Apodaca: Removing clutter is self warfare

I have a very long list of things that make me cranky. Self-help books, real housewives from anywhere and Ryan Seacrest are definitely on the list.

So is clutter, which you’d think would make me feel right at home in Newport Beach, which sets an insanely high bar when it comes to aesthetics. There’s little tolerance for anything unattractive in this town, and clutter is certainly frowned upon. Most of the time, I appreciate that cultural imperative.

But there’s something that makes me much crankier than clutter: confronting my clutter.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been performing one of the most odious tasks imaginable. I’ve been cleaning my garage.

It wasn’t by choice. I was left with no alternative because my homeowners association prohibits residents from parking overnight on the streets of my lovely community. I’m not sure why this is a rule, but I’m guessing it has something to do with that general aversion to clutter. Even our streets must be blissfully free of clutter in the form of cars.

Therefore, my family’s growing fleet of cars required us to clear space in our garage in order to comply with the association’s strictures.

I’ll get it off my chest here. I’m not the neatest person in the world. I love it when visitors compliment my home, but I get twitchy worrying that they might have occasion to open a drawer or closet, and hope that their gazes don’t linger too long on my haphazardly arranged bookshelves. And, while far from reality-show bad, I confess that our garage had long ago devolved into a disorganized jumble.

Far too much of the garage space had become a repository for everything that had been banished from the house, but that we hadn’t felt ready to part with — old school projects, toys that hadn’t been played with in years, moldy file boxes and furniture that we thought just maybe someone might someday want.

Confronting clutter is a form of self-warfare. In order to clear the garage, my family and I had to face the twin demons of misplaced nostalgia and laziness. Our tendencies to hang on to old stuff long past their expiration dates for usefulness or even meaningfulness, along with complacency, are powerful anti-motivators.

Nonetheless, we had a dilemma and a deadline, and so into the battle we forged. We purged ruthlessly, and now my garage, while far from a shrine of orderliness, is in much better shape — clean enough to keep us in good standing with our neighbors, at any rate.

It’s at times like this when I feel highly envious of people who seem to have an extra gene for organization that I unfortunately lack. I know I’m not alone — how else to explain all the books, blogs and businesses devoted to helping hopeless slobs like me get a grip on their clutter-filled lives?

Am I too old to change, I wondered, too set in my ways to clean my cluttered slate?

I asked clutter expert Lisa Guzzo, a Newport Beach-based organizational consultant and owner of Working Space Unlimited, to help unlock the part of my psyche that has long inhibited me from living a clutter-free life.

Guzzo was assiduously nonjudgmental. She assured me that relatively few people are natural-born organizers, and most of us have had little or no training to compensate for our lack of raw talent.

“There are probably parts of your life where you’re really organized,” she said. (Since she was being so kind I thought it would be rude to contradict her.) Clutter, she explained, starts with one postponed decision, which builds into a pile of postponed decisions, and pretty soon we feel so overwhelmed that we put off those decisions indefinitely and push them into a corner of the garage.

The key is to develop a step-by-step action plan that will work for each individual’s lifestyle and priorities and then execute the plan in bite-size chunks, Guzzo said. Once the methodology is in place, it becomes a matter of setting aside time regularly for maintenance.

It sounded suspiciously like work.

“Sorting through stuff is not the most fun activity, I’ll give it to you,” Guzzo said, but she still insisted that the solution to conquering clutter is finding the right system.

There’s another important facet to clutter that Guzzo addressed, and that’s the emotional baggage we keep locked away in those decomposing boxes and junk piles. Often she must convince clients to let go of old items they’ve kept out of guilt or sentiment; the memory will remain, she tells them.

I thought of my messy jewelry box, so cluttered I can’t even close it. The box is crammed mostly with worthless trinkets, but it also contains some priceless gems, like a note my son wrote to me many years ago. It reads, “Dear Mama, I hope you had fun at Bunko. We missed you! Love, Family.” Now how could I get rid of that?

Guzzo had her own touching story. She recalled when her father was cleaning and unearthed a receipt for the first dog he’d ever bought for her. “We had a good laugh,” she said. “It was a nice memory. I shared it with friends.”

Then she threw it away.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.