I can’t remember who I have and haven’t told about this so I’ll tell everyone, but fairly recently, a mouse chewed a hole through the bottom of my backpack to get to the half-eaten granola bar at the bottom of it. I’m ashamed by this for a few reasons: One, who can’t finish a granola bar? And two, what kind of responsible New Yorker leaves mice bait lying around? After eight years in this city and many unwelcome surprises, I know I should know better. But it was at the peak of my spiral of “stuff piles,” a slow demise that eventually, thankfully, led to a reconciliation and mass organizational overhauling.
I picked up this “stuff piles” habit later in life, shortly after moving to Manhattan. A lack of apartment storage, my lack of energy when I come home from work, paired with my goldfish-like ability to expand to fit whatever body of water I am in, means that no matter how often I clean my closet, there is always something to put away that I place into a pile instead.
There’s always a pair of jeans living in limbo between “keep” or “donate.” (Pile.) There are tote bags, duffle bags and shopping bags that seem potentially useful but have no exact purpose. (Pile.) There are unseasonable shoes in random boxes that I tuck under my bed to deal with later. (More of a dusty flatland than a vertical mound but still: Pile.) Nearly every bag, purse and clutch also serves as a part-time receptacle for collecting piles (and sometimes forgotten granola bars). When I need to use one bag, the pile moves right into another.
Finally, there’s my monstrous junk drawer, a deep catacomb of undeserved space occupied by mostly untouched contents, such as every promotional pen I have ever received; expired acne medicine; holiday cards; birthday cards; cards I’ve saved with every intention of responding with hand-written thank you notes; aspirational stationary (unopened) for my aspirational thank you notes; unused (and “never use again”) hair products; the type of grooming paraphernalia you might expect to find in a bathroom; extra batteries; extra cords; extra buttons; and Time Warner bills. I once found my lost keys in this junk drawer.
It’s a mess, but it’s tricky because it doesn’t look like a mess until I have to find something. That’s when the destruction begins, when the breakdowns boil, and when my potentially on-time plans turn into texts about running 20 minutes behind schedule. These piles are the dark side of my optical tidiness. What looks organized and intentional to an outsider is actually a precarious haystack that swallows my arm shoulder-deep. I must whip my arm around like a tornado while I risk finding a million lost needles (“ouch!” is my most common battle cry during a pile search) to locate the one item I actually need. The whole system enrages me, mostly because these molehills are my doing.
I am the kind of person, unfortunately or otherwise, who tends to find motivation in the last straw. So it wasn’t the mouse, honestly, that encouraged me to clean up my act. Instead, when all my metaphorical piles (the ones in my bedroom and also, my life) began to tumble and spill and erupt simultaneously, I finally decided I’d had enough — and that I would start to clean the piles, one at a time.
I tackled a new monster each weekend. I waited until it was dark outside because I hate being indoors while the sun is shining. Then I put a movie on or turned up the music. I lit a candle to make the situation feel cheery. I started by doing what I feared most: Making another mess. I identified the pile at hand, then I pulled it apart. I dumped stuff out of its bag or box or drawer, then pulled more stuff out of the stuff on the floor. Out of those things came more things, like an archeological dig or a grand reveal of Russian stacking dolls.
With everything in the center of my bedroom, I began to sort: What did I need? (And did I really need it? Because if I didn’t “need” it within the past year or more, I got rid of it). What had expired/what could I responsibly trash/recycle? What was causing me to-do-list guilt? (If I hadn’t crossed it off my list, I just got rid of it.) What was actually sentimental? (And if it was sentimental, was it better served in a picture frame? On display as opposed to hidden?) What did I already have too many of? What could I give away? What could I sell? And though I had to make sharp, critical decisions, I tried to let go of judgement. No, “What the hell is wrong with you for leaving this bag of Christmas M&Ms in this pouch?”
Once these new piles were sorted, I made my moves, fast, so as not to get tired and lose steam: I packed up the things that I was getting out of my apartment — and got them out Monday morning. I put away the things I was keeping into their official, designated homes. The biggest rule was that I couldn’t save anything “to deal with later.” If I truly couldn’t make a decision (this happened twice) I texted a friend to weigh in and while I waited for a response, kept moving in other areas.
As I write this, in addition to no more corner piles or under-the-bed-lurkers, I have something brand new in my apartment: an empty drawer. For me, an expanding goldfish who hoards an astounding amount of travel-size deodorant samples — “just in case,” I suppose, this is a remarkable feat. I have plans to fill this drawer soon, once I get to my next project: the yearly reorganizing of my winter-to-spring/summer wardrobe. But I want to keep it empty for just a few days longer. It represents a tiny piece of space I created for myself, physically, mentally. It is so satisfying to see that this exists and can be found (with a whole lot of patience and deep breathes and a few wails) underneath the piles.
Feature photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi; inspired by Sabina Timm @virgin_honey.