Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Keep, Donate, Toss

Three years ago, I decided that my bedroom was a wretched mess. I had already gotten my living room into decent shape with furniture that harmonized and functioned well. I sent a couple of carloads of clutter (plus several large pieces of mismatched furniture) to new homes -- including the landfill, when I couldn't come up with a better solution. The space where I entertained guests was looking pretty respectable, but the space that was just for me was a dumping ground for whatever had landed there over the years.

My first step was to ask for help. The Washington Post runs a weekly article where people send in photos of rooms that they want to remake, and a professional decorator provides a sketch and recommends various furniture pieces and paint colors. The photos I sent in of my hodge-podge bedroom were deemed worthy of the challenge; a professional photographer came and shot several "before" photos to run with the article. A decorator took my comments, asked for measurements and a proposed budget, and set to work on creating the "after" sketch.

The "after" sketch was nothing like what I had asked for. Instead of a soothing, sunny Zen retreat, the decorator had gone for heavy earth tones and a strong Southwestern theme. More than half the budget was devoted to a dresser that had several layers of "artistically" peeled paint. I realized that I was going to have to come up with my own answer on this one. I did, however, like the way that she had arranged the furniture, so I kept that bit of information. Maybe the sketch in the newspaper article would appeal to someone else, so that would be my donation to someone else's inspiration.

I already had some idea of where to start. I knew that the five-drawer lateral file cabinet that dominated the room would have to go. Why was I saving all that paper? I weeded it out the best I could, boxed up the rest, and made myself a promise to scan as much as I could into computer files and send the paper to the recycling bin. I advertised the file cabinet online, and a husband-and-wife counseling team claimed it for their office.

I went through two wicker hampers of things that I hadn't looked at in years. After saving a few precious keepsakes, the hampers went to new homes at the next condo association yard sale.

After a couple of months of searching locally and online, I found a set of furniture that I liked. I placed an order, to be delivered in three weeks. I called a local charity to come and pick up my old bed, mattress, night stand, and chest of drawers. While I waited for my new furniture, I would be sleeping on an air mattress and using cardboard boxes to store my sox and undies.

I took the opportunity to clear everything out of my bedroom except the pictures on the walls and the clothing hanging in the closets. The parquet floor was in need of a new finishing coat, and this was a rare chance to get that done. I had also planned to paint the walls, but I ran out of time, energy, and motivation. The current paint job was just fine -- a total change was not necessary.

When the new furniture came, and it was time to move back into my bedroom, I brought back only the things that I knew I wanted to keep. The rest stayed in the living room, cluttered and under foot -- purposely annoying me to force me to donate or toss them rather than letting them sneak back into my new personal space.

The newly decorated room was not a complete change -- I still had my familiar artwork on the walls, which were the same color as before. I still had that odd little round table that no one seems to like except me. I used the furniture arrangement from the Washington Post article, but the furniture itself was my own choice. It doesn't all match, but it harmonizes quite well. I still have keepsakes on the new, airy bookshelves, but just a few -- not the visual bedlam I had before. The room doesn't look like the photos in the decorating magazines. It looks like where I live, only it's more peaceful now.

This year has been a metaphorical parallel to 2010's bedroom project. I took the radical step of leaving my job so that I could open a space to reconstruct my life. So that I could give the same honor to my own space that I had spent so many years trying to give to others' spaces. For the time being, my own space is a lot emptier than it usually is. I have used that time to get a few things in order -- physical health, stress levels, personal relationships, creative projects.

I'm keeping a few familiar things in place during the renovation -- my home, my friends and family, the kinds of things I read. A lot of the old things have been moved out. Some will come back into this new room, some will not. As I did for my bedroom, I am making three piles of "life stuff": Keep, Donate/Sell, and Toss.

The only things that will be allowed to stay in or return to my metaphorical room are the things that are valuable to me, including friends and family, home, adequate income, music, photography, travel, learning and discovery, creativity. Other things don't fit me so well, but might be useful to someone else: routine technical work, exhibit planning, proposal-writing teams, classroom teaching, "leadership". Some things are going into the dumpster -- if you want to dive for them, be my guest: the long commute, cubicles, being a human dumping ground for someone else's low-priority projects, the chaos and constant sense of crisis that comes from working with people who don't plan in advance or respect other people's plans.

Anyone who has ever done a major decluttering project can tell you that you have to go through a stage where everything is a mess. You have to navigate your way around stuff on its way out. You have to dig through boxes to find stuff you need to use. Things don't fit quite the way you expected, and you have to adapt. Sometimes, you have to go looking for a couple of extra pieces to make the whole thing work. Eventually, though, everything finds its place and you begin to believe that it's all worthwhile.


  1. Heh... apartment does imitate life! I have thought that also. Clutter & confusion vs serene and relaxing? Or "making do" until resources permit changes? Oh yeah.

  2. Great metaphor, Nancy! Ellen and I are working on a basement de-cluttering, and of course it's dredging up a whole lot of psychological issues along with the hazardous waste. A lot of what you wrote rings true.


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