Home & Design

Cottage Chronicle #12: Swedish Marie ‘n Me

Bitten by the de-cluttering bug, I converted an entire guest bedroom with a walk-in closet into a walk-in closet of paper. Then, one day, I had to do something about it. / Photo by Mary Lowengard.

By Mary Lowengard

IN MY SALAD days, that period between college graduation and the day I could afford digs with a dishwasher, I lived in a series of apartments that were long on charm but short on closet space. 

My first-ever apartment, a studio, had an impressive set of built-in cupboards with shelves that extended back into some Upper East Side fourth-dimension Twilight Zone where sweaters and socks disappeared forever. No closet, so I hung my “important” dresses on the shower rod, which regularly collapsed from the weight. Everything else I owned was piled or shoved into the cupboards. This was four years before The Container Store was founded. The water hyacinth storage basket had yet to be invented.

In Search of Apartment Closets Perdu

My bedroom in my next apartment also had no closet. I commissioned a starving artist friend to construct one. He is no longer starving and is now a sculptor of some renown. His closet is possibly the most valuable piece of unsigned art in the apartment, the rent-stabilized lease of which is still in “the family.” He has, however, sworn me to secrecy and will kneecap me if I ever even hint at his identity.

I rented a place in the West Village in the mid-1980s that included not one but two closets, which the real estate agent called bedrooms. I hammered common nails—big ones—into the walls and proceeded to hang my clothes on them. Not quite 9-inch nails, but close. I promised myself I would someday, someway live in a place that had not only closets but a dishwasher. My friend Pam had a dishwasher. She stored her shoes in it.

Fast-forward 10 years. I acquired a 1,350-square-foot cooperative apartment in New York City with seven closets. And a dishwasher! It was as if I’d died and gone to seven-closet dishwasher heaven! Also acquired: three adorable, snuggly children, a cat, a turtle and a hamster. Meaning, those closets filled to capacity rapidly. For about a decade, I kept to a seven-week closet-cleanout rotational schedule, to keep them from becoming part of a liability lawsuit due to something falling on the head of an unsuspecting door opener. Once a week I’d pull everything out of the closet-of-the-week and apply the 7 Rs to each item:  reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose, refuse, rethink and/or regurgitate. The following week, it was on to the next closet. By the time I returned to the previous week’s closet eight weeks later it had become, yet again, a superfund site that would make any insurance adjuster’s heart go a-flutter.

Then, quite abruptly, my spacious apartment was occupied by three hulking, sulking teenagers. Closets ceased to be a problem because who put anything in them, anyway?  I gave up on the closet cleanup and hid in my bedroom for the next eight years.

The Cult of the Cleanup

I embraced the anti-clutter sentiment, if not the movement itself, long before juxtaposition of “spark” and “joy” gave birth to an industry that was projected, pre-pandemic, to be worth $19.6 billion by 2021. The Freedonia Group (for real) now forecasts in its “Home Organization Products Study” that more than half of that will go to purchase of organizational gizmos, projected to top $12.7 billion by 2023. 


KonMari Storage Boxes guaranteed to spark joy, constructed of Paulownia wood, whatever that is, and available for a mere $55 more than your basic Adidas shoebox./ Photo from KonMari.com.

And this number excludes costs for external storage units, design and construction for the custom closets these baskets go into, and all those decluttering consultants roaming the earth charging the same hourly rate as your trusts and estates attorney who is a senior partner in her law firm.

Not for nothing, right there on page 146 of her magnum opus, Marie Kondo expressly eschews purchasing fancy boxes, advocating instead ye old shoebox as perfectly acceptable, yet has now thrown in the towel and is sparking joy (presumably for her own bank account) through her branded product line.  

Still, stuff just, you know, accumulates. I discovered the sparkable joy in cheap storage rates in “the country” (i.e., New Jersey) and exiled what I could thataway for several years.  

