Photo: Elizabeth Griffin, for goodhousekeeping.com
I have a relationship with stuff. It’s an up and down relationship, fraught with a lot of emotions. Until recently, the primary emotions I felt when I looked around my home were a weird mash-up of guilt, gratitude and overwhelmedness. This past holiday season, I gave myself the gift of organization, in the form of Maeve Richmond, and Maeve’s Method, and those feelings started to change.
Much like Gilligan and his infamous “three hour tour”, what I thought might be a quick and dirty clean-out extravaganza turned into an epic, six-month journey through the nether reaches of my closets and my psyche. Along the way, I learned many things from Maeve about organization, and learned more than a few things about myself that helped me reframe my fundamental relationship with the stuff in my life.
To be clear, not all the stuff in my life is mine. A lot of it belongs to my two kids, my immediate or even extended family - given to me to caretake or cherish or inevitably, find again at a moment’s notice (usually when I am in the shower). The influx boggles the mind and the outflow is a trickle. Like many other women, I am the keeper of our memories and our home: our clothes, our beach gear, our art projects, our aging tax returns and the weird mini glow-in-the-dark travel humidifier that we have acquired along the way. Also to be clear, I am profoundly grateful for my home, my life and the circumstances that have brought me to have too much stuff. Yet. It is a LOT of stuff.
Lesson 1: Get over the guilt.
The first thing Maeve does is give permission. To see results you have to reduce volume. This can create moments of heartfelt tears and self-loathing. HOW did I let stuff pile up for so long? I felt ungrateful for feeling overwhelmed and upset. If I wanted to free my time from stuff-management, I had to get over the guilt and give myself the permission to fix it. Maeve uses phrases like “where would this live” and “what is the best home for this” and “tell me about this”. When you start to think of your things as part of an entire eco-system for your life, it becomes easier to pare down the volume to those things you really love. To do that, you have to make peace with throwing out perfectly good things. Find another home for them or donate them. But let them go. My children’s artwork was the hardest for me. I embarked on a system of “art-kiving” and creating records of memorabilia in digital form. Office papers is another tough category. Maeve gave me permission to purge over 15 years of paper backlog. There are a lot of companies that provide home shredding services and the day I used one and cleared out my mounds of paper was a joyous day. I realized how little I actually reference many of the things I thought I needed to keep, and how many statements and bills can be reliably found and used on-line, thus dramatically reducing the paper I felt I need to file.
Lesson 2: Start with a clean slate.
An important part of Maeve’s process is to take everything out. EVERY single little thing. Out of the closet, drawer, box or paper bag it is hiding in - it all needs to come out. Only then can you be confident you have processed it all. This is a step that in previous cleaning frenzies I would neglect. I would purge the top layer of stuff pretty easily, and then kind of rearrange the deck chairs on the Titantic back into exactly the same way they were before, maybe with some fancy new boxes or containers to contain all the same stuff. Then, it would always backlog again. Taking it all out allows you to have the freedom to put it back in an entirely different way. When we moved into our current home 8 years ago, I had 2 little kids and was anxious to just get stuff away. Many things I put in closets on a temporary basis became their permanent homes. Taking everything out allowed me to reimagine the space in a way that better suited my life as it is today. Committing to a clean slate is a very powerful feeling - in life and in Closets 101.
Lesson 3: Close the doors.
Once you clean out the closet, dust it and it is bright and shiny clean, Maeve makes you close the doors. Pause. Breathe. And then open them with a fresh eye. What can this glorious space be? How should it function? Given the location and space, how can this closet or this drawer best be used in your life. And surprise. It does not have to be the way you have been using it!
In life, in work, in love, when something is bottle-necking, it can really help to clear it all out. Pause. Breathe. Look at it with a fresh eye.
Lesson 4: Envision a world that works for you.
One of the single greatest changes in my life came from cleaning out the closet right inside my entry way and creating a “drop zone”. The 4 bags and totes that I toggle between on any given week are right there, lined up, and I have this amazing drawer that is my “go” drawer. My big wallet. My small wallet. My travel umbrella. My extra phone charger. Travel Kleenex. My extra bottle of hand sanitizer and my 6 favorite lipsticks are all there. I pick and pack and drop almost daily. For me, this was life changing, and freed up my home office from being a war zone of hand bags and travel-size toiletries. We also hung pictures on the wall of the closet! A small thing that made a huge difference about how I feel about the space.
Envisioning how a space can best work for your life is about honesty. Putting every day items out of reach or inconvenient because they seem to fit best there, will result in either you not using them or buying duplicate. Change where items live so they function best for how you use them in your actual life. Sometimes things need to find other homes. Another lesson I learned from Maeve is that “like lives best with like”: try to keep all the same thing together in ways that make sense to you.
Lesson 5: The squeaky wheel will get the stuff.
Those places in your home that accumulate stuff will keep accumulating it until you deal with the downstream issues of where the stuff ultimately lives. After I had done all my paperwork, and my coat closet, and my own closet and my bathroom, I still had stuff all over. Kid stuff. I realized I needed to create systems that made sense to my children, as well as to me, so they could be more active agents in managing their own belongings. As Maeve points out, it is a delicate balance when creating systems that work for both parents and children. As a parent, you need to revisit where things live with children periodically, because as they grow older, children will both be able to take more responsibility for their own items and also will have more opinions about where their items should live so it makes sense to them. I had been using basically the same systems for 8 years, with only the toys changing. To keep the entire eco-system moving, we had to conquer the girls’ rooms in a way that would work for the entire family.
Lesson 6: Commit to maintenance.
Few things thrive and flourish if neglected. I do not want to go back to the feeling of overwhelm I had before this journey with Maeve. I want more time to spend with my girls and family when I am not hounding them over cleaning up or stomping around threatening everyone with a ten-gallon size garbage bag. I want to have people over on a moment’s notice without an epic 2 hour game of hide-the-stuff. For these reasons, as well as the sense of calm I get from knowing where to find something I am looking for, I try to stay on top of the volume. Being able to recognize bottlenecks when they start and give myself permission to change a system that is not working is the key to being “home at last”.