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Cutting through clutter, or, unity is overrated

Advice on getting organized isn’t hard to find these days – it seems every other person has clutteritis and needs a feng shui intervention. I’m not immune to the lure of the organized life either: were I able to arrive at an oasis of oversight, it would feel like coming to my true home.

… I think.

Yes, I think it would. Perhaps.

Here’s the rub: my indecisiveness points to a larger problem, and it has to do with trauma (lower case “t” – nothing major, really, but just compelling enough for me).

Some months ago, I invested in a copy of Regina Leeds’s One Year to an Organized Life: From Your Closets to Your Finances, the Week-by-Week Guide to Getting Completely Organized for Good. Leeds is a Zen Organizer, which I think is a philosophy somewhat akin to the ancient Roman notion of a healthy mind in a healthy body, except that in this case the healthy mind is to reside in a healthy environment, namely organized space.

Makes sense to me. The reason Leeds’s approach seems to work for me a bit better than others I’ve tried to implement is precisely because of her savvy psychological insights into why we become pack-rats or late-nicks or lost in the clutter (er, detritus, really) of our physical lives.

Most organizing books assume that you’ve always been a slob, and that the new advice dished out by the book in hand will open your eyes, and change your ways. Leeds understands that some people have decades of slob-dom under their belt (to the point where for some it really is how they’ve “always” been), but she also writes about those of us who used to be organized, laser-like and filled with the energy of the eternally driven, but to whom something happened to derail us.

And she wants to help us get back on track, taking us gently and psychologically by the hand, from room to room until the job is done.

I knew I could like this book, even if it doesn’t turn into the magic wand that gets me my groove back, when I read on p.18:  “It’s powerful to understand the impetus for any change. Sometimes circumstances move us in positive directions. When they don’t, we want to take back the reins. We want to be the architect of our life, not a victim of circumstance.” In this passage Leeds was writing about those of us who were organized, but who then had something change on us. In my case, moving into the house I currently live in has been an unmitigated disaster. There’s no other way to describe it. We bought the house in a semi-demolished state from a man who owned it for about 18 months, just long enough to begin tearing out all the mistakes of the previous owner.

What that meant is that we found ourselves with a house that had 3 bathrooms partially torn out (not a single bathroom intact), with a kitchen that was a wreck, with wiring that was dangerous, with a roof that needed replacing, with load-bearing walls (both interior and exterior) that needed reinforcing (a steel beam in the kitchen where the house had sagged 2 inches because some idiot had removed interior load-bearing walls, and paralam on an exterior load-bearing wall where only 2x4s were holding up a 12-foot span), with plumbing that was literally held together with tape, with no insulation in the walls and no storm windows on the 17 (in words: seventeen!) 4’x5′ single pane windows, and with an attached “garage” whose double door frame had been chain-sawed out so that the previous owner’s son’s monster truck would fit through it.

We had problems finding contractors to work on the house. After we found one, we continued to stay in rented accommodations as long as possible – much longer than intended – with all our stuff packed up in boxes. Finally, we told the contractor that we had to move in – the house wasn’t finished yet, but after months and months of waiting, we couldn’t afford to keep renting.

When we moved in, it was a nightmare. We had 192 boxes of belongings – at least 1/3 of them were boxes with books. But there were no built-in bookcases anywhere in this relatively roomy house, and a carpenter was still crawling around the floor (and around all our boxes), installing baseboards. And so the boxes remained unpacked for several more months while the carpenter showed up on occasion to nail in another baseboard – and we slowly ran out of money. We did contract to have some bookcases built in, till finally, the books could be unpacked – in part. Something as simple as buying simple, stylish, and cheap bookcases, we found, was a challenge on “the island” since the concept of an IKEA is a Mainland thing, not to be found here. You have no idea how wonderful IKEA is for simple things like shelving until there isn’t an IKEA anywhere to be found.

Meanwhile, the garage was still a wreck, and still open to the street. Homeless people started sleeping in it, and we worried they’d set fires to keep warm – and possibly torch our house in the process (the garage is attached). Since the garage was open to the street, all the garden utensils ended up in the basement – along with all the junk that goes into basements. We don’t have an attic, and some “attic items” (like extra bedding materials) ended up migrating into the basement, too. Anyone who has any idea about organizing knows that this is the beginning of the end, because one cardinal rule of organizing is sorting: thou shalt not mix different stuff. But mix we did, and once we started, it was like being on a bender at a cocktail party, with one mixed drink after another.

Eventually, after several years of worrying about the people surreptitiously sleeping in our open garage, we bit the bullet and found the money to renovate the garage at last. Now the garage had a door (which kept the homeless from camping in the space), and I lugged the garden utensils into the garage – but all I was able to muster in my clutter-intoxicated stupor was to dump them on the floor.

I was too far gone. After all, years had now elapsed during which all of us – the spouse, the son, the daughter, and I – had worked continuously at home: the kids and I were homeschooling, the spouse was working from home, I worked (unpaid) from home, and so we were all at home, 24/7/365, utilizing every damn square inch of the house all the time. It was (is, still) a workhouse.

There was no such thing as “coming home” since we were here all the time. We never left. We slept here, ate here, worked here, cooked here, cleaned here, tidied here, laundered here, ironed here, groomed the dog here…

After a while, I seriously felt like dropping things where they fell. I was always the one trying to clean up after everyone, and the house felt like nothing but a giant work machine.

Last year, the son (then 17) started at university. He got out of the house. The daughter (then 14) left to attend a neighborhood high school for her senior year, so she got out of the house (and she’s off to university in Vancouver next month – so she’s really getting out of the house). That meant that I stopped homeschooling, but I was still (am still) working at / from home, as is the spouse. We haven’t yet …escaped.

But I’ve made some progress in clawing back a degree of organization, which in the first instance involves separation.

From the undifferentiated chaos of a constant home-life, which was a constant work-life, I’m separating things into discrete spheres. I feel that if I ever again want to do any real work – the sort that matters to me, the sort that’s driven by real energy and meaning – I will have to find separations. Spare me the group hugs –  unity, I find, is highly overrated. There’s time a-plenty to fall back into an undifferentiated nothingness once you’re dead.

1 Comment

  1. Hey Yule,

    Getting organized is a noble task indeed, and quite a rewarding one (though usually only after finishing something – the actual act of doing it can be a bit tedious).

    Have you considered applying some of the principles of GTD to help yourself overcome what may seem like some of the mountainous tasks in front of you? I have a few friends in a position similar to yours, and after helping them set up a GTD-like system, they’ve found it much easier to actually get the stuff done instead of letting it sit and procrastinate.

    Best of luck either way!

    Comment by Adam — August 13, 2009 #

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