Daily Archives: December 3, 2009

Helping Family Get Organized

Since I’m about 2000 miles away from most of my family, it seems the best way for me to keep in touch is to read Facebook, or their blogs.  My little sister, Robin, has a blog – www.digthatbird.net  I just read it today and I was surprised to learn it was about getting organized.  Hey, isn’t that my gig?

It seems she’s going through a tough transition, but one thing helping her out is a big project to keep her occupied.  I’m a fan of that trick.  When I’m stressed, I like to cook, sew, or organize something.  Sure, our house is and should be (given what I do for a living) pretty organized on a regular basis.  But hey, I’m human, and there’s still a basement, and the “utility drawer” (I refuse to have a junk drawer), that can get a little full with the deal-with-it-later stuff.   Robin’s project is a little bigger than a junk drawer, however. 

I was surprised to find that she has decided to take on my parents’ home, a house stuffed with 40 years of items, not just from raising five kids, but from two businesses (one of which was physically moved from a 500 sq. foot office into the former library of the home).  Given that my father was born during the Great Depression, and can pretty much find a use for anything, you can imagine the daunting task before my little sister.

Why am I not there helping?  Well, geography plays a big role, but I think it’s bigger than that.  I joke with clients that I help them (as in, other people’s parents) because my parents won’t let me.  It may have to do with the fact that I haven’t lived there in about 20 years (egad).  I’m sure there are a few items of mine buried in the attic, but overall, I’m physically detached from the house, and the stuff.  Robin has been away for a few years, but has pretty much always left her room “as-is”.  She’s deeply entrenched.  For her, it’s not “their” clutter, but “our” clutter.  If you ever decide to help your family with their clutter, and you haven’t lived there in a while, be warned – they may not take kindly to this idea.  You still expect your childhood home to look then same, but when you return to find it very different than you remember, it can throw you.  This different perspective can seem hurtful to the people who live in and love this home.   You are wearing nostalgia glasses, and not seeing things clearly.  In that way, you are an outsider.  But even an outside help would be more welcomed  – because it is completely neutral.  This is the irony of the situation.

While my father was ill a few years ago, I tried to keep myself busy by cleaning out the expired food and science experiments in my parents’ fridge.   My father was in the hospital, and my sisters and I had just returned from seeing him.  We were just sitting around, not knowing what to do.  So, we started pulling things out of the fridge that had dates starting with a “19..”, giggling, and shoving jars under each other’s noses, saying “smell this! – no, you smell it!”  and for a while we could forget about what may or may not be happening a few miles away in that cold hospital room.   I remember that time fondly – a time when we were all in the same boat, without the distraction of kids, jobs, spouses, etc.  We were just there for each other – and we found a project to do together. 

Years later, my father doing better, my parents still have not forgiven me for the things we threw away.  So, now, when I go home… I touch nothing.

One thing I noted in Robin’s blog: she wrote about her own struggles to part with books that represent a recent failing to her.  This is something that many people deal with.  There are things we keep because they are from our past, and things for our future plans.  If the bulk of our possessions are in the past or future category, and very few are for the present time, this must be addressed.  Many of us are very hard on ourselves.   If we had a bad relationship with our mother, we keep things of hers after she’s gone, even if they have terrible memories associated with them.  These things haunt us in a very real way.  Perhaps we are punishing ourselves.  Perhaps in some way we feel that if we accept this burden, we have atoned for our sins.  I think this is a mindset from which we all need to free ourselves. 

Keep the good things, the things that make you smile, the things you need and use now.  Keep a small percentage of things for the future and good memories from the past, and ditch the rest.  There is no need to torture yourself – the world gives you enough to deal with.  You deserve good things, a good life, and a harmonious home that makes you feel safe.

Even though Robin is uniquely qualified to handle this challenge, she’s hitting a roadblock – trying to figure out what to do with all that stuff.  This is hard for anyone, but especially in this case, considering all the unique items in the house.  My advice is: hire some local help.  As I mentioned before, outside help can really do the trick because they have the skills, but are detached from the stuff.   Also, I am a big fan of just picking up the phone and calling someone who might have the information I need.  When you open yourself up to just a little bit of help, it’s like a huge amount of energy flows your way and pretty soon you have a whole network of people, eager to join you.  When you try to go it alone, pretty soon you could feel isolated and defeated, and it’s likely you’ll give up.

I did a quick search of the organizers in my parents’ area:


Organizers can consult and help refer clients to the resources they need – like resale shops that specialize in vintage clothing, office supply stores that could use old office equipment, or at the very least, the proper recycling centers and junk hauling companies (like 1-800-got-junk) – I personally like the guys at “College Hunks Hauling Junk”, but they aren’t in New England, yet.   I think it’s always worth a call – since anyone in that kind of business worth their salt will give you some leads on where to go – without charge.

I hope my little sister succeeds in her project, and for her and all the sisters and brothers out there, trying to help their parents get organized – remember: help is out there!