost. She described a recent serendipitous walk she'd taken through the streets of New York City with Dennis's former editor, Peggy Brooks, during which said editrix confided, "You do know he ended up working as a butler for Ray Kroc who didn't know he wrote Auntie Mame."

It blew Polly away to think that such a talented writer would just walk away from novel writing to become a butler. A few people on the discussion thread suggested, and really, if you're not participating in discussions like this, you're kind of missing the whole point of Facebook, that perhaps Dennis had made the move out of financial necessity, not absolute free will and desire. And it's possible that money may have played a part: he burned through what must have been a considerable sum generated by the books and the rights (Auntie Mame was also the source material for the Broadway play, starring Rosalind Russell, a Broadway musical starring Angela Lansbury and the film versions of both.)

I like to think, though, that he was just done with one thing and ready for another. Having had a recurring fantasy of being the Mailcart Guy for a while, and actually having had the exotic and deeply humbling experience of going from Corner Office Lady to 33-year-old gofer, I get that. It is wildly liberating to shuck off something as big and fancy as a career, especially, perhaps, one that has earned one money and acclaim, and embrace something totally different. Not as an "eff you" move, either, although it does tend to shake up people's ideas of an ordered universe. It's about acknowledging that something no longer serves, and releasing it to free yourself up for something that does. Because if it ain't serving you, it's clutter.

I ran up against it again with family mementos. Earlier on in the purge, the night of the workshop, in fact, I tracked down and sent an email to one of my father's old friends, a fine illustrator by the name of Stan Tusan whose work I well and fondly remember from my childhood.*** They had collaborated on a children's book, apparently, and I found what may be the one copy extant in my Pile O' Shit that I'm sifting through. While I was fine pitching photos, I could toss 90% and still have more than I could view regularly in a lifetime, it's much, much harder to throw away a project. I've made too many of my own not to get the insane amounts of love and energy, not to mention time, that go into such things.

The email reply stung.

Pitch it, it read, and just about that tersely. I was sure I'd offended somehow, which I generally bend over backwards to not do, as I'm (still...STILL!!!!) so concerned with what people think of me. But pitch it I did, and further down the line, I received more emails from Stan, we're fine, we're good, we're back in friendly touch and neither one of us has to worry about this old thing he made with my dead father. Which, I have to tell you, is probably 100% fine with old Tony Wainwright. The man was sentimental about music and good times and great Spaghetti Westerns, but a keeper of crap he was not. I know: it drove his father, my grandfather, king-god of hoarding against future use, right up the wall of his cluttered-to-the-end study.

Here's the thing: no one's right. No one's wrong. No one can tell me or you or Stan or my grandfather what to keep. (Especially my gramps, unless you're one of them psychic types.) In the end, though, my grandfather died alone, in a hospital bed, of a broken heart. The most meaningful thing in his life was a person, my extraordinary grandmother, and she'd left the planet several weeks earlier. And her constant refrain, even as she'd hand over some cherished object still warm with her unbelievably beautiful energy? "Sell it!" she'd whisper, gleefully, conspiratorially.

Trade that thing for freedom is what I now realize she meant. Don't get burdened by your choices; let them liberate you. Let each thing that touches your life enrich you in some way, with joy, with experience, with the understanding born of pain, and let it the fuck go. It is not that thing you want: it is the thing that thing makes you feel.

This is the last day of the clutter-clearing salute. But it is the beginning of a brand new, completely thrilling and not a little bit terrifying chapter of my life.

May it be the same for you, only completely different. And may we both meet up again at some point to share the things we've really kept...


*I've given up assuming that we all share the same cultural references which means, I think, that I have a shot at becoming a responsible grown-up in the back nine of my life.

**The actual quote I was thinking of is this: "Live! Life's a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!" There are quite a few more at IMDb, along with a page for the movie starring Roz Russell. It's a fab flick, and I recommend you rent it, or check it out from your public library. If you must be acquisitive about it, though, I'd be honored if you'd purchase it via my Amazon affiliate link.

***"My dog has fleas!" I still think of it every time I (try to) whistle. Thanks, Stan!

Image by zoutedrop via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 20: To-don't lists


When you take a cold, hard look at them, most to-do lists can be boiled down to a few essential items: work on something important and play with someone important.

I cannot think of a more appropriate way to celebrate today, the fifth anniversary of this ungodly-long-winded blog, than doing just those two things.


(Thanks to Miss Dyana Valentine for pointing out that it was, in fact, the fifth anniversary.)

Image by Colleen Wainwright via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 19: Contact clutter


I wiped almost a thousand people from my life today in less than two hours.

To be fair, many of them were 'bots, duplicates and other sync-rot from Google Contacts and Address Book. But a fair number were people, actual human beings, whom I've met along the way, one way or another, and either lost touch with or wanted to lose touch with, but didn't have the nerve to delete.

Pruning one's address book or Rolodex back in the hard-copy days could be a melancholy affair. Did you cross out that dead (or dead-to-you) person, or let it ride? Did you pull the little white cards from their metal (or later, plastic) spools, conceding defeat, acknowledging opportunities abandoned and hills not conquered? Or did you leave them in there thinking "Maybe...maybe this year I'll go back and reconnect with Ken over at Spacely Sprockets?"