When I bought my Bucknoll cottage, my first second home, my refuge, my “happy place,” it had closets to spare, a basement and an attic. In short, it was a 3,000-square-foot storage space. I transferred four dozen Bankers Boxes of paper (both the container and the stuff within) from paid storage to the basement. Then, warned by my architectural spiritual adviser Danielle that there shalt be no cloth or paper in a basement, ever, I moved them all from the basement to the attic, a crawl space accessed by a rickety pull-down folding ladder. Like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, I rationalized that anything out of sight wasn’t clutter. And there the Bankers Box Company’s Bankers Boxes remained, undisturbed for eternity, or perhaps for my future biographer.

Death Cleaning the IKEA Way

One fine April day several years later, while operating under the influence of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, an extended inspirational essay masquerading as a best seller, I was finally motivated to transfer the boxes to a second-floor bedroom. This required a houseguest bucket brigade with me positioned at the top of the ladder, Julie at the bottom and Chris hauling the boxes into the bedroom a few steps away and depositing them on the floor.

Yes, my life became, for several months, a paper chase. /Photo by Mary Lowengard.

We celebrated completion of this task with a fine Italian barolo and a passing of the naproxen bottle.

Getting to the Bottom of The Paper Chase

Every weekend, spring into summer and beyond, I sorted, stacked and chucked. I organized the boxes into territories: Corporate Work, Financial Flotsam, Journalism Jetsam, Creative (i.e., unpublished) Writing, Kids, Travel, Personal and Et Cetera. There was a lot of Et Cetera. I was on a mission of strategic conquest, like Hannibal or perhaps Genghis Khan, territory by territory. Except it was paper, not civilizations that I was vanquishing. 

Wholesale jettisoning of paper was not going to happen, however. I’m a writer! Those words are my precious children! From the many forms of paper—published articles, background materials, faded faxes from copy editors—I separated out samples of my best work and filed the rest in Whole Foods grocery bags. These I transported back to New York and quietly commingled with my building’s. I didn’t shred—I’m over shredding. Anyone who wants to steal my identity is welcome to it. Warning: There is college-tuition debt attached.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

While döstädning is always time-consuming, the process was not without pleasures. Before there was an Internet and email, there was something called letter-writing. I had many epic epistolary relationships in the years before the word processor arrived, and it appeared that I saved every letter, billet-doux or otherwise. Reading these sparked joy and often outright guffaws. I found—and returned in a silver frame—a postcard from a friend who rapturously declared she’d met “the one.” Yes, they’ve been married now for more than three decades. 

My so-called epistolary life, predating the invention of word processing, returned to senders except for few truly embarrassing letters saved for future blackmail purposes. / Photo by Mary Lowengard.

I stashed away, for Christmas gifts, packets of saved letters that I returned to senders, inviting them to take a walk down their own memory lanes. Or burn them, as they wished. It was a hit. And it rekindled several friendships that had faded over the passing of the years. 

Eventually, I whittled my forest of paper down to a mere six boxes, which I think is an entirely reasonable amount of paper to hoard.

Next up: I set my sites on clearing out the basement, a veritable weed-choked garden of excess furnishings. But first, I needed a few years off and a chance to cook up some of that Pickled Rosehip Marmalade “Andréa in Bohuslän,” a fishwife neighbor of the author, contributed to the death-cleaning book. Why exactly was this included? Beats me. Perhaps the author just couldn’t bear to throw the recipe out.

Mary Lowengard really did own a country cottage once upon a time somewhere in Pennsylvania. She changed names to protect the innocent, and thanks KW, JM, JAR and Woody, who made these stories possible. For the full story, click here


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2 thoughts on “Cottage Chronicle #12: Swedish Marie ‘n Me

  1. Mark Aarob says:

    This rang a bell. I definitely save too much paper. You’ve inspired me to chuck some of it.

  2. Denise says:

    I love all of your chronicles … this one touches a soft spot. I love paper! I’m inspired to start tackling my “under the stairs – all (paper) things from our three lives” (can you
    imagine the Kindergarten box of J’s?)… but wait, I’m on the road … I’ll just have M keep the door shut for awhile longer!!

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