The little boat part: a clutter case study


Here’s a little story to illustrate what we’re up against in my family when we try to address our clutter.

For many years, my parents had a small sailboat. In addition to lots of fun, the boat had provided us with some great adventures, like the time we took on water and used my dad’s shoes to bail, or the time we were fighting some fierce winds, struggling to steer, and the rudder blade broke in half. Vivid memories.*

The rudder was not the only part to break; the part pictured here is a replacement for another part that broke at some point. I think I have known what it’s called in the past, but no longer. It’s a bit that allows you to make sure that the sail is pulled down and the boom is pulled up, and everything is nicely tied together.

After a few years of the boat spending all its time under its canvas wrappings, getting no exercise whatsoever, the hard decision was made, and it was eventually sold. We were sad to see it go, but as we tell ourselves, you can’t hang on to everything.

My parents are lake sailors, but enjoy an ocean beach as well.


Several months ago as my mom was sorting through various toolboxes in the garage, she found this shiny boat part. In the abstract, it’s sort of lovely–shiny in places, textured in places, an interesting design. In the concrete, it represented alarm. Oh NO! This goes to the boat, the boat we no longer have! What will the people who now have the boat do without this part? Is this a duplicate, or are those people just mad at us for selling them a boat without this vital whatzit? Who did we sell it to and can we get in touch?

It turned out that we couldn’t find any contact info for the people who had bought the boat, so we don’t know whether they might continue to nurse a sense of betrayal over our withholding of a critical piece of hardware. (Diehard Keepers might say, “You see, if you’d just kept the boat, you wouldn’t be having this tortured feeling.”)

But here we were with this lovely whatzit, perfectly suited to do a job we no longer needed it to do, and unable to reunite with the boat it belonged to. At that point most rational people would be holding the part over some receptacle, likely the trash, or perhaps a bin for metal recycling, or maybe a box of things to donate. But not us–we couldn’t do that to this poor whatzit! It deserved to fulfill its purpose! We took a picture that we posted to the classified section of a local website, we put the whatzit on the kitchen counter, and turned our attention to other things.

Within a week or so, we got a call from some guy who knew what the whatzit was, and who offered to buy it for the nominal fee we listed to avoid random inquirers after anything listed as free. His phone was not local, and he offered to pay for shipping. As this is the sort of thing scammers are known to do, we worked a bit more on the issue, and in the end, I think the man’s son (who lived nearby) came to get the part.

Overall, an hour or two of time was spent getting the whatzit out of the tool box in the garage and into the hands of a person who we hope will be able to use it in the way that the whatzit was designed to be used. Happy ending, if we’re only looking at the whatzit and its narrow escape from everlasting neglect or premature disposal.

But we’re left with a bunch of questions: what happens when you apply a very little bit of math to this situation, and count the number of things in our sphere that are like the whatzit, not being used as they were intended, not needed by us, and not with any easy route toward fulfillment? Armed with that number, we multiply by some smallish number of hours and get as a result some largish number of hours. What do we do with that number? We have to subtract it from something, and that something is going to be our lives–our days, our hours that we had more meaningful uses for, but which we seem to be deciding are at the mercy of the whatzits and the cause of their meaningful destinies.

You can see this clearly from wherever you’re perched as an observer, right? That if we prioritize the destiny of the clutter we don’t use or need, then we are committing resources to helping that clutter achieve fulfillment, and those resources have got to come from somewhere. That somewhere is not an abstract, nameless place–it is us, and our time, our days, our attention, our train of thought. And for every item of clutter I make space for, something will have to go. That would be fine if the clutter were something with feelings and I had made a solemn oath to care for them and it, and also if I had no other priorities, no other responsibilities or values or talents that needed developing, or thoughts that deserved to be expressed.

I admit that I was gratified when the boat whatzit found a new home, against all odds. But I also admit that I’m becoming increasingly conscious of the costs of such shepherding. Rather than making heroic efforts on behalf of inanimate objects that serve no purpose in my life, I need to start making heroic efforts to use my limited resources to invest in connections with actual people rather than things,† and to nurture creative expression.


sailboats in mist on water on a Polish lake


*Kenneth Grahame, author of Wind in the Willows, helps identify why it was hard to decide to say goodbye to the boat: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

†My mom had a nice conversation with the man who ended up buying the whatzit, and that’s not nothing.


[Images: Yours Truly, Mykola Hlibovych on Unsplash]

2 thoughts on “The little boat part: a clutter case study

  1. This is the argument Frank gives me when I spend hours giving things away on freecycle or managing a meeting with someone spending a tiny amount of money for something I’m selling on Craigslist or similar sites. I have become better about just donating and hoping the right person finds the thing at the local charity store. There is something fulfilling, however, in handing a thing directly to the new owner.

    • I hear you. At one extreme you could reference conservation of mass in the universe, and say it just doesn’t matter–chuck it all! But as you say, handing something that’s just been clutter at your house to someone who’s excited to put it to its intended use is very satisfying–when I was doing a lot of it, it felt like Christmas! Finding the balance is what I’m hoping to do.

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