I’m here to tell you a little story of what it is like to be a regular person, non-super hero, keeping an organized home.
My home functions as a resting space for me and my husband, a playground for our step dog, and a sanctuary for our lizard. It also is the place that we cook, eat, entertain, watch football, sew, weave, open the mail, fold laundry, write thank-you notes, write, make coffee, sip cider and read by the fire, carve pumpkins, store a staggering sneaker collection, shower, dress, and conduct the other activities of living a life in New York City. In other words, I have to know how to make my apartment function in 20 different ways over the course of one day, without getting destroyed in the process.
The truth is: I’m not all that good at it.
In the past few months, things really started getting away from me. I would clean and rearrange every in the seemingly never ending tide of miscellany that scattered my living room, office, and bedroom only to have it reappear the next day.
On our kitchen table sat pens, unopened medical bills, tweezers, lizard vitamins, a silver cup given to me by my grandfather. On my desk lay even more – contact lenses, post-its, old business cards, jewelry, hair spray. Shelves inside my coat closet were stuffed with scarves, hats, and gloves I never wore. The beautiful items I did like, such as the blazer that belonged to my grandmother, were crushed in sad little balls in the back.
The clutter wasn’t scary to look at; it wasn’t glaring to visitors (the reason why I don’t have satisfying before and afters of this project). But it took me ages to get ready in the morning because I couldn’t find my glasses, keys, cell phone, or moisturizer, and if I had to get work done at home, I could barely function because of the low-grade panic I felt at the that if I got distracted by a sink full of dirty dishes, it might take me an hour to get back to my work.
My heart rate rises just thinking about it.
As my wedding approached this past September, I started to experience actual panic attacks when trying to work from home. I felt suffocated and trapped by everything I had to do, but too paralyzed to make the decision to start doing it. In other words: even though I work for a professional organizer and knew what the solution was, I just couldn’t do it on my own. I needed to ask for help.
Every year, Kate and Ann give me a little bonus during the holidays, which in part consists of a day of organizing. That means that they take a day out of their packed schedule to come to my apartment and help me sort through my things. They do this for each other on a regular basis – performing sort of a routine maintenance on their clothes – assessing the most efficient use of their stuff, donating what they can, and recycling the rest. Doing this in small batches on a regular basis keeps their homes functioning.
But I am not they, and their visit to my home was more of the lifesaving variety than the routine tidying up.
WHAT WE DID
It turned out that my apartment was not insanely stuffed or particularly messy. What happened was that somewhere along the way, a ring of unnecessary stuff had formed like an orbiting asteroid belt around what I truly needed. And my daily routine was so disordered because I had to tear through this layer of unnecessary stuff in order to do simple things like get dressed, brush my teeth, do my hair and makeup, and leave the house frantic and miserable.
Furthermore, a sense of dread had settled around my heart, making it impossible for me to tackle this on my own (or, to be honest, with my husband, not because he is unhelpful, but because I was so anxious that a day of power-organizing would have been potentially emotionally explosive).
I believe that the trick to Kate and Ann’s process of working with clients is that there are two of them. Kate was often right next to me, pulling items off of shelves so I could make decisions about them. Whatever I chose to donate or recycle, I would pack into bags, while Ann would take the keep pile and fold them neatly back into the closet in ordered piles.
That there were two people providing a stream of physical help and emotional support throughout the day meant that we worked for four hours instead of eight, covering everything from the living room, bathroom, closet, and office. When I didn’t know whether or not to throw something away, they asked a series of practiced questions to help me make the decision. How often do you use this? Which room do you use it in? Tell me about your routine. They would immediately know how to use it best. If I didn’t use something but wanted to keep it, they figured out way to incorporate it into my daily routine so it didn’t lay forgotten in a corner somewhere.
Of the items that left my apartment that day: jackets that didn’t fit, towels that were torn and stained, broken and rusted cookware. Books I haven’t read in years, mail I never opened, and about 17 catalogues from stores I don’t shop at. Dry pens, broken art supplies, useless cords, outdated DVD’s. Frumpy sweaters, shrunken t-shirts, fraying socks, torn sweats.
I have to be honest when I say that I’ve always been a bit mystified by the prices of a professional organizer. I have worked as one onsite, so of course I know that the work requires a special combination of physical stamina and emotional intelligence. It is exhausting work, and takes great spatial and interpersonal skill. But would I ever pay someone hundreds, or even thousands of dollars for the service? What does it really do?
I know now what it does. That sense of dread I felt when waking up in the morning? Gone. The panic attacks when having to work from home? Vanished.
Getting dressed in the morning is easy and swift. My laundry situation, once paralyzingly complicated because of my insistence that I hand wash half my clothes: fixed. My night skin routine is perfectly efficient. It takes me about five minutes flat to put on makeup in the morning, and put it all away again.
In the past three weeks, I’ve cooked maybe half the nights, which is something I usually avoid due to fear of having a meltdown at all the dishes. My husband is full, happy, and mystified at why he’s not doing cooking and cleaning as he usually does.
When I get mail, I open it and throw it out. I have a system for paying bills. My lizard’s vitamins are on a shelf with his food and toys. My work files are on a dedicated shelf, separate from my personal ones. My books are neatly stacked on the bookshelf. I know where to find a pen, a thermometer, a pair of tweezers, my checkbook, and stamps. In other words, everything in my apartment serves a purpose and has a home.
Four hours with Done & Done would have cost me about half a month’s rent, or a thrifty vacation. To be fair: the clothes I consigned through them will net me half of that fee back. Not to mention the tax deductions I will receive from the donations. But nevertheless, it is a lot to put forth up front.
But the feeling that my life is infinitely easier every single day is almost indescribable. I no longer run out of my house in the morning to the office just to escape the madness. Somehow, even though I am not waking up any earlier, I feel like I have more time in the morning and I luxuriate in it. My morning routine is calm and productive. I listen to a podcast, eat my breakfast, do my dishes, leave the house. I am happy and ready to face the day.
To keep my heart light and ready to enthusiastically live my life, to be able to save money by working and cooking from home, to avoid the colossal emotional and fiscal expense moving — I would forgo one vacation per year to make that my reality. Without a doubt.