Treasure, Clutter, or Garbage?

I know I've sung praises of Unclutterer before, so I apologize for turning into a doting fan. In an article today, Erin Doland inspired me to think about the distinctions we make between treasures, clutter, and garbage.

As an academic (as much as I loathe using that word), I think I can sometimes see value in things that others might consider clutter. However, as commenters on the story mentioned, those things must be archived in an organized manner to be useful. And really, if something isn’t useful, then it’s clutter. I think things get really tricky here, though, when different people define useful. For me, useful means that it has physical, spiritual, emotional, or academic utility.

For example, my broom has a lot of physical utility. I haul it out every now and then once a week, mom, I swear, and sweep the floor. It doesn't take up a lot of space and it does its job well. I used to have a sponge mop, but it totally grossed me out to see hair and dirt collected on the sponge. I got rid of it because I couldn't bear to use it. It was not useful to me.

I keep a lot of academic books in my home office because I use them on a very regular basis as reference material. I think a lot of people would argue that there isn't a great deal of utility in copy of a 100-year-old treatise on the historical evolution of the Spanish language. For me, there is, so I hold on to it. I do not, however, keep my syllabi or the majority of course notes from my classes because they have not been useful to me beyond the end of the class.

I don’t consider myself an overly sentimental person. I have been known to throw away pictures and I almost never keep birthday cards or invitations because they are not useful to me. However, I have been very interested to read my ancestors’ journals–for example, my great-great-great-grandfather’s diary of his travails with the pioneers offers a really interesting view of his personal experiences and sheds light on the experiences of others. The key, though, is that there aren't 300 journals crammed in a box in the basement–there's just the one. It’s well cared for and holds a place of honor in my family. So for me, it’s not clutter.

I think it ultimately comes down to defining what is useful for an individual. For me, reading about my ancestors has shaped who I am in some ways. In terms of my professional life, accessing the works of my predecessors in the field has shaped my line of research. Having access to those things is useful for me. Having access to a pile of my old movie ticket stubs or syllabi is not useful to me.

I think there’s a need to distinguish garbage from clutter. I would also add that from that clutter, a collection of the best or most interesting treasures should also be distinguished and the rest, frankly, tossed.

What do you think? What's the line between garbage/clutter/treasure for you?


Celia Marie (W.) B. said...

First of all, I have to say the the unclutterer site is so much more visually appealing than the fly lady's site! I always feel barraged by visual clutter when I get on the fly lady. Clean and simple please!

My brother, a historian NYU professor, has kept every scrap of correspondence sent to him (including jr. high and high school notes and what not) for historical purposes. It's amazing what he still has, but to him they are historical treasures.

I'm not usually one to hold onto things, though I have to admit I still have some class notes from my favorite classes tucked away in boxes.

I've been wanting to go through my house and take it down to next to nothing. Get rid of everything unnecessary and cheap and start replacing it with heirloom quality things. I wish it was as easy as that.

Señora H-B said...

Yes, I definitely agree with you on the visual appeal of unclutterer. I love the concept of flylady, by oh my goodness, the PURPLE!

I love finding out what other people think is valuable. It's so different from person to person. I should have clarified that I did keep notes from a few of my grad classes because I knew they would be useful in studying for my PhD exams. They were.

I have thought the same thing about getting rid of cheap furniture. We have so much pressboard in our apartment! Someday...

Jenna said...

The Unclutterer gave me the idea of taking pictures of things you love instead of holding onto them. Which I stupidly shared with husband and now whenever I want to keep something he tells me I can "take a picture of it". What an idiot I am!

I'm not that much of a hoarder, but I find it hard to judge what other people might value. Will someone like my silly childhood drawings? What about the piggy bank in my living room that I made myself in shop class? Will my kids ever want it.

I get so caught up in these questions that I hold on to things that don't matter!

Don't get me started on how confused I get with cards. Someone put time and thought into writing them (and money). Should I keep it? Throw it away immediately?