A question was raised recently about whether or not I was organized as a child. I was a bit stumped. It got me to thinking about the whole topic, and how my concept of it might have changed over the years.
In our house, when I was growing up, my mother had clear zones. The living room was always what some in the South might call "preacher perfect." In other words, theoretically, the only time it was used was when the pastor would come to call. So nothing was out of place, everything always dusted, no dents in the couch cushions. When you opened the front door, whoever was standing on the porch would have a limited view of what appeared to be a well-kept, organized home.
But if you walked through our 70s-era swinging door into the den, complete with paneling and wall-to-wall carpet, you'd have a somewhat different picture. Mom had a chair where she crocheted, read books, made notes about recipes or landscaping ideas, and dog-eared her catalogs (planning for Christmas, naturally), and all of these things would be strewn and mixed about. The family cat had her own pillow, covered in fur. If you went even further into the utility/laundry area, you'd see my mother's latest oil painting project, a sewing machine table stacked high with fabric, and a pile of ironing. There might be a jewelry project in a tray on the kitchen counter, and dishes drying, and a collection of leftover canning lids.
In the garage, my dad and my older brother generally had all sorts of mysterious woodworking and car repair tools spread across a workbench. Because they were using them, of course. At any given time there might be an entire car engine taken apart on the floor, or pieces of wood and sawdust all around the circular saw.
I never stopped to consider whether our house was organized or not - I guess because I could usually find what I needed, and I was comfortable. I took a lot for granted. And although Mom was big on decorating and redecorating, I think she looked at the arrangement of things in the house in a practical way. If things didn't fit in the pantry, it was time to clean it out. If I wasn't playing with my Barbies anymore, they needed to be stored or given away. Dad had his tools out when he was using them, put them in the toolbox or cabinet when he wasn't (and not in a hyper-ordered fashion). I don't think either of them worried about someone seeing their "stuff" out, because why wouldn't they have stuff out? The spotless living room was enough to prove they knew how to welcome someone. They didn't overthink it.
The phrase "we live in our house" jumps into my mind. Having a perfect house at that time was actually an uncomfortable state of being, at least in the circles we ran in. In a perfectly neat home, where do you sit without worrying about messing something up? What if you want to spread out a craft project? A puzzle? What if you want to bake up a batch of something to put in the freezer? How do you wash your hands without messing up a guest towel? I remember dating someone in college and going to visit his parents' home for the first time. Not a thing was out of place, anywhere. The kitchen had absolutely nothing on the countertops - not even a cookie jar or a toaster. We came upon his mother in the guest bathroom, scrubbing an already-spotless sink with a toothbrush. We hadn't told her we were coming over, so apparently, this atmosphere was normal. Perhaps it was comfortable for their family, but I was instantly, distinctly, ill at ease. Why was that? Would I be uncomfortable now, or would I admire it?
Sometimes I wonder about weird things like whether or not hoarding existed in the Middle Ages, or if decision-making was ever an issue for the Vikings. There's a whole study of material culture that someday, in all my spare time, I want to dig into. For now I wonder, looking through today's lens of what "organized" is, how would I assess my childhood home? If my mother were alive to hire me to work with her, what would I do?
Has my perception of organization changed over time, maybe because of social media, or books or TV shows? I know I often point out to clients that there is a clear difference between neatness, aesthetics, and organization. They can work together, but I don't believe they are all the same thing. You can have a spectacular, Instagram-worthy pantry, but that doesn't mean it's functional. Looking back, yes, I think I had organizing tendencies as a child. But I was also fortunate to grow up in an atmosphere falling in the "Goldilocks Zone" of organization - not too much, not too little. Maybe I stumbled a bit on the original question because I judged my childhood self with 2019 organizing standards*.
What was the organization like when you were young? Is your definition of it any different now than it was 5, 10, or more years ago?
*Many thanks to Janet Barclay for asking the question!
There’s a day I’ve been looking forward to and dreading for the past 18+ years. I knew she would grow up. I knew that she wouldn’t be little and towheaded and innocent forever. And I knew I would have a lot of fun planning with her about how to get the dorm room in order, buying those IKEA duffle bags, and helping to pack everything up. She and I are a lot alike in many respects, our trend towards organization being one of them. When she was a toddler, her regular babysitter noted how carefully she sorted and put away her Little People, board books, and wooden puzzles. “That girl needs to be in a Montessori preschool!” Ms. Barbara proclaimed. And so she was. Now here she is, about to be the master of her loft bed and fairy-light universe - and well beyond. I’m not worried.
