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Clearing Out Her Stuff

Posted on 18 January 2010 by Barbara Beckwith (3)

Sarah Solomont feels stuck. She blames her house — it drives her crazy. “There’s too much stuff,” she says. “I can’t breathe.”

Her large white home in Lowell brims with possessions. Old and new, large and small, bought and handcrafted. As the clutter grows, her spirits sink. She has no idea how to clear it out.

Doreen Doyle bounds up the steps of Solomont’s house on crisp autum, wearing white pants, white sneakers, white t-shirt and carrying a white bag. She looks like a visiting nurse but she’s not one: she does not see Solomont as sick. De-cluttering, Doyle believes, is a learnable skill. Doreen Doyle is a professional organizer of homes and offices. Her t-shirt, printed with the words “Get Organized,” declares her intent. She’s here to clear things up and out.

Solomont opens the door with a friendly smile that collapses into a weak sigh. “It’s too much,” she says, like a patient reporting symptoms. “I’m overwhelmed.” Her words bounce off Doyle, who’s immune to despair.

Doyle sweeps through the foyer, glancing sideways at her handiwork, as Solomont trails behind her. For years, 5-foot stacks of boxes, files and clothes teetered here. Visitors would come and Solomont would throw a blanket over the heap. The floor now gleams bright and empty. Doyle worked with Solomont to clear this space on an earlier visit. This is visit six, at $135 a session.

Solomont clears the diningroom table by shoving a jumble of papers and craftwork to the floor. Doyle spreads out a calendar — she figures that Solomont, an artist and craftsperson, needs visuals, not lists. Doyle maps a 6-month plan like a general plotting a troop advance. Solomont watches as intently as a patient awaiting a life-saving treatment.

Doyle ignores Solomont’s angst. She focusses instead on Solomont’s most pressing reason to clean up. She and her husband and three children are moving to Brookline to be closer to Boston. Their new house is smaller and more expensive. They must sell this place for top dollar. Cluttered property won’t sell, their real estate agent warned them. “Space sells,” he said.

“Let’s concentrate on that,” says Doyle. Solomont leans her head against the chair. Across the table, 100 costumed dolls crowd a 5-tiered cabinet. Next to her, a throng of photographs, craft pieces, and candlesticks jostle for space on a sidebar. Behind her, silver and china obscure one another behind the glass of a large cabinet. She’s exhausted already, at 9 a.m., by the burden of her overflowing worldly goods.

Each surface of Solomont’s house, except for areas Doyle has tackled on previous visits, is over-occupied. All good stuff, just too much of it.

“Today we attack the attic,” Doyle announces. She pulls on white rubber gloves as if preparing for surgery. She climbs up past boxes and bags that block the stairs. Solmont follows her, shoulders slumped.

On the landing, Doyle surveys what’s visible of the scene. Boxes and furniture parts fill the chilly space, in some places, halfway to the ceiling. “I’ve never opened the boxes over there,” says Solmont. “My grandparents sent me family stuff; I have to keep them.”

Doyle picks out a single dusty box, the one closest to her. “Sort this,” she says. “I will make a walkaround.” She thrusts a clean empty box into Solomont’s hand “for keepers” and a large black garbage bag for throwaways.

Solomont is a keeper. Her husband, Ari, is not. “What he’s got is what he uses,” says Sarah Solomont. “He’s got no problem getting rid of things.” During the first years of their marriage, they argued about the messy house. “I told Ari,” says Solmont, “‘That’s who I am. You have to live with it.'” He loved her, he accepted her, he stopped complaining.

Recently, however, her overstocked started to weigh on Sarah Solomont. She decided to pare things down. Theoretically, at least.

Doyle wades into the central thicket of boxes and bags. She grabs the nearest containers, opens their flaps, calculates their contents, and lines them up by category in separate corners where she will place others of each sort. Within minutes, she’s created order from chaos.

Solomont, planted before her assigned box, holds up a set of Barbie dolls. Doyle watches from across the room. “Their head’s are missing,” Doyle points out. “But they’re my Barbies!” says Solomont. “I would never throw them out!” She places each headless torso in the “keep” box. She adds a sewing box from her junior high home ec class, her collection of Seventeen magazines (“some seventh grade girls came over and saw these — they were in heaven!”), and a pile of “skinny clothes” that she wants to keep “in case I lose weight.” She holds up a teddy bear dressed in frayed lace, a wedding present, she says. “Too bad I didn’t keep it nice.” Perhaps she can mend it. She finds some tissue and lays it carefully beside the “skinny clothes.”

