Getting Organized: Reclaiming Our Home and Our Sanity
It wasn’t a finished basement by any stretch of the imagination. Painted cement floor, and cinder block walls were as far as the remodeling had gone. Nonetheless, it had been somewhat a haven for me. An escape. Self-employed as a graphic designer (my small business a 20 year roller-coaster ride, recently experiencing more downs than ups), married (wife, an assistant teacher of autistic adults), two of three daughters (15 and 22 year olds) still at home, no two days were ever the same, to say the least.
So I loved my little getaway, a little musty perhaps, but still far enough removed from the world that it was very relieving to walk down its creaking stairs. I had a pretty nice music system set up—complete with two turntables, mixer, equalizer, reel-to-reel, cassette and CD—a decent sized music collection of LP albums, cassettes, CDs and over a hundred reels of mixes I loved to compose. I had a fifty gallon freshwater aquarium, a built in bar (minimally stocked) in the far corner, an old loveseat that I could almost completely stretch out on in front of an old RCA color TV—great for an occasional Monday Night Football telecast.
Over the past couple of years, however, my little man’s cave evolved into an indoor storage shed. Not all at once, mind you. And certainly not intentionally. For instance, when something from upstairs broke or was replaced or just plain no longer needed, it seemed normal to bring it downstairs. Just in case we could get it fixed or would need it in the future.
There’s also the fact that my wife and I are creative types. We’re very image conscious—both of us collect magazines, coffee table books, posters--anything that might provide a little inspiration. We are also both drawn to fascinating bottles, vases, old toys—Hess trucks and dolls—nostalgic memorabilia, etc. Without actually pursuing any one, we had a couple of quasi collections. Or they had us and it wasn’t long before these ‘collections’ spilled into the basement, too. As time flew, so did our space. Square foot by square foot.
Then there was my father-in-law, a grand old retiree, who helped clear and clean out estates and homes for an extra dollar. He would stop by on summer Saturday evenings with an album collection or ‘antique’ piece of furniture, or old camera, or oversized doll house or tea set—‘little treasures’ he called them--anything he deemed currently valuable or that one day would be potentially priceless that he wanted us to hold onto for him or, in most cases, as a gift to my wife and I. He always said we’d never be sorry on that ‘one day to come’ when we’d cash it all in.
And then of course we had to move my parents, whose health had steadily been declining, who needed more and more frequent attention. We relocated them into a small apartment nearer to us, which didn’t come close to holding all of their possessions from their three bedroom home. That overflow came into our house.
My eldest daughter, living outside the house, seemed to move every six months, needed a place to ‘store a few things’ from time to time that either didn’t fit into her new living space, or that she had purchased for some future living arrangement.
My 22 year old was preparing for her approaching moving out. The surplus of her girlhood through her college furnishings: throw rugs, dresser, posters, personal appliances and clothes—an eternity of clothes—all needed a place.
Boxes and stuffed plastic bags and storage bins were everywhere—floor to ceiling in some areas. There were two sofas (each standing on its end), a daybed, a couple of dressers, nightstands and occasional tables, broken lamps, dining chairs, two mattresses, all crowding out any sitting areas. The bar area was gone, its stools stacked with file boxes and pots and pans, its counter stacked with incomplete sets of glasses and dishes. The music area was gone in similar fashion—its shelves were suited perfectly for books—text and children’s, and shoeboxes. I couldn’t easily get to the aquarium anymore and felt it better to dismantle it and relocate the little guys to two other smaller tanks to elsewhere in the house.
There were times I would swear to myself to get down there and clear it all out. I even did sketches, floor plan schematics, of how to get it organized. I would build an incredible wall unit, some storage benches with seating. I’d get excited about it all. I’d get up from watching ‘This Old House’ or one of those other home remodeling shows on Saturday morning and determinedly walk to the basement, only to move a box or two from one place to another. I didn’t know where to start.
The rest of the house wasn’t faring much better, the hallways, the back of the dining room, heck, all the little empty nooks and crannies were no longer empty. They were being filled with items we could no longer fit in the basement. There were even areas of the house that you had to turn sideways and hold your breath to squeeze through. You didn’t dare look into a closet.
