She Was Finally Able to Declutter Her Home

She was embarrassed to invite friends to her chaotic New York City apartment. But then a new neighbor offered some life-changing advice.

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- Posted on Dec 27, 2020

Cleaning supplies swirl around an angel reading; Illustration by Anne Wilson

Stacks of magazines and newspapers, empty cardboard boxes, half-filled trash bags of clothes to be given away. Junk in every corner, nowhere to sit. How had my living room come to this? I stepped over a broken chair, some out-of-season decorations, plastic tubs full of who knew what. This wasn’t who I wanted to be. But maybe it’s who I am, I thought, plopping down on a sturdy tub.

Years before, as an idealistic young woman living in New York City, I’d dreamed of welcoming friends and neighbors over for coffee, impromptu. “Please, come in!” I imagined calling through the always open door of my cozy, clean apartment. It never happened like that. When friends came by, I’d ask them to wait in the hall. “Give me a second!” I’d call over my shoulder, rushing to shove things under the bed, into the trash, the hamper. I blamed my tiny studio apartment. How could there not be clutter when there was nowhere to put things? If I had enough space, surely I would get my act together.

That didn’t work out either, I reminded myself, shoving aside a box with my toe to reveal the dust bunnies underneath. When I moved to California, to a home with several rooms and closets, my mess had followed—and grew. I buried my face in my hands so I didn’t have to look at it. You realize, God, that I have no idea what’s in the tub I’m sitting on. But the couch was taken up by piles of laundry waiting to be folded. I was so ashamed. A grown woman challenged by the idea of making my bed in the mornings. What’s the matter with me?

A knock at the front door got me up off the mystery tub. I squinted through the peephole and saw my new neighbor, Debra.

I opened the door a slit to be polite, careful to press my knee against it, preventing her from looking inside. “Hi, Linda, I’m sorry to bother you,” she said. “My phone isn’t installed yet. Can I use yours?”

Oh, no, I thought. She’d have to come in to use my landline. I braced for the slovenly impression I was about to make. “No problem,” I said. “Follow me.” Little did Debra know, I meant follow me through the path I’ll clear as we go, kicking aside books and stray shoes that littered the floor. “Sorry about the mess,” I mumbled when we passed the kitchen with its sink full of dishes.

“I’m reorganizing!” was my go-to for explaining the state of things to surprise visitors, but today I didn’t have the strength even to fib. What was the use? I knew the truth. My housekeeping was a joke, and I was powerless in the face of it.

Debra used my phone and left, kindly not showing what must have been shock. I sighed, relieved. At least that’s over.

A few days later I heard another knock at the door. It was Debra. “I don’t mean to intrude, but I felt moved to talk to you.”

“About?” I asked, praying it was something quick enough to handle in the doorway.

“My house used to look like yours,” she said. “No matter what I did, I couldn’t keep it clean.” Debra leaned in close. “One time hid all my dirty dishes in the bathtub so my date wouldn’t think I was just gross.” I’d been there, done that too.

“But I started by decluttering for only fifteen minutes a day,” she said. “I used a timer, and ran around cleaning what I could before the buzzer went off. It helped to sing a little.”

I tried not to scoff at her friendly advice. I could straighten for 15 hours and get nowhere. This was bigger than me! Clearly Debra didn’t understand my struggle. But I gathered my wits and asked, “What would be a good song? ‘Jailhouse Rock’? Because I do feel like a prisoner of this mess.”

Debra smiled. “I sing ‘Please release me, let me go’ while I toss things out and free myself of clutter.” She raised her arms in the air and sang the line dramatically to make her point. The two of us broke into peals of laughter. I couldn’t believe I was laughing about my most shameful secret. What a relief! And Debra did seem to get it, as she gave me other pointers. I promised I’d give it a shot.

I unearthed my kitchen timer from one of my many junk drawers and scurried around the house at 15 minute intervals. When the timer went off, I froze. Even when I was in the middle of something. Debra had told me to clean in spurts to avoid burnout. Sometimes I was tempted to keep going in case I never managed to get going again. But my instincts hadn’t served me well so far, so I followed Debra’s advice.

After a week of cleaning sprints, my clutter mountains began to look more like clutter molehills. I started vacuuming the “middles” of my rooms, as Debra had suggested, because doing the whole house felt overwhelming. I dutifully laid out my clothes the night before work to avoid a last-minute digging through my closet, and created a “launch pad” for my keys and wallet. Mornings were less rushed, and I wasn’t creating new messes in a mad dash for the door.

I moved on to recycling old newspapers and magazines and donated a trunkful of books to the library. Scrubbing the bathroom tiles of splattered shampoo, I felt something I’d never felt before—a kind of pride. Was it possible I really could change?

A month and a half later, I called up Debra. “Let’s have coffee.”

“I’d love that,” she said. “Should we meet at Starbucks?”

I took a deep breath and looked around. I could see the cushions of my couch, where people could actually sit. The floor could be walked on freely. The sink was empty. Debra’s first visit had seemed like a terrible accident at the time, but now it felt like the answer to a prayer.

“No, Debra, I’d like to invite you to my house.” Finally, I could say, “Please, come in!”

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