things organised neatly

I am doing a lot of clearing out / decluttering / space clearing – whatever you like to call it – lately.

Because it is the school holidays and I am doing it whilst parenting – I am doing it very, very slowly. Drawer by drawer, cupboard by cupboard, dusty neglected corner by dusty neglected corner.

There is a lot of space on the internet devoted to decluttering. You can do e-courses, read blogs, books, motivational videos. (The cynical part of me thinks – sure, you could do that, OR you could get up and start tidying! Ha ha!)

I was talking to my friend Emma Barnes the other day about decluttering and she said something like ‘I don’t like to give too much head space to decluttering, because I think it is just another thing to mess with our heads and make us feel not good enough’. (Tell me if I am grossly misquoting you, Emma.)

(Tangentially, Emma put me on to a tumblr called ‘things organized neatly’ – which is photographs of things organised neatly and is fabulous and funny and compelling.)

& I know what she means – decluttering, space-clearing, purging does seem tied in with some weird moral superiority thing. ‘If I have clear clean spaces, then I am clean and clear. The way I treat my belongings defines me.’

How aligned/tied we are to ‘stuff’!

It’s a messy old ball of ideas that goes with the decluttering phenom.

There is the practical angle – sure. ‘If I can’t find anything and there is piles of stuff everywhere….well, it is annoying and life would be easier if I were more organised.’

Then there is the weird capitalist yo-yo: ‘I am being told I need new stuff everywhere I turn and I have been trained to believe that getting new stuff makes me feel good. But then that good feeling goes, and then I feel bad that I have wasted my money and now I have to deal with those objects and quickly I will want to ‘purge’ them, or other things to make room for them.’ In/out, in/out the stuff goes. (This one is very complex and ties into appetites generally, and can be linked to how we view our bodies, as well…) Tied into the capitalist yo-yo is the environmental angle – we should all be doing more with less, recycling, repurposing, trying not to buy. The environmental angle is also linked to the spiritual and moral angle – to reuse/reduce/recycle can give us feelings of spiritual and moral superiority.

Then there is the (quasi?) spiritual angle. ‘In order to be more spiritually evolved, I need to transcend my stuff and belongings and to organise them like a zen monk would. My domination over stuff belies my spiritual superiority.’

Then there is the issue of sentimentality and nostalgia, which is partially connected to the spiritual angle AND the appetites angle. People have varying levels of sentimentality attached to stuff. Sometimes it can overwhelm them, they can’t even throw out a shopping list or an ancient Christmas card. Sometimes they have zero sentimentality and those who love them read this as being cold and unloving. I am somewhere in the middle, although far more sentimental about ‘stuff’ than my partner, much to his chagrin.


The last three months of last year, I totally over-committed myself on the work front, plus I was working to get my book out, plus I have two kids, I had booked a stall at a Craft Fair (why did I do that? That was dumb!) plus all the other things that happen day to day, plus I had to move all my studio inside because we were having it repaired….well, I was running to keep up with my crazy life and my house-keeping systems fell away and things got into quite a state.

I felt out of control.

I felt overwhelmed.

I felt grumpy, a lot of the time.

Mostly, I didn’t feel very much, except tired and bad, bad and tired, because I was so busy and disorganised.


So, now it is  this year and the busy summer holiday/visiting period is over and I am claiming my house back, thing by thing. I am getting my systems up and running again – a little more each day.

I am looking at all the stuff we own.

So much stuff.


For two years when I went on my OE, I lived out of a backpack and I loved it.


For many years I have been an obsessive op-shopper. I justified my op-shopping because it is cheap, affordable, second hand – my money going to charities, my purchases keeping things out of landfills. Recently, my appetite for op-shopping has diminished. I see that it is still just buying stuff, despite the reasons above. Most of the stuff I don’t need. I avoid emotions of loneliness, creative frustration and general blah by buying op-shop things. (Except for the times when I just op-shopped for the joy of it and genuinely loved the things I found – because that happened too – because human experiences are never simple.) I think this ties into appetites and my hunger for creativity. (Do you like how I am being my own therapist?)

I will still op-shop (and new-shop.) I am just observing how my habits are changing.

I think I’d rather explore the depths of my uncomfortable emotions than op-shop them away.

I still love op-shops.


Children bring ‘stuff’ into your life. First a plethora of baby equipment and then they soon begin to accumulate their own stuff, their own tastes and obsessions, their sentimentality about random junk. You find yourself as a parent having to deal, not only with your own ‘stuff’ but your children’s as well – because if you don’t model for them some boundaries around ‘stuff’ they will attain and attain like little pack rats, because that’s what kids do. (Who ever heard of a zen child?)

(Of course, you might have sentimentality around stuff which came with the kids, which the kids do not have. I have baby clothes and early drawings which Willoughby rolls his eyes when I show him, but I can’t bear to part with.)


We are afraid if we throw out our sentimental objects we are throwing out the memory and experience.

Is it wrong to want to archive parts of our lives? Is it ‘unspiritual’?

Why is less always more? What about traditions, shared memories and family history?


I don’t know the answer to these questions.


My hallway is piled with towers of art and craft materials and books I haven’t read. (The contents of the   sleepout undergoing renovation.) These piles make me feel tired when I see them.

I am changing the way I think about creativity.

I was creatively-starved as a child. As an adult I have stock-piled art and craft materials so that I can turn my hand to any creative whim at a moment’s notice. From creative famine to feast….or is it gluttony? Is it binge? (See? Appetites.)

