Three Months Later—The Biggest Mystery of My Life, Solved

You know how there are things about other people that you envy and wish you could emulate, but no matter how hard you try, you just never manage to pull it off?

I had this image of me someday being a person who did not have to throw stacks of books into a locked bedroom and spare children under beds in order to make my house presentable before having company over. I had visited friends, sometimes on the spur of the moment, whose houses, while they were comfortable and lived-in, were always, and I do mean always, neat.

This was a mystery to me considerably bigger than how early humans with low-tech tools managed to build the magnificent pyramids of Egypt and Central and South America.

After all, I have and have had kids for closing on 26 years now, and I know damn well how the pyramids were built. It’s called slave labor. You have one person with a vision in charge, and a whole bunch of mean dudes with whips to force the visionary’s grand concept to become a reality.

The miracle of the self-cleaning dishes? “Children, your chore this month is to wash, dry, and put away the dishes every day. You want to go to the movies this weekend, the dishes will be done, and done well.” You get some broken dishes (and some interesting attempts to hide evidence of same—one involving a garbage disposal—with this method, but it does work). I’ll bet the Egyptians had the occasional broken giant block of stone, too.

Not even with children assigned to clean up their messes when they made them, however, could I ever open the front door without being painfully aware that what people were seeing behind me was … messy.

I told myself that I worked. Hard, and a lot. Some of my friends with those enviably neat houses did not. (Some did work…but I didn’t let myself consider them. They screwed up my Bell curve.) I don’t particularly value, and definitely don’t enjoy, the act of housecleaning, either. I have countless other things I’d rather do with my time. What I needed, what I wanted, what I yearned for, was the seemingly impossible. A house that stayed clean by itself.

So three months ago we moved. And there was this little problem of going from 2000 square feet packed to the eyeballs with our stuff into 1100 square feet. It was not going to happen.

We were on a brutal clock. (The length of time we took going from having the idea to move and and finding the place we wanted to rent to actually backing the truck up to the door of our new place and offloading everything we owned was 15 days.)

In the meantime, though, we had a mass/physics issue of horrendous proportions, in that the sheer mass of stuff we had accumulated over fourteen years together could not, by any physics known to man, be made to fit into the place we were renting.

So I had this freakin’ genius idea. I told Matt, “You know those dumpsters you always see at construction sites? I’ll bet we could rent one of those. And we could get rid of a lot of stuff.”

We’d already done the local book giveaways and the yarn giveaways and the clothes-to-goodwill giveaways, but the fact was, we lived way out in the country where NObody was willing to pick up anything, we had just the trunk space of our Chevy Cobalt in which to transport stuff, and we were going to grow old trying to empty the house using that method.

You know what? You CAN rent one of those construction-site dumpsters.

So we did. And we started pitching stuff in. We’d hung onto the first fan we bought together (non-working), half a dozen non-working computers ranging back to the days of DOS, every piece of clothing we’d ever owned in every size we’d ever been, stuff that we intended to fix someday, books that we bought and then hated, old VCRs, older TVs. Everything we had ever owned, we still owned.

Once we’d given away the best stuff, we looked at everything else and lugged it out to the dumpster. We filled not one, but three of those bad boys. (Dumpsters come in all sizes. Ours were the size nicknamed “honey-do,” as in Honey, Do Get Rid of All The Crap from That Downed Tree, or Honey, Do Clean Out The Garage.)

When we were done, we were lighter on the inside, as if we’d cut some huge chains from our ankles that had been holding us to the ground. And when we backed up our moving truck, we discovered that we only owned enough stuff to fill it halfway.

We were pretty well unpacked, moved in, and living our new life inside of a week. We do not have stacks of boxes awaiting our attention. We do not have stacks of boxes.

And I have discovered the answer to the house that stays clean all by itself. Don’t have so much stuff. Don’t buy stuff you won’t use. Get rid of stuff you don’t like as soon as you discover you don’t like it. If you bring something you love into the house, make room for it by getting rid of something you don’t.

I am now the person I envied. I occasionally straighten the throw on the couch. The living room stays neat, tidy, comfortable without much effort beyond that. (Sweeping and dusting are no big deal when you don’t have to move stacks of books to get it done.) The kitchen…the same. My office…the same. Bathrooms and bedrooms, ditto. Rogue stacks of books are no longer roaming the halls accosting innocent passersby and attacking every flat surface with the intent to crush all living and inanimate things into submission.

And I never have to clean before company comes over. Which means we actually HAVE company over.

Mystery solved.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

22 comments… add one
  • GarbageGirl Aug 3, 2009 @ 15:29

    So glad you were able to demystify the dumpster industry! It seems like you mastered dumpster sizes and were able to cut the clutter! For more suggestions on recycling and how to save money on your next dumpster rental, check out the DumpsterSource blog at http://blogs.dumpstersource.com

    The experts there can help you resolve the junk mystery, too!