Solomont is not a careless person. She keeps a kosher kitchen, carefully separating two sets of dishes, cutlery, cooking pans and utensils, with which she separately prepares meat and dairy dishes. Last May, she earned a Masters Degree in expressive therapies, a program she pursued for five years while raising her son and two daughters and volunteering for a Visiting Moms program. Her thesis illustrates several of her own art work — dynamic, colorful, well-constructed pieces, none cluttered.

Doyle is a do-er. She delights in sorting, filing, throwing out. “It’s my Irish nature,” she says. Her father would tell her, “All you need is two dresses: one to wear, and one to wash.” As for keeping things for memory’s sake, he’d say, “Who cares. We’ll all be dead tomorrow.”

Solomont ponders an album whose pages are stiff and mildewed. Droppings coat its cover. She gives it up to the discard bag. Next, she ponders a tangle of old pantihose. After a wistful remark — “I could make sock dolls of these” — she lets them fall atop the album. Two small victories for decluttering.

“This can go, right?” Doyle says as she lugs a broken bamboo screen into view. “That’s from my childhood,” says Solomont. “We lived in Thailand until I was three. When we left, we couldn’t get the screen out of the house, so my father sawed it in half. I can’t let THAT go.”

Dustballs cling to Doyle’s t-shirt. She’s sweating, but the attic looks larger than it did an hour ago. She’s separated china from toys from clothes from furniture. She’s cleared a path for Solomont to move through. Doyle points out three boxes: “That’s your homework for next week,” she says, reassuring Solmont that they’re only half full.

Solomont has picked up a sheaf of her children’s schoolwork. She slowly scans each paper. She keeps her kids’ handwritten stories,discarding only rote “color-this-circle” projects. The rejected papers drift from her reluctant fingers into the box like petals thrown into a coffin. “It breaks my heart to do this,” she says.

Doyle sneezes. Solomont mourns. Her “keep box” is full; her garbage bag of throwaways is not.

It’s hard for an outsider to see progress. But Solomont is satisfied. She’s “done” the sock drawer, the mitten drawer, and the canned goods bin. She’s organized the medicine cabinet, cleared the basement playroom of broken toys. She’s transformed a junk-filled kitchen corner into an efficient “messaging center.” She’s organized her 100 hats.

Now Solomont worries that her children are copying her packrat habits. Her daughters, who are five and seven years old, have been walking around the house with bags full of other bags, purses, dolls, papers, utensils. “They look like bag ladies,” she says. Last night, her 11-year-old son grabbed a used-up glue container she was about to drop in the trash. “I can use this for a project!” he declared. She’s alarmed.

Sarah Solomont is not Doreen Doyle’s most cluttered client. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d put Sarah at three or four,” shesays. “But she’s high on the anxiety scale.”

It’s easy to psychologize. Clutterers are holding onto ghosts. They’re stuck in the past. They substitute things for feelings. They’re afraid to face the future — or themselves.

Doreen Doyle does not assume pathology. Howard Hughes, she says, may have qualified for psychiatric help — he hoarded his fingernail and saved his urine, but only a small percentage of her clients need therapy more than practical help.

Solomont says her messiness is left-over rebellion. Her mother, she says, was a perfectionist who would “ground” her when she left her room a mess. “Messy was bad to her, and I internalized that,” says Solomont. Doyle listens but doesn’t judge her, says Solomont, so she’s getting over that adolescent rebellion. “It’s just like therapy,” says Solomont, “except you can see the results.”

For craftspeople like Solomont, things ARE important. Momentoes — including sawed-up screens and Barbie dolls — conjure up memories. The stuff our grandparents gave us to keep cannot be discarded lightly. The things our children make are to be cherished.

Lately, however, Solomont has gotten a glimpse of the pleasures of spaciousness. She wrote her thesis not in her home, which she found to distracting, but in the foyer of the nearby Sheraton Hotel, where she discovered she concentrated best in empty spaces. Writing that thesis on the relationship between her life and her art also forced her to pare down. At first, she says, “I wanted to put everything in.” Later, she dared to select, organize, prune. She likes the results.

Where IS her art work? Is it those two sculptures on the
sidebar? No, says Solomont. “A 14-year-old boy I worked with who was very depressed, made these.” The boy used to break any of his creations that drew praise. “He would have destroyed these as well, if I hadn’t kept them. They’re precious to me.”

Sarah Solomont’s own art work is on display in her home, but it’s almost impossible to see. She placed two thesis project pieces — a clay figure and an assemblage of tree branches, shells, clay and ribbon — on her livingroom mantlepiece. But she arranged a family photo in front that blocks her art from view.

Doreen Doyle sees that mantlepiece, that photograph, that art. The livingroom is part of her 6-month plan. Meanwhile, she watches as Sarah Solomont very slowly and in her own time, falls in love with space.

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