The Unpack Rat

I won’t prevaricate on this one – there’s far too much stuff in my 2BR condo for the amount of space I have mortgaged. Closets, shelves, drawers … they’re all filled with disorganized, unnecessary stuff.

All this crap lying around is basically the product of two stages in my adult life. When I graduated from law school and bought a house, my parents started showing up to visit and “help” around the house, but every time they arrived, they had two or three boxes of things I’d collected and never let go of. Those boxes had gravitated to the attic or deep within closets where I naively hoped they’d be forgotten forever. My parents didn’t forget. They slowly dropped on me all the accumulated junk of my childhood.

The second stage was after I separated from my wife, seven years ago, almost to the day. After we’d decided which things were going to be hers from the marriage and which things were going to be mine … well, there were interstices. There were boxes and bags and piles of crap that build up over seven years of living together. Every time I showed up to visit my kids, she shoved another box of “my stuff” into my arms on the way out.

None of this stuff has ever really gone anywhere. Personally, I suspect that paper breeds asexually. If you put it in a box in a cool, dark closet (it’s chosen environment, apparently), it will gives rats and rabbits a run for their money on frequency and volume of offspring. I have probably a dozen banker boxes sealed with packing tape, filled with trinkets and letters and high school class notes and college class notes and law school class notes and Boy Scout patches and books. Oh my God, the books. You’ve seen the show Hoarders, right? Let’s be clear: we’re not into that territory. You won’t come to visit me and find a rotten pumpkin under a pile of Cats playbills … well, okay, as I sit here, I can literally picture where in my house is sitting a playbill from Les Miserables from 1991.

All I’m saying is, I’m not a rotten vegetable junky. It’s mostly paper. My place isn’t gross. I can have people over.

Also, I’ll offer in my own defense, I come by it all honestly. My Mother has a series of hobbies (arts, really), including quilting, antiques, various crafts, cooking and reading. Pretty much all of these things involve acquiring piles of things.

As for my Father, he and my Mom have lived in their house for 29 years and it wasn’t 29 minutes before the garage wouldn’t fit an actual automobile anymore. Instead, it’s been converted to a man-cave, complete with cable television, heater for the wintertime, “rainbow box” (our name for a beer fridge, explanation some other time), and dogs gamboling around. His garage’s motto? “You can find two of anything out here.” He hangs around out there, working and watching his Faux News, and there are times when I want to hang out with him but wonder whether I’ll be able to navigate the piles of stuff.

The point is, I’ve always been hemmed in my physical things. My brother has gotten away from that – his living space is much more ascetic, and he always asks for experiences rather than gifts for holiday gifts, if people insist on getting him anything at all. That’s always seemed to me to be a great way of approaching your environment, but I haven’t been able get there.

In London, I believe that has finally changed. I realized a couple of days ago that I’ve been living in the equivalent of a studio apartment (hotel room) for three months, and my sum total of possessions here fits in one large suitcase and one carry-on computer bag. Three months with only that level of possessions. With a television that showed anything interesting, I’d be even happier, but I’ve been reading and working and exercising and writing and listening to music and sleeping. Life goes on without all those piles of crap that I keep saying I’d use “one of these days.”

The fact is, I’ll get home two weeks from Saturday and I’d be fit for duty the following Mondy, but I’m going to take a little time off anyway. The mission? To either throw or give away half the things in my house. Basic rules:

  • If it’s a generally useful thing and I haven’t used it in a year, it’s gone.
  • If it’s a memento and I haven’t thought of it in two or three years, it’s gone.
  • If it’s a household item that’s worn, mismatched or left over from my bachelor tastes of yore, and now I just settle for it, it’s gone regardless.
  • If it’s something my kids might want to see one day soon or ten years from now … it stays, but packaged efficiently deep into one closet. There are limited tickets for that bus.

I even like the way cleaning house fits philosophically with how everything else is going in my life. I have a new job this year that looks like probably the best one I’ve ever had and will be the career I’m looking for. I have a settled relationship in divorce, a live-and-let-live for the benefit of the children, so that’s not a constant distraction. And you knew how I’d end up a list of three things, right? I have a woman in my life whom I love and respect more than I thought possible. All this crap stuffing my living space just crowds out my ability to relax with how well things are going.

They say, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I say, you don’t know what you can live without until you do it. Three months in a room does a total job on your head regarding physical possessions. I’m going to go straight from a plane to cut a swath through my own. In with the new, out with the old.

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10 Responses to The Unpack Rat

  1. pithypants says:

    Well said! And music to my hyper-organized, streamlined ears. :)

  2. Barbara says:

    One of the best things I’ve ever done was sell or give away just about everything I owned before going on my Europe trip a few years ago. People thought I was crazy but it was so incredibly freeing. I pared my entire, cluttered apartment down to a bed, two boxes of clothes, one big box of kitchen stuff (because I’m not totally insane) and about one box of “stuff” that I used on a regular basis. Everything else went away. Every since then I’ve been selective about what goes into my place, and I’ve purged things much more easily. It taught me that even “sentimental” stuff isn’t always that. Wishing you the best of luck! My only tip would be tough on yourself when sorting. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of “Oh, but I *might* use this” or “Or, my kids *might* want that one day…”

    • pithypants says:

      TOTALLY. I can rationalize keeping just about anything. Every year when I turn my closets, I put lesser-worn clothes in boxes and pack a piece of paper with the date on top. If it goes a year without being opened — it is given to charity. I’ve started using that technique with other items that I rarely touch. If you don’t need it in 12 months, you probably can live without it or borrow it from a friend.

    • popdialectic says:

      You’re completely right, Barbara. And I’m prepared to be tough on myself because I really want to open up the space. I think the most difficult thing isn’t going to be getting rid of junk, but figuring out how to give away or throw away the things I think are valuable. Being here has really given me better perspective on what I don’t need, though.

  3. Jennifer S. says:

    I have a one-year rule for most things in my closets. My mom is kind of a pack-rat – one of those obsessive types where you can’t see the hoarding unless you pick beneath the rabidly-clean-and-orderly exterior (basically, the rooms are immaculate, but wait ’till you open a closet). So my reaction as an adult has been to go the opposite way. My mom’s favorite phrase is, “you’re not *getting rid of THAT*, are you?” In my 20s I realized it feels good to purge, to not hold on to things. I have plenty of keepsakes, but I really love an empty drawer.

    • popdialectic says:

      A one-year rule sounds like a great rule. You and Alison, good advice for sure. And I do think I’m finally ready to part ways with my previous ways in the pursuit of cleaner living (and not just on the surface). :)

  4. MsRat says:

    Ha. I know exactly what you talking about. I hope you’ve made some progress…Since July. I am in the staring phase….I stumbled on to this post because the name of my blog is Unpack the Rat.
    Cheers.

    • popdialectic says:

      Hi, there! I did in fact make some progress, filling my car twice with loads to go to Goodwill and/or the dump. Somehow it doesn’t feel a lot emptier yet, but I have plans to get rid of some of the furniture, as well. Hopefully that helps the feel of the place catch up with its undeniable emptier-ness. In any case, thanks for reading!

  5. Pingback: Chalkboard Calendar Inspiration | Beneath My Heart

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