  • Sidni Jun 9, 2009 @ 18:04

    Purging is wonderful. My sister and I do not buy anniversary gifts for one another, instead we go to the other’s house and help with an “anniversary purge.” Last year it was my kitchen and though I have a pretty neat and tidy home, I cleared out a PICK UP LOAD full of stuff out of my kitchen cabinets. This year I am cleaning my clothes closet and am so excited.

  • MJ Jun 4, 2009 @ 20:45

    My SO is brutal. He honestly goes through everything every few months. When he gets to an item he hasn’t used/worn in a year, he chucks it. He’s a great influence, and I’ve been doing the same thing the last 5 years, except for the library. I do occasionally get rid of books I no longer love. But I love books much longer than I love other crap. LOL

    So when we moved last year from a 1000 SqFt apartment to a 1500 SqFt house, we got rid of TONs of stuff. House = neat, organized, and company-friendly. The house is bigger than the apartment, and _so_ much easier to keep clean!

    Goodwill, the salvation army, the local library, and friends’ churches are my friends. They take many things off my hands, and put them into the hands of those who need them.

  • Tyu Jun 4, 2009 @ 3:43

    Holy crap and I thought my husband was bad with packratting. We moved into a tiny one bedroom apartment in November, and he’s got so much junk, especially old computer parts. He’s got stuff I would have either tossed long ago or left at my parent’s place, but he won’t hear a word about getting rid of his legos. *eyeroll* Me? All my stuff just barely fit into the back of his Chevy s10. I’m sure I’ve acquired more now, but I tend to leave a lot of crap behind when I move.

    Our main problem at this moment is boxes of emptiness, and no storage space for the boxes still filled with things. We buy stuff online then save the boxes because well, you never know when you need a box! A lot of the boxes that were filled with stuff when we moved are now all about half full, and if I had the time and patience, I’d go through them and fill/empty and toss as I see fit, but I just see it as a waste of time. All the junk has been there since November, it isn’t impeding our movement, though it is an eyesore and sort of embarrassing when maintenance comes around to check the smoke alarms. We’ll probably be moving again this fall when our lease is up anyway, since I don’t really care too much for this place.

  • gin Jun 4, 2009 @ 1:48

    Very cool, Holly. And a good reminder. I almost did the dumpster thing last year and forgot I meant to do it this year… I’ve been treading water, so to speak, using http://www.flylady.com methods, but they’ll work so much better after a dumpster dash.

  • Anthea Jun 3, 2009 @ 22:00

    This lady: http://www.spaceclearing.com/html/articles/english/ has some interesting ideas on clutter and energy. I have her book “Clearing Clutter with Feng Shui” and it occasionally inspires me to purge, straighten and clean. I’m still a packrat, alas, so it’s an eternal struggle that I’m currently on the losing side of again :-p

  • djmills Jun 3, 2009 @ 21:12

    Now you have twice the cleared floor space and can sweep it clean in half the time as before so more free time to write, read or relax and the house looks cleaner for longer.

  • PolarBear Jun 3, 2009 @ 19:31

    Raven Oak, my hubby has Commodore 64s, 128s, and even the 64SX (the portable version). He also has the associated drives and other accessories that go with them.

    When Goodwill partnered with Dell in San Antonio, we took two truckloads of computers and printers in to them. They sift through and rebuild what they can to sell in their local shop and send the rest to recycle. I think there may be a couple of other cities partnering, but I’m not sure. A search could turn up something. (We still have a few outdated parts “just in case,” but we were both happy to get rid of the stuff we KNEW we weren’t going to use again. And we are packrats extraordinaire.

  • tambo Jun 3, 2009 @ 18:32

    We purged a LOT (mostly via Goodwill) when we moved last year but we still had too much stuff. Took a 26′ truck and some other personal vehicles to move the whole house including furniture and appliances – and ANOTHER 26′ truck to move Bill’s tools and shop. Too much crap. But this winter I buckled down and went through things, tossing and sorting, and got rid of a LOT at our yard sale last month, especially furniture. Dang, we had a ton of furniture! It’s much much nicer in the house now, although my desk and parts of the kitchen still are clutter magnets. Other than a cat poof or two, the house pretty much always looks presentable.

    I still hate vacuuming, though. 😉 Hence the occasional cat poof.

  • althea preston Jun 3, 2009 @ 17:02

    We moved into the only house we’ll ever build eight years ago, after 20 years of marriage and two girls (who can accumulate ever so much more than an entire boy scout troop) and I still have boxes after all this time I’ve not opened.

    That dumpster is looking pretty good right now!

  • Johanna Jun 3, 2009 @ 16:01

    The dump in my area often has days where you can bring all your e-waste for free. There were a lot of junky TVs and computers that really needed to go.

    I grew up in a pack rat’s house, and the clutter drove me crazy. I moved out, discovered I had a severe dust allergy, got rid of a ton of stuff, keep my house essentially spotless, and suddenly I’m not coughing all night or sniffling all day. Hallelujah!

