Hacking My Way Through a Year’s Detritus

Several of the rooms in our small house have, over the last year, become scary places. One such place is the office where I work. Where I worked, I should say, before it became impassable due to my bad habits and poor housekeeping.

I haven’t always been like this. I used to actually work in that office. But in the last year, I’ve developed the slovenly habit of stuffing all the detritus of our life, regardless of its urgency, into a paper shopping bag and shoving it in a closet right before dinner guests arrive. (I know you do this too, which is why I feel like it’s okay to mention it.) The bags in the closet migrate upward, like warm air, and land in my office, untouched. This is how it looks now:

Actually, this is not a completely accurate picture of the conditions in my workplace. In fact, I had to stand on an Amazon box filled with bills and binders full of schoolwork to take this picture. Behind me? A lot more shopping bags.

You can’t tell, but inside those bags are a jumble of bills, notices from the boys’ schools, library books, invitations and thank you notes, baseball cards, a pair of those shoes with wheels on the bottoms. Need I go on? I’m sure you get the picture. Things have gotten a little out of hand.

When I looked at this picture my first thought was that I had no idea I owned so many shopping bags. Or that my lovely black ankle boots were in the middle of the floor. I also saw that someone had removed my chair from my desk (the one at the end of the room), apparently under the impression I’d left the country and wouldn’t be needing it anymore.

A year after this behavior began, I had two epiphanies.

One: it might be nice to have my desk back, and a new window to look out of. I was getting tired of writing my novel at the dining room table, which is sometimes being used to make dioramas of the California missions, or to fight World War Two, the sorts of activities that distract me from my mission of finishing my novel by October 1.

Two: it occurred to me that maybe there was something good in those bags: money, for one. Lingerie I’d bought and forgotten about. Books I might read. A gift certificate. An unopened love letter. A notice that I’d won something.

And so, with my children and husband out of the state this last week, and a lot of extra time on my hands, I’ve been going through bag upon bag of detritus. It’s not as glamorous as having been called suddenly to appear on Court TV and explain why the government’s wiretapping program is unconstitutional. Still, cleaning out those bags has been more compelling than I’d imagined. I haven’t posted in a few days because I’ve been having so much fun going through the bags. Also, I’ve been unable to get out of my office to make it to the computer.

At this point, I can tell you that I’ve arrived at the end of the room. I feel like someone who’s crossed the prairie in a covered wagon. The Pacific Ocean’s in sight. I didn’t have to eat people to get there. All I had to do was rummage through thirty-six shopping bags of detritus.

And so tonight I’ve returned from the end of the room, bearing some news: nothing very bad will happen to you if you shove stuff into a Macy’s bag and forget about it. It turns out that if you age your detritus for a year, it has no power over you anymore. Things that do matter have already escaped from the bags. And things that don’t matter will stay in there, becoming increasingly unimportant. It works this way: If the school event matters, your child will tell you about it. Unread New Yorkers are not interesting a year later. Chances are if there was something really good in one of them, a friend would have emailed you a link to it. Even bills have a way of getting paid. Without really knowing why, over the course of the year of bagging my detritus, I gradually moved my bill paying from paper to computer, where I could pay our debts without having to look at a paper record of them. Looking back now, I see this was because I couldn’t bear to look in those bags and fish around for the bills.

This is good news indeed. But I know you would like to know if there was anything good in those bags. You’ll have to check back tomorrow or the next day. I’ll post a picture. And a list of treasures. And then, back to writing, reading and cooking.


25 thoughts on “Hacking My Way Through a Year’s Detritus

  1. I’m really pleased to hear you didn’t need to eat any people during your decluttering project. Well done on getting through it! I look forward to hearing about the treasures you found. I’m a hoarder who aspires to minimalism, so I’m either gathering large piles of stuff that have to be dealt with one day or frantically tossing the whole lot out. How I would love to be an organised person who dealt with things as they came in through the door, but that would mean less time for reading, writing, cooking and and family, all of which are much more fun than some imagined state of organised-ness.

  2. This is an important and neglected corner of life… clutter and its accumulation. Thank you for breaking the silence! We’ve lived in a townhouse for a dozen years or so, and we’ve basically stopped buying stuff, because that last minute clean-up before the guests come has turned into a bit of a panic with all the closets full.