Today, it seems easier but really, is it? The select/delete action is so simple, but so brutal. Just like that, these people and the promises those relationships once held are gone forever, again and again and again. Almost 1,000 of them, in less than 120 minutes. For every one that was a relief to let go of (and trust me, the photo exercise from Brooks' workshop primed me for some serious eradication action), there were 10 that were harder, and one or two that made me downright melancholy. Decluttering photos made me feel lighter; decluttering my address book just made me feel that much closer to death.

Okay, it also made me feel like a loser. When I'd see all the information I'd plugged into some of these entries, contacts that I added to be a friend or opportunity collector more than anything else, I felt like there was a big, red "L" stamped on my forehead. Talk about sunk costs! These entries represented hours and hours of my life I'll never get back: hours I could have put into making something or reading something or just actually being with someone.

We have versions of The Container Store and IKEA's excellent storage solution porn aids all around us. It is so much easier to feel virtuous rearranging and categorizing than it is to take a cold, hard look at what we legitimately have at our disposal that is of utility.

I'll talk more about my criteria for cutting (and keeping) later on, in a screencast showing how I organize my contact management system (if you can call Address Book that without laughing).

In the meantime, may I repeat my mantra of the past almost-three weeks: Let go, let go, let go...


Image by Sreejith K. via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 17: Let go


One old sock
one cracked mug
one pair of outgrown pants
one set of unused silver

One full-on ensemble
of antique dining room furnishings
worth their weight
in baby pandas
and the dreams
of dead people

One of anything
now unloved
still here
will weigh you down
will hold you back

Will fill
the space you give it
and slowly kill
what drew you to it
to begin with.


One of anything
once beloved
let go
will let in
an infinite measure
of the love it held
(or that you hoped
it would).

Let go
let go
and let in
what is not quite there
what has yet to be
what is all around you now
but that you cannot see
for want of room
to view it.


Image by Kevin via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 16: iTunes clutter (video)

I've somewhat neglected the removal of digital clutter thus far in my quest, as I'm home amongst the physical stuff for now and will be removed from it for 2+ weeks while I'm on the road.

I did take some putter-y, relaxation time to declutter my music files over the past weekend, though, and as I was combing through things, sorting and deleting, it occurred to me that there might be some utility in sharing my methods for taming the electronic hydra that is my iTunes folder. This screencast runs down a bunch of tools and tricks I've gathered over the years and includes stuff like

  • using tags to create playlists
  • the kinds of playlists (and playlist groups) I've found useful and fun
  • setting up a master playlist so that you can let iTunes deejay your whole collection without having that pesky podcast, screaming guitar or Christmas song jump in and stomp on your audio buzz

Show me yer rig! (iTunes edition) from communicatrix on Vimeo.

Remember, if you click the little button in the bottom-right corner of the player, you can watch it in full-screen mode. And if you click through to Vimeo, you should be able to watch it in high-def, very helpful with all that teensy type. Also, I've enlarged the mouse pointer thingy this time, which may help with legibility.

Not strictly about decluttering, although it gets one thing off my to-do list!

Please let me know what you think in the comments!


Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 15: When to add, when to subtract


Earlier in this hellish undertaking, I tossed off a remark about wanting treats, and wondered aloud what form they should take.

Should they be consumables and services, things like journals and soaps, massages or coaching sessions? Stuff that I can use and enjoy, but that doesn't stick around and add to the problem I'm working hard to eliminate?

Or should they be strictly time-based: an afternoon off to putter as reward for blasting through a shoebox of old photos, or a couple of hours of daily reading in exchange for 20 minutes of hard-core weeding in my "@action" gmail tag? Given the nature of what I'm trying to accomplish, the removal of items that are blocking my path and obstructing my vision, it would seem counterproductive on the face of things to bring more items into my life. At least, not immediately.

One of the peculiar things I've grappled with all my life, though, is this Depression mentality. Or rather, Depression/Rockefeller mentality: either I'm clipping coupons and plotting out which things I save more money on by buying with gift cards vs. paying for with a credit card (my final rule: buy tax-deductible shit on a credit card, and household essentials or groceries or other fun stuff with gift cards), or splurging on a maxed-out 15" MacBook Pro while I still have a perfectly zippy iMac and an operable, if sluggish, 12" PowerBook G4. I blame my crazy parents and my even crazier grandparents, both sides, for the problems I have with letting go and with going to town (although admittedly, most people, my shrink included, laugh at my idea of "going to town.")

So I decided that as long as I was experimenting with pitching crap that was no longer useful, I'd also play around with adding things that I really and truly needed, or at the very least, that would make life easier without putting too much of a dent in things. As LPC, wise scribe behind the magic that is A Mid-Life of Privilege (which you should be reading, if you are not already), said in a comment on my post on traveling cheap, sometimes one must spend a bit of money in the right places to get the most out of both those places and the getting-to them.

Here, then, a list of three pairs of things, stuff I've pitched and corresponding new things I've put into rotation:

OUT: Almost a full year's worth of monthly disposable contact lenses for astigmatism. I bought and wore these while I acted, because Casual Moms do not wear nerd glasses (usually). These cost a fuckload of money and were integral to my getting hired and being able to work back in the day. Today, they had become things for which I once paid a fuckload of money and now sat neatly lined up in my top bureau drawer, taking up room and making me feel horrible every time I looked at them.

