In a kind of parody of weight-watcher confessions, a woman in the audience voluteers that she muscled her stack of recipe clippings onto the scale and it weighed 16 pounds.
Clutter clinician Mary Ann Hewitt already knows the answer to the question she will put to this woman: "How often do you use the recipes you clip?"
"Never, oh never."
Great roars of laughter throughout the room. "When I needed to bake meringues," moans a second woman, "I found I'd torn out 15 sets of directions over the years."
Which did she choose?
"None. I did what it said in my cookbook."
It takes a heap of clutter to made a house a home. But whether you live in a castle or a cabin, a surfeit of papers, fondu sets or socks can be counterproductive to domestic contentment. Clutter, says Hewitt to no one's surprise, can get you down.
"If you hang onto dresses just because they cost a king's ransom in the first place, then you set yourself up for double trouble. You'll be angry because the clothes you do wear are mashed from overcrowding. You'll be mad because those bad buys, hanging in the closet, remind you of bungled judgments."
Hewitt's message to 60 people, mostly women, in a meeting room of the Bethesda public library, comes kindness of the Extension Service of the University of Maryland's home economics department, which has bookings for clutter clinics every week or so of the year, though it never solicits the business.
And the reason Hewitt can deliver the message in a manner acceptable to people troubled by a love-hate relationship with their belongings is that she's a self-confessed clutterbug, working to kick her habit. Not reformed, she says, not yet, but reforming. She has recently thrown away 15 years of dress patterns (and not without pain). But she has a long way to go with magazines.
"You who save clippings are already a stage beyond me," she announces. "I've got 10 years of unread magazines, carried with me through three moves from house to house, and I vow I'll never carry them again."
How do people know if their accumulating is a problem?
"If you're willing to come out to hear me for two hours," says Hewitt, "I'll just bet you need help."
Beyond that, ask yourself: Have you spent hours this week looking through your house for papers? Are you possibly finding it difficult to move from room to room? Have you said three times in the last seven days, this place is a mess?
No apologies necessary, Hewitt adds by way of reassurance. Houses these days just don't come equipped with commodious basements and attics, let alone the barns of bygone eras. The ritual of spring cleaning is abandoned and with it the chance for periodic review and thinning. Tales of money that might have been made -- from Tiffany lamps cast out in the '40s, blankets sent to Bundles for Britain -- are a terrible deterrant. Someone is forever gloating over a cookie cutter worth thousands. In sum, uncluttering is a thorny business.
Even so, Hewitt rollicks along briskly through the logistics -- how you, to get a good grip on the situation, involve your entire family, establishing if you're lucky some sort of agreement that a problem exists, that the mess is execesive, that the solution isn't entirely your responsibility. From this you move toward decisions on which items will continue to enjoy your asylum.
"Analyze what needs to be stored -- what and where and how," says Hewitt, asserting herself some after the initial jollying. "If you have seven skillets and use two, do you need the other five? If your excuse is 'Someday I might want to use it,' well, someday you might not. If you haven't used it for a year, that's a sign an item should be pitched. If you haven't used it for seven years, that's a very good sign. You're punishing yourself for the bad decision to get it in the first place.
"If clearing out is hard for you, use the Swiss-cheese approach. Choose one target area that bothers you. Go at it. The first hole you make will please you and encourage you to try another.
Call Goodwill and then work against your commitment to a pickup date. Set yourself a time for the work, Mondays, say, from 10 to noon for three months, or midnights if that's when your energy level is higher for this sort of thing.
If you're a procrastinator as well as a clutterer, get a partner. Don't schedule six hours. You'll only feel defeated. It's important to know when to stop.
Don't set your standards too high. Tackle a small part of a large problem. But be sure by listing priority projects A,B,C that you're not doing only the C's, the least important. Write down your plan. Good storage is a well-thought-out plan carried out."
Do stacks of unanswered letters oppress you? Set up files in a box. Try to handle papers only once -- by acting on them, filing, throwing them away. Think whether it might not be more satisfying to clatter out short messages quickly than to postpone, with thoughts of full replies in the future.
Are you a clipper? Try to categorize your cuttings: articles on fertilizers, day trips, the never-fail souffle. At the very least, deny your 16-pound mound of paper prime drawer space in the kitchen.
Hewitt suggests setting up the kitchen with only most-used items -- the cooks' favorite spoons and spatulas. Remove the rest to boxes and see if ; you don't like your kitchen better.
She recommends cruising through the house with three cartons -- one for giveaway, one for throwaway, one for a halfway station.
"You'll probably see the halfway items become not so important. And if you give up your bad clothes buys quickly, you may find them still sufficiently in style for selling."
Unculttering, she adds, can be a valuable lession in decision-making for children. (Does a grad student economist need his spelling papers and complete set of Weekly Readers? Can the family's golden retriever rally if cut back from 16 tennis balls to 6?)
Be aware of mothers and mothers-in-law who unclutter their houses into yours with gifts. You can be grateful and still unclutter your house in similar fashion. "If you're more organized you'll feel better about the world and yourself."
A slide show covers practical tips for space-saving storage -- the use of pegboards, drawer partitions, special rods, hooks, step shelves, over-the-door hangers, shoebags for scarves and mittens. Interspersed are lists of maxims such as, put like things together at point of first use; stay flexible. ("Storage needs will change. With two children I'm moving from games with hundreds of little pieces to bats and mitts.")
For some vexing situations there may be no solutions. Husbands, as one participant points out, do not share a fondness for stockpiling cardboard boxes. They correctly remark that however large the collection, there is rarely at hand the size needed. They mash up boxes and stuff them in the trash.
Hewitt lets the laughter subside and changes the subject. She hands out lists -- of agencies to reach for pickup, recycling, disposal; papers to be kept in safe deposit, in current or permanent home file, or in the wallet.
As we leave, she calls after us, "Don't just make a giveaway box. Give it! And be sure to telephone me. I'll be glad to get your reports."