  3. I’m so relieved I’m not the only person in this situation. We had a big clear out last year for the arrival of the baby – we had bags and bags for the charity shops – yet 12 months later the clutter is worse! Maybe it is like yo-yo dieting… yo-yo de-cluttering? We went to IKEA yesterday and bought a stack of storage boxes with the intention of getting organised but the boxes have now joined the chaos. You’re inspiring me to get organised this week, I really, really have to before a certain person outwits us and learns how to crawl.

  4. What a great post, although I’m bummed out old New Yorkers aren’t interesting. In my closet I have three years worth of New Yorkers, GQ’s, Harpers, Atlantic Monthly’s, etc, which I intended to start going through, oh, whenever. Now I wonder if I should just toss the lot out and start reading new magazines as they come through the door? Hmm.
    At any rate, I think there is something incredibly therapeutic about cleaning out whole sections of your home, about de-cluttering. The psychological aspect of it, of course, and then the pure physicality of reclaiming a room from the stuff of life. I’m trying hard to buy less and keep less and all in all have a more streamlined home. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but you’ve inspired me to tackle the New Yorker situation…

  5. My sister the “Bag Lady”–at least it is in bags. I can’t open the drawers to my desk at the office given all the junk I’ve “hidden” in there. I finally broke down this morning and cleaned off a year’s worth of paperwork stored in my office on my credenza. I’ve moved several times in the last 10 years and have boxes in the garage that I have not openned and unpacked (diplomas and the like are stored in there–or at least that is what I tell myself). I have a picture of your children from 3 years ago at my computer that never made it into a frame. I guess it is in part pieces of our lives that never made it to their proper place. Thank God I have three secretaries. I worked out of my house in Houston for a couple of years and came to realize that filing was a task I just wasn’t qualified for. I read once that the trick is to only handle a piece of paper once–make a decision where it goes and be done with it. Great theory just not the way life works.
    The only problem with getting things back in some form of order is tomorrow presents the challenge of doing it again. Good luck–you are not alone.

  6. Dear Lily,
    News of your bout with a messy office and ever faster accumulating stuff came on the heels of something I heard in a sermon a week ago, not to mention at the same time as I sat in my own office that I have not been able to keep neat and orderly for many years, (and writing this response only adds to that problem, or so I rationalize).

    I’m not sure if you were necessarily looking for root causes to the messy office/garage problem but the quote below from the sermon seems to be a possible explanation. Shortly after World War II, American government and business leaders sat back and realized the amazing recovery of its economy that the war had catalysed. The challenge was to convert the war economy to a thriving peace economy. And here is what one apparently influential American said and what the Eisenhower administration came up with–

    Shortly after the end of the war, retailing analyst Victor Lebow expressed the solution: “Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption . . . we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

    President Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors Chairman stated: “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.” Not better health care, education, housing, transportation or recreation or less poverty and hunger, but providing more stuff to consumers. End quote.

    By the way, it is a tribute to our current president’s education, acuity, articulateness, succinctness, and advice, that he captured this philosophy after 9/11 with his famous exhortation, “Go shopping!”

    The editorial comments in those two paragraphs are from David Suzuki in the link below. His entire article is at this link and pasted below.

    I think we all know intuitively, if not by years of paying attention, that there may be a link between American consumer capitalism and our messy offices/garages/ (MOGs), but this article by Suzuki recrystalized the whole American mess for me. I hope you like it.

    I think it is worth noting that another side benefit of the Lebow/Eisenhower Plan to consume, consume, consume is the creation of enormous stress in our lives. (This has helped grow a huge medical and pharmaceutical industry that we all know is somehow indispensable.) The stress of shopping and unloading stuff from our cars is obvious, but the more subtle stress is in the message from your messy office essay–we carry stress with us for every second that we have to see or remember that messy office that keeps us from getting things done and keeps us from the things we really want to do like reading, writing, and spending time with interesting friends. When I go into my own messy office, I think I can hear my arteries constrict and my neurons scream.