IN: A new pair of glasses I will actually be able to both see out of and read with. That's right: bifocals! I've tried them once before, but wasn't ready. Now I admit defeat. Also, the Highway Patrol in OR will kick your ass across the state if you screw up along certain stretches. With a two-year-old RX, I was looking at some PacNW ass-kicking.

BOTTOM LINE, $-wise and lesson-wise: I suck. Okay, I don't suck, but hoarding doesn't work. I've bought up multiples of lots of things thinking it would save me down the road. Inevitably, I grow tired of the thing before I run out, or grow out of it before it wears out, or the weevils get it, get it, right? Don't end up like my grandparents, dying with a linen closet full of 20-year-old bottles, glass bottles, of separated hair conditioner. Let it go, Joe.

OUT: Charming and stylish and perfectly fine cosmetics bags with black interiors.

IN: Charming and stylish and brand-new cosmetics bags with light interiors. Because after age 40, you cannot get enough light into your eyes, ever, it seems, to suss out the contents of the Black Hole of Cosmetics Death.

BOTTOM LINE: I foolishly spent 20 perfectly good dollars to replace two perfectly good items. Only they weren't. Because I've already saved a good 20 minutes of fishing time. Ladies! Rise up against the dark interior!

OUT: Bags and bags and bags of clothes. Some that were barely worn. Many that were worn through, "squinty" clothes, where if you squint when you look at yourself in them, you almost can't see where they're bagging or threadbare or pulling. Others which didn't pass the Dorie Test ("Does this make me feel sexy  or not?") or the Palmer Test ("If I saw this in a store today, would I buy it?"). These, by the way, are the two GREATEST questions to ask when shopping or weeding, especially in combination with a style consultation by the brilliant Dorie or her ilk.

IN: Two pairs of brand, spanking new pants from the Gap that actually fit, one of which I took immediately to the tailor to make sure it did. Two new bras, because everything looks better when the girls are in good hands. A slew of new underpants (Mom, I'm ready to get hit by that bus, finally!). And, because dammit, it's fun, a couple more vintage leather jackets and a pair of completely useless, 100% awesome pants with a Pucci-esque print.

BOTTOM LINE: Like it or not, clothes are costumes. You'll feel better if you're well-turned out. I can almost guarantee this.

The most important thing, of course, is the Getting Rid Of. But it is worth looking at where life might be made better by loosening up the purse strings and acquiring: a book you've checked out of the library five times might be worth owning your own, non-scum-crusted copy of. A good pair of shoes makes walking easier, and may save you big on knee surgery down the road. The right jacket makes you feel killer delivering a presentation, which can lead to all sorts of wonderful things for you and the recipients of your awesomeness.

And the digging out might turn up a few things of new utility that can stay in rotation. I found a spare USB hub, set it up with a mouse and pad at The BF's, and now have one less thing to trundle back and forth.

Of course, once I streamline locations, I'll need to renegotiate my ownership of mice and pads.

But that is another post for another day...


Image by Creole Collection via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 14: What goes with an empty desk?

figurines_ngader My favorite declutter types, Karen Rauch Carter (whose book I wrote about), Brooks Palmer (whose book and workshop I wrote about) and Karen Kingston (whose book I really need to get around to reviewing here), all use one common descriptor to characterize the nature of clutter: sticky.

"Sticky" as in it sticks to what you put it on, sticks to other clutter, and generally, sticks around in your life.

It is also quite sludgy, in that it tends to make you get stuck on stuff, or in stuff, instead of feeling free to move forward freely. Literally, when things get really bad, you'll find yourself not being able to move around freely in your dwelling space: a box (probably full of more clutter, honestly) that needs to get hauled to the P.O. instead gets put down in your hallway or the center of your office until you can get around to it, and you end up literally walking around it each time you need to move from point A to point B.

Or you have eight black tops hanging in your closet which you have to sift through each time you want that one exact one without the rip you're really, seriously going to get around to mending one day (if you haven't put it in the sticky dry cleaner's pile).

Or you have a bunch of stuff on your desk, each piece of which had a perfectly valid reason for being there at one point, but whose time or purpose has passed and now just remains because you've not taken the time to return it to someplace where it "lives" (maybe because that is a mythical place of dragons and fairies).

One of the things I loved about Jen & Charlie's Work Party was the smallness and fun-ness of it. As in, take five minutes and go put one thing that's on your desk back where it should go, or sort through one pile of papers, or pitch some crap which was once useful but is now just clutter. Five minutes. Or maybe it was two.

The result of doing a small thing like that is that it is a smackdown, tricky and sneaky-like, of clutter: I'm not clearing my clutter; I'm just moving this one thing five inches to the left. And then at best, you uncork the Mad Power of Creating Order, and go to two, which at the very very least, you reclaim one square foot of precious desk space.