I am getting clear about what I do and don’t want to do in my creative life. I do want to write, garden (I think gardening is creative) and sew. I don’t want to draw, paint, knit, crochet, print-make etc.

I had a great conversation on twitter with Soft Like Kittens. She said she’d gotten rid of a heap of art/craft supplies from ‘failed hobbies’ and things she didn’t actually like to do and said it cleared her of ‘guilt she didn’t even know she’d had’.

That notion immediately resonated with me: ‘Guilt I didn’t even know I had.’


What if – instead of representing creative POTENTIAL, the stuff represented creative GUILT?


I am giving up knitting. I suck at knitting and I am never happy with stuff I’ve knitted. Oh the sweet relief.


What is the point of this blog post?

I’m not sure.

Our ‘stuff’ owns us, it’s true. But isn’t that part of being human? Humans are messy, acquisitive and greedy. We have appetites. We LOVE – people and things. We get attached. (Even if we are Buddhist!)

Clear white surfaces do not make you more spiritually evolved. It makes you a minimalist. This is a style, not a spirituality.

Declutter if it will make you happy. If it will bring you clarity and help you get through your day in a more organised fashion. If you happily exist knee-deep in old newspapers and fluff, I’m not going to judge you. To each their own.

My current decluttering, at its considered snail-pace, feels more significant to me than just moving stuff around. I’m interested in why, I’m curious as to what it means, but I don’t know yet.

A lot of self-help around this area seems to me to be overly simplistic and moralistic and punitive.

I think stuff and our relationship to it is non-linear. We will attain and let go, attain and let go until our dying day, the trick is to find some peace with that.


12 thoughts on “things organised neatly

  1. Our current battleground is the middle shelf of the pantry, whereon resides our crockery and glassware. My idea of ‘full’ is ‘I can see everything, and grab anything with one hand’. There’s whitespace. When new crockery comes in, I discreetly shift some of the existing stuff from ‘online’ to ‘near-line’ (the cupboard over the how water cylinder) or ‘off-line’ (the shed).

    M used to keep up with the incoming crockery – we abandoned a 20Kg box of mosaic project stock at the old house – but he’s past his joyous-smash phase, these days.

    If it were down to me, there would be four cheerless eatin’ bowls and four forlorn eatin’ forks and that’s about it :/


  2. Wonderful exploration of the complexity of our relationship to stuff, Helen! I absolutely agree that a lot of writing about this topic is a little too simplistic and some of it is overtly moralistic. Being part of a couple is teaching me to see the subject in more and more nuanced ways.

    I fall into the category of folk who are very easily visually (and audibly, for that matter) stimulated so a more minimal setting (especially in my bedroom) is essential to my mental well-being. But my partner is less sensitive to colour and visual ‘noise’ and I absolutely adore other people’s organised clutter – so we find compromise.

    He’s also more sentimentally attached to objects, which makes perfect sense for someone so far from what remains of his family. It’s easier for me to let got of the ‘things’ that belong to my family when I still have my family near-by.

    I also like to feel that I could pack up my essentials and move on at any moment. My relationship to stuff is affected by that too.

    Sometimes I catch an echo of an old feeling that I am less ‘artistic’ because I don’t have the requisite amount of creative clutter. But these days I’m learning to trust that I know the balance that keeps me well – I can live with a lot more colour and clutter in the kitchen (where I don’t need the same calm and clarity that I need to sleep) and a lot less in my bedroom and office.


    1. I know just what you mean about ‘the right amount of creative clutter’ – I think I have been very tied to notions of artists being surrounded by creative clutter – I didn’t really know any artists growing up, so formed my ideas about what it meant to be an artist through what I read (when I was young, it was traditional young artsy person fare: lots of Beat poetry, Frida Kahlo, Frances Bacon). Being messy and chaotic seemed to go hand in hand with being creative. It’s good to get to a place of letting go of these ideas.

      I have a more ‘minimalist’ partner. He would live like a zen monk, if he lived alone. I think my cluttery ways drive him nuts sometimes. (That is him growling about the crockery cupboard in the comments here – lol!)


  3. I love this post, Helen. I love the line “human experiences are never simple.” I love walking into an op-shop and leaving without buying anything. I love hiow you’ve put into words something I’ve felt but never knew I felt.


  4. so much stuff and so much thought in your post. I seem to collect stuff (love the ‘collect’ connection made by Alice) to avoid thought. The guilt hovers imprecisely around the stuff and on the edges of my thoughts.


  5. Great post. I love to de-clutter. I’m a naturally hideously messy person – although I don’t like to be – and I find that clearing out a room or a wardrobe makes me feel like I have cleared my head. Interesting what Emma said about not getting too hung up on de-cluttering. I remember Laurice Gilbert responding in a similar way; I think she said something about it being a capitalist conspiracy to get us to buy more stuff. But, if you’re a rabid op-shopper (and I am), there’s a point to be made about not actually buying new stuff, giving to charities (as you said). However, I agree that, yes, you can get addicted to it and use it as a distraction etc. However, as far as distractions go, it’s a pretty bloody good one. And I love the idea that you get to give stuff to the op-shop that can find better homes, especially when it has been loved, but is no longer, but someone else could find it utterly perfect, inspiring and useful. In that way it’s a bit like getting out of a relationship that’s not working, so that they are free to love someone else. I find it really difficult to see things I love in op-shops though (things that I have donated) and always want to buy them back.


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