A few months ago, Jane Parker of Silver Spring was trying to make a birthday card for a friend. Parker, who is an amateur painter with several other hobbies, said she eventually had to give up the project because she was unable to find the right materials among the piles of papers and paints that she had amassed in her house, but had never organized.
"I needed a specific kind of watercolor, and I wasn't able to find it until a month later," she said recently. "It was very frustrating."
Experiences like that led Parker and 19 other adults who think their homes are too cluttered to a lecture last Friday on how to do what their mothers had begged them to do for years: clean up their rooms.
The 75-minute seminar at the Montgomery County government's Wheaton Center was a "Clutter Clinic." It was sponsored by the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension Service for people who have problems organizing their closets, finding those important documents buried under piles of paper, or who obsessively collect rubber bands, wire tie twists, and empty margarine tubs.
Those attending the free clinic ranged from retired people who have a lifetime's worth of accumulated posessions, to young mothers who face a daily mound of children's toys, clothes and games. One woman had recently inherited her parents' estate and felt unable to discard items that she felt emotionally attached to.
Susan Morris, a home economist from the extension service, suggested trying to clean closets only 12 inches at a time. And she cautioned against feeling discouraged when the process seems slow.
"Think of it like weight loss," Morris said. "Some of that clutter has been accumulating for 40 or 50 years, so don't think you're going to get rid of it in one day."
As children cooed and played in the background, Morris distributed several sheets that listed organizational tips, but quickly warned the group: "Don't take any papers you don't want; it just adds to the clutter."
One tip was to find a "clutter buddy," someone to come over to the house and help sort though the mess.
The response to that suggestion was met with laughter when Ina Pinnis, a Rockville resident, said, "Sure, you could invite her over and give her everything you're trying to get rid of."
Other words to live by included this maxim: "If you haven't touched it, smelled it, worn it, sat on it or kissed it in the last two years, get rid of it," although Morris added that spouses should not be judged by the same standards.