Flotsam and Jetsam


By Louise Ure

If flotsam is the wreckage of a ship washed up by the sea, and jetsam the purposeful tossing of objects overboard to lighten a vessel … this has been a week of both for me. I can best describe it as a week of useless and discarded objects.

Returning from moving my father-in-law to assisted living in Seattle, I faced my own house with new eyes. Ye gods. I’d become a hoarder, too.

I don’t know why, but I always start a cleansing process like this with the tiniest job imaginable. I roll pennies. I organize a button box. I put all the stamps in one place. Maybe taking that small first step gives me the courage to try something bigger, like a drawer. Soon I was going through closets, drawers and cupboards and evicting anything broken or the wrong size or I simply didn’t like. Funny how much of the stuff I own falls into one of those categories.

The storeroom in the garage held a four-drawer filing cabinet with tax records and canceled checks dating back to 1979. Ten big plastic bins crammed with God-knows-what. Vacuum-sealed bags of clothes with no owner. The third bench seat to a car I no longer own. Rolled rugs so old and dirty that no charity would take them. Empty boxes from TVs we gave away ten years ago.

I spent five days down there, going through every piece of paper, sorting through bags of cloths to give away, making a bonfire-sized pile for the junkyard. After recycling and trashing as much as I could, I still had 210 pounds of paper to take to a professional shredder.

Then there were new targets: things that decided to break right in front of my eyes as if to tell me that they, too, were ready to join The Long March. The coils in the couch that sprang loose to stab me in the butt. The computer that finally said it had only 4 MB of space left and would no longer even sync to my mobile phone.

Out with the old and in with the new.

I hired a tech guy to set up the new computer and make sure I didn’t lose any data. He was a gem, setting up wi-fi networks and discarding a modem so old (still plugged in!) that it was on dial up. He went through everything electronic in the house — routers and firewire, cables and AC adapters, old cell phones dating back to the 80’s, a Super 8 player! — and took them all to either recycle or sell for me on eBay.

And yet, and yet … I look around and nothing looks leaner or cleaner or uncluttered. How is that possible?

I had lunch with an old friend in the midst of all this clearing away madness and she told me about her own, preferred Spartan style of living. The kitchen counter must be bare, nothing must reside on the front or on top of the refrigerator. Her “junk drawer” has only eight items in it. They are in a drawer organizer.

My cupboards are still full, not a scant inch left for a new vase or sweater or book. There is no table that needs another “interesting objet d’art” on top. The storage room in the garage looks just as crammed full now as it did before the purge. And yes, there are baskets stacked on top of my refrigerator.

What about you guys? Are you neatniks? Is there an empty drawer someplace in your house? Are you happily cluttered? Or are you — like me — in danger of being approached for that Buried Alive hoarder show on TV?


42 thoughts on “Flotsam and Jetsam

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    That’s a fantastic project! And if you’re into sending messages to the Universe, that’s a big one. I do need to go through my stuff. I’m actual very good at getting rid of things but I have strict instructions from my husband not to touch his stuff — even mail from months ago which drives me crazy. But by no means am I in the neat camp. Last year I did a big book purge and alphabetized the keepers but of course more books keep coming in and I now need a sixth bookcase. 🙂

  2. Vicky

    If I lived on my own, I would be a lean, mean, keep nothing, clean freak. But my partner always sees another potential use for things that are broken or have outlived their function. On rare occasion, these odds and sods do get transformed and live another life, but the majority of it sits and waits daring me to throw it out.

  3. billie

    I laughed when I read your list of things in the garage b/c just this weekend I was in mine gazing at the third seat bench from our old minivan. What the heck is that thing still doing here?

    I’ve been organizing and de-cluttering for about a month now (this go-round) and have found that I can do one drawer, or one closet, or one corner w/o getting overwhelmed. At this rate it will take me the rest of the year, but I’d rather take longer and stay sane!

    Love that you got all your electronics updated and organized and synced. That’s a HUGE thing. I have a big bin full of old cords and power cords and such that my husband freaks about if I even suggest getting rid of it. I guess we all need one bin of something we can’t quite get out of our house/hair/lives. 🙂

  4. Catherine

    I find the hardest thing is that i can’t just organise my stuff and expect that’s it. I keep assessing what the tipping point is between useful and needed, and clutter. I think my base standard of organising is for things to have a place, and to have my dining room table clear…and no piles of books laying around.

    I have to keep an eye on it as I find clutter begets clutter and little breeding piles develop. I am scary organised with clothes, linen, and pantry items.Most of my clutter is reading material of some sort; old notes, ideas, sketches, books, magazines. Paper based product is my main source of clutter.

