‘To live intentionally with things is, I think, the goal’

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Courtesy of Jennifer Howard ’85

This month, Jennifer Howard ’85 discusses her book, Clutter: An Untidy History. Faced with the daunting task of cleaning out her elderly mother’s chaotic and jam-packed home, Howard began to ask herself about our relationship with objects, and what drives our need to accumulate them. She tells her own story and charts the path our belongings take when we finally dispose of them.



CARRIE COMPTON: Welcome to the PAWcast. I’m Carrie Compton. Today I am speaking with Jennifer Howard from the Class of 1985. Howard has just released a book called Clutter: An Untidy History. Faced with the daunting task of cleaning out her elderly mother’s chaotic and jam-packed home, Howard began to ask herself: “Why is this scenario so common? And what drives our need to acquire and accumulate so many things? And what becomes of our belongings when we, or often our loved ones, finally dispose of them?” Howard is a former contributing editor at The Washington Post and a former senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, whose writing has also appeared in Slate and Humanities magazine. She spoke to us from her Washington, D.C., home. 

CC: Thank you so much for joining us today, Jennifer.

JENNIFER HOWARD: Oh, I’m delighted to be here. Thanks for having me on the podcast. Or — the PAWcast.

CC: (laughs) Let’s begin our conversation with your mother’s home, which you were tasked to clean out. Talk about what you went through in that process.

JH: Well, in retrospect, I probably should have seen it coming given that we live in the same town, and I did make a number of visits there, but I didn’t realize how much was accumulating over years and decades and that this was a problem that was decades in the making, really. When I was a child, my mother was not the neatest person in the world, but I would not have said she had hoarding disorder. There were stacks of papers and things. But nothing really awful. What I found, though, was she had been declining for a while. We realized afterward she was slipping into dementia, and we hadn’t really picked up on that as we probably should have. We noticed though that there were stacks of papers and mail. And then more alarmingly, things like dirty laundry would just pile up at the foot of the basement stairs. And she started living on takeout food, so she would get more and more containers of takeout and then not throw them away.

CC: Right.

JH: So and I would go over and try to throw things out. But she had a crisis almost overnight. She wasn’t answering her phone. We decided we had to drive over and have an intervention and say, “You can’t live this way anymore. It’s not safe.” We found her basically comatose. She was taken to the hospital, never came home, So suddenly, I had this enormous house. Well, it’s not — it’s not an enormous house, but the amount of stuff in it was overwhelming. No room was passable. Just the stacks of every kind of random thing. The food containers, as I’ve mentioned, clothes, canning jars. Every kind of object. Kitchenware, books, just random and jumbled and stacked so you couldn’t have — you really could not just cross through a room without encountering, having to get over or around something. And it was staggering to me. Really, really overwhelming.

CC: So was it during this process that you decided to write this book? Or was our aptitude for clutter always something that interested you?

JH: Well, I realized I’ve always been interested in it, not really so much as a subject but as a problem. Just how one deals with the amount of stuff that you accumulate has always been interesting to me. I have two kids. And when I became a parent, of course, kids seem to attract clutter and stuff of all kinds. 

CC: Mm-hmm.

JH: Family life is messy. But individual life is messy too. So clutter was something that I lived with and sort of fought against a lot of my life. But it wasn’t until I really was confronted with the enormous task of my mother’s house and dealing with that that I really started to wonder how it got so bad. It has just been a personal problem for me, but then when I saw what had happened to her and started talking to people and hearing similar stories, I thought, “This is really a collective problem, and I need to understand this better.” So that’s when it became — it became a book idea but also a lifeline, honestly, when I was trying to figure out my way out — through and out of this mess. I have no siblings. So it all fell on me. My husband was great, but he couldn’t make the kinds of decisions — the emotional decisions one has to make with a family house.

CC: Sure.

JH: So I would go over at — weeknights and during the weekend. I would go over and just try to pick a stack of something to sort through or pick a room. So I was sort of doing all that and my day job and the family. And then sort of starting to kind of read about clutter and try to — I wasn’t actively writing the book at that point, but I realized I was starting to pull together material, research for what became the book. 

CC: Your first chapter is an examination of hoarding disorder. Talk about what you learned in the process of researching that.