A change had to be made. Our disorganization marked every aspect of our life: business—the visual clutter translated to mental unrest. It was difficult concentrating or trying to create anything in the midst of the chaos; finances—bills were getting lost or double-paid because of the lack of order; meals—we were losing good food in the refrigerator. We drastically cut down on inviting folks over, fearful of their reactions. My brother-in-law recommended we paint some of our walls brown to help the corrugated cardboard blend in. ‘Add some graffiti, start a trend.’ Even our family relationships were affected—we had no clear-cut time for each other because we’d lose track of our schedules, overbook our days. We were all going a bit crazy with the chaos. And deep down we knew our problem was not solely about lack of space. Our plight was complicated by our lack of structure.
We sat down and discussed the matter, and promised to make a real effort to change. We considered renting storage space, but after a moment of discussion, we realized that the way we were going, one unit would soon not be enough. So we mapped out a plan to get at the root of the problem. Rather than the general type of plan, which simply stated we’d try harder to be more organized, we listed actual steps, we needed to take. Simple steps. Steps we could easily take and accomplish. That had been the problem before. We had been too general and made ‘sweeping’ promises we had no chance of keeping.
Our new plan consisted of daily lifestyle changes to create new habits to stop the flow of things coming into the house. The habits included: opening the day’s mail and dealing with it immediately—tossing out junk mail—filing any realistic offers for only a week, opening bills and placing them in the established bill tray. When coming home, our shoes, coats sweaters, packages—purses, work briefcases and portfolios needed to be put away into the right closet and room rather than plopped onto the kitchen counter and stools. No more storing things on the steps to the upstairs or downstairs. We stopped saving retail packaging, jars, shopping bags, and plastic food storage containers from fast food purchases as interesting and well designed as some of them now were becoming. We began saying ‘no-thank you’ to my father-in-law, family and friends who lovingly wanted to add our collections.
The more daunting part of the problem, the garbage and disorganization already in the house, took a little more effort and sacrifice.
We started on the main level of the house. We each decided that we could afford to spend at least ten minutes and up to one half hour a day devoted to organizing or cleaning up a small area of the house. If one absolutely could not afford ten minutes on a certain day, no one seriously hassled another. We gave ourselves three months. The plan was for each of us to at first assume one cabinet drawer, or one closet shelf, or one stacked box or one bag of clothes and begin sorting it. We had taken an oath, vowing not to toss anyone else’s ‘treasure’ without permission. Sometimes it took a few days, sometimes, to our pleasant surprise only a few minutes to sort a particular space or item.
We went to our local home center and bought a half dozen large plastic storage bins and a box or two of those large contractors trash bags—the real thick ones--and placed three bins and a couple of garbage bags into each room of the house we were working on. When we sorted, things fell into four pretty self-described categories: ‘keep’, ‘donate,’ ‘trash’, and ‘wrong room.’
We knew we were making good headway when we were getting to the basement and the carport. I didn’t mention the carport? Well, there we had collected a couple of ovens, a cooktop and dishwasher from an earlier kitchen update— They were there about eight months. We simply hadn’t made a phone call to arrange for disposal. Did I mention the thing about time flying?
After a month we were really getting the hang of it. Whatever we decided to keep got moved into the correct room. It didn’t have to be put away immediately. The fact that it was physically in the correct room was enough initially. There’d be time to organize and decorate individual rooms when we had the house, as a whole, organized with its rooms filled with correct items.
We’re pretty much in that phase now. We’ve called the people who needed to be called to collect donations of clothing—and there were several organizations to choose from. They came right to the front door and pick up the bags, as often as needed—even provided a signed receipt for tax deduction purposes. Large items like the appliances were a simple 2-minute call to the township to set up a free collection. The library more than willingly accepted our books for their ‘used books section. We found a couple down the street willing to take items and add them to their yard sale. And the things we decided to throw out we simply filled into those 49 gallon contractor bags and began lining them up in a discrete corner in the back yard to set out curbside for regular trash pickup. I suppose we could have rented a one of those container dumpsters, but it was a little more than we could afford. Besides it was good, in a way, to see the number of bags decrease little by little over those months.
It’s still very difficult to not revert to old habits. To tell the truth we may never break all those habits. But we try. In the end we all agree it’s much easier trying to maintain organization rather than create it. Remembering where we’ve been, we strive to attend to matters promptly--our mail, our garbage, our business and ultimately ourselves. My wife and I now digitally photograph the magazine and book images that we used to stack in boxes. We’ve pared down our collections substantially and only very selectively add to them. We nudge each other. (It’s always easier to see the other person saving some ‘worthless’ thing.)
I’m actually able to go back down to the basement again and play some music. I’m realizing I could probably stand to hook this system to my computer and get these albums recorded digitally. That would be a huge space saver. (But I love the album covers)