  5. Louise Ure

    PK, I love the alphabetized books! Until that new one comes in that should be put in the "C’s" and there’s no room on that shelf. (You know that I organize mine geographically, based on where the murder took place, right?)

    Vicky, the things we do for love.

    Debby, I would have settled for organized clutter, but my stash had taken one step over the line and I couldn’t get myself any more.

    Billie, now we know where all those third bench seats are hiding.

  6. Karen in Ohio

    Brava, Louise, for getting rid of the dreck. There’s a feng shui tenet about clutter: It disorders your mind, so getting rid of it frees your mind for other pursuits. Even leaves caught in corners count as clutter, in that philosophy, so imagine what decades worth of old paperwork were doing to you!

    I "retired" nearly four years ago, after 35 years of raising kids and having one business after another at home.We’ve lived here 25 years, and it’s a big house, so lots of nooks and crannies for stuff to accumulate. I’d also written several books and had all the research for them, plus research for several unwritten books, in boxes in the basement. My father-in-law had died a year earlier and I had cleaned out their home, where they had lived for more than 60 years, and had all their old paperwork–some of it going back 50-60 years–here, too. I found a commercial shredder and took two completely full carloads, with just enough room for me to drive in it, to them. Then I organized and decluttered every drawer, every shelf, and every closet in the house, including the bookshelves, and donated or threw away 15 carloads of stuff. Plus 1,000 books to the local library.

    You still could not tell I’d taken anything out of the house. And of course that was three years ago, so somehow at least another 1,000 books have crept back in here. Sigh. I hope you authors appreciate the sacrifice! 🙂

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I don’t even want to talk about it. I’m a neat wanna-be locked in a clutter asylum. My mother-in-law hoards, my wife inherited the gene, and we’ve spawned kids with the same. We’ve got so much STUFF and it’s time to cut it loose, but noooo, we must keep that old mini-trampoline that’s been buried under old clothes for three years. For that matter, we must keep all the old clothes, or what would the dog sleep on to soften the trampoline? We’ll be moving soon and we’ll have to downsize. It will be an impossible task.

  8. Louise Ure

    Karen, it sounds like we’ve followed similar paths. I’m pleased now when I open the closet door or see the silverware all sorted and in place, but dear Lord, how did all the rest of that stuff fit?

  9. Sandy

    Is something in the air? I just replaced all my kitchen appliances, which led to my cleaning the silverware drawer as well as the two "junk drawers" on each side of the new stove, which led to my cleaning the closet shelves in my writing room, which led to throwing out old law textbooks in the legal section of my bookshelves (felt okay ’bout that because they were 17 years old), which led to sweeping out my garage, which led to a stiff drink and a nap. Unlike you, though, I do see space!

  10. Alafair Burke

    Moving the New York really changed the way I look at possessions, at least the ones that take up any significant amount of space. If I don’t use something, I get rid of it. If I don’t need something, I don’t buy it. My goal is to be completely uncluttered. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m closer. By the way, there’s some advice book out there that tells you to throw out X number of things per day instead of trying to do it all at once.

  11. Judy Wirzberger

    Oh my god! You’ve looked into my cupboards. What’s with blue dessert glasses that I used one time for a blueberry thingee and now are on the top shelf of my cupboard covered in kitchen grease.
    Next to:
    Margarita glasses that I used once, liqueur glasses I haven’t used in years and turkish tea glasses –from Turkey too small for tea.
    Coffee mugs from companies I hated and plastic cups for grandchildren too old for plastic cups.

    You’ve inspired me! – I’ll clean out the kitchen and then paint it, cupboards and all. then I’ll stop cooking so it doesn’t get messy.

    I think I need a tranquilizer.

    Thanks for the laugh.

  12. Karen Olson

    My mother is a hoarder and her house is so cluttered it’s hard to find a place to sit in the living room. Therefore, I have to have everything neat and put away, at least on the outside. I do go through the junk mail every day and shred what needs to be shredded so that’s not an issue, and I am constantly putting things away in their places. But we do have a very cluttered basement (stuff from my grandparents house that my mother decided we had more room for…10 years ago). I keep telling my husband we need a dumpster, just get rid of stuff, but so far we have procrastinated.

  13. toni mcgee causey

    I think we were both more pack rat than not, not entirely "hoarders" but too attached to things that didn’t matter. About two years ago, I got really fed up with the clutter and we started tackling it, one closet, one drawer, etc., at a time. Most of the house is now clutter free. I have three or four drawers left, and the attic, which I dread. Carl has the shop to do, which will finish up the clutter outside, but that’s going to require some definite building/shelving to complete.

    Most of the time, I thought — someone else could use this. I donated a tremendous amount of stuff to a battered women’s shelter. If they can’t sell it or use it, they recycle or toss. I tossed tons of stuff myself that wasn’t worth anyone else having to handle it, and though it was a slow process, I really love that I can open closets and find what I want, and everything stays pretty neat.