JH: To me, it was fascinating. I am not a psychiatrist or a social worker, but I did interview several and read a lot in the current literature. I had always — and I saw this very much with my mother’s case — that there’s such deep shame attached to extreme clutter, whether it’s actually hoarding disorder-related or not. But we’re all supposed to be able to control our physical belongings and have a neat house. Think of how many times you go to somebody’s house and the first thing they do is apologize for the mess. So there’s this easily accessed shame even for people who don’t have hoarding disorder. But with people who do, they have such a complicated set of relationships to their things and they’re existing in a world that is telling them that they are bad people, that this is shameful and dirty and awful. It’s a very complicated set of problems. And it’s only been really recently recognized as a separate disorder. For a long time, hoarding disorder was considered part of this constellation of OCD. But I think because it was sort of bundled up in all this cultural shame and opprobrium and then treated as something else — “Well, you’re just anxious, and you just, or you have a, it’s your fault somehow that you have all this stuff” — it really became very difficult for people to seek help. And it’s only in recent years that the medical profession has really addressed this and started to understand it and study it in a more sympathetic and humane way. 

So what most fascinated me, I think, was — well, understanding the deep shame attached to it. And you see in popular culture there are a lot of reality TV shows and things that will shame — sort of go out of their way, I think, to shame people who suffer from this. But when you talk to somebody or read interviews with people who suffer from hoarding disorder, their relationship to their things is fascinating. These are collections sometimes to them. Or it’s like an enormous security blanket. The terms that they sometimes use for themselves. “Finder-keepers” or “collectors” or — it’s really interesting. And hoarding disorder really has to be handled very sensitively and in a really individual way because it can be so — it’s so personal for people.

CC: So you chart this thirst for knickknacks back to the well-populated mantel pieces of the Victoria age. (laughter) Talk about how that led us to the era that we’re in today.

JH: (laughs) I’ll probably get some heat from Victorianists for blaming the Victorians. (laughter) 

CC: Everything comes down on them these days it feels like. (laughs)

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JH: That’s right. That’s right. And I will say there is a rich and vast body of scholarship on material culture. Not just the Victorians but — and not just Western — Anglo-American or northern European and American. But for me, once I read through a lot of the stuff on hoarding disorder and then I was hoping I could find an origin point in history for clutter. I never found the year or the decade where we could say, “This is where clutter begins.” The word dates to the Middle Ages. And it’s related to “clod,” like clumps of things. You can sort of start to sense that, which is what clutter often is. It’s this sort of mass of stuff. So many things sort of came together in that era that resonated for me as I was dealing with my mother’s situation, and then looking at the kind of culture of consumption in which she and we are embedded. So in Victorian era, you have a lot of resources of empire being extracted and brought back — brought back to the home country, the imperial center. You’ve got the rise of great cities where there’s a mass of people who need and want goods and services. You have the rise of industry, where people are learning to manufacture more things, and so there’s a greater volume of stuff. You have this cult of domesticity, and that you were supposed to aspire to a well-appointed bourgeois home. You had — no, not obviously, not everybody was bourgeois. A lot of people couldn’t afford the things that they were taught to aspire to. But all of these pressures and opportunities and consumptive habits started, in my reading anyway, start to coalesce in that era. They kind of come to flower in that era. I was fascinated by the Crystal Palace, you know, the Great Exhibition in the middle part of the century. And that just as a showcase for every kind of good you could possibly imagine. It’s like the world’s department store, almost.

CC: Mm-hmm.

JH: And to put that it was so fascinating to people to have all these — this abundance of material culture, and then the emphasis on keeping a nice home, having it well furnished, having it under control. So all these things, I really felt very resonant of when I looked at the aspirations my mother had, for example, and the things that she was trying to accomplish with stuff. And then how it got out of her control. It seemed very Victorian in some ways to me. And I could feel sort of the echoes coming down the last 100, 150 years. 

CC: Let’s come back to today and our seemingly voracious habits as consumers. You point out how we’re almost trained from our earliest years to form intense emotional connections to things such as our first teddy bears. 

JH: Right.

CC: Talk about what you discovered about our landscape of consumer culture.

