Friday night, I had a the great pleasure of meeting and hearing thoughts from Peter Walsh, probably the most famous professional organizer out there. Peter, if you don’t already know, first became well-known in 2003 on the TLC show “Clean Sweep,” which went into people’s homes, helped them go through all of their clutter, make tough decisions about what to keep and what to let go, and had a new space designed with organization in mind. A few years ago, Peter became more involved with Oprah Winfrey and her portfolio of shows, appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show, Nate Berkus and Rachel Ray’s shows, and his own show on the O Network, “Extreme Clutter.”
He was in town, about an hour outside of Boston, to promote an event being spotlighted by O Magazine’s campaign, “Declutter for a Cause,” supporting a handful of groups that are utilizing decluttering in towns to support large yard sales to benefit special interest fundraising.
As part of the fundraising weekend, Peter was hosting a night with him, an opportunity to meet him and hear him speak about his work and his philosophy about clutter, organization and our relationship to our home and stuff. He had a lot of great points to share, but here were the major points that I went home with that night:
1. There are two kinds of clutter. (Who knew it was so simple?)
The first is “Memory Clutter,” which are items that remind us of people and events from our past. When we see the items, it reminds us of the past. When we think of letting go of these items, it makes us feel that we’re betraying the emotions and the people that go along with them.
The second is “I Might Need It Some Day” clutter. These are items that we gather and keep for a hypothetical (no matter how likely) future. We find ourselves saying:
I bought these on sale and got a great bargain, so of course I got a supply of them. I’ll use these, I’m sure.
I had this leftover material from that project I finished
Someday we could (have a second home, have another child, take a trip to Europe, whatever it is I imagine for my future) and we might need this
Peter’s point was this: ultimately, Memory Clutter is all about the past, and Someday Clutter is all about the future. When our possessions and our focus are too firmly on either of those places, one thing is for sure: We’re not living in our own present.
2. One of his favorite quotes is something for all of us to think about when it comes to our home: “Have nothing in your house you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” (William Morris, 19th century writer and designer).
It’s such a simple statement, and can inspire the way we feel about what we have and why we have it. I mean, really, if it’s not useful, and it’s not beautiful, what is it, and why are you holding on to it? Our home, and the things in it, should reflect the life we want to live, and clutter gets in the way of that vision.
He went on to further invoke the items that make us feel badly about ourselves… why would we even keep THAT in our house? It reminded me of things like the clothes that we keep that are too small, and, even if we miraculously lost the weight again, we wouldn’t wear them if we did: Those clothes sit in our closet and mock us. They never make us feel good. Why do we keep these hanging and folded self-esteem saboteurs in our space?
3. You can honor what is important without holding on to everything.
Peter shared a story about a woman he worked with who had inherited an entire storage unit from her grandmother. She was already struggling with her own clutter in her home, and hadn’t even opened the storage unit from her grandmother, and felt compelled to keep it all intact, and that any other answer was betraying her love for her grandmother. Before opening the unit, Peter talked with the woman about her favorite memories with her grandmother, all of which surrounded the times they cooked together. Upon reviewing the items in the locker, Peter encouraged her to hold onto a few things — rolling-pin, apron, recipes – and make a shadow box collection for her own kitchen, so that she can be reminded of those memories every day. As for the rest of the locker, she should (and did) let go of everything else. It was just her stuff; it wasn’t her grandmother, and no one loved anyone any less because the stuff went somewhere else.
For those of you who follow Peter’s appearances, you know that these are quintessential Peter stories. As I looked at my husband, sitting next to me, I could see he was inspired to go home and go through his things, knowing he really has things he could let go of, even though he’s a really organized guy with not a lot of stuff in the first place. Peter was just that inspiring, even to people who already believe in what he was saying.
As for me, hearing him speak so passionately about these things were not only personally compelling, as they were for my husband, but it was a wonderful reminder of the great things that professional organizers can do to help people live the life they want to live in their space.