    Last year, when I was going through a fallow time, writing wise, it helped to have progress in the clutter/cleaning/organizing side of my life. It felt like I was preparing the ground for a new life, if that makes sense. Making mental room for the new ideas.

  14. Louise Ure

    Stephen, downsizing may be the best thing that ever happened to you. (I think the clutter/junk problem is tougher to deal with when you’ve got kids, too.)

    Sandy, something in the air? It’s probably just because it’s July and many of us have days off or extra long hours of sunlight to see how cluttered things have really become.

    Alafair, I can picture you as a neatnik. And throw out X number of things per day? If I’d gotten into that habit I wouldn’t have had to on all out attack mode this last week.

  15. Louise Ure

    Judy, the funniest thing in your comment is the collection of coffee cups from companies you hate. Now that you’ve reminded me, I’m going to finally throw out the painting from the ex-sister-in-law I can’t stand. It makes me grumpy every time I see it.

    Karen, having seen my brother-in-law’s hoarding, I can imagine how uncomfortable your mom’s place makes you. And boy, have I heard that same "you store grandma’s stuff … you have more room." Not anymore, I don’t.

  16. Allison Brennan

    Two fave quotes of mine: "A clean desk is a sign of an empty mind." and "A cluttered desk is a sign of genius."

    I must be the smartest person on the planet . . . . 😉

  17. Louise Ure

    Toni, I hope that notion of clearing out mental space for new ideas holds true for me here. That would be a lovely side benefit.

    Allison, I’ve heard the clean desk = empty mind quote, but never the corollary. Alas, in my case, a cluttered desk is simply a sign of a cluttered life!

  18. Karen in Ohio

    Toni’s idea of clearing mental space is exactly what the feng shui principle means.

    That clean desk/empty mind quote was spouted by someone defensive about their mess!

    By the way, the wonderful wildlife artist Charley Harper was a family friend (he passed away a couple of years ago, sadly), and his studio and home were grand places of utter chaos, with bird skins hanging on the walls, and books piled everywhere. He theorized that having a mess around him helped him create his art, which was spare and minimalist, oddly enough. I can’t help wondering what more he might have accomplished if he’d been more organized, though.

  19. becky hutchison

    I want to be clutter-free, too! My favorite decorating style is Scandanavian country, not the Ikea type, but the pastel rooms with rounded furnishings and no clutter. Unfortunately my house looks more like early attic, with three different households crammed into one and piles of paper, books and other stuff everywhere. Except for the kitchen. For some reason (maybe that I had to clean mine every night growing up) my kitchen is extremely neat, everything tucked away nicely and very little on the counters. If only I could extend my kitchen OCD-ness to the rest of my house.

  20. JT Ellison

    Louise, we’ve given away 1/2 of our household in the past year, and I’m planning to have another purge shortly. I love the idea of having less. It’s liberating. I’m one of those uncluttered types who gets nervous and uncomfortable in the face of stuff strewn about, so less is definitely more.

  21. Robin McCormack

    I purge periodically but it has to be when my husband isn’t home. He saves stuff.. magazines, catalogs, etc. They all have some memory or significance however minor. When I start cleaning, I’m tossing ruthlessly. When he starts cleaning, he has to take a trip down memory lane with each item before throwing it out.

  22. Louise Ure

    Karen, the feng shui principles make perfect sense to me. Not only to open up creativity, but to offer a sense of calmness.

    Early Attic, Becky! Ha! I used to describe my decor as Modern Orthodontist but now I’d call it Distressed Primitive.

    JT, you’ve given away half of your household possessions? Wow! I’m not sure I could do it. Although I’ve lived overseas for years at a time, I always kept this house and it’s now got 25 years worth of my trash.

  23. Louise Ure

    Robin, your husband sounds very much like my Bruce. I had DECADES of car racing magazines to toss out, but in honor of him, I at least glanced through them to make sure there wasn’t an article or photo about his cars.

  24. pari noskin taichert

    I come by clutter naturally, was raised with it. My mother was a "collector" of everything; someday I might write about dealing with her estate . . . the 70 pairs of colored KEDS, the 200 pairs of sunglasses . . . every cabinet and surface full or decorated.

    I’m slowly cleaning out my office space and plan to work on the rest of the house. Right now, 1/4 of my office is extraordinarily restful and spare — that’s where I’m now writing — and then I turn my back or to the side and there are piles of clutter/reams of it everywhere else.


  25. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    De-cluttering is very therapeutic, isn’t it? We’re starting to get clutter piling up, though – must be time we moved house again.

