I don't know about you but I am a sucker for a good story. I never thought that someday I would have a kind of work that relies on people telling their story to me so that decisions can be made about their material world and environment. Even better, that there is a profound connection between life told and personal objects that isn't talked about enough in the organizing industry.
In the work I do as a personal organizer it may seem as if I'm the only who'd need to do the talking. After all, they hired an expert, right? Someone who is going to tell them how to solve all their clutter problems?
What happens in each session is the opposite in some ways. We tackle an area and we sort together. They talk while I listen. We sort. Talk. Sort more. I ask questions. They tell me about things. We put like with like together and more questions flow until decisions are made.
For example, 13 staples lined up on a table has more influence on decluttering than just knowing you have a lot of staplers. It actually forces you to say, “What the heck? How did I get so many of these? Maybe I only need 3 of them and I’ll donate the rest to a local school. How did I end up with so many?” The answer: I would always lose one somewhere in the house and I'd buy another. This is probably one of the biggest reasons people have too many one type of thing in their home.
At moments of sorrow and exhaustion, it is only too easy to look back over the years and feel that our lives have, in essence, been meaningless. We take stock of just how much has gone wrong: how many errors there have been; how many unfulfilled plans and frustrated dreams we’ve had. - from The Book of Life, CHAPTER 4: SELF: VIRTUES OF CHARACTER (off shoot of the *School of Life.com, see more below)
Clients share their stories to gauge the importance of things. As in the passage I've quoted above, they take stock of what's gone wrong, of unfulfilled plans, while handling things. When we are handling their things, buried in boxes and closets and shelves, each piece forces a kind of reckoning. Even receipts remind of a point in time. Objects like old holiday cards, train tickets, napkins with phone numbers written on them trigger memories. These are memories of people, of times spent in one endeavor or another, careers or places once lived.
The small stories that spill out are sometimes as intense as the longer, life altering stories.
A flannel shirt whose original owner is beloved dad, was meant to be worn by my client in her lake house with hubby, but as of yet, no husband or lake house has made an appearance.
The sex toys bought for a past girlfriend trigger the question of whether these kinds of things can be used on a new girlfriend and what meaning might be conferred by even asking the new girlfriend about those toys.
The artwork of a nephew who died of cancer as a child. Keeping it all is deemed part of continuing to love and remember him, even though there is isn't much room as her own children are growing and contributing to her art archives.
The paperwork of a one time business bought for her by soon to be ex-husband. Now that divorce is looming, should she just get rid of it all because she will soon be looking for full time employment to support herself and her daughter?
The stories in each session ends in our eventually putting it in the let go pile or the keep. Sometimes a bit of talking has to happen before a final decision can be made. Of course, I weigh in to help things along, more often than not they have already decided and just want me to validate their choice. At times, I have advocated for less is more, but not always, not with books. Books are the one item that I will never try to coax out of a home. And sometimes they let go of something that later ends up getting kept.
The good storyteller appreciates that a life can remain meaningful even when it contains long passages that might appear, at first glance, to be merely a waste of time. We may spend a decade not quite knowing what we want to do with ourselves professionally, trying out a number of different jobs and never settling in any of them, testing our parents and enduring the skepticism of our friends. We may go through a succession of failed relationships that leave us confused and hurt. But these experiences don’t have to be dismissed as merely meaningless. The wandering and the exploration may be intimately connected to our eventual development and growth. We needed the career crisis to understand our working identities; we had to fail at love to fathom our hearts. We cannot get anywhere important in one go. We must forgive ourselves the horrors of our first drafts. -from The Book of Life, CHAPTER 4: SELF: VIRTUES OF CHARACTER
In our culture, many of these life events or the boring parts are punctuated with buying.
The new wardrobe we award ourselves after landing the first job is, ten years later, out of date and ill-fitting. We outfit our first kitchen in a new apartment. Then discard half of the purchases when a new job across the country beckons. Some buy entire collections of things out of anger at a cheating spouse. Mid life crisis purchases can be impressive and especially hard to discard later. We move and buy all new furniture and find that some of the furniture is isn't good for when a baby is on the way, like the glass coffee table with sharp corners or the unstable bookshelf in the dining room. In the 8th month of pregnancy some objects start to look menacing in the presence of a soft tiny body who will one day soon be innocently sitting beneath it.
We buy new things as we develop and grow and buy ever more as we outgrow who we were three, five or fifteen years ago.
Seems natural enough, right?
But we are not as good about the discarding. We need organizing books and online articles to encourage us and friends and family and professionals to help us do it. It's really never fun work at all, the weeding out of the unnecessary, unless we can imagine a little bit of the future and how enjoyment of our home or efficiency of our work space can be returned to us with just one afternoon's bit of work.
The last passage in the excerpt above struck me:
We must forgive ourselves the horrors of our first drafts.
This is very important in the work I do. Self forgiveness for having once bought things that we'd later throw away or give away. We excuse ourselves, once and for all, for having more than we need.
I hear what clients say outright during sessions and cringe. They say in frustrated tones to themselves or to me, I'm never quite sure, that they don't know why they have so many of something, or that they shouldn't be allowed to buy anything. Or that they can't wait until they are not this person anymore.
They tell me they are embarrassed or would never want anyone to see the way they are living. Mind you, none of my clients are clinical hoarders and many have very nice homes. I tell them we are doing something about it now and that's where our focus and energy should remain.
I'm convinced this is how we develop, eventually, into enlightened consumers. By working with people who will talk about the excess, or the objects made trivial by time, or letting go of bad memories associated with something a sense of wisdom drifts into their buying habits. They'll ask themselves, will this be something I'll just get rid of soon? Do I really really really need this? Am I buying this just because I've started dating again and I think this will make me look younger? Is this an empty nester splurge I'll regret?
I see, with some long term clients, that habitual consumption does slow down in time. They were able to discharge the mistakes of the past through the process of letting go and they developed a new awareness. They continue to keep possessions light on their own, more and more, without me.
Exactly how it should be, since I don't do this work for the return business. I want progress for them which means that eventually they won't need me. I'd like to believe that over time, they will adopt the habits of our many sessions together. I will become that organizer they used to work with a long time ago. Someone who made a difference in how they live and how they set up home.
Creating space is what the unfolding stories support. Space to live, to breathe, to develop into a new person and enjoy the benefits of an environment that supports thriving.
*School of Life: The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one's past, how to achieve calm, and how better to understand and, where necessary change, the world.
**In case you hadn't read in a previous post, I am writing a book. It's a memoir exploring nine objects I keep (that don’t bring me joy but are loaded with history and personal meaning) and how I use my way of working with clients on myself. It's a way to share things I've learned as a personal organizer in NYC that I just don't see in the conventional organizing advice that gets peddled in books, magazines and the marketing campaigns of products designed to help people organize.