Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Clutter Busting by Brooks Palmer

[Google's having some issues, no no cover image to go along with this one. Sorry guys.]

I'm going to start this review off by admitting that I have a problem with letting clutter accumulate. I'm not going to be on Hoarders anytime soon, never fear. I don't have pizza boxes on my sofa, a copy of every single newspaper over the past decade, or food that's literally exploding out of its boxes. You can easily walk in my house, sit on the furniture (most days), and find clean glasses to drink from.

I do, however, have some unhealthy habits in relation to stuff that I'm trying to shake, and when I want to learn more about something, I tend to turn to a book. So this is my first attempt at seeing what's out there in written form to help me. Consider this half essay, half review then, I guess. You've been warned.

To give you some background: My mother always worried about clutter, but seemed to go from one extreme to the other when she tried to get better. My father's never met something he didn't want to keep. I grew up in this environment, and as time went on (and I got my own, bigger places), stuff literally started to creep up on me, especially when I got an attic AND a basement.

Flash forward to moving, in 2010. I had a depressing revelation that I had a lot of stuff I didn't need. I cleaned and tossed, and still had too much, necessitating a lot of expensive and mentally painful moving. I vowed to get a better handle on things, and to cut my stuff by at least 1/3 before I needed to move again. As Palmer will tell you, why pay for storing things you don't need? I've certainly been guilty of that, and I'm glad to see that pointed out as a problem.

The process is not easy, let me tell you. Palmer does a good job of explaining why. We're encouraged to have a lot of stuff, as it shows how successful we are. ("He who dies with the most toys wins" and all that.) Our stuff can bury our problems, mask our fears, and prevent us from doing what we really want. Getting the stuff is easy; letting go is worse than having a tooth pulled. In various ways, we allow things to dominate our lives if we aren't careful, and it's usually in places we look at every day but don't want to face. What's worse is that sometimes we keep the stuff around just to feel guilty about buying it! Yikes!

This much is all true, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I can especially relate to that last point. I've had things I kept because "I paid for it, now I need to keep it around until I use it." That day, as Palmer correctly notes, rarely comes along, and the stuff pile gets bigger and makes you feel worse about yourself. Noting that it's better to just get rid of things and move on than torture yourself was probably the best thing I read in the whole book. I've been told this enough times; maybe it will finally sink in.

Using a variety of examples, Palmer shows how different people he's encountered over the years have faced their problems with clutter. It's everything from tens of boxes under the bed to garages full of unread magazines. I can't imagine hoarding clothing, but there are folks who do it. Reminders from past relationships, items kept only out of guilt or fear, and some things that are out there to help us get noticed that only end up losing us in the process. All of these people have one thing in common--they're using their things as a wall, and having trouble letting go.

It's a problem I share, even if I'm not raiding the neighbor's garbage or holding on to every picture of my past relationship. Part of reading the book was a refreshing "my problems aren't that severe, especially now that I've de-cluttered significantly" and part of it was "I can totally understand that problem"--with just a bit of "I'm still doing that" mixed in for good measure.

The book has several strengths, starting with an affirmation that you are not alone in having a clutter issue. It's a soothing, gentle tone that Palmer adopts in terms of the condition. He's not blaming you for how you've acted, only if you refuse to change. I think there's a lot of merit in that approach. Why make it worse when the person already knows they have a problem? I also like the idea of looking at what you have, finding problem areas, and bringing them into the light of day. That's something I did when I was moving, and it helped me a lot.

Palmer also notes that sometimes friends can be clutter, if they are only negative and don't value you as a person. That's sound advice--look at the whole picture of your life, not just your things. As with the physical clutter, this is not a condemnation, but a request that you open your eyes.

The trouble is that Palmer is too new age for my taste, referring to positive and negative energy and people feeling better just by willing themselves to feel better. The idea that an ill person can get well just by chucking their medical books means they either have a mental illness that needs to be treated, or they're going to have a horrible crash when the de-cluttering doesn't prevent a relapse. They might even start to clutter again as a panic reaction.

Ironically, Palmer's book has too much clutter inside it (by my admittedly biased definition) to really be a book I'd recommend. If you were looking for specific advice that is practical, not couched in words like "Have a conversation with your pile of papers," then you're going to be severely disappointed. I kept reading to see if there were little tidbits I could pick up (or affirm I was on the right path), but as the book progressed and the ratio of hard advice to "pretend your bedroom is art gallery" statements went south on me, I found this was not the book to help me finish my quest to have less stuff.

My biggest problem with Palmer, however, was that his advice seemed to be to just chuck things and get rid of 75% of what you own. Palmer might be happy only owning 25 CDs, but I play parts of 25 CDs in a weekend if I'm working on a writing project! Similarly, he discussed getting rid of 95% of a person's books as though having 80 books was a crime. Palmer regards pictures in a way that sounds downright superstitious and advices getting rid of them all. There has to be a better way to advise people on reducing what they have without giving up the things that make you happy.

Palmer wants all of his readers to live in the now, and that's fine--if that's what you want. I like having a past, present, and future. It's a philosophical difference that ultimately made the book mostly unusable for me. I can glean certain tips--make sure you don't own two of anything, keep an eye on clothes and other items you never use, and so on--but the overall message rubbed me the wrong way. It undermined some of the good things that I liked about the book and made it less effective for me personally.

I'm sure if you asked him, Palmer would say I'm not ready to let go of my old ways. Maybe that's true. Ultimately, however, Palmer himself said we have to do what makes us happy. I'm happy owning and keeping certain things. Where I need more focused help is on deciding what those certain things should be. Palmer's gentle but ruthless method that talks about spacial energy and doesn't allow for keeping much of anything just isn't for me. I need a more neutral path. If you feel you need a radical change and want to de-clutter your life in a new age manner, see if this is maybe the place for you to start. I'll still be searching for awhile longer, and letting you know what I find.

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