    Lily, your ideas on getting rid of stuff by not buying it in the first place and by giving away books and pencil sharpeners, may be the beginning of a great political and economic recovery– to deMOG America. Maybe you can write the retail analysis for the next American administration, assuming it’s one that can speak in sentences of more that two words.
    Suzuki link and complete article follow:


    Science Matters by David Suzuki
    Science Matters is published weekly in newspapers across Canada.
    Consumer culture no accident

    Mar 07, 2003

    Most people I talk to today understand that humanity is inflicting harsh damage on the planet’s life support systems of clean air, water, soil and biodiversity. But they feel so insignificant among 6.2 billion people that whatever they do to lighten our impact on nature seems trivial. I am often asked “What can I do?” Well, how about examining our consumption habits. Not long ago, frugality was a virtue but today two thirds of our economy is built on consumption. This didn’t happen by accident.

    The stock market collapse in 1929 triggered the Great Depression that engulfed the world in terrible suffering. World War II was the catalyst for economic recovery. America’s enormous resource base, productivity, energy and technology were thrown into the war effort and soon its economy blazed white hot. With victory imminent, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors was challenged to find a way to convert a war economy to peace.

    Shortly after the end of the war, retailing analyst Victor Lebow expressed the solution: “Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption . . . we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

    President Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors Chairman stated: “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.” Not better health care, education, housing, transportation or recreation or less poverty and hunger, but providing more stuff to consumers.

    When goods are well-made and durable, eventually markets are saturated. An endless market is created by introducing rapid obsolescence (think clothing, cars, laptop computers). And with disposability, where an article is used once and thrown away, the market will never be saturated.

    Consumer goods aren’t created by the economy out of nothing, they come from the earth and when they are used up, they will be returned to the earth as garbage and toxic waste. It takes energy to extract, process, manufacture and transport products, while air, water and soil are often polluted at many points in the life cycle of the product. In other words, what we consume has direct effects on nature.

    And then there are social and spiritual costs. Allen Kanner and Mary Gomes state in The All-Consuming Self: “The purchase of a new product, especially a ‘big ticket’ item such as a car or computer, typically produces an immediate surge of pleasure and achievement, and often confers status and recognition upon the owner. Yet as the novelty wears off, the emptiness threatens to return. The standard consumer solution is to focus on the next promising purchase.”

    Ultimately, it goes beyond pleasure or status; acquiring stuff becomes an unquenchable demand. Paul Wachtel says in The Poverty of Affluence: “Having more and newer things each year has become not just something we want but something we need. The idea of more, ever-increasing wealth, has become the center of our identity and our security, and we are caught up by it as the addict is by his drugs.”

    Much of what we purchase is not essential for our survival or even basic human comfort, but is based on impulse, novelty, a momentary desire. And there is a hidden price that we, nature and future generations will pay for it too.

    When consumption becomes the very reason economies exist, we never ask “how much is enough,” “why do we need all this stuff,” and “are we any happier?” Our personal consumer choices have ecological, social and spiritual consequences. It is time to re-examine some of our deeply held notions that underlie our lifestyles.

    To discuss this topic with others, visit the discussion forum.
    (End of Suzuki article)

  7. I totally believe in the let-it-sit-around-for-a-year philosophy — don’t file things, just let them sit around until they no longer matter and then throw them out! The important stuff, as you say, takes care of itself. To file something is to declare it dead, so it strikes me as pointless.

  8. I suspected there were other bag people out there. This morning I took six or seven bags of paper out to be recycled, a bag of bills to my office to be shredded, and another bag filled with old New Yorkers (who knows Courtney, it is quite possible there’s more in there than I thought) to a friend at work who sometimes likes to read them.


  9. We’ve just had to clear out the spare bedroom, which looked much, much worse. But I cannot in all honesty say I found any treasure at all. Old linen, bills, and dusty videos are abandoned in little used rooms for a good reason…

  10. You’re a brave woman Bloglily! With me it’s bags, drawers, and boxes. I’m hoping to undertake a similar clear out before the new term begins. I look forward to hearing about the treasures you’ve uncovered. Looking at the photo of your beautiful office it seems to me that that must be one of the treasures uncovered! I love the sloping ceiling.

  11. My husband gave a pile of his old computer and car magazines to the children’s hospital near where we live. I hadn’t thought about doing that before, but when we went there we saw they had a whole library full of donated books and magazines. My old maggas might be going there.