It’s yet another transition. Just when I think we have everything rocking along on an even keel with schedules, closets, commitments, and containers, something changes. Sometimes it’s huge like the firstborn heading off to college, and sometimes it’s comparatively small, like finally upgrading to a new MacBook Pro on tax-free weekend. Both very positive, and transitions I’m grateful for. Sometimes changes are tragic, sometimes exciting, occasionally mind-numbing. But the effect most any transition has on us is uncertainty and disorientation. Where it used to take me 15 seconds to type up an email and attach a document, it now takes 30 - because I’m not used to looking in a different spot for the file, but also because my brain is wondering if a new computer was such a good idea after all. I like it, but it means doing things differently. Next Sunday when I head off to do the weekly grocery run, I will be missing my regular helper. Will it take more time because she won’t be there to run back to an aisle for something I forgot, or help with taking the bags into the house? How disorienting will it be that I won’t be chatting with her as we pick out the best bananas? Those little moments add up.
Transition changes the environment, too. When you get a new puppy, it’s exciting and fun. But it also totally goofs up your routine and often encourages the accumulation of lots of new things - toys, leashes, dishes, treats, cute little sweaters. Then it’s uncomfortable to realize that:
We crave new, happy, fun things but when we finally get them, there is frequently a corresponding uncomfortable side. When we’re preoccupied with, or even resisting that discomfort, we ignore other things that should get our attention. The efficient management of stuff gets put on hold.
From the beginning, my husband and I have planned and prepared for our daughter to head off to college - financially, emotionally, educationally. But here it is, four days away, and I am very uncomfortable.
Many of you may be facing similar happy-yet-perplexing transitions. Because these transitions are supposed to be positive, I think we’re even more likely to push aside conflicting feelings. You might shut down, get sucked into social media or news, go shopping, or take on extra commitments. And then you wonder how life ends up disorganized. What other ways could we approach bittersweet transitions and mitigate some of the resulting chaos? The phrase “lean in” is a bit overexposed and has certain connotations in the business world now, but I found this definition on Grammarist.com that fits my thoughts:
"An older meaning for 'lean in' is to incline into something, such as a skier leaning in at a turn or pedestrian leaning in to the wind during a heavy gale.”
Love me some Grammarist. If the skier leans back, they lose their balance and will likely fall. If you try to stand straight when you walk in the wind, you get pushed backward. If I lean into these new changes and discomforts as opposed to fighting or ignoring them, what might happen? I’m still working it all out, but I know I’m getting the urge to clean out a bunch of closets around here.
Maybe we need a puppy. : )
I was working with someone recently and asked them to pick up a particular object we had been pondering. What the object was is not material to the story - it was one of those pivotal objects I’ve talked about in posts past. It was small and seemingly insignificant, but it had us engaged in quite a conversation:
Client: “No, I haven’t used it in the three years since I bought it. I should just get rid of it. But actually, as I hold it, I realize I do like using things like this. Maybe now that I’ve uncovered it, I can find a use for it.”
Me: “Ok, then, where would you like to store it so you can find it?”
Client: “NO! I don’t want to store it, I don’t have room! This is crazy. I need to pitch it.”
Me: “So shall we donate it?”
Client: “But then again…I haven’t even opened it. I’ll keep it. I’m sure I’ll use it.”
And so on. Perhaps the dialogue sounds familiar. I finally asked the client to stop and breathe deeply, and tell me exactly what he felt when he held it and looked at it.
“Waves upon waves of discomfort.”
I think sometimes we all encounter objects we own, or even tasks or obligations, that elicit similar feelings. We humans don’t like to be uncomfortable, do we? We have invented all sorts of fascinating tools to keep us protected from discomfort, like electric blankets and air conditioning. The world managed to do without either until they were invented in the early 1900s (and how many electric blankets have I taken for donation over the years?). In my research for “inventions that make us more comfortable,” I even found this nifty device:
But I digress.
The point is, when someone tells me they want to make their spaces more organized and manageable, they often use words like “peaceful” and “comfortable.” The irony is that getting to that place of peace and comfort requires engaging in what is, for many people, a distressing process. A process that has been avoided to avoid discomfort. Which then leads to being uncomfortable with life, which leads to a phone call to an organizer or other professional to help with the discomfort. Ack.
Pinpointing the exact source of irritation can be like herding cats. If we have lots of clutter, it makes us uncomfortable. If we let go of the clutter, it might make us uncomfortable. Or is it more that thinking about letting go of the clutter makes us uncomfortable? Or both? Is it easier to just decide to be comfortable with the current situation? There’s a lot to dig into here, and in the coming weeks, I’m planning to do just that. It's part of why I renamed the blog. Instead of only sorting through things, my work with clients involves taking a look at what all is behind the things that need sorting. It's never been just about stuff. For the record, my client worked through their discomfort. They accepted where they were, and kept the object in question - which actually led to a much bigger positive result (and some peace and comfort).
As always, I'd love for you to share your thoughts. Where do you come face to face with discomfort, or irritation, or unease in your organizing adventures?
p.s. And what do you think of the name of the blog?
Sara Skillen - Certified Professional Organizer®, Certified Organizer Coach®, wife, mom, and serial list-maker. Learning to trust my intuition more every day. Shall we work together?