Losing clutter can calm the mind

I ACCUMULATE possessions, not just because I am a 21st century first-worlder who enjoys creature comforts and can learnedly discourse upon the differences of my five types of skin lotions. I roll around the world, gathering stuff out of inertia and out of a wish to nest, to become permanent where I am.

I figure my move-packed childhood (four states in 11 years) exacerbated latent pack-rat tendencies. I still feel uncertain, as though my life might pick up and leave at any moment. My piles of stuff feel like anchors.

Some people may react to a nomadic past by living lightly, keeping only enough possessions to fit in two suitcases for quick getaways. I lived with someone like that, whose room resembled the cell of a secular monk. I would peek in, awed.

But I've always lived with piles of paper jutting out from every surface. It's all I've known for years, except for when I was moving or throwing a party.

However, because I was expecting a guest this week, I found the energy to take strategic action against the most frustrating elements of clutter. You can do it, too.

I went through old mail and put all the junk into a pile for feeding into a cross-cut shredder. Bills and other records were filed, calming the anxieties I felt when I saw towering piles everywhere. Old theater tickets, pictures, and the like, went into a nostalgia box for the storage room.

For long-term reduction of the junk in my mailbox, I went to the credit agencies' Web site (optoutprescreen.com) to permanently get off the list for pre-screened credit offers. I also used the instructions at the Direct Marketing Association's Web site (dmaconsumers.org) to send a letter to join the Mail Preference Service, which will get me off the mailing lists of many direct mailers.

I also sent polite notes to several charities to ask them to take me off their lists. I'll still donate, using their Web sites, but I won't have them send mail that I just have to throw away.

Several books had wormed their way off my shelves and onto the floor and bed, not to mention onto furniture in other rooms entirely. I reshelved them, smiling at memories: the book of science cartoons that I told my boyfriend about, before we were together; the anthology of essays on UC Berkeley that I received along with my diploma; the yellowing, flaking Indian comic books that taught me mythology and history.

While all those actions have soothed my jangled nerves, the most emotionally rewarding one was a ruthless sweep of my wardrobe. All the skirts, shirts, pants, dresses and Indian

tunic/pants outfits that itched or fit wrong, or that I hadn't worn at all in a year, went into huge garbage bags. I lugged them down to my local Buffalo Exchange, which only took two tunics (Halloween is coming up), and tossed the rest into a Salvation Army donation bin. About a fifth of my closet is now on its way to people who will use it more than I ever did.

Not only do I have more room, but everything in my closet is something I want to wear. It is as though I've turned a regular American restaurant into a vegetarian restaurant, where I can eat anything right off the menu.

I have a long way to go before I turn into that old flatmate of mine, the secular monk. But my room is cleaner, my mood is more content and I've found missing objects I'd thought were lost forever — a hat, a photo, a book. A sense of order.

My room has become a sanctuary from work, instead of another reminder of undone tasks.

I feel more in control, and that feeling stays with me no matter where I go. More and more, the permanence I sought is in me now.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can share your decluttering tips with her at sumana@crummy.com.