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?
This past week my husband and I traveled to Bar Harbor, Maine for a short vacation, and made it a priority to do some exploring in Acadia National Park. It features the best of two hiking worlds - coastline and mountains. As is my custom, I researched the heck out of trails and found a combination of two that I thought would fit in with our desire to see as much as possible within the timeframe we had.
We started out on the easy Ocean Path next to the shore. Gorgeous day. Slight breeze. A fair number of other people were out, but it wasn’t crazy crowded. And dogs - lots of people were hiking with their doggos, which is as much a part of the scenery for me as any scenic vista. We turned inland to the right for the Gorham Mountain Trail, described online with such encouraging terms as “relatively modest,” and “gentle ascent." I’m not sure who writes these descriptions, but as we neared the trailhead we saw a big yellow sign: WARNING - Backcountry trail. Take water. Tell someone where you're going. This did not sound particularly modest or gentle, but we saw tons of people coming and going. I rationalized - the sign seemed like overkill.
So in my never-ending quest to travel light, I skipped packing my hiking boots. We didn’t bring any water either. Water for a 2 mile “gentle” hike in 70-degree weather?? Pshh. Well, ok...actually we forgot. While I’m not sure I could be accused of being outdoorsy, I’ve done a fair amount of hiking. I was a Girl Scout. I’ve been around and about on Rainier, hiked in Glacier, explored Chaco Canyon and Bandelier National Monument, trekked all over the Smokies, even climbed to roughly 11,000 feet on Santa Fe Baldy. But never have I ever hiked a trail that looked like this, the whole way:
The entire thing was covered in rocks - not gravel, mind you, but like mini-boulders. Rocks all the way up, rocks all the way down. I kept thinking that at some point the path would smooth out some but heck no. My lightweight Nike cross-trainers were totally inadequate for the task, slippery and wobbly. It quickly became less of a stroll and more of an awkward, tense climb. Again I rationalized, and talked to myself…”Two miles. For heaven’s sake, it’s only two miles. Way less than the typical treadmill workout. I’m into it this far. I’m kind of thirsty, but there are like at least 100 other people out here who would probably take pity on us if I collapsed. Oh my God, Sara, you are not going to collapse. You’re just uncomfortable, and your legs are a little short, and this is different - that’s all."
I found myself comparing my experience to the dozens of people who were better prepared. People who had the common sense to wear the right shoes and bring along some hydration. But then I saw the couple with the dachshund, bravely wagging her tail as she hopped across the stones with her tiny legs. And the tall, tough-looking guy wearing flip-flops looking hapless, maybe even a little sheepish, but determined. So I resolved to make friends with the path and slowed down. One rock at a time. We made it to the top, and were rewarded with sights like these along the way:
Just past the peak, we encountered a family coming up from the opposite direction - Mom, Dad, four small kids (one strapped on Dad’s back), and their dog. They had stopped next to some boulders to regroup, blow noses, and calm some whining. Mom looked at us and asked with more than a hint of desperation, “Is it far?” No, we assured them. You’re almost there, you’ll make it. It’s a cool view. It’s totally worth it to keep going - hang in there.
Sometimes, despite a reasonable amount of experience and thinking you’ve done your research, you miss something. You disregard something you didn’t think was essential. Maybe in a sense, it wasn’t - but it sure would have made the path more comfortable to have it. Although being well-prepared to reach a goal is always a wise way to move forward, as long as it’s not reckless it can still be rewarding to proceed without all the right tools - or even carrying some extras you didn’t need. If you start to organize a space and find you’ve neglected to consider your inadequate storage options, or how to dispose of things, or even pick up extra trash bags, there’s still the option to continue. Imperfectly, perhaps, but still continue and be successful. Slowing down and not allowing an imperfect set of conditions hold you back can be a thing.
Connecting with my authentic, sometimes unprepared, and wimpy self is uncomfortable. And connecting with an authentic, sometimes unprepared, and disorganized self is also uncomfortable. But it’s totally worth it to keep going - so hang in there.
“You’re off to great places, today is your day. Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way.” - Dr. Seuss
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?