Friday, 8 April 2011

To declutter - or to store?

In the decluttering-and-organising industries, there are many related services that are helpful in our work. At the recent apdo-uk members' seminar in London, we heard from three such businesses: a home stager, an ebay sales company, and a storage-and-removal firm.

This last industry caused some head-shaking and discussion among our membership. The removal element, certainly: we're often asked to help people 'get it sorted' before they move home. But storage? Surely that flies in the face of all that we, in the decluttering world, are trying to help people achieve? If we encourage our clients to use storage facilities, aren't we just opting for the easy get-out to show a visible change without addressing the underlying problems?

So it would appear. And in many circumstances, that's undoubtedly true. It would be so easy to simply ship all extra belongings off-site, leaving a beautifully clear home - but the underlying clutter would remain, un-dealt-with. (It reminds me of a story I heard - and even if it is apocryphal, I'm certain it's founded in truth - of the business that had a 'clear desk policy', which resulted in every employee storing huge piles of untidy paperwork UNDER the desk.)

However... I wonder. I thought back to a period of my own life (nearly twenty years ago) when storage facilities were vital, and I worked my way through the reasons. They fell into two very specific categories: the practical and the emotional.

My first marriage was over. It was nobody's fault; it was simply a marriage that should not have happened in the first place. It was sad, it was painful, but it was inevitable, and in the end, all for the best. However, the practical issues that arose from the split were especially hard. We sold our home; my ex-husband rented a small flat, and took what furniture and belongings he wished to keep; and I moved back to my parents' home for a few months to get my life in order. (I was made redundant at the same time, just to add insult to injury.)

My parents lived in the small maisonette in which I'd grown up. They had no extra storage space for the furniture, white goods and general houseware that I'd accumulated during seven years of co-habiting and marriage. I knew that I would, in the not-too-distant future, be returning to a place of my own - that I'd buy or rent a flat. I had no need of the table & chairs, the cooker, the china, the microwave and the rest while I lived in my childhood home - but I knew I'd need them some day, when I once more had a home of my own. So it was a no-brainer: storage was needed.

The second part of the equation was the emotional side. Yes, before I left the marital home we'd had a good de-junk. It was easy to deal with old catalogues and newspapers, garden rubbish and broken kitchen equipment - that was fine. But what about the other stuff? The letters, written in better times? The photos - oh, goodness, the photos? The wedding album? The marriage was over; but I didn't want to erase that whole period from my life. Including our time at college, it covered a whole decade - not to be dismissed lightly. Should I throw out everything relating to that period?*

The fact remains that I wasn't ready to deal with that stuff, and I knew it. There was no way that, in that emotionally raw and fragile period of the few months (or even, as it turned out, years) after the breakup, that I was ready for that sort of decision-making. I wasn't working in the decluttering industry then, but my personality was geared up for efficiency and organisation - and even I couldn't manage that.

So in came the storage. In my case, I was fortunate enough not to have to find the money for it: my belongings were boxed up, labelled, and deposited in the attics and garages of three or four kind and understanding friends around south London. But paid or unpaid, that storage was vital. It meant that I could concentrate on reordering my life, finding my emotional stability again, the practical elements of finding a new home.

I left my childhood home after a six-month breathing space, and rented a tiny (and I mean tiny) part-furnished studio flat for the next year. At this point, I cleared some of my belongings; but many of them remained in those garages and attics until, finally, I bought my own one-bedroomed flat. Eighteen months after the marriage breakup, I reclaimed everything from my kind friends, and got my life back on track again. I was ready to refit, restart, and declutter.

My point in telling this story is that there are two major reasons for a legitimate use of storage facilities in the decluttering process. On the practical side, your life might take you anywhere. A business posting overseas; a member of the family travels on a gap year; university; relationship breakdown; the death of a parent.

On the emotional side, one needs to be ready for decluttering. There are some decisions that can't, and sometimes shouldn't, be made instantly. If storage helps you to achieve clarity in your living space, allowing you then to gradually filter the more difficult belongings back in (or out), then there is nothing wrong with that.

One of my clients had a major storage area in the house. It related to an incredibly difficult, painful and public divorce. That one room was used to hide the past until she was ready to face it. And face it we did: we worked together, for (if I remember rightly) two long, solid days, sorting into charity-keep-sell-recycle-dump. There were times that my client was distressed by what we found (we had a nickname for these items: UXBs, or UneXploded Bombs, that might jump up and explode in her face at any time). This was several years after the event, and it was hard for her then. Imagine how much harder it would have been when she was still punch-drunk and raw from the break.

The rest of her house was immaculate. I mean, immaculate. Beautiful, decorated with exquisite taste, planned with intelligence and creativity. She had her haven, and the past was in storage - albeit in the same house. Only when she was ready, and she needed that extra room for other purposes, did she turn to getting professional help; and the process was, in turn, made much easier by the fact that the rest of the house was under such excellent control.

There is one other excellent reason for hiring storage space: you need an extra room for one specific purpose, and it's a more cost-effective solution than moving home. I have heard of people who have extraordinary collections of items, which are precious, valuable and interesting to them, which simply won't fit in their home. The rental of a storage space - especially if it's one of those that is easily accessible on demand - keeps the home as a home, the collection safe and sound, and the financial outlay for such storage keeps in mind the value of such a collection. Let's face it, it's no different from renting a garage to keep one's car in (my father rented a garage for years in the basement of a nearby block of flats when he wasn't happy leaving a motor at the mercy of on-street parking in East London).

My decluttering colleagues can stop panicking. I'm not recommending that clients should push things out of sight - into a room at home, or one that is rented (which is effectively what storage hire is). Many people are ready to dive right in, get it sorted, save space and save money. What I am saying is that storage facilities are not the work of the devil, or the antithesis of our work to help people to achieve calm and ordered living spaces: they can be, for practical and/or emotional reasons, a necessitous breathing-space, an opportunity to think and make decisions, and a vital aid in seeing the wood for the trees.

*If anyone is interested, yes, I do have just a small amount of items relating to that decade. There are photographs - and yes, I still have my original wedding albums; there are a couple of diaries; there is a little envelope full of rather clever cartoons that my ex-husband, a talented humorist, used to leave on domestic notes, which even today make me smile. These are recollections of good times in a ten-year period that was still an important and valued part of my life.

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