I imagined this personal initiative: the ‘cubic metre project’. When I migrated to Australia, my belongings fit in a 1m3 box. Over seven years, clutter has accumulated. My apartment is 50 m2, with tall ceilings about 3.5m high. That’s 175 m3 in total Enough for two people and parties, not for junk. So, could I get rid of 1m3 in a day?
It was less difficult than I thought.
First stop around the bin. In a minute, I got rid of a bulging ‘bag of bags’, full of useless plastic and air. Second stop, my study. A few months ago, I went through my bookshelves, and selected about 40 books to donate. They were still sitting in a pile. I slid them inside an old shopping trolley. They’re now ready for the op shop. Third stop, a quick run through perishables. Curry paste from 2014, sweet soy sauce from 2012, almond cordial from 2010, I bid thee farewell. They joined a broken suitcase, a useless plastic jug, and worn out pillow cases in the bin downstairs.
“Decluttering” is a popular trend. People have read the book, ‘minimal aesthetic’ equates happiness. Many resist, of which I am: are things really that evil? Or maybe, we just don’t want to painfully sort through piles of emotionally loaded mementoes, papers, books, photos, or even clothes. But often, half the problem can be solved in an hour. The same wisdom applies to houses as computer hard drives. If it feels clogged, clear the trash.
One of the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners opens inside a house, with a woman cleaning, and wondering where all the dust comes from. As I look at the brown fluffy stuff on the pales of my fan, I ask myself the same question.
Cleaning trains our patience, and our sense of wonder. No matter what, dirt always returns, It’s a thin layer of grit in the corner of the shower or at the base of the tap; it’s a spot on the kitchen pavement; it’s crumbs on the table.
I find its younger brother, mess, more perplexing somehow. I put things in the right place, yet the minute I turn around, they’re all over my apartment. Papers, books, pens, glasses and cups seem to take a life of their own, and occupy as much space as they possibly can, like bodies organise themselves inside an elevator according to some personal space algorithm, maximising spread.
It’s even worse on my computer. Folders mingle, files double up, and the desktop image (a cloudy picture of the Nanjing Lake) disappears under layers of pdf, excel and word icons. I spent half a day tidying during the break. But mess has not been vanquished, only tamed for a while. The first creepers are already there.
Why have I not been trained in properly dealing with mess? All I can remember is a moral injunction to ‘just keep things tidy’ and a faux-philosophical invitation to ‘just let it be’. Never, I believe, was I simply trained to accept that things clutter as a part of any process, and that regular sorting, filing, reordering, is no more than good hygiene. That it’s not through some personal failure that my things get messy, nor a sign that I should respect mess as a product of nature. That I can calmly tackle it as it grows, and prune it back, like a weed; and celebrate its appearance as a sure sign that I’ve been standing on fertile soil.