You also (if you're me, anyway) regain purchase in a busy, cluttered mind. Just a couple of weeks of concentrated letting-go of stuff and I've grown much more sensitive to the presence of physical clutter and how it distresses me. I've noted how I feel in cluttered space and clearer space, and how much more mental work it is to block out clutter or fight the sticky feeling of clutter when I'm around it. I mean, it's possible, but with energy in somewhat limited supply these days, I'd rather spend it on the stuff that really matters: work and loved ones.

I do not have eight black tops in the closet anymore; I barely have eight tops, period. But to paraphrase my friend, Chicago Jan, now when I look in my closet, I feel like I can't make a bad clothes choice.

I'm working on that same feeling with my desk, and that big, sucking hulk of digital detritus perched upon it, my computer. Clutter seems to get stickier as you dig into the layers that are really scary to let go of: old files, someday/maybe ideas and projects, sentimental items or "taste" items like software and media files. The old files, ideas and projects feel like my work, and letting go of them feels like the work never happened. The old media and software files seem to define me, and represent cold, hard cash going out of my pocket.

Time and time again, I have to remind myself that what I really needed from most of those things, I've long since integrated. And the stuff I haven't yet is getting in the way of the stuff I need now, or need next.

How do you, or do you, let go of music and movies, ideas and photos, all the accumulation of a medium-long lifetime?

One at a you have the strength to...

xxx c

Image by ngader via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 13: Calendar clutter


And on the Seventh Day, the Lord said, "Clear that damn clutter off your calendar."

And so I did.

And in its place, the Lord spitballed an idea for an uncharacteristically short, ultra-meta post.

And it was good.


Image by atomicjeep via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 12: Chunking change


A lot of the feedback I've been getting on my wackadoodle, up-and-down journey through divesting has centered around the overwhelm factor, which makes sense: getting rid of anything is hard for a lot of us, and a kind of paralysis can set in when you're getting rid of a TON of stuff.

I had a few marathon sessions before I hit a wall of exhaustion. You may find that you, too, go kind of crazy with the decluttering once the stopper's been pulled from the drain. But eventually, you need to rest. You do. Even given all that beautiful new energy that pours in to support you. (Maybe it's angels, giving you the high-sign from above.)

And once you've hit the wall and your sprint is over, something else may pop up to further interrupt the process. For me, it was an out-of-town trip to a conference. For three days, I did no decluttering (although I did enjoy the best-packed bag I've ever had at my destination). It was kind of like going off a diet a little, then really falling off the wagon, then deciding, "Hell. I'm'a let that wagon just roll on into the next town while I stay here and eat my way through this pile of Ho-Hos."

For you, the way back in may be whole hog. If so, that's grand! Me, I suffer from Shiny Object Syndromeâ„¢ and myriad other ailments that make me prone to wicked backsliding.

This time around, I've tried something new that seems to be helping:

When I pick something up I haven't touched in a while, I stop, weigh it in my hand and ask if I still want or need it. If I do, it stays (duh). If I don't, I put it in the Goodwill bag, which is large and opaque.

It's a small gesture, but like bringing your attention to your breathing in yoga/meditation or asking yourself the "where am I right now?" question of Method acting, it can be powerfully effective.

If you're on the decluttering train yourself, maybe give it a whirl and let me know how it goes. Or, as folks did in the posts on travel and books, leave your own excellent one-off, quickie ideas for keeping the pump primed (the paint wet? the other, better metaphor?) in between big uses.


Image by Nadyuuusha via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 9: The "why" behind the "what the hell?"

Twitter _ Colleen Wainwright_ You have to give up someth ...

And now, over a week into this little adventure, we come to the question of "why."

Why spend one's time weeding through old objects, rather than working on creating new ones?

Why toss what there is room to keep? What one might need, sometime, later on? What is a perfectly good book/recipe/dress/idea/your-clutter-here?

For me, I have finally realized, the issue comes down to focus: where will I put my time and attention, these precious and finite and rapidly dwindling resources I've had dumped in my lap? And while the wanderings and the questionings and the experiments of my life up until now have led me closer, especially the years since my hospital-bed epiphany, and especially-especially the few years since I quit acting, I had reached a point (I guess, I suppose) where the poking-prodding kind of exploration and the picking-peeling kind of excavation were not enough.

It was time for drastic measures, and for me, that meant hard choices.

Will I carry around the dreams of my parents, my grandparents, of all the intentions that were good enough but still only approximations of what I could dream up or synthesize on my own? Will I continue to be the living steward of the dead items of the dead?

Deeper still, will I stay in habits or look at them, rip them from me and put them under a good, bright light, to see whether they are habits that support or habits that make me sleepy, that keep me from doing the Next Big Thing, or even from freeing myself enough to start the hunt for it?

I am a big one for comfort, possibly because I am so brutal with myself. What if I were to find the ways that really deeply satisfy, that truly create room and support instead of these approximations of it? Not that there's anything wrong with Mad Men marathons, a few glasses of wine, the ritualistic bedtime viewing of Play Misty for Me (first two reels only!). Pleasures are a valid thing, and I'm fer 'em!

In the same way, though, that a daily morning walk can be irksome at times, it is the daily-ness of it that provides a great deal of its utility: you don't floss your teeth all at once and expect that to work, either. (Or you maybe do, but one trip to my dentist, a fine woman, but with a Mengele-like thoroughness when it comes to her job, will strip you of your delusion right quick.)