JH: Boy, there’s so much to unpack there. And I say that intentionally. I certainly noticed when my own kids were born — of course, the ritual of the baby shower is lovely. And often you’re given things that you need as a new parent. You need diapers. You need some clothing and whatnot. But really from the get-go, there are more toys than any child could use. Parents and grandparents love to express their love for the child by buying a new toy, a book, clothing. All this paraphernalia that babies really just don’t need, right?

CC: (laughs) Right.

JH: I mean they do — they do form bonds. We all form bonds. We probably have a favorite teddy bear. My daughter has a stuffed platypus named Penelope. She has had since she was six weeks old. So there are totemistic objects that are very meaningful. But we have, in our basement alone, there are two or three trash bags full of stuffed animals that were given to us, we picked up at yard sales, or — and I’m just staggered. It’s hundreds of animals for two children in a middle-class family. That’s crazy. You know, I don’t know how it happened. And I deeply regret it now. Legos. My son went through a Lego phase. Hundreds and hundreds of Legos. And once you got to the — once he became interested in building Lego sets — it’s not like you build the Millennium Falcon and then disassemble it and build it all over again. It’s kind of a one-off thing. 

CC: So we live in this culture and you introduce what you call the minimalist gurus, whose work is just to gently coax us rabid consumers into a new decluttered life. So Marie Kondo: How has she influenced the national mindset regarding stuff?

JH: Oh, she’s a — in my rating anyway, she’s really been the dominant voice in this conversation for the last five or six years. She came to my attention when I was actually cleaning out my mother’s house. Her The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up had just recently come out. It was a huge bestseller. I picked it up thinking — not really thinking it would actually help me because what we — things were too far gone basically for that. But I thought, “Well, it’ll be a diversion, and maybe she’ll make me feel better about this clutter problem.” I think what she did was — I mean part of it was the novelty of — oh, I have to thank my socks for their service before I toss them? Well, I mean if you grow up in this culture, that’s not really sort of the traditional way this culture has handled deaccessioning things. So it was sort of novel and fun and interesting. But I think what essentially that sort of approach does is to invite you to really look at your stuff again rather than just letting it churn throughout the house and pile up and have to be stored and bagged and taken to Goodwill. And it really says, “OK, well, what things do you have, and what do they mean to you?” That’s the sort of at the heart of the questions that she’s asking and the method that I think she’s bringing to this. And that’s really — that is kind of startling and arresting for a culture — at least it was for me in this culture where stuff was basically something to be acquired and then managed, rather than something that was sort of working with you necessarily as a harmonious part of a happy life. And I think what she also does is bring a certain kindness to the process of decluttering that has been missing. Going back to the shame we were talking about before and the people who have extreme clutter are held up, either as the subject of local news stories — “Hoarder dies in fire” — and then there’s some lurid account of all the stuff in the house.

CC: Mm-hmm.

JH: Or these reality TV shows where these poor people are dragged in front of cameras and have to listen to their friends and relatives say, “This is disgusting. How could you do this?”

CC: Right.

JH: But she’s so kind. She doesn’t seem fazed or judgmental. I then watched her Netflix show, and that is such a departure, again, from what we have generally been taught to think about clutter. But she’s very (laughter) — she’s so calm about it and friendly and sort of like, “OK, well, let’s look at this stuff, and we can do this. And it’s good.” So I think that — she’s offered something to 21st-century American culture that we didn’t really have so much. I think she’s sometimes conflated with the minimalist guru tradition. She’s not really a minimalist. She’s not telling you to get rid of — I think that’s something of a — sometimes she gets accused of that. But she’s really not. She’s not telling you you need to get rid of everything but just that you need to live more intentionally. She’s offering up the opportunity to live a better life. We didn’t really talk about the Victorian tradition of female advice givers, which the new Kondo and the minimalists are all so — that’s an old tradition too. That idea of women writing these advance manuals and domestic manuals. And I think that you see that in personal organizers, too, who are still mostly female. 

CC: Mm-hmm.

JH: And that there’s a tradition of women kind of turning this traditional set of domestic skills and pressures into something that actually makes them some money and gives them a platform, which I think is a fascinating — there’s a lot of gender stuff tied up in clutter that is worth thinking about.