    I’m looking forward to hearing about your treasures too!

  12. I go through phases!

    I am alternatively a piler/clutterer followed by a frenzied clean up/filer type. It’s quite strange. Eventually the balance tips and I change!

    The one area of my life that is not cluttered is my e-mail. Up until a year ago this was not the case but once I reached inbox zero I was amazed at how much more effectively e-mail worked and how much smoother my life functioned. The return was instant.

    Sadly, cluttered rooms make less impact though so the dust builds until I flip!

  13. I think I’m guilty of Accumulation in all forms — bags, stacks, boxes. I think I’ve even invented some new ways to hoard crap — like utilizing the tops of appliances and the underspaces of furniture. Some of the crap is fermenting, most of it is a fire hazard. I need to clean it all out before I entertain, or even before the cable guy comes to fix my TV — otherwise, it’s akin to getting into a car accident wearing skanky underwear!

    For those with stacks of magazines, considering donating to a hospital. I usually sneak in a pile onto waiting room tables whenever I have a doctor’s appointment!

  14. Litlove, You do have a point. Things abandoned in empty rooms are abandoned for a reason. Things shoved in shopping bags are a bit different — their storage in the bag is thought to be merely temporary and so their loss not even contemplated. Kate, you know, it has become a nice room finally — and now every person in my house wants to hang out there; so world war 2 is following me upstairs.
    I have just discovered, as i’m sure you can tell helen, that I really like giving things away. It’s a wonderful discovery to have made and just in time for debagging the house.

    Hey Eoin, I’m very impressed with your email achievement and cannot imagine how I’d get rid of the 2432 emails on my earthlink account.

  15. I had that kind of issue too! But a solution of epic proportions is available!

    1) Create a new folder called DMZ
    2) Dump the old e-mails there
    3) Start fresh and keep the inbox clear by filing everything as it comes in
    4) Go back and bit by bit delete, file, resolve the others.

    Sounds crazy but it is genius. I think its Merlin Mann at 43 folders who showed me the light as it were.

  16. I’m a collector and a dumper, too. Unfortunately, I married someone who is only a collector (but then, I can just blame all the clutter on him and pretend the house would be completely empty if I lived alone. Any former roommates of mine who might read this, though, would know better). As always, glad to hear I’m not alone.

  17. As fencer said, thank you for “breaking the silence”.

    I liked with Helen’s reference to “yo-yo de-cluttering”. If ones does it naked, it is called bi-polar.

    Dorothy W’s assertion that “to file something is to declare it dead” applies well to the mundane. I wish it were true for all filing because I love the quote. However, at least for me, I must file into my working and reference files to have any hope of approximating efficiency and focus.

  18. Pingback: White Thoughts No One Sees » Blog Archive » Each in its place, redux

  19. This is sort of funny. Now I don’t feel so bad that I have had stacks of magazines and bins of fabric and other refuse laying around in my computer room for ages. Sometimes it makes me feel claustrophobic having so much stuff, but I haven’t done much about it. Please share an after photo–(and did you find any good books?). Maybe that will give me some inspiration, too…

  20. This is exactly what we’re going through with our move – not shopping bags, but cardboard boxes stuffed with crap we didn’t even know we had. It’s a great feeling to get that kind of stuff out of the way.

    And I love the picture of your loft. What a nice sunny space.

  21. I’m looking forward to the treasure. I regret to say that I am just this kind of clutterer, although I tend to have piles rather than bags. My office is a landscape of piles which I sometimes excavate. I’d like to say that despite the mess, I know where everything is, but I’m afraid it isn’t true.

  22. We have bulk pickup every two months. It’s a great opportunity to clear out old stuff. Some months I even get stuff out to the curb. That’s the goal for September. 🙂

  23. Thanks for showing me a more pleasing way to refer to my own bags of crap…um…I mean, detritus. I did by the way have to look that up. Thank you for that too. I am almost certain that there won’t be any treasures to find when I go through my bags at the end of this month. I am moving, and I refuse to take that bad habit with me. Blagh. I am actually starting a new bag of detritus as we speak. Smile.
    Take care and I hope you are well. LOVE

  24. Pingback: BlogLily » Detritus. Gone.

  25. Pingback: Good News and Bad News « BlogLily

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