Oddly, or perhaps not, the fresh space and openness that this decluttering creates makes me feel (slightly) braver about switching up habits. I'm fond, perhaps overly so, of my glass or two of wine when the sun goes down; not taking it makes me look harder at why I was taking it, and sorting through which of the times was out of relaxing, a desire for conviviality, a small pleasure, and which out of a need to buffer, anesthetize, ignore. Ditto TV (or rather, digital video entertainment of some sort) vs. reading or talking before bed, email and other Internet pleasures in the morning, third cup of coffee, same pair of ill-fitting-and-beat-to-shit pants, saving magazines to pass along to Miss Pat, saving clippings, and notes, and ideas, against some "future use."

Don't get me wrong: I know that as a writer, a translator of emotions into thought and thought into words I will always collect some kind of stuff Against Future Use. But a part of the program has to be use, and that requires actual review. Or, to paraphrase my wise friend, Matthew Cornell, "God help your system if you don't have some kind of review built into it." (Feel free to point us back to the actual link, Matt, God help us if we trust me to find it in the rats' warren of delicious links, Stumbles, Evernotes and .txt files I've built for myself over the years.

So. The "why?" Well, clarity, for starters, or more clarity. Freedom, definitely. Tired of feeling bogged down by my environment, and trapped (rather than supported) by my stuff.

As the piles start to dwindle, though, I get the sense that this particular stripping down is me getting ready to say, "I'm a writer; this is what I do, I write."

Without the song and dance (for awhile). Without the "slashes". Without armor or defenses. They'll come back soon enough: I got the music in me and the postmodern world is all about slashes.

I will stop apologizing for being a writer, though, or waiting until such magical time in the hazy future when I am as good at it as my heroes, and just do the fucking work.

Do the hell out of the fucking work...


Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 8: Clutter Busting (book review)


The hardest book reviews to write are about the books that, for whatever reason, make your heart beat most wildly.

These may not even be the books you enjoy the most; you may enjoy these books least of all, if that makes any sense. The things that touch you are not necessarily elegant nor exquisitely wrought nor especially witty. But they pierce you somehow, getting straight to core of what makes you you, for better or worse, and in doing so, they disarm you.

Or, to put it another way, it's hard to write a review when you feel like you've just been pantsed.

This is the effect that reading Brooks Palmer's new book, Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What's Holding You Back, had upon me. The writing seems deliberately stark and gentle, stripped of all the hoo-ha and folderol with which I love to adorn most of my own ideas, designed so that there is no avoiding the very simple, almost alarming thoughts contained within, yet somehow softening you enough to yield to them. Like...

  • "Things will not make you happy." (page 4) I know this. We all know this, kinda sorta. But most of what most of us are surrounded by every day screams "More and/or newer is exactly what will make you happy...AND HERE IT IS!" TV, radio, magazines, billboards, stores, and that great, big 24/7 bazaar of Never Ending Stuff, the Internet. It is, quite literally, difficult to sit still and do nothing, or even to sit still and do one thing. Whereas Brooks, whom I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of times on his last visit to Southern California, including one at-work time, has so little "noise" he can be completely present and still even amongst the most chaotic of circumstances, seven ladies dealing with a combined 280 woman-years of crap, or a crowded networking event on the West Side's noisiest outdoor dining area. It's unnerving even as it inspires. Like this book.
  • "Hanging on to things is a way to avoid change." (also page 4) I know this, too. Or, I think I did. Maybe I heard it somewhere before, in a book where the writer was also trying to be entertaining and clever. I loved Peter Walsh's book, and you might, too. But smart assery is my modus operandi, and that book was apparently too far inside my comfort zone. I enjoyed it, but I did not take it to heart. For those of us used to cluttering up our feelings with fancy turns of phrase, Clutter Busting may be the better bet. It's far too earnest and plainspoken to turn away from.
  • "Clutter keeps you from feeling." (page 90) This, from a really excellent chapter that addicts of all stripes will recognize and run screaming in the night from. Kidding. No, I'm not. Nor is Palmer. It's an interesting paradox, because one of the reasons we acquire things is to either chase a feeling or hang onto one, both impossibilities, but hey, hope springs eternal. The hard work of letting go of the things we think give us the feelings (or the stopping of the chasing of them through acquisition) actually does let the feelings happen. Only with those good feelings come all the other feelings and...well, living is fucking hard. But it beats the alternative.

Palmer seems to have written the book so you can drop in at any point and start with any node of decluttering; as he says in his annoyingly true chapter on how clutter is all about avoiding change,

Change is like a dog that is utterly enthusiastic to see you the moment you decide to greet it. There is no right time to begin other than now.

Each chapter contains several exercises for addressing clutter, so you can do so from pretty much any angle that works for you. Some of the exercises involve imagination, stepping outside of yourself to get a better look at your surroundings or your relationship to the things that surround you, including everything from pretending you're dead and that loved ones have been assigned the task of combing through your possessions to interviewing your clutter (yes, really).

He also has some pretty hard and fast rules about execution: there are not a lot of "maybe" or "to mend" piles in Palmer's universe; this may seem overly harsh, but in my extended experience with the decluttering process, those two piles often become "gimmes" and are responsible for a lot of crap creep. It's easy to kid yourself that you'll take those unflattering pants to the tailor or get the glass on that hideous poster replaced, when most of the time you'd have done it already if you really, truly loved it.

