If you were on a sinking ship, what is the first thing you would do? You’d probably get rid of the extra weight. It’s amazing how many of us are living in “sinking ships,” lives that require too much of our energy and don’t give us enough in return. Clutter is making us crazy, and not just because we can’t find anything — because every bit of wood, metal, and plastic we collect is an anchor tying us to something, somebody, somewhere.
You know your neighbors who have two-car garages? Twenty-five percent of them are parking at least one car outside — they have so much extra stuff there’s not enough room in the garage for the second car! More facts: Getting rid of clutter would eliminate 40 percent of housework in the average home. One out of eleven families in the United States rents a space to store their extra junk, wasting about $1,000 a year in the process. All that junk is costing us valuable time and money, not to mention a heap of unnecessary emotional attachments.
So why can’t we let it go?
Doesn’t having fewer, more cherished belongings that really inspire you sound a whole lot better than just coping with the side effects of living with so much extra stuff? This false sense of abundance isn’t buoying us up — it’s sinking us.
Stop the Hoarding & Get Rid of Clutter
I hadn’t realized how extreme the clutter issue could get until I met the Brown family. Their story was a sad one, filled with missed opportunities and unfulfilled expectations.
Richard and Evelyn Brown were coming up on forty years of marriage and contemplating a divorce. Their inability to “get it together” throughout their lives had brought them to a place where they were subsisting on food stamps and living in government-subsidized housing. They were both depressed, morbidly overweight, and suffering serious health issues. In their sunset years, when ancially stable. Over coffee, she talked about her family, sharing with me the painful details of her uthey should have been enjoying retirement in the home they had created and made their own, they were worrying about whether to pay for groceries or medicine.Before I met Richard and Evelyn, I spent some time with their daughter, Teresa. Teresa was smart, thoughtful, and attractive but, like her parents, not financially “successful” or even finpbringing. I expected her to mention lost opportunities because of their financial situation, but the picture that emerged was even more shocking. Her mother, she explained, was a classic hoarder. As a child, Teresa had avoided having friends over for fear that she would have to clear pathways for them through the accumulated clutter and debris in her home.
“Everything was saved,” she said to me, her voice ringing with desperation. “Leftovers. Newspapers. Junk mail. Broken furniture. Everything that came into our home stayed there.”
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Holding On to the Past: Storing Junk & Anger
Teresa still carried a lot of anger toward her mother and father. When I later saw her interacting with them, all her words toward them blistered with recrimination and contempt for who they were and what they had done to her. The entire family was still tortured by the past and unable to move forward into a brighter future.
Teresa and I agreed to go look at the storage spaces the family was renting, for not inconsiderable expense. Even with the knowledge that Teresa’s mom was a hoarder, I was not remotely prepared for what I discovered. Twenty-year-old canned goods. Over a thousand ketchup packets. Magazines and takeout menus and empty cat food containers.
Once we got rid of what was clearly junk — and a health risk — we started to peel back the layers of the lives that Evelyn and Richard had lived. She had once been an actress, slim and lovely. He had been a commander in the British Navy. This elderly couple, calcified by years of regret and self-loathing, had actually led pretty remarkable lives. As I observed Teresa taking it all in, I suggested that we stop our work and regroup the following day.
Shared Memories: The Connection to Keep
I intuitively knew that Teresa’s parents had to be a part of this process, so I contacted them and brought them to the storage unit the next day. When we showed up, Teresa was shocked to see that her parents were in the van with me. However, despite her initial misgivings, the next few hours were magical.
The family came alive as they shared memories connected with their things — the old family room TV that played only four channels, the church organ that had filled their apartment with music when Richard would play on the weekends, and so on. We found a commendation from the Queen of England that had been awarded to Richard and a certificate for a Hollywood Star of Tomorrow that Evelyn had received early in her acting career. Teresa was getting to see a different side of her parents, as hopeful, successful people, and I could see the energy shift. She had been ready to throw everything out; now she saw the objects in storage as holding the cellular memory of her family.
Releasing Mess & Clutter: Finding the Love
We cleared out the four storage spaces and consolidated everything into one unit. In reconnecting with the items they had hidden away, Evelyn and Richard rediscovered their joy and felt more comfortable donating many of their items to charities. This process of release allowed the positive memories to find their place in the sun, unobstructed by years and years of emotional debris. And in the next phase, cleanse, Teresa took a few mementos, polished and shined them, and placed them prominently in her home as a way to honor the best of her parents.
The release process renewed the Browns’ affection and familial bonds. The love had always been there; it was just buried under a mountain of inconsequential objects that were obstructing a clear view to what was really important and worth holding on to.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library. Copyright © 2011.
SoulSpace: Transform Your Home, Transform Your Life
by Xorin Balbes.
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About the Author
Xorin Balbes is an award-winning architectural conservator, designer, philanthropist, and co-owner of the interior and architectural design firm SoulSpace Home. His most recent project is the transformation of the Fred Baldwin Memorial Home on Maui into SoulSpace Sanctuary, a rejuvenation destination with twenty-eight ocean-view bedrooms and a farm-to-table restaurant. Xorin is also the cofounder of the nonprofit organization Global Vision for Peace, which launched at the 2002 Academy Awards, with many prominent celebrities and Oscar winners sending a message to the world that Americans were standing up for peace. The organization’s focus and mission have recently evolved to promote awareness of and solutions to the burgeoning problem of homelessness, focusing on one person, one family at a time. His website is www.SoulSpaceHome.com.