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(photo credit: Wendy Blumfield)
One of the more popular reality TV shows imported to Israel through BBC Prime is Life Laundry. Viewers gape in amazement at the incredible clutter and chaos that can accumulate in a home and the impact it has on the family who live there.
It would seem far fetched that a young able person sleeps on cushions on the floor because her bed is piled high with clothing, worn-out shoes and broken electrical appliances. But regular viewers see homes packed with unopened gift boxes, memorabilia that nobody remembers and kitchen cupboards spilling out moldy cans and spice jars long past their expiration date.
When Jessica Ben-Zvi started watching this program, she was hooked.
Now 27 and married for a year, Ben-Zvi is the daughter of British immigrants and came to live in Israel as a child.
"I was always tidying up," she recalls. "Even when I was at school, I would go to friends' houses and help them clean up their rooms."
She never expected this to become a career choice. After her army service - where she met her musician husband - and university, she traveled to China where she studied the language and became interested in alternative therapies.
Ben-Zvi began by reading websites and books about working with clients on de-cluttering their homes. At first, she worked free of charge for friends.
"Anyone can do this if you are well organized - and a good listener," she says. She derives great satisfaction from experiencing the energy of a de-cluttered home.
The professionals call it "sticky" when a room is full of objects that have not been moved for a long time. Unlike the British origins of Life Laundry, few Israelis live in large houses with their collections of junk in the attics and cellars. As anyone who has lived in a small apartment knows, the less storage space there is, the more the need to resist hoarding unnecessary possessions.
"Even in a small apartment, one room often becomes the dump for things that people are reluctant to throw away," says Ben-Zvi.
She reveals some of the tricks of the trade:
"When the entire house is cluttered, I start with the biggest area. I ask the client to keep out while I prepare a clear area, preferably where I can use existing storage most effectively. Then I ask them to join me and we go through each item."
There are three categories of belongings: items that are either useful or decorative; the sort of stuff whose purpose a client cannot even remember; and things that must be discarded because they are neither useful nor ornamental. This last category includes all those broken toasters that one intended to repair, clothes that will never fit again without impossible body changes, and unwanted gifts that could never be passed on to anyone else.
"The phrase 'just in case' is a mind set," says Ben-Zvi. "It creates a need. You have to try to break the pattern of clutter. Sometimes I just have to hold their hands and listen."
Are people who had been deprived during some stage of their life more apt to hoard junk? Ben-Zvi says it was not usually deprivation but rather some trauma that stopped the routine of tidying and cleaning - and the resulting mess became overwhelming.
"Then they call me when they've had enough. It has to be their own decision and not because they are pushed into it by someone else."
Most of Ben-Zvi's clients come to her through recommendation. Having a stranger going through one's belongings is a very intimate experience, and there needs to be trust.
She does not take pictures of before and after the de-cluttering process.
"It's a very sensitive issue; and although it might be rewarding for them afterwards to see what has been achieved, I do not want to intrude during that initial time when we are getting to know each other," she explains.
She also has to estimate the limit clients want to reach. There are two options: to start small and feel the change in a specific area or room; or to tackle everything ruthlessly.
"It's very exhausting for people to go through their things and make decisions, although I get energized as the space clears," she says.
"Clients sometimes show me some beautiful or valuable piece that had been stuffed away at the back of a cupboard because there is no room for its display. If we cannot find an attractive way of displaying or using it, I try to store it in a way that it will retain its value. Inherited silver or china sometimes just cannot be sold, but displaying it does not necessarily suit the mood of the apartment," she says.
"There is a market for good second-hand stuff," she says, but unlike in Britain, there are few low-cost auction sales or bargain-hunt type country sales.
One should never underestimate the needs of charities for good-quality clothing, bedding or household items. The children or grandchildren may have grown out of all those winter clothes and the old cot or baby bath in the storeroom is not getting any more use - if they are clean and undamaged, they will be gratefully received by people in need. If you have been stocking up on new dishes, cutlery and pans each Pessah, the time will come when there is a surplus and another family may benefit from this donation.
"There is little awareness of recycling here," laments Ben -Zvi, "but it is worth reminding clients that the huge amount of paper being thrown out should be taken to the soldiers' welfare association collection bins."
Whether or not one can discard old clothing, books, ornaments and obsolete appliances without too much pain, there is hardly a household that does not accumulate mountains of paper. By law, accounts need to be kept for seven years, but most families can find bank statements and check counterfoils going back far longer than that.
"I use accordion files for current documents, separating bills and receipts, and other documents that need to be referred to continuously. But the seven years' worth of accounts can be kept in separate envelopes, clearly labeled and stored in one box or cupboard. It does not have to be constantly accessible, just to know where it is," she says.
But the most difficult issue is the sentimental papers - those birthday cards, letters and photographs.
"Keep one box for those documents that are meaningful - a child's drawing or letters from people who have significantly and positively influenced your lives," she suggests.
"Today with digital cameras, the mistakes and the poor-quality pictures can be deleted and the rest is stored on a computer," she notes. But it is hard to part with all those faded pictures from our childhood. And when it becomes impossible to work out whose great-aunt is sitting on a deckchair at Brighton Beach, perhaps that is the time to also select the best and keep them, not in albums that take up space, but stacked in boxes like postcard collections at antique sales.
"I think a bit of chaos and mess in a photo collection is good," says Ben-Zvi.
"A room should serve its purpose," she says, referring to the tendency of academics to fill their bedrooms with books and papers. "A bedroom should be a place of rest and calm."
Experiencing loss and moving on to make space for the future was a sad reality for Ben-Zvi herself. A few months after her wedding, her mother passed away.
"I wanted to give my father back his bedroom," she said, and described how she went methodically through her mother's belongings.
"At first I kept more, thinking I might wear some of her clothes or use her things, but gradually we did let go of the everyday existence, keeping perhaps a bottle of perfume and, of course, jewelry and some of the letters she wrote."
For Ben-Zvi, helping people rid themselves of the clutter in their lives is a task of body and spirit.
"The home should serve you, not control you," she says. "Sometimes when people are lonely, they cling to belongings and the more they fill the space, the more they keep people out. Like many people, I have a tendency to see the dark side - and by clearing the clutter, I can let the light in."
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