How it's hard to come clean by trying to cut back on life's clutter
In his novella Franny And Zooey, JD Salinger recalls a visit to a sibling's home: "The room was not impressively large, even by Manhattan apartment-house standards, but its accumulated furnishings might have lent a snug appearance to a banquet hall in Valhalla."
In our journey through life, we tend to accumulate so much clutter – and I don't mean the emotional baggage of life's ups and downs – but concrete stuff, objects, countless bric-a-brac, bought, borrowed or come-upon and stored for some other day when we might just find a use for it.
We never do, of course, and the stuff just piles up. The stuff of furnishings, of pastimes and hobbies, the family memorabilia, the excess goods and gadgets that we may once have had temporary need of but no more.
Karl Pilkington, he of An Idiot Abroad fame, says: "It's interesting to see that people had so much clutter even thousands of years ago. The only way to get rid of it all was to bury it, and then some archaeologist went and dug it all up."
Humans are natural hoarders. I know. The last eight weeks has seen me and the woman I share my life with in temporary dwellings, awaiting the readiness of our new home in its isolated sylvan setting. The clutter we have in tow, from our years in other homes, from our accumulated lives, might well lend a snug appearance to that banquet hall in Valhalla.
But we're not alone.
When was the last time you saw your dining room table? Or at least the top of your dining room table? If you're like most busy people, you know it's there somewhere – buried under piles of old bills, stacks of unread newspapers and copies of your kids' report cards.
Maybe it's your car (like me), hall closet or garage that's stuffed to the gills. Clutter can easily materialise in all the corners of our living and working spaces. And the affliction has got worse as life has grown busier, more crowded and faster-paced.
Ironically, says my GP friend from Magherafelt, the very things we buy in order to make our lives 'simpler' and more convenient often end up exacerbating the problem. We get bigger closets, and bigger storage bins, bigger houses and garages to put it all in. But, somehow, the stuff always keeps pace.
Clutter sneaks up on us so insidiously that by the time we see all the stacks and piles and layers for what they really are, the mere thought of waging battle against them can be terrifying.
Now that the move to our new home is imminent, I have been given my orders – "We need to get rid of every thing we don't want, don't need, will never need again," the woman I share my life with tells me in no uncertain terms.
"Take it to charity shops, recycle centres, put it on eBay if you think anyone would have need of your old stuff," she says. Hmmm, where to start?
"Those VHI tapes for starters," she says. But I'm going to copy them to digital. "All those old magazines and clippings?" Research, I say.
"And does any man really need so many shoes and shirts?" A good-fitting shirt and proper shoes are important, I retort. It's a losing battle and so I must take stock, make an inventory and pare back before we move house. It's a daunting task.
Those old videos contain footage of my children's first steps; the newspaper clippings some copies of my early days in journalism, found in my parents' house when cleaning out their clutter after they died; and it would pain me to part with old vinyl and cassettes. As for my books, well even though I may never read Franny And Zooey a third time, it would be equally painful to part with my books for, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, no place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a [man's] library.
My bric-a-brac and accumulated clutter down the years is a testament to a life The physical manifestations of a lifetime's experience – a lifetime's living. For that reason alone I wish to hang on to my stuff, stuff that means little if anything to others but is my world to me. Proof, as it were, of my having been.
I went over Christmas to stay with a friend of mine in his (yet another) new rented apartment. He was married for a short time once, but has no children, and has seldom stayed in any one place for long – the loner and the drifter in him growing restless.
His new apartment is devoid of any clutter, anything to suggest permanence, and it struck me that, when next he moves on, he could easily place all his worldly possessions in one small bag.
I could never manage that.