Basura, from Spanish trash, was one of the first words my mother learned when we moved to Mexico in 1974. Our housekeeper  then was a lovely bubbly woman who worked at furious but disorganized pace that had my mother going nuts half the time and laughing the rest. On most days we shook our heads at the language barriers we experienced, but took great pains to learn the colloquial terms as quickly as possible to avoid more confusion. What you learn in language class is not necessarily what you will end up using in daily life, as we learned back then and I learned several times over each time I had to struggle with a new language.

Basura, however, means the same in Mexico as it does in the Philippines. Trash. My parents took this word one step further  and invented the basura room, which stuck with me and I still use. No, it is not a glorified trash can, but rather a dumping room for all things unwanted, ignored, or uncategorized. Growing up as an privileged expat brat moving from one country to another often meant pre-assigned houses that we “inherited” from Daddy’s predecessor. Much to my mother’s horror, many of these houses were huge (and I mean four to six bedrooms), and we ended up having more rooms that we ever needed but none of the houses had an attic nor a basement to store luggage, decorations, old clothes, etc. So on more than one occasion Mommy assigned one of the extra rooms as the basura room. It was the one place wehre we could dump all the unopened moving cartons, old toys, or stash surplus furniture. In any case, it was the place to go if you wanted to make something unsightly disappear instantly – but also a good place to hide things! Out of sight, out of mind.

The trouble with basura rooms is that things pile up at an alarming rate because of the convenience. and unless you keep a detailed record of the order like at a warehouse, you also tend to forget what you actually have in it. Daddy engineered the stacking of the boxes on more than one occasion and knew exactly what was where, but then much to his chagrin, Mommy would run the household and pile everything in front or on top of the perfect pile. In the end, they had endless squabbles as to what was where and it was only after Daddy became bedridden three years ago that Mommy and I ventured back into the basura room. Horror of horrors! The things we found, not to mention all the things I never knew we even had! It began as a great treasure hunt, but after a while it became increasingly frustrating and infuriating. The words of a clutter coach (yes, there is such a thing) I met years back echoed in my head: declutter your life.

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John Chamberlain’s “Tower of Klythie” in Berlin, is a tower of scrap metal and pressed cars. ©MTHerzog

At some point, the basura room reaches its maximum capacity and it is time to discard. Easier said than done. I don’t have a  basura room anymore, having whittled down to the bare minimum that now travels around with me, but I do have a small basement space which resembles a giant bird cage more than a storage room. Oh those things are dangerous! I find myself repeating my parents’ history and dumping things in the basement if I am in no mood to deal with it, but when the pest control showed up in the building the other day and announced that he had to inspect all the storage facilities, I got scared. What if there is a rat colony living among my clutter? What if I’m unknowingly harboring a fugitive snake? Worst of all, the little cage is rectangular and narrow, with little maneuvering space. The moving guys did a splendid job at stacking up the boxes I had assigned for storage, but I am my mother’s daughter and keep dumping this, that or the other. Three days ago I went down there and told myself enough is enough. I’m short and have back and knee problems, so I can’t really afford to pile things high in a manner that I won’t be able to reach again when I need to.

I began decluttering.

Decluttering belongs to rooms and material possessions as much as it does to problems and stumbling blocks. Why are we stressed all the time? Why do we feel overwhelmed with life? What are we hiding from? What has piled up in your life that you no longer know how to even begin to sort out? We get caught up in chasing deadlines and obligations that we end up surviving from one day to another instead of living. It’s all about the clutter in our homes, our lives, our work, our thoughts, and the people we deal with.

Basura rooms are convenient emotional crutches that need to be walked away from. I found it very therapeutic to be tearing up boxes and regaining control of my space. Simplicity, I am learning, is hard work.