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Clutter Be Gone!

By Tina Traster

June 25, 2009 -- If I had to box up the contents of my house, it would take five hours, maybe six.

When I left the city for suburbia in 2005, it took a week to pack and/or toss travel books for countries that had changed names, inexplicable spice jars, suits with padded shoulders, tiny shampoo bottles.

During those sweaty July days clearing out a lifetime of junk, I swore that we would live ascetically when we moved into our renovated 1850s farmhouse. I knew this would be a challenge with a husband who thinks wrapping ribbon is a keeper and a toddler who accumulates stuff faster than you can say, "Thank you, Grandma."

I had lived all my life in apartments where every bit of interior space -- vertical, horizontal, under and on top of the furniture -- had been filled. During my childhood, we ate dinner surrounded by piles of mail. Opening a linen closet was not unlike experiencing an avalanche.

When my parents finally sold our Brooklyn house in 2001, everything I had ever acquired as a child was still in my bedroom, including a statue of a blushing boy with the message "I Like You" from Scotty, my 5-year-old playmate.

So when I said I'm leaving the city for more space, I meant it.

Recently, we had friends over for lunch. After a quick tour, Bruce asked, "Do you really live like this?"

I wasn't totally surprised by his question; he wasn't the first to ask it.

"Yes," I said. "I like to keep things spare and minimalist."

"How do you do that with a husband and child?"

"I've taught them how to use a garbage can."

My house is not large. The ground floor has a living room, a dining room, my home office, a kitchen and a half-bathroom. There is a laundry room with one closet and a crawl space. Upstairs, there are two bedrooms and one bathroom. Only my daughter's room has a built-in closet.

I designed the bathrooms with pedestal sinks rather than vanities (everyone knows vanities are the black hole for hotel soaps and cosmetic samples). The Mission-style furniture I chose evokes spare, clean lines. For the windows, I opted for simple blinds rather than curtains. The crawl-space basement, which is mildew paradise, is not even an option for storage.

Everything has its place. The remote controls live in drawers. My house keys dwell in a ceramic bowl. My husband has a small rattan box for his bits and pieces.

When someone in my family asks, "Where are my hiking shoes?" the refrain is the same: "They are where they always are." Meaning, at the bottom of the closet in the laundry room where they are supposed to be.

I weed my house more avidly than a constant gardener. I file, donate, discard. I even do this on my computer because I need "negative" space to make positive things happen.

What I have figured out is that physical clutter represents chaos. And it guarantees inertia, which keeps me doing the same thing and thinking the same thoughts. Emptiness offers me a canvas to think about each day in a fresh light.

Last summer, my daughter asked if we could have a tag sale. "With what?" I asked. "We'd have to give away the clothes on our backs."

I remember early on when we moved in and threw a dinner party, my friend asked me what I was going to put on that blank dining-room wall. Nothing, I said. She looked perplexed. I imagine visitors are surprised to see a refrigerator without shopping lists and ballet schedules dangling behind magnets. They marvel at the clear kitchen counters, particularly because we cook every day.

"I wish I could get this organized," my sister said the first time she visited. She gasped when I opened a kitchen cabinet and showed her stacks of just three small bowls per shelf. She called later and told me that she'd taken a stab at cleaning out her linen closet.

I've assured doubters that I'm not living in a Pottery Barn catalog or keeping things photo-ready for a House Beautiful spread. I am not engaged in some crazy Stepford wife compulsion to have my home seem as though no one lives here. One wisecracker said to me, "We live in our house; it's not a museum."

To me, a museum is a static place where what's on view has already been created. In my home, open space breathes energy and creativity into our daily lives.

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