The first house my husband and I owned was a little fibro place in QLD. It had character. There was a fireplace and many of the rooms had old horsehair plasterboard with original picture rails. Beautiful. Timeless. In other rooms, this beauty was hidden under hideous, brown, embossed, floral, wallpaper—Yep, it had a lot going on. In fact, it turned out that this wallpaper was even more hideous than we initially believed… There was a mirror screwed into one wall and when we removed it, there was a perfect white rectangle left in its place. So, you see, the wallpaper was not a deep brown print at all, it was just stained this colour from years of chuffing and smoking and general inhabitation from the previous owners and tenants. Blerk. Even now, over a decade later, recalling the Great Wallpaper Discovery of 2005 makes my nose scrunch, and shoulders rise up to my ear lobes to give a little wiggle, like I need to shake off the grimy thought of it all.
Anyway, character as they say.
The house also came with well-worn greenish carpet throughout. As soon as I saw it, I turned to Mr Amazing Race (my husband, then boyfriend, and yes, there’s a story in that name for another day) and said:
There’s floorboards underneath. If we get this place, we could tear that up before we move in.
He nodded slowly, thoughtfully, and then said:
You see, I’d grown up in a world where tearing up carpet was like mowing the lawn. My parents had renovated, built, extended, hatched grand plans, renovated, built again and hatched some more. They’re still at it. Mr A. hadn’t. He was more cautious:
We don’t know the condition of the floorboards underneath Em. We’d want to save up until we could afford to have the boards finished off properly. We don’t want to go diving into doing things without thinking it through. The carpet’s fine for now.
Me, nose scrunched and shoulders near earlobes:
But the stains?
It’s fine. They’ll have it cleaned. We can have it cleaned again if you want.
Despite the carpet, we did buy the house. Unfortunately or fortunately, the day we got the keys Mr A. had to work the close shift at his pizza shop job. By the time he came home every scrappy filthy inch of the green carpet was on the front lawn.
Initially, I’d told myself I’d just have a tiny peek, just one little lift of the carpet in a corner where it was coming up anyway. Who was I kidding? I was armed with a crowbar and I was my mother’s daughter.
I was like a hyped-up renovation junkie. After getting my first sniff of floorboards, I lost all control… only coming around again hours later, sweating and heaving, with the realisation that every thread of green was gone.
Mr A. wasn’t impressed. Not.one.bit.
Would I do it again? Hell-yeah! 1. I didn’t have to spend one night with that carpet crawling beneath me, and 2. Mr A. eventually married me anyway.
But, I’ve become side tracked… My point about the house was this: Termites.
My love of this house did not last forever. I painted her. We did the floorboards and put a heavenly gas log fire in the old fireplace. We settled and nestled. But then… I was vacuuming a dusty windowsill one day and an entire chunk of the timber framing spat off, up the shoot of the vacuum cleaner, and termites proceeded to spew forth from the remaining hole.
Yep, the house was infested.
It was horrific. I couldn’t believe that as we had been lovingly making this house our home, these lowlife bugs had been simultaneously eating—nay, silently stealing—our four-walled suburban dream from around us.
As it turns out (thanks Google) termites aren’t actually that silent at all. Mr A. was studying nursing at this time and so I had access to a stethoscope. I would place the stethoscope against the timber windows, skirts and supports and I could here the creeunch, creeunch, creeunch of the little beastlys eating our house. I became obsessed.
Even after the pest man had come and gone, and come and gone again, I would still listen nervously, thinking I could hear the creeunch, creeunch, creeunch.
Mr A. and I would argue. Me with my stetheoscope against the wall like a crazy woman swearing I could hear the munching bugs: Shhh! Listen! Wait, it’s gone now. No. Shzzpt. There it is again, come back! And him declaring me a crazy woman and reminding me for the umpteenth time that the pest man had given the house the all clear.
Even now, in our new place, I have a little habit of reaching out and tapping the timber just to make sure it is all solid… particularly before vacuuming.
(Ok. So on a reread I’m recognising that this is making me sound a little crazy. But hey, if you’d had termites SPEW FORTH at you, you’d be a little crazier for the experience too!)
But, I digress. I do have a point.
I’ve been thinking about those termites recently as an analogy to another type of bug – Clutterbugs. According to the wisdom that is the Urban Dictionary, a “clutterbug” is one who excessively hoards, accumulates junk, or collects clutter.
Previously, I would not have considered myself a clutterbug. Hoarding? Accumulates junk? This wasn’t me. For starters, I’ve moved around—A lot. Every move has forced me to ruthlessly prune and cull any junk, so I saw myself as more clutter free than the average person. Secondly, our house is tiny. How much clutter could we have within these four walls?