CC: You mentioned too that it falls often to women — much in the way of the second shift idea that women have to not only at this point earn a living but come home and do all of the unpaid parts of maintaining their best life. 

JH: Right. I think that’s certainly been true in many of the families I’ve seen. Now as families change, not everybody is in a mom-and-dad kind of arrangement. But I think the pandemic is actually a great opportunity for people to really look at their domestic arrangements. We kind of all have to cause they’re in our faces all the time. And to see where the balance falls and who really does what and who cares. Does somebody really care about clutter? Can you live with more of it, less of it? Whose responsibility is it assumed to be? I think these are all very good questions for people to be asking themselves as they see how their household routines really unfold. And I hope on the other end of this maybe we’ll come up with some more egalitarian arrangements or, at least, a sense of — an appreciation for the labor that does go into maintaining stuff. 

CC: Right. You’ve also mentioned The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. I thought that sounded so interesting. Talk about that book.

JH: It’s a fun little book. The woman who wrote it is Swedish as you might have guessed. And she’s at the stage in life where she was deaccessioning, downsizing, getting ready to sort of think about what stuff might be passed on to children and all. And she’s really — she’s the antithesis of my mother, unfortunately. My mother who just avoided making any decisions about any of her stuff. And this woman really rolls up her sleeves and says, “OK, well, this can be fun. But you’re going to have to deal with it. Don’t make your children do it. Don’t make your heirs do it. That’s mean. (laughs) Let’s just get done.”

CC: Right.

JH: And it’s a very — it’s a very quick read. A nice read. But it has something serious to say as well. And it could be a nice role model for people who want to be encouraged to go through their stuff and not pass it down to their heirs unedited.

CC: You said that about your own mother’s house, that you weren’t really able to celebrate anything bequeathed to you because everything was handed to you as a chore instead.

JH: Yeah. It was really — I realized — I mean I was so focused on the grim task at hand, I didn’t fully process that component of it until afterward. But I was realizing — I came across all kinds of things in the attic, in the basement, in file folders, letters from people, photographs of people who might or might not be relations. I have no idea because the photos aren’t labeled. I don’t recognize the people. And my mother is still alive. But with dementia, she has no idea. And she was not able to sit there with me and go through everything and say, “Oh, this reminds me of the time when I was in California, and I stopped at this roadside restaurant. And here’s the book of matches from it,” or whatever it is. Sometimes it’s the small objects that end up holding very specific, interesting memories, but unless you’ve written those stories down or you pass them on by telling them as you’re going through your stuff, those stories are just gone. And I had to try to make guesses in the dark basically about what was meaningful and what I should try to save or re-home. And some of it came down to just having to look at whether an object was useful, not whether it was sentimentally important. But here’s something that still might be useful to somebody, so I will save this and pass it on. 

CC: Sure.

JH: But I really do feel like it’s a shame to have such a large chunk of somebody’s life and memories vanish.

CC: So where do our belongings go? What did you discover about their afterlife?

JH: Boy that was really eye opening to me. For a long time, I’ve been concerned about where our waste goes because I see how much — I look at the cans out back in my alley in the city — in D.C. here — and it’s a lot of stuff that goes out every week that’s going to a landfill. Recycling is lovely and great, and I’m glad we are in the habit of doing that. But the recycling system is not working particularly well. When I started reading about where our recycling goes and how it was getting loaded onto container ships going to China and places like that and started thinking about this global system of stuff and this churn and where it all goes. Every time I would take a load of Mom’s stuff out to Goodwill and look at the mounds and mounds and mounds — it looks like a landfill. Nothing against Goodwill. I think they’re great. But just these mountains of unsorted stuff. And then somebody has to ship that somewhere and sort it. And it’s like, “Oh, my God. How did we get, the volume?” Again, it was like my mother’s house writ large when I look at the planet and the waste systems we have. 

