The desire to make things clean and tidy in the springtime seems to be an almost biological urge. Like most biological urges, it should be resisted. Spring may be the season of renewal and new beginnings, but there’s no point in going mad about it. The energy and optimism we feel at the happiest time of the year shouldn’t be wasted on dull domestic tasks.
Cleaning is relatively easy if you can get somebody else to do it, but making a house or apartment tidy comes up against a fundamental problem of human nature, or perhaps culture. We simply have too much stuff. The giant retailer Ikea warned in 2017 that shoppers have reached “peak stuff.” They don’t have room in their homes for another coat hanger, let alone a coat, and instead they are wasting their money on “experiences” like travel and dining out. Tidiness means turning back the tide of stuff and aiming for the kind of minimalism you see in illustrations of Japanese décor: empty rooms furnished with almost nothing. It should be easy to achieve this: just throw stuff out. But it doesn’t work that way for most of us.
The spare room that I call my study, where I pretend to work, is a fine example of what can be achieved when serious spring cleaning has been postponed for ten or fifteen years. Books, papers, CDs, files and bits of electrical equipment cover every surface, including the floor. None of these things can be moved for fear of disturbing the dust, which would activate my allergies, and ruin my one hundred per-cent intuitive filing system. It is a virtually perfect work space. Everything I need comes instantly to hand and nothing can get lost unless eaten by the mice.
“Stuff Happens” says the bumper sticker, and how true it is. Three garbage collections a week don’t seem to reduce it, nor do charity contributions. We try to palm some useless items off on friends and relatives as holiday gifts. But it’s no use because they do the same to us. Yard sales never work. You always end up with more stuff than you started with, because neighbors sneak around the back and dump their own stuff in your driveway. Losing stuff, like losing weight, is a lost cause. We can’t get rid of it because we have reached saturation point. Everybody has more than enough, and nobody wants any more. In short, we have reached a steady state of excess, and we are prisoners of our stuff.
But we are willing prisoners. We adore our stuff and cling to it. That’s why we need larger and larger houses, and commercial storage units lined up along every highway. A million years ago our ancestors moved out of caves because they had run out of closet space for their old animal bones and pieces of flint, and the process of accumulation has never stopped.
Some things are worth keeping for sentimental reasons. I still have my first teddy bear, called Rabbit (I was a short-sighted child), and he’s not stuff. Nor are certain books that have followed me around for most of my life, not the boxes of faded color slides, nor the various anachronistic odd and ends in my bedside table like cuff links and collar studs. These things are valuable personal history.
In fact, when I look around the house, everything I see is valuable personal history – ancient cooking utensils, floppy disks, non-functioning cassette players – they’re all fragments of my past life, like Rabbit, and they all might all come in useful someday. They are secure presences in a changing world. Even the human body renews itself constantly; we replace our physical selves about every seven years. So, nothing is permanent except our stuff, and nothing will remain of us except our stuff. We should treat it with proper respect.