by Carolyn Foster Segal
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better homes and gardens magazineFor decades, women’s magazines had basically three subjects: food, dieting, and sex. Gradually, a fourth one evolved, and now it has literally taken the lead. The January issue of Better Homes and Gardens proclaimed “Get Organized!” The February Good Housekeeping promised “More Calm, Less Stuff: Declutter Closets in a Day,” while the February Ladies Home Journal announced “Banish Clutter: Your New Organized Life Starts Today.”

And these are just the tip of the home-organizational iceberg. I haven’t checked Cosmo in a while (I’m more of an EcoSalon kind of girl), but we can probably expect it to jump on the clutter(ed) bandwagon fairly soon with “Less Stuff, More Sex!”

It was George Carlin who was the first to call our attention to stuff, and although we laughed, we pretty much went on our merry collecting way, blithely adding more and more, well, just plain stuff (and fancy stuff, too, along with electronic stuff). Here’s a measure of how far we’ve come—or fallen.

My husband’s and my first house was half of a double. The house was three stories tall, and you had to climb all the way to the third floor to find even the semblance of a closet. It was so shallow that it wouldn’t accommodate a clothes bar with hangers, and we settled for storing a few seasonal pieces by hanging them on the row of six wooden pegs lining the back wall. Recently I came across the following suggestion for managing the detritus of our consumerism: just turn the smallest bedroom in the house into a walk-in closet. (Ah, but where, then, would I store all those piles of papers sitting on the shelves and floor of that room?)

donteatdaisiesWe have, simply, too much stuff, and too little time at the end of the day to deal with it, and women’s housekeeping magazines—which have long gone in for the kill (see Jean Kerr’s hilarious-but-true 1957 essay on women’s magazines and dieting, “Aunt Jean’s Marshmallow Fudge Diet,” which appeared in Harper’s Magazine and in her collection Please Don’t Eat the Daisies )—have a new golden subject for the 21st century. And yes, I do own a copy of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies—it’s part of my book collection.

These magazines haven’t (yet) ventured into the heart-of-collecting-darkness—the hard-core stuff of Hoarders and Grey Gardens. Clutter lit, as I’ve come to think of it, seeks to evoke from readers, in the same way that articles promising better meals, better bodies, better hair, etc. do—a sense of shame tempered by hope. The approach is fairly gentle—so as not to frighten readers away—and generally consists of advice to invest in two (two!) charming wicker baskets and/or whimsical canvas tubs. I would need at least three baskets/giant tubs just to hold all the clippings on organizing that I’ve saved over the years (surely such articles must be exempt from the rule about handling each piece of paper only once).

In my defense, I would like to point out that I am not entirely responsible for the assortment of items that gradually filled my cupboards, closet and garage (and shed—one of the perks of suburbia is that you can buy an adorable “shed” that is a miniature version of your house and immediately fill that up as well). When my mother-in-law was clearing out her house prior to moving to another state, she brought me the contents of her dining-room buffet. After I admired what was now my set of bone-china teacups, she passed along the news to my husband’s great aunt, who promptly boxed up her collection and sent it to me. At one time, I could easily throw a tea party for forty-eight.

basketsIn further defense, I have made a number of attempts to come to terms with my overstock. I have sought redemption with systems involving wicker, wire, cardboard, cloth, mesh, and plastic hold-alls (and thus ended up with collections of containers). I have set aside days for sorting, hoping to liberate my house and myself--only to end up distracted by a critical review of a novel that went out of print seven years earlier or overwhelmed by a memory sparked by a poem, a blouse, or a china bulldog. I’ve contemplated moving to one of those fictional small towns featured in the British detective series that I’ve discovered on Nextflix—towns where everyone’s house includes “a box room.” And I have found comfort in the realization that I’m not alone in this overstuffed domestic landscape. I can’t be, or why else do these articles—a sort of guilty soft-shelter-porn—continue to appear every month?

Who doesn’t thrill to the prospect of a make-over? That new trim closet is, of course, as much of an illusion as the Seventeen models I studied so intently the summer before I started high school. Still, it’s infinitely more cheering to focus on a closet that’s too fat than it is to glumly peruse the details of some new diet. And if we should fail at successfully decluttering our closets in one day (or one month), we can always turn to next month’s installment. In the meantime, we can find solace in the second item on the cover of the February issue of GH: “Chocolate Heaven: 11 Desserts You’ll Love.”

Carolyn Foster Segal is an essayist and teacher of creative writing who lives in Bethlehem, PA. She is also one of the facilitators for a book-group project--"American Life Stories"--sponsored by the PA Humanities Council.

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