Keeping up with clutter snarl

One thing these bone chilling days are good for, besides standing at the back door peering at the thermometer, is catching up on my reading. Lately, I’m finding women’s magazines particularly entertaining. When I’ve memorized the latest Rangeley Highlander, I’m tired of the Mother Nature bashing on Facebook, and the novel I started is tucked somewhere too far away from the wood stove to make it intriguing reading, I turn to my pile of magazines and open a window to another world. As the mercury plummets and my tea goes tepid, they show me how many ways I’m not keeping up with “most” women, and how much I’m really not missing out on living in the Maine woods.

According to the editors, the top item troubling most women at the start of this new year is household clutter. Really? What happened to not enough family time, world poverty,  shrinking our carbon footprints, or maybe just our growing waistlines? Nope. Categorizing, containing and covering up our stuff is supposedly keeping us awake at night more than hugging our high-fructose filled kids, or wondering if we’ll keep our jobs long enough to pay our cell phone bills. An orderly life—or at least one that looks that way—trumps all.

Phew…check off that box!” I congratulated myself as I tossed the magazines into the burn pile. “I know exactly where all my stuff is!” And, at any given moment, I’m within ten minutes, two flights of stairs, a couple cupboards, drawers, boxes, baskets and/or totes away from laying my hand on whatever item becomes crucial to my well-being. Who knew that moving everything up to Rangeley was fulfilling my dreams and achieving what eludes most Good Housekeeping readers?

But it wasn’t long ago that any article on household organization would have featured me as a “before” profile, not an “after.” Heck, I’d have earned my own little side bar devoted to how my kitchen had more junk drawers than fully functional ones. “We all have at least one,” the lead in would say, “that retractable wooden rectangle about four inches deep hiding about six inches of worthless odds and ends under our countertop. It’s the great American junk drawer.”

Up until a year ago, I was a junk drawer junkie. With limited counter space in my previous kitchen, I put all manner of things “away for later” in drawers until, eventually, only two  were functional. The remaining six held everything but silverware, napkins, utensils or other sorts of necessities that kitchen drawers are supposed to keep easily accessible. The last time I managed to pull it out far enough to look, the biggest drawer held birthday candles with frosting still stuck on them, three boxes of toothpicks, a hospital ID bracelet, a bubble blowing wand, half an envelope of Rapid Gro, that special doohickey I needed for my dehumidifier back in July, keys to my ’68 Rambler, and a gadget I should have entered in Yankee magazine’s “What the Heck Is This?” column. The whole ungodly mess was tangled up with string, pencils, a couple shoe laces, and laying on top of some weird wooden utensils I’d received as wedding gifts and hadn’t prepared any food items in the last 30 years that had given me cause to use them. From the outside, of course, all my drawers looked identical—right down to their decorative brass knobs. My guests never needed to know what secrets lay within but me, unless they made the mistake of offering to help set the table. They’d pull out what they thought was a logical place for forks and spoons and realize too late they were wrong. Leaping back, they’d beg for assistance, and I’d have to free a rusty spatula or old tape dispenser imbedded sideways before I could level off the underlying junk and roll it all out of sight again.

It’s funny how quickly even the most ingrained habits can change with the promise of greener pastures (or, in my case, greener woods and a better kitchen by a lake)! One moment, Tom and I were talking to our realtor about market values, and the very next day I was “staging” my property for selling. “Staging” is realtor-speak for the crucial steps I needed to take to make my old house look like the best show in town. Stage One: Clear out all the furniture and knickknacks not worth the space they’d been taking up for decades. Stage Two: Pack up everything else, including what’s in storage nooks, closets, cabinets and, you guessed it, junk drawers. Basically, this stage entails dealing with all the places you hurriedly stashed stuff so Stage One buyers wouldn’t see it as clutter. If you’re lucky, like I was, Stage One lasts just long enough for you to wish you’d had that much elbow room years ago. Stage Two, on the other hand, can drag on until just before you leave the keys on the table and walk out the door.

Moving out took weeks of sorting, selling and selective packing, plus a four-page spreadsheet, a storage pod and, I’ll admit, a couple sleepless nights. On the Rangeley end, as I explained in Self Storage Ins and Outs, it took a pledge: “All crap goes out. No crap comes back in.” But when the move was finally complete, I’d managed to conquer clutter snarl, to use my beautiful new pantry with reverence and respect. Now that I’m really settled in, I sometimes need to remind myself how I originally labeled the sketches of my kitchen layout. “Silverware…cereal…Tupperware….” Not one square inch of storage was reserved for junk. It is still tempting to hoard, though, living 20 miles from a hardware store with a husband who I know can fix a toilet with string, duct tape, and a plastic fork. We haven’t stopped hanging onto stuff for reuse, since we do live in Maine, after all. We’ve just become craftier about where it takes up space before it’s brought back to live. 

“Wow, my clutter control must qualify for a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” I told myself as I stoked the fire with another magazine. And I have no intention of returning to my days of snarled, sub-counter chaos. Besides, now that I’m caught up on my reading, what better do I have to do on these long, winter afternoons than keep my crap compartmentalized and where it belongs? It’ll be at least another month before any more magazines come and I get a whole new stack of burning issues to look into.

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