It creeps into your home with chilling stealth, seeping into every room like some demonic substance from Stranger Things. Pretty soon, it has filled up every available space in the house, and you can't move through the toxic treacle. Yes, you've got clutter, and if you don't tackle it soon, it's going to make Japanese knotweed look positively unobtrusive.
You know when you’re so busy getting on with life – marriage, career, kids – you don’t notice the clutter that’s slowly building up over the years? Well, I’m starting to notice it now. Oh, it’s not too bad, mind – you don’t have to climb over a giant stack of old music magazines to get into our living room. And you won’t have to share a couch with a tangle of long-obsolete electronic equipment I can’t bring myself to bring to the recyling place. No, it’s merely that a few bits and bobs have piled up over the years, and I just need to get around to clearing them away – just as soon as I find the time. You know the way: when you’re juggling the demands of work and family, throwing out old press releases goes right down on the priority list.
The World Health Organisation has for the first time classified hoarding as an illness. Lucky for me, I'm not a hoarder – I just need more storage space. Okay, my wardrobe is bursting with old shirts that have inexplicably shrunk over the years, and Nirvana T-shirts that have long passed their Cool Dad wear-by date. And the home office is groaning under 20 years' worth of accumulated paperwork, books, magazines, CDs, DVDs, Ikea assembly instructions etc.
But I'm not hoarding it, I'm just parking it there until I can find a spare afternoon – or season – to roll up my sleeves and go through it once and for all. You see, there are a few essential items in there that I couldn't possibly throw out. My Led Zeppelin books, for instance. Jimmy Page or Robert Plant could pop their clogs at any time – I'll need the reference material for when I write up The Irish Times obituary. And all those books I've bought over the years on how to declutter your life – they're keepers.
Besides, I’m not the worst. The biggest hoarders in our house are aged 11 and eight, and the biggest culprit begins with the letter “L” and ends in tears when I accidentally step on a Death Star or Millennium Falcon on the way to getting my Zep tee out of the cupboard. Our house is carpeted with wall-to-wall Lego, and it’s not very comfortable to walk on in your bare feet. Getting the kids to clear away their Lego – or even to part with their old and broken toys – is an ongoing battle; like the Battle of Hoth, it’s no-win situation.
Dealing with the problem
But I realise I need to let go of a few things. Buying loads of storage boxes, or creating extra storage space, isn't really dealing with the problem – the stuff is still there, out of sight but still playing on your mind. A recent article in Treehugger.com examined the trend in the US for designing larger houses. People weren't looking for bigger houses so they could have a nice, roomy pile to move around in – they wanted a bigger house so they could store more stuff. A study by the University of California found that American families were actually using a small fraction of their available living space. The rest of it was either abandoned or filled with clutter.
But many people incorporate clutter in the design plan. The Swedes may like their minimalism, keeping spaces largely clear but for the odd potted plant or Mondrian print, but we Irish like to have our stuff out in full view, so visitors can witness our excellent taste in books and films, admire our neatly arranged displays of Waterford Crystal or Belleek china, or marvel at our collection of 1970s' prog-rock vinyl in their original gatefold sleeves. We need that affirmation, you see, after centuries of having nothing to put on the wall except a straw St Brigid's cross. We've done minimalism, and it sucked.
If the word "declutter" fills you with dread and an urge to rush out and buy more stuff you don't need, there's a Japanese word, danshari, coined by decluttering guru Hideko Yamashita. Danshari means more than decluttering – it's looking honestly at your relationship with your stuff, and freeing your mind from the need to cling onto it. It's about letting go of your obsessions, and making room for real life. I might give that danshari a try myself – but I'm holding on to the Talking Heads boxset.