I'm at a place in my own process where all I really needed were the right set of words (I guess) to give myself permission, and this book abounds with those. It's a plain and simple message at heart, people matter, things don't, and Palmer comes up with many different, yet very plain and simple, ways of delivering it. Not all works resonate with all people, so by all means, browse the book in a store, check out the sample pages on Amazon, or enjoy some of the fine posts on Palmer's blog to see about fit.

But if at first glance you feel like it's not a fit, ask yourself about compassion: how much you have for yourself, for your predicament, for your secret, down-deep, tender desire to become something better, even if you've no idea what that is right now, much less how you'll get there from here. Because you will get there, I promise.

And the first step, before even looking at what might possibly be in the way, is to address yourself with compassion. Love is what's under everything: doesn't it make sense that we handle the journey towards the heart of it with that very same love?


Image by Mish Bradley via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 7: Process and purpose


From the almost universally stunned reactions to my current wave of decluttering, especially around the family photos, which started last week, I'm feeling that perhaps stepping back just a bit to review my own process with this process of unloading stuff in general and really sticky stuff in particular.

First, because it cannot be reiterated enough, this is a process, not an event. There are significant milestones here and there (me heaving blurry and/or grim snapshots of Mom and Dad into the trash can was one); there are even significant stretches of processing here and there (although the stretches are really clusters of events, but so close together, they feel like an unbroken stretch).

But this is no more a magical occurrence of me waking up one day, walking into a class and deciding to let go of 48 years' worth of emotional baggage than a brilliant performance is the result of an actor waking up one day and walking onto the stage, or a brilliant book the result of a writer waking up one day (or series of days) and banging out a 50,000 words in the right order, or any other peak experience of an endeavor. This shit takes time, and the time can't just be hours logged mindlessly: it's me, looping around a mountain much like the one depicted on the cover of Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, over and over again, at a slightly more elevated level each time, and eventually hitting enough laps that it becomes impossible not to realize "Hey! I've seen this view before, I know what comes next!"

Even the most cursory of searches, for "we're only renting," a phrase I came up with several years into my personal quest to rid myself of the well-intended but burdensome physical and emotional detritus of generations, conducted solely within my blog archives turned up three separate entries on the process of divesting: a poem, from this summer; a post from a month ago; and, embedded in the post, a year-and-a-half-old link to an article for actors about the necessity of purging their shite, something I'd been-there/done-that to a long, long time before. A search for the "clutter" tag pulls up additional pieces, from March of this year, about the beauty of white space, and from January of last year, about the "I want" trigger that helps you fill up that white space before you get the chance to enjoy it. And that's just what I've organized well enough to tag: who knows what crap is buried in this rat's nest of archives I've yet to go through and weed? Or what I never even got around to mentioning there? I know how many times I've checked out decluttering books from the library and started clearing out my crap (and subsequently stopped, and subsequently slid backwards into acquisitive behavior). Well, actually, I don't, but a lot. Quite a lot.

The times I've been most successful at decluttering, or pretty much any endeavor, come to think of it, is when I had a purpose fueling my intent. Sadly, I was probably most productive in the tossing department when I decided it was time to leave my marriage; it's rather amazing how much you can relieve yourself of, not to mention accomplish in two weeks, if you've got a meaningful goal behind it. People routinely declutter by force when they flee encroaching floods or fires or quakes. Not the way you want to do it, but boy, is it ever effective.

So if you're a little stuck with your decluttering efforts (and that clutter is sticky, tricky stuff), maybe try another tack. Maybe instead of saying, "UGH. I really want to get rid of this sh*t!", try thinking about what you do want that's really, really important and could conceivably not only make your life better, but even make the world better. For me, it was mobility in the long run and the clarity in the short run. I think better when there's less stuff, and I know for sure that I move around better. I remember when Merlin went through a major decluttering phase. I've no idea how it worked long-term, but we all learned after the fact that it was sparked by the impending arrival of the delightful Eleanor (those cheeks alone are reason for decluttering!)

What are you after? What's stopping you from getting it? What would you need to get started?


Image by Orin Zebest via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 6: Getting away to clear away


I remember a story my first shrink-slash-astrologer told me about the sticky and useless nature of stuff.

She and her partner, who worked a Big Corporate Job, and had to move around for it, relocated to a spot which shall be unnamed, but that neither of them wanted to spend a hot minute in longer than necessary. So they stuck 90% of their stuff in storage, and moved to this unnamed location for roughly a year.

When they moved into their more-final destination in the Bay Area of Northern California, they had all this stuff shipped from storage to their new digs. And their reaction, box after newly-reopened box, was, "What the hell is all this crap?"

I feel the same kind of clarity when I get away from my stuff, both the mental and physical kind, for a bit. It happens whether I'm taking a walk or flying cross-country, but the most expedient clutter-scrubber is a good, long trip in the car. I start to see options and possibilities I just can't when I'm soaking in it, which can be great for creative problem-solving and devastating for my (mostly imaginary but no less powerful for it) feelings of personal security.