But I’ve been thinking about that word excessive. Excessive means “more than necessary”. When measured against this yardstick, I am a clutterbug. I can glance in any room in our house and see things that aren’t necessary.
I acknowledge though that some things aren’t necessary but still bring happiness. For me, this would be smelly soy candles. And there are some things that are necessary but don’t scream “HAPPINESSSSSSSSS!!!” Like a toilet brush. So perhaps a better measure for one’s clutterbugness is the amount of stuff that does not contribute in either of these ways. It’s about being intentional with the stuff we surround ourselves with, about asking:
Is this necessary? Does this thing contribute to my best, happiest life ?
I think about this and reach to my right and open the first desk draw to apply the intentional test. I find a pair of glasses that no longer help me see better, a cover for a phone I no longer have and a stylus for I’m not sure what. Hmmm. So I have a clutterbug lurking after all. Just like the termites, it’s crept up on me and has invaded my home—My happy space.
Some may argue (like ME not that long ago!) – What’s so bad about that? An old pair of glasses isn’t a big deal. It’s not termites or anything. But I’m beggining to see the many benefits of minimalism. The problem with clutter, with meaningless, unintentional stuff… Is that it is not simply passive. It collects dust, occupies space, can overwhelm, and eats your time as you dust it, or tidy it, or rearrange it to make way for more stuff!
When I first started researching a life more mindfully minimal, I happened across Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist. His home was cluttered too, but then he describes the day that he claimed his life back:
Memorial Day weekend, years ago, I got my life back.
I’ve relived the scene a thousand times. I woke up with a simple job to do: clean out the garage. It was not a project out of the ordinary. In fact, I did it every spring. But on this particular Saturday, for the first time, I’d be introduced to the truth that I didn’t have to.
Our lives were typical: work hard, make money, spend it on mortgage payments, fashionable clothes, nicer cars, cooler technology, and more toys for the kids. But when everything from my garage was piled high in the driveway while my son sat alone in the backyard, it was a conversation with my 80-year old neighbor that opened my mind to a new way of thinking. She said it like this, “Maybe you don’t need to own all this stuff?”
And a minimalist was born. In that moment, I made a life-changing realization: Everything I owned had not brought meaning, purpose, fulfillment, or lasting joy into my life. In fact, not only were my possessions not bringing me joy, they were actually distracting me from it.
I’ve also heard Becker describe this transformational moment on a podcast. He explained that his son had been begging him to play, and he had been dismissing his son with exasperated declarations that he had to clean the garage… Before of course, he caught himself in that moment and realised the ridiculousness of the fact that the lifestyle he’d purchased was forcing him to spend time with his stuff, instead of time playing with his son.
This certainly resonated with me. I’ve spent many an hour dusting, cleaning and reorganising stuff. Shifting it from one area of the house to another. Buying things to put it in. Shifting it again. Organising it… And round and round it goes. It is ridiculous that this stuff we own ends up owning us!* We pay for it not only with the initial purchase, but we continue to pay for it with the precious currency of our time.
As I mentioned in my first post however, I have felt a little lost about where to begin on improving this area of my life. I’ve been unsure of how to adapt the stories of others, like Becker, to my own world. And there’s a lot of information and advice out there! My journey is not unique—many have already walked this path, and many have blogged about it too—but it is unique for me.
So, what’s my first step?
My first step is: Not to bring one new thing into the house without removing something already here. Nothing grand or ground-breaking. But, it will ensure that this very moment is PEAK CLUTTER. In fact, it is peak clutter minus three items of unintentional stuff as I place the glasses, phone cover and stylus in a box ready to donate tomorrow. Woot!
P.S. The podcast I heard Joshua Becker on is called Slow Your Home. If you are interested in minimalism and intentional living, this is a great resource. What I really enjoy are the interviews with a diversity of people who bring different perspectives, stories and advice to this idea of living a richer life with less. As a mum who has to work, some interviews resonate with me and some don’t… But there’s the beauty in the podcast; there’s always another interview only days away, and therefore the possibility of another interesting or inspirational story.
P.P.S. For those following along at home, I encourage you to open your nearest draw and consider how many of the items pass the intentional test. How did you go? I’d love to hear what you find. Am I alone in my cluttered draws? Even better… Is anyone else declaring this moment as PEAK CLUTTER – committing that nothing new enters your home without another thing exiting?
*P.P.P.S The things you own, end up owning you… As I reread these words, they seemed familiar. A quick google confirms that this sentiment is indeed unoriginal and belongs to Fight Club. It must be regularly quoted because I confess I’ve never seen the movie or read the book. I’m more of a Sense and Sensibility kind of soul.