Editor’s Notebook, Features and Occasionals

Editor’s Notebook

By Greta Belanger deJong

The stuff-reduction business is booming. Books, magazines, blogs and websites are devoted to getting organized. Space-saving gizmos for the office, home and car fill entire stores, none of which existed before 1978.

And yet our houses grow bigger. In 2000, the ideal Ameri­can house was 2,400 square feet—600 square feet larger than 1980’s ideal.

The iconic Better Homes & Gar­dens offers a free weekly storage newsletter (BHG.com/CureClutter) and invites their readers to make organizing a family affair. You can hire a clutter-clearing coach, right here in Salt Lake City.

Even disembodied entities have gotten into the act. Abraham, who speaks through Esther Hicks, has dispatched the best advice I’ve ever heard—and this guy doesn’t even live on this planet: Assemble and number 20-plus bankers boxes. Look around the room and ask of each item, “Is this item important to my immediate experience?” If no, it goes into a box and is recorded. The boxes are stacked neatly in an inconspicuous place. If you miss anything you’ve packed, it’s easily retrievable. Revisiting the boxes later, it will be easier to decide what to do with the stuff permanently.

The author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for eight weeks, thanks each object as she says goodbye to it. Nice. I did look at “before” and “after” photos of a bedroom the author had “tidied” and felt drawn to the “before.” One can definitely go overboard on this clutter-clearing activity.

What’s wrong with clutter? It used to be associated with cozy and creative. Is it a style preference?

Partly. But, undeniabley, we just have more Stuff. Way more stuff.

An example: My mom’s spices fit in two eight-inch rows, and included everything she needed for pickling in addition to what it took to season a roast and an apple pie. Add small bottles of Tabasco, soy and Worce­s­tershire sauce, and that about covered it; butter and bacon fat did the rest. By contrast to her little spice rack, my spice cupboard contains a full alphabet of herbs and spices from around the globe.

My mom’s baking supplies shelf included sugar (white, brown and powdered), molasses, Crisco, Kayo corn syrup, Bisquick and white flour. We always had homemade bread, coffee cake, cookies and pie. By con­trast, my cupboard includes most of the above plus pastry flour, wholewheat flour, unbleached white flour, gluten-free pancake mix and almond meal; also organic raw sugar, rice syrup, honey, agave nectar and two kinds of molasses.

Then there are the ingredients she never heard of, that I wouldn’t live without: chia, hemp, pumpkin and sunflower seeds; maca, cacao and lucuma powders. I’m sure she never ate arugula or cilantro. It was the ’70s before I saw an avocado in the Midwest.

Mom had white rice. I have basmati, brown, arborio, wild rice (I know, really a seed). Quinoa, triticale, couscous and millet—all have a place in many modern-day pantries.

It’s like cookbooks: Most of her cooking came from one book, and I think she owned only two. My cookbooks number in the hundreds, and I still skim the internet for additional options.

Makeup and toiletries have grown like crazy. Do we really look that much better for all the bottles and tubes in our bathroom closets and drawers? And what about the diet­ary supplements?

Even pets. There used to be “the family dog.” Or cat. Now, many of us have multiples. (Yes, these may well be surrogates to the children we are having fewer of.)

I went to an estate sale with my friend Jodi last month. We were slack-jawed with the spectacle before us as we moved from room to room, seeing the boxes, shelves and closets—Christmas crap from decades past, clothing no one would ever wear again and five lifetimes of sewing supplies which we greeted with enthusiasm.

“I will never be this woman,” I vowed to Jodi. We bought a plastic bin of iron-on seam binding to hand out as party favors at the next craft night.

We have, to use a favorite old phrase, an embarrassment of riches. And, obsessive accumulating aside, I’m not saying “ain’t it awful.” I’m partial to my own stuff, and live with it comfortably enough (though I could always use more bookcases). I’m grateful for the diversity. Sometimes I think of doing what Abraham suggests—except I know that, for me, out of sight is out of mind; a natural-born gatherer, I’d fill the void anew.

My life of stuff is small potatoes—low on vehicles, eletronics and disposables. Still, could I possibly put a moratorium on acquisition?

My big brother, who is a writer and former magazine editor, wrote a book called Enough! A critique of capitalist democracy and a guide to understanding the New Normal (Jerome Belanger, 2012: Country­side). Coincidentally, as I was writing this column, he forwarded me a review someone posted yesterday on Amazon.com. The reviewer call it “an overlooked monumentally important analysis of the times we live in.” The review did what my brother’s modest “I wrote this book” didn’t do: convinced me to move Enough to the top of my book reading list.

Yes, I’m going to read more books in 2015. Why not? Slow reader though I am, I nonetheless love to read books. No more letting the things I love get buried in the clutter of lower priorities.

Greta Belanger deJong is founder, editor and publisher of CATALYST and wisely made celebrating her birthday at Crystal Hot Springs a priority.

This article was originally published on December 30, 2014.