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The joy of the junk drawer
IT was a Tuesday night, a work night, a school night, that kind of night, and my husband was dutifully folding an undershirt into a neat origami square.
"Does this look right?" he asked, holding up the painfully pretty white bundle as soothing music from a YouTube demonstration video filled the room.
I nodded. I couldn't do much more than that, because I was confronted with all the socks that I own, sitting in a hill on my bed, waiting for me to sort them. How could I possibly own so many socks when it always seems like I'm almost out of socks?
As you've probably gathered, my husband and I have been binge watching the Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, in which the Japanese organising guru cheerfully helps families bring order to their woefully cluttered homes.
If you are one of the few people who have missed this frenzy (where have you been all this while?), Kondo is the author of the best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, whose KonMari housekeeping philosophy comes down to a simple axiom: If an item sparks joy, keep it. If not, thank it for its service and let it go.
Viewers watch as families spend exhausting weeks sorting through every item in their homes, facing down the sheer volume of their belongings and the marital strife all that stuff often causes.
The end results are modest (in some episodes, it's not clear that the participants parted with much at all.) Yet the goal is surprisingly ambitious: Give every item a place to call home and you can organise the junk drawer out of existence.
Could you even imagine? Open any drawer, like this one at my desk where I am currently seated, and you are likely to find a motley assortment of objects.
In this case: lip balm, a hair band, nine pens, three sample bottles of random lotions, a pair of old eyeglasses and some cables that don't appear to belong to anything in particular.
Oh, and a moulded imprint of my infant daughter's foot, which would be really sweet except that she's now 8 years old. So why is it still in the drawer?
As much as I am mesmerised by the prospect of a tidy life and a rightful place for that foot imprint, I cannot shake the feeling that even if I wrangle order out of this drawer, or my sock drawer, or all the drawers in my home, the space will refill again.
Chaos will return
Maybe not in a week, but soon enough the clutter will creep back in and chaos will return.
Anyone who has moved from a small apartment to a larger one, or better yet, from an apartment to a house, has experienced that feeling of expansive space.
So many closets! So much room to spread out! And yet, somewhere in the recesses of your mind, you know that eventually every nook and cranny will be filled. The stuff will come from somewhere - gifts, impulse purchases, office freebies - and take up residence in those empty drawers.
"Acquiring things actually feels good," said Travis Osborne, a psychologist who treats hoarding and obsessive-compulsive disorder and is the director of the Anxiety Center at the Evidence Based Treatment Centers of Seattle.
"You get a little dopamine burst in your brain when you go shopping, so that behaviour is reinforcing, you want to do more of it."
Because we accumulate objects in dribs and drabs over time without really paying much attention, "we can just sort of fill up space," he said.
For some people - roughly 2.5 to 5 per cent of the US population - the need to hold onto stuff rises to the level of hoarding, a diagnosable mental disorder. The rest of us fall somewhere along a continuum from purgers to savers, wondering what should stay and what should go.
"The challenges and the thoughts that people struggle with about hoarding aren't really different than the thoughts that the rest of us struggle with," Mr Osborne said.
We may not be a nation of hoarders, but we certainly like to collect. Even the act of clearing out can send us back to the store in search of bins, baskets and boxes to hold our freshly tidied items.
What better way to celebrate an organised sock drawer than with a handy set of dividers to keep the sweat socks from pestering the dress socks?
Once you make it to the Container Store, you might as well pick up a few mesh baskets for the home office and some nice wicker ones for the living room.
Rampant consumerism certainly plays a role in clutter, but it is not the only culprit. It's also about the mould of my daughter's footprint. Short of framing and hanging it (which is probably what I originally intended, but, well, who has time for that?) it's not the sort of item that has a natural home.
Without an alternative plan for where to put it, it ends up floating around the back of a drawer with all the other homeless objects.
At best, it ends up in a clear plastic bin, tucked away in the attic until my daughter grows up and I can give her the entire bin of childhood memorabilia so she can figure out what to do with it.
A daunting task
And so emerges the problem with organising on a whim. That enormous discard pile is satisfying, but without a strategy for all the stuff that has yet to even enter your home, you will just be doing this again next winter.
"We fail because we don't approach organising in a conscious way," said Regina Leeds, a home organiser in Los Angeles and author of One Year to an Organized Life.
Instead, we should approach the overall task methodically and thoughtfully, and not just in arbitrary bursts. Leeds makes master lists for her clients with categories and subcategories of possessions, a daunting task.
"Categories make you powerful. They tell you what you have, what you don't have, and what you need," she said. "They can spark creativity." Perhaps, with my creativity sparked, I could have a home without a junk drawer. NYTIMES