There was crying on this trip, as there has been on pretty much every longish driving trip I've taken in the past few years. I don't think it's because my life is particularly awful; mostly, I think it's about getting closer to the truly gnarly stuff. Let's face it: the first layers of crap, old magazines, useless kitchen utensils, that sheaf of resume paper you bought in 2002, are pretty easy to let go of; photos of Mom and Dad and baby You are an order of magnitude more difficult to deal with, as are looking at gnarly truths. And, if past performance is indicative of future results, when you strip away the core layers and grapple with gnarly truths without having some sort of ongoing practice in place to manage forward motion, crap rushes in to fill the startling emptiness. Nature and vacuums and all.

I feel the pull back into being lulled and numbed, here in my comfy, "safe," regular-usual life. Only I remember this time that I do not want a life that is regular-usual, unless I can redefine "regular-usual" as "constantly addressing fears and embracing change."

So we're clear, one of the pulls is toward work, toward the constant doing doing doing I'm so good at, versus the not-doing I pretty much suck at. And, because I would like to choose my not-doing, rather than have it chosen for me by illness or infirmity, I'm decluttering my actions for the rest of the day and checking out. And then after a brief, few days off from clearing physical clutter and this half-day of (we hope) pattern-breaking clutter, I'll be back at it tomorrow. With a (gentle) vengeance.

Wish me luck...


Image by Phineas H via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 5: Traveling light


One of my frustrations with traveling is this fear I'm gripped with, usually just before zipping the bag to go, that I'll:

  1. arrive ill-prepared for whatever climate (temperature and social) I'm traveling to
  2. arrive without some critical doodad necessary for my immediate survival
  3. arrive exhausted and disheveled from having to haul around too much

You can see how numbers 1 and 2 on the list might easily create a severe number 3 situation. (Ah, symbiosis!)

I've reflected on this conundrum quite often over the past couple of years, as my travel has inched back upwards and my desire to maybe-possibly do even more of it (or at least to be free to do more of it) has sharpened. I regularly grill the more well-traveled about hacks, tips and tricks that work for them: roll-y bag vs. duffel, FedExed luggage vs. haul-yer-own, specialized gear vs. off-the-rack, generic items.

The only truly common thread I get is to bring less. And so I put my mind to work on why I have issues with this and what I might do to correct them.

What I came up with were two main categories of fear that end up literally, by manifestation, weighing me down:

  1. fear of there not being what I need when I need it
  2. fear of spending adequately to ensure that doesn't happen, or happens as seldom as possible

Overcoming my first fear was all about holding it up to the light and seeing if it was the truth. And truthfully? There are very, very few places where what I need to survive isn't available for purchase, even if I don't have it with me, and I don't travel to any of them. My sainted friend, Brian Mullaney, who runs the amazing nonprofit organization SmileTrain, does go to a lot of those places, and he's still standing. Granted, he's also blessed with a more robust constitution, but again, I don't have to worry about what he does. They have SCD-compliant food, warm (or cool) clothes, and most personal care products at most every shitkicker hillbilly truckstop I could find myself in.

So it came down to overcoming Fear #2: spending a little to save a little. Sanity, that is. Because if you can coax an extra buck or two from your pocket, you can buy well-fitting clothes that match one another, clothes that are easy to create outfits from, rather than the usual thrift-store misfits you have to wrassle into forming some kind of ensemble.

Sometimes, the letting-go is psychic and there are physical acquisitions to be made. In this case, it worked for me. I bought a couple of nice pairs of jeans, moderately-priced, from the Gap, but still more than I usually spend on clothing from the rag bin. Had one pair tailored. Packed the lightest bag I've brought along on a weekend trip in 10 years, easily.

Next stop, who knows? Maybe traveling as light as airy sprite Havi, who buys herself needed items upon reaching her destination.

At thrift stores, of course...


Image by emmamccleary via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 4: Brooks Palmer, decluttering catalyst


If you had told me even a week ago that one night in the frighteningly-not-distant future I'd be standing in the showroom of an El Segundo boutique, letting a stand-up comic talk me into heaving photographs of my parents into the trash can, I'd have laughed in your face. As politely as I could, but seriously, family photos? I would no more throw away the blurriest, crappiest, surliest-faced of them than I would mark or cut up a book. Some things are sacred, if you grew up a middle-class child of the 1960s.

That's just what I did, though, along with about 400 attendant lbs. of psychic baggage. Brooks Palmer, former actor/retailer/what-have-you, current author and clutter-buster to the stars, has a way about him that removes the threat of...doom? Death? Plain old fear itself?

I'm not exactly sure, to tell you the truth. It's way too close to the actual event to have the proper kind of perspective on it. But I feel like I've had a gigantic cork pulled out of me and stuff has just started flowing again. I mean, I started this salute with the thought that, "oh, good, I'm doing this workshop; there will probably be some fodder there for the blog." Or, I knew I was going to a thing; I had no idea that this was going to be an Event.