    And this time, we’re going to build smaller…

  26. JD Rhoades

    There are two classes of things I find impossible to throw away: books and electronics (including computers). Our attic, shed, and various cabinets contain at least five old computers, a bunch of dead monitors, a 9600 baud modem, a pile of old floppy discs (the little ones AND the big ones) and the manuals for the programs they hold, a cassette deck we don’t use, two VCRs (one of which won’t record and plays back a warped and distorted picture), an old multi-disc CD player that doesn’t work, three clock radios with busted alarms, a bunch of AC adapters for devices I can’t remember, and a whole rats’ nest of cables that don’t hook anything to anything any more. And don’t get me started on all the old textbooks and paperbacks so tattered even the library book sale won’t take them as donations. Oh, and the dead TV still resting in one corner of the living room. I know I should take them to the dump, but I can’t bring myself to throw a whole computer into the masher, much less books.

  27. Louise Ure

    Man, Pari, I didn’t know KEDS came in that many colors! She must have been a vibrant and interesting woman but it’s not fair to leave a task like that to a loved one.

    Zoe, I think if I’d moved more often I wouldn’t have been in this pickle.

    Oh Dusty, I can picture that shed. Don’t trash that stuff. I was surprised at the prices my tech guy was putting on some of my really old electronic stuff on ebay.

  28. mary lynn

    :::::::hanging head in shame:::::

    I said to Tom last Saturday that we were overwhelmed with crap and it had to go away, even if it went no further than a storage unit. He agreed. I actually mentioned you, Louise, as an example.

    I told him I wanted a home where I wasn’t ashamed to have someone visit. I said that the next time you came this way I wanted to be able to invite you to come over. The rant continued, but you were right there. Mind you, we have no living room because it’s full of my sewing and craft paraphernalia, including four sewing machines, cabinets of fabric and enough craft books to start my own book-of-the-month club.

    It worked so well that a while later we dug something out of the trash in the kitchen that we “ought to keep because it’s useful.” Jeeeeez . . .

    That’s what you get when you mate a packrat with a collector.

  29. Louise Ure

    Mary Lynn, you know I’d be right at home in a living room furnished with sewing machines and craft books!

    Tell Tom that I am a cautionary tale, not an example.

  30. Tom

    Okay, Dusty, exactly how much of the electronic debris in my garage is yours, and how did you get it in here from NC? ‘Cuz, surely, this is not all my doing . . .

  31. Judy Wirzberger

    Wow! I want to leave work, go home and start tossing. But maybe I just want to leave work.

    Thanks, Louise, for giving me a place to put stuff. My entire house is now clean–in my mind.
    Three things every day? Maybe that’s advice I’ll start giving to newlyweds.

    At lunch, I went to an antique store with a friend to look for hatpins- Don’t throw out any you come across. They sell for almost $100. Thanks to your blog, Louise, I didn’t walk out with a thing…not so much as the cute square tea cups that were a bargain.

  32. Allison Davis

    Wow, just joined (busy day)…my motto is if it’s not useful or beautiful, throw it out…but then again, I have a lot of "stuff" — it’s a constant battle. New motto…if I get something new, something old has got to go.

    I want the name of your electronics guy, Louise…

  33. Kagey

    I’m reminded of FlyLady.net, which is full of de-cluttering ideas. She calls the problem CHAOS = can’t have anyone over syndrome.
    As a child, my husband was the victim of his father’s purges of stuff — resulting in the loss of his favorite teddy bear and other childhood treasures without his knowledge. This means I can’t throw anything that could be his out without his say-so. Having said that, we are planning a room-by-room purge starting next month. The goal is to clear out a room a month. Nothing too lofty, but still notable. I am planning on letting him keep a few treasured relics though, including his Amiga. It still runs. When he sets it up, he still plays the games he played in high school. Sheesh!

  34. Sylvia

    I think my clutter has sex and multiplies when I’m not looking. Like I’d want to watch? Don’t even get me started on dust bunnies… I told myself that this year I would take a bag or box a week to the Thrift Store to donate. I’m behind by about 14 right now…

    Tip – keep a shopping bag in the closet or by the laundry and by the front door where you can put things you don’t want to keep. When it’s full, it goes to the front seat of the car until you can get to Goodwill.

    Good for you Louise!

  35. Louise Ure

    Tom, I’ve got inside info on your pack rat behavior. Time to shape up…well, maybe just get a new storage locker.

    Judy, at least you’re only shopping for teeny, weeny items!

  36. Catherine

    Louise I was reading a design blog, and just came across the suggestion that people edit their stuff.

    I’ve come across this concept before but this time because of your post it made me think…

    I wonder whether this shift in thinking from clearing clutter, to editing (in a physical space off page) might help writers?


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