I started looking at, reading about scavengers and recycling and the secondhand trade. There’s a journalist named Adam Minter, who is a Bloomberg journalist. He comes from a family of junk-yard owners in Minneapolis. So he’s got, I think, three or four generations of salvagers basically in the family. He’s very interested in this global waste and recycling. Highly recommend his book, Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale. And he goes all over the world looking at, among other things, where the stuff we discard goes. It is fascinating. I assumed a lot of it just got landfilled, which it does. He goes to Africa, and he talks to people in different countries in Africa who have these workshops where they’ll take discarded computer monitors, or whatever it is, and just rebuild them or take the parts out. And it’s fascinating. So it’s so intrepid and had a sort of Victorian overtones where in the Victorian era you get these people, the street sellers who would come through and buy your used stuff and repurpose it. Buy rags to sell to paper mills, whatever. And they would also then sell you stuff you needed. And so that impulse is still there, it’s just harder to find in contemporary America. At least, it’s not in the parts that we see. But I started to see everything I deal with in my mother’s house has some larger counterpart in society or in this global exchange of goods and where stuff goes and the imbalances of too much consumption and then too much discarding. And maybe some missed opportunities to salvage and reuse things. There are some interesting economies and livelihoods created around that, and maybe some lessons that developed countries could learn from countries that are looking at our discards as a resource rather than as trash. So it’s an endless and complicated set of exchanges. But I think it’s really important for us to, as we consume, think about where it’s all going. 

CC: You made some really responsible and, it seemed, really resourceful choices about where some of your mother’s belongings wound up. Talk about that a little bit.

JH: I hesitate to say that that was a fun part of the process. But I enjoyed the creative challenge of identifying things that might be useful and then finding new homes for them. It is hard to give things away. Books can be very hard to give away. But public libraries can only take but so many for their book sales. Goodwill is overwhelmed with books. My mother was a trained classical keyboardist. She had a harpsichord. The used piano market is — the bottom has really fallen out of that. Harpsichords are more rare, but they’re still not that easy to find homes for. But I found a woman who is was studying keyboards and at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. And she needed a practice instrument. So I loaned it to her. Basically as long as she wants it, she can have it. And so she — it’s being used. Mom hadn’t played it in 15 years. It took a lot of wrangling to make that arrangement, but it made me feel happy because it’s being played again, and it’s serving its purpose in the world, and it’s helping out somebody who is a rising performer. 

Mom had a lot of musical scores. So I found another musician friend of hers who would use them for his students. That was a good outcome. I sent boxes and boxes of things to family members. I put some things just out on the curb. I found a charity that helps people who are coming out of homelessness in setting up apartments. Boy, what else did I do? Oh, I took office supplies — she had a home office. She worked from home in her later years. And just got — I mean the catalogue of stuff, it was crazy. I did a voice memo on my phone just describing all the things I found. And it was insane. I think she would just go to Staples and buy multiple boxes of things. But it turned out the animal shelter can always use office supplies. So I drove a car full of office supplies there. Like, “OK, well, this helps the animals.” And — but all those decisions take so much time and effort — a couple people said to me, “Why don’t you just get a dumpster and put it all in the dumpster?” But I just couldn’t. The volume was awful. It just seemed ecologically criminal to do that. And I thought, “Well, even though she can’t — Mom can’t tell me what these things are, you know, pull out the meaningful things, I can create some sort of meaning for them by giving them to people who might need them.” And that was one reason that the clean-out took so long because I had to sort of — each category of thing required a set of emails, phone calls, trips, whatever it was.

CC: Absolutely. A lot of consideration. Yeah.

JH: Yeah.

CC: I was really impressed with that. 

JH: Oh, thank you. It was a way to, I guess, to pull something good out of something very bad. 

CC: After all of your research and your consideration, what is your top-line advice about clutter and belongings that you can share with anybody listening to this?

JH: Boy, don’t let it get as bad as my mother did. (laughter) No. Seriously. Act sooner rather than later. To live intentionally with things is, I think, the goal rather than having them be the overwhelming driving factor of your life. It is finding some sort of balance in the here and now, remembering that the people and stories are the most important things, not the stuff. Even if you have antiques and things, that’s lovely, and objects can be lovely and useful. But the stuff shouldn’t get in the way of relationships, of living, living your life here and now. It should not come at a great cost to the environment, which I think it often does for us. And also don’t put things off. Don’t assume you’ll have time when you’re 80 to go through everything because you might not. And try to enjoy your things and the people in your life rather than letting them become this albatross and this black hole of stuff.

CC: Thank you so much. Very well put. Thanks for joining me today, Jennifer.

JH: A pleasure to be here.