  • Rabia Jun 3, 2009 @ 15:44

    Yep. I’ve had several purges in the last few years, including two garage sales and several trips to the Salvation Army. I’m about due for another purge, this time of outgrown kid clothes, extraneous toys and baby gear. Especially the baby gear. Why in the world do I have a swing, an exersaucer and two little baby chairs when the kid is more than happy to be on the floor? 😛

  • Raven Oak Jun 3, 2009 @ 15:33

    How do you get a husband to go along with it? I purge often (my word for chunking tons of stuff in the recycling bin, trash, or freecycle in my area), but he’s the one with the 20+ years of computer parts. We’re both computer nerds and both our jobs deal with computers, but he’s the one with the OMG computer collection dating back to the Commodore 64 and Atari (yes, we have them). I ask him ti purge and get the biggest line of complaints ever on the subject…

  • PolarBear Jun 3, 2009 @ 14:49

    My folks were lucky their landlord let them use a dump truck that they hauled repeatedly to their private landfill, and you’re right. After the first one or so, you get really good at tossing stuff. I think they got six loads hauled away and probably should have filled that truck ten times, but I was happy they managed the six. They still have way too many boxes.

    But I have to go create a few boxes of trash for myself now, so off I go.

  • MarFisk Jun 3, 2009 @ 14:30

    LOL, it’s your comment that resonates the most with me. I know if I ever put myself in that mindset, I’ll have to start out my new life buying enough underwear for a week :p.

    I guess that you were deep into it when you were oohing and ahhing my old goal of being able to move in the back of a stationwagon? I don’t think my STUDY could fit in one now and I have a very spartan working space cause I like it that way :).

  • Jess Jun 3, 2009 @ 14:00

    Next time my husband and I move, we need to do this. We have an apartment and we’ll hopefully be upgrading to a house, which is why we have so much stuff, “Just hang on to it until we have room,” but I have been long convinced that is a stupid idea. If we don’t need it now, we won’t need it then. And then we’d have more room for things we DO want, like books and floor space.

  • Christy Jun 3, 2009 @ 13:40

    Thank you for this post. You have no idea how timely it is.

    I know there’s a house, and two cats, hidden somewhere underneath the layer of clutter, and I’ve been thinking it’s time to excavate. This helped – time to get the shovel and a dumpster. 😉

  • Holly Lisle Jun 3, 2009 @ 13:10

    One warning on the “Rent-A-Dumpster” method. It’s fun. I mean, “Holy Shit, this is awesome, I’m free, I’m free, I’m FREE!” fun.

    Three dumpsters in, you start to get a bit giddy. You can see a new shape to your life. You can envision lying on a clutter-free floor in a spotless room, staring up at the ceiling, and not having to pretend that the ceiling was actually the floor in order for your place to look that good.

    And in that moment, things you actually use every day start looking unnecessary. You have this incredible sense of power. Your stuff no longer owns you, and you’re pretty certain you’d make it through life just fine with what you can carry in a backpack. (And you probably could. But stuff is fun.)

    We were going to get the dumpster back for a fourth go-through, but we ran out of time. It’s a good thing. I’m betting we could have filled the fourth dumpster. I shudder to think what we actually would have tossed into it, though.

  • Jamie D. Jun 3, 2009 @ 13:00

    Congrats! I go through cycles – I’ll keep the clutter down for several weeks (or even months), then get intensely interested in something else, and let everything go again. But we do have too much “stuff” at the moment.

    A tip all parents should consider: When your children are grown *do not* send all your unwanted stuff to their house! It just gives the problem to them – and you wouldn’t want to do that now, would you?

    (Why yes! Our parents *do* send far too much “stuff” to our house, why do you ask?)

  • Belle Jun 3, 2009 @ 12:53

    My husband and I are going the dumpster route, too – we discovered that Home Depot in our area will do it. We haven’t done it yet. We’re still working our way up to it. But it became clear earlier this year that we simply have to do this. So it’s very very good to know that IT WORKS! Something for me to look forward to. Will have to email my husband your post.

  • Eddie Jun 3, 2009 @ 12:51

    Holly, this post just tickled my funny bone because my family and I have spent the last four days or so madly cleaning our house before Grandma (who is one of those people with a perpetually clean house; granted- her eight kids are all about 40-50 now and she lives alone) comes from Minnesota today.

    I will often accumulate papers and other miscellaneous stuff that I think I will need later, only to discover flattened at the bottom of a pile of books I started and didn’t have time to finish, all so that I can dust whatever surface they are resting on. You’re right; it’s a pain.

    But now that our house is all tidy and neat, it feels SO much better; clutter makes me feel out of control and stifled. Congratulations to you on reaching another goal. Here’s to keeping *both* our houses clean 😉

  • radiantlisa Jun 3, 2009 @ 12:30

    Welcome to the world of the reformed pack-rat. I’m living there, too, and loving it. 🙂

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