From too much to just enough: Closing the doors on clutter

In her family's journey toward minimalism, a mom calls in an expert to help with the effort to settle their new home. How can they discard the final bits of clutter and open the door on a new way of living?

John Raoux/AP/FILE
In this March 7, 2014 photo, a realty sign hangs in front of a home for sale in Orlando, Fla.

For the past few weeks I have had my feet in two countries: our new, light, warm house (at 1,500 square feet, it’s half the size of the old one) and the remainder of a life lived in the big house for the past three years. The new house was scrubbed clean for us by the former owners. Two helpful brothers we found on Craigslist descended on us with an empty truck and strong hands to move the heavy stuff. The few special, breakable things we've decided to keep have been wrapped carefully by my sister. 

I spent hours at the old house, just me and a space heater, since even in early spring, the old farmhouse had all the warmth of a meat locker. I packed up the last of the bedding, clothes, toiletries, random kitchen items. We bravely ventured into the world of the moving sale and one Saturday (during a late spring snowstorm) we sold the fraction of stuff we’d laid out in five rooms. Leftover items were picked up by a charity organization and then the last dregs –a couple of areas piled with small things – finally got moved. 

The next morning, we brought the last trailer load from the old garage to the new one. My husband, worn down by schlepping and fatigue said with frustration, “We still have way too much stuff!” But we had a trip to Boston that afternoon we couldn’t reschedule, so all we could do was close the door on all the boxes and hit the road. Leaving it all behind felt temporarily good, until we returned. 

Walking through the door when we got home, we gazed at the sea of boxes. We didn’t get rid of enough stuff – he was right. The kids’ room was still being painted and their closet still being built out in my husband’s rare spare moments, so everyone was sleeping in our room, two big mattresses and a crib all together. 

Living room furniture was piled with clothing and bins and Legos strewn everywhere, making a treacherous obstacle course. The new mud room was ceiling-high with boxes. The kitchen semi-populated with stuff we kept tripping over and we can’t find anything we need. Do we even have a can opener? It’s like we're camping. 

We were so clear about what we wanted for our fresh start – light, airy, uncluttered, easy to clean, simple, spaces for work and play and sleep all well-defined and appropriate for their uses. 

The process of decluttering is monumental, especially when, downsizing and in a hurry, there isn’t always time for each object to go to its desired destination. We want a home that frees us up, not weighs us down; we want to be enlivened and unburdened.

But clearly, we are still burdened. This seems like a perfect time for some professional help. 

Enter Dana Claudat. On one of my exploratory trips through the online universe of decluttering wisdom, I found her video series on the wellness website MindBodyGreen. She identifies herself as a designer, writer, and modern Feng Shui expert, but after speaking with her I feel she could add several other descriptors to her roster, including: catalyst, intuitive, and coach.

I thought if I could ask her a few questions it might not just help us, but help lighten the burden of anyone struggling with how to proceed through a transition like this. 

She agreed to meet me virtually and I was immediately impressed by her exuberance and articulate insights. “Help!” I wanted to scream over FaceTime, but gently she ushered me into her sacred world with her humor and her soothing voice and assured me that with a little effort every day, slowly but surely, we could have the house, and the life, we are seeking. 

With a few peeks into my old and new homes through photos and a quiz she sent over for me to fill out, she seemed to already know me – and my issues –pretty well. Her Stanford education in art history may have laid the foundation for her intelligent helpfulness with aesthetics, but her now nine years of study and practice in the Pyramid School of Feng Shui, have given her a deep understanding. 

For those unfamiliar with Feng Shui (like I was), the words might conjure ideas of special, even superstitious, placement of talismans, crystals, or strategic color choices to enhance personal well-being. It turns out, there are many ways to study and apply the principles of Feng Shui, and Claudat says that her approach is much less luck and serendipity and much more firmly rooted in art and science that, as she explains it, will help facilitate optimal living and thriving. 

She dove deep into my life – not into how I’m planning to arrange my furniture in the new house, but began by asking lots of questions. How do I feel? What am I eating? How is my, ahem, intimate life, and my creativity? She based her subsequent recommendations for changes based on the balance (or lack thereof) in the five elements that she studied in my responses to the quiz she sent to me. 

According to Claudat, each environmental element: earth, water, wood, fire, and metal influences and balances the others. Additionally, each element represents a portion of our creative process. If one element is missing, Claudat cautioned, the cycle can’t be completed. By tweaking our environment, our habits, and our attitudes we can feel the elements in balance. Claudat aims to essentially help her clients create a personal ecosystem and is educating us how to keep it functioning optimally. 

“What will my house look like after Feng Shui?” I asked her.

“There is no one way it looks,” she replied. “You will know by how it feels – you will simply feel at home.” 

“Your home tells the story of, and is a mirror of your life,” she continued, “your space can be a detriment to or run counter to your personal desires or it can enhance and support your goals. Where there is chaos in your home, there will be chaos reflected in your experience. Clear the chaos and you open the energy.The thing you let go of opens space for something new to come in and without letting go, you can’t welcome something else.” 

I sat with what she said. We’ve all been to those places that make us feel intensely good – our shoulders drop, we relax, we feel at ease. Claudat says it can be a scent or a color or textures in the room that cause this air of peace but it’s usually the alchemy many elements together. Further, she notes, people can’t easily articulate the source of that feeling of well-being but often it is space, light, or the simple act of opening a window to let in fresh air. Emptiness leaves room for something more desirable: emotional changes, spiritual shifts, or even just a deep breath. 

At the end of our consultation, I had pages of notes and came away from our chat feeling supported and hopeful, ready to tackle her homework assignments. The next step: apply what I’d learned from our talk and through her video course, as we started to unpack.

What sticks with me most as the unboxing continues is the emotional aspect of Claudat’s approach. Hers is a heart-driven exploration of how we wish to live our life in our new space. “When you’re aiming for complete reinvention,” she says, “you will come up against all of your own limitations. You have to ask yourself, over and over, ‘Does this break a rule for me?’ and allow yourself to open in that place where you feel yourself placing a limit on your own potential.” 

Today, we are beginning to land and finally at least we are in one place. I take deep breaths as I look around at the rooms still filled with boxes. I sought out Dana’s advice one more time when I started to feel overwhelmed again. “One thing at a time,” she suggests. “Don’t unpack one more box – just make a list, an inventory of everything that needs to be taken care of. Let things go in your mind even as you write each item down.” Then, when you know what you’re dealing with, a few minutes a day, she says, declutter one little box at a time. It’s helpful, galvanizing advice for what feels like a Herculean task. 

One of my other goals for this year is to re-learn the French I studied in school. My friend Alex, who recently relocated to Maine from Paris, is my de-facto French teacher. Alex has been unpacking her own new house for nine months and the work still continues. Last night, she shared with me what will become my new mantra for this next part of our process: "Petit à petit l'oiseau fait son nid." It means, "Bit by bit the bird makes its nest."

Amy Redfern Griffith’s writing can be found at

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