Polly Greeks: An unwanted flatmate

“Stuff” moves in on Polly and Co, requiring a herculean effort (and a clipboard) to knock it into submission.

Words: Polly Greeks

It was a bad case of piles. They were everywhere I looked — eruptions of clutter bubbling from the surface. There were mounds of un-put-away clothes on drawer tops, stacks of materials stashed for future craft projects, and wonky towers of books teetering on sills and ledges. The coffee table was a sculpture called Smothered. The kitchen island was like one of those repository beaches upon which ocean currents unload the world’s detritus.

Each feather, shell, stick and rock brought in by the children landed here, along with random Lego, empty jars of all sizes, artworks, odd socks and the sorts of screws, bolts and other bits of hardware that mysteriously appear in our house, with no one knowing quite what to do with them.

In the lounge, a collection of cardboard boxes (intended as a guinea pig playground) had burst its original confines. Building materials and seedlings competed for space. The coat stand was all but submerged in the tangle of coats, shoes and bags knotted around it, while half-read books, incomplete drawings and a hundred fortuitous trophies acquired from the larger world lay like forestry slash under and over side tables.

How the mess got so out of control is as contentious as cosmological theory. I’m pretty sure it was birthed from a Big Bang moment of liberation. Vitalized by the philosophy that life is precious and too short for wasting, I cried, ‘to hell with being tidy’ back in winter and quit being an unpaid maid. Annoyingly, my husband James, a Virgoan tidy-as-you-go type, says he stopped giving a damn.

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“Face it. You’ve always been a boom-and-bust tidier. This time round, I just went with it.”

Either way, no one denied we had a situation on our hands. An impending visit from relatives alerted me to how bad things had become. Until then, like frogs in a pot of warming water, we’d swum through the clutter, occasionally shuddering at the metaphorical heat, but clambering over the increasing obstacles in an uneasy state of adaptation. Imagining my brother’s family in the house, I saw things through their eyes and was suddenly ashamed. Our decluttering coincided with that of friends. Disillusioned with New Zealand, they were selling up and heading for Central America, looking for a new place to call home. In a move that left me breathless, they’d decided to get rid of everything save the 23kg they could each take on the plane.

“It’s only stuff,” my friend told me breezily, assembling favourite books, pottery and pieces of furniture into a mountainous gift. I staggered home, consumed by a curious mixture of acquisitional happiness and organizational despair.

How to find room for it all? Cl early, I had to jettison before re-loading.

“It’s only stuff,” I echoed unconvincingly into the rubbish sacks I was meant to be filling. Throwing out the kids’ junk was easy but detaching from personal possessions is hard for someone who views books and clothes as friends. Sometimes I wonder if a psychological defect lies at the bottom of my accumulating habit. Does some deep scarcity belief make me accept yet another hand-glazed teapot? Did I need more love as a child? Do I lack faith that tomorrow will bring whatever I need, or is it simply greed that sees me accepting 10 more Agee jars and another feather duvet?

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We sighed with relief at the end of Operation Tidy. Drawers, freed from excess, shut again, and our house seemed to double in size. So much cleared surface made it easier to think and breathe. But we’ve been here before and know vigilance is needed to maintain the spaciousness. All the same, I’d rather one child hadn’t morphed into a frightful sergeant major, patrolling the rooms with a clipboard, baying for fines.

“Relax,” I tell my junior Virgo. The truth is, inspired by our departed friends and the lightness of their loads, I’m on a domestic diet this summer, determined to shed materialistic flab to acquire even more buoyancy of being.


After numerous offshore adventures, Polly Greeks, her husband James and their children Vita and Zendo chose to put down roots in a stand of isolated Northland forest where they are slowly building a mortgage-free, off-grid home and discovering an entirely new way of life.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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