For the similarly crippled by clutter who need help, here's the deal:

Brooks Palmer, who's been doing what he calls "clutter busting" for about 15 years professionally (and longer than that, just noodling around) is based in Chicago but travels extensively to work one-on-one with private clients in their homes and offices, and leading workshops for small groups. (Ours was especially small, at just seven messy ladies.) He's in Los Angeles four times per year for two weeks at a time, and usually does a Northern Cali stop on those trips; so far, he's done U.S. workshops exclusively, although after an interesting interview with the London stringer for Paris Match, he's setting up a workshop there soon, and open to visiting other nearby places on that trip.

He'll also work via the phone. I lucked out and got the in-person experience, but as someone who does 99.99% of my own consulting work over the phone (and has been coached, consulted and shrunk via the phone as well), I'm guessing it's pretty effective or he wouldn't offer it. Dude is the soul of integrity and kindness from what I've seen so far.

He also has a terrific book I'll do a full report on this Tuesday. If you're a highly motivated DIYer, and/or you've been on the decluttering warpath for a stretch, it might do you fine alone. But to me, the killer combo would be to do what I did: warm up with the book, then get a session or hit a workshop. You, too, will soon be hurling out dead plants and dead relatives like the freewheeling, unattached, pre-buddhic spirit you are meant to be!


P.S. His excellent clutter-busting blog has tons of great tips, insights and inspiring stories you can read for free. See if you recognize the, uh, "workshop participant" in this recap post. Not that you need to be a clairvoyant to read me like a book with attached Cliff's Notes.

Photo of Brooks Palmer & yours truly @ 2009 Dyana Valentine.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 3: What Lies Beneath


What lies beneath
the layers of dirt
the notes
the clothes
the ideas
we gather around us
is the truth:

No more.
No less.

This used to be white.
This used to mean something.
This once thrilled me so
I chose it
from among all other things
to live for that moment
in my home,
in my head,
in my heart.

So lovely.

But love
is fluid.
It moves through you
and me
and that fresh idea
and that fine article
and that beautiful note
and that smooth rock
you plucked from a beach
and secreted in your pocket
to finally place
on a shelf
first, to be admired
finally, to be forgotten
and is on
to the next thing.

You cannot hold love
and holding the things
that carried it to you
becomes so heavy.

Letting it go,
the note that opened your heart
the book that opened your head
the rock that carried that thought
will bring it back.

Under that rock
is the feeling you found
then thought you had lost.

Let go of that rock
and the feeling will come rushing back in
to the glorious
and honorable space
you have given it.


Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 2: Out of the closet


This is Day 2 of a 21-Day Saluteâ„¢ devoted to addressing the physical (and attendant intangible) clutter in my life. To read the entire series in reverse chronological order, click here. To read about this 21-Day Saluteâ„¢ thing, click here.

A very wise fellow you'll be hearing a lot more about over the course of this little Saluteâ„¢ gave me a great piece of advice for reframing my clothes closet quandary: if you were in a store today and came across this item, would you purchase it?

Bam. Straight to the heart of the matter, that goes, barreling through the familiar and venerable barriers of "...but I'll wear it someday" and "...but it's still perfectly good" and "...but I paid so much for it."

Or maybe it neatly sidesteps them, which is really the point of reframing. You don't exactly win by arguing with the Great and Powerful Oz; you can, however, really shift things around by sending old Toto around back to draw open the curtain for the big reveal. How you like them apples, Naked Emperor?

If there are two types of people, those for whom dressing is a burden and those for whom it is an everlasting delight, I fall firmly in the latter camp. I'm a performer and a rag-picker and a seer-of-potential: few things ring my bell like unearthing an expertly home-sewn, fitted denim duster with frog closures and passimenterie (for 12 bucks American!) that I can throw over a crisp white shirt and, well, anything but jeans, and look fan-fucking-tabulous with hand-sewn bells on. Except maybe my Kelly green, wide-wale dandy suitcoat (purchased new at a sample sale). Or any one of the six vintage leather jackets I seem to attract like other lucky folk do Kojak parking (mint & <$40 is to vintage leather jackets as pull-in at the door of the gig is to Kojak parking).

The problem, like anything else in this great world made up both of intangibles that really matter (love and ideas) and stuff that really doesn't (food and clothes are nice, but you get my drift) is in what constitutes enough. Or, as the alcoholic answered when asked, "How much did you drink?", all of it. If some great old stuff from a thrift store is good, more must be better. Plus, it's not like I'm breaking the bank, here: it's $5.99 for this shirt; if it doesn't quite work, I'll dump it back into the stream.

Which is great, we love renting and recycling, but even if you are the holiest of holies and put that sucka right back in the giveaway pile (and I have), there is still the little issue of time cost. What opportunities have I lost by spending this time dealing with a $5.99 shirt that may or may not work with those pants and that scarf, but that absolutely has just required a non-returnable measure of my attention.

Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

Clutter has a weird gravitational pull to it. It pulls us to it and pulls itself to walls and floors and then the very piles it is made of. I've addressed my clutter time and time again, and it is only on this last go-'round that I feel like perhaps, perhaps, a corner has been turned.

Here is the one thing I can say with absolute certitude about things and my attachment to them: for as painful as the letting go can be (and boy, can it ever), the release that I feel just after, the opening in my heart that opening in my closet creates, is as close to the sitting-in-the-hand-of-God-0r-whomever that was the brief, temporary gift of my epiphany.

What one thing will I let go of today? What one thing will you?