My Paper Piles Revisited: The Rise of Future Me

As published in The Rye Record on April 27, 2012

A cry for help can take many forms. Sometimes it’s a subtle as letting your roots grow out, and sometimes it’s as overt as a temper tantrum at a PTO meeting. I never knew mine would be inadvertent and take the form of an innocuous article for The Rye Record.

About a month ago I wrote an article called “My Paper Piles: Or Why I Still Haven’t Registered My Kids For Camp”. I got some emails from friends and comments on Facebook, all saying pretty much the same thing, “I hear you, Sister.” Then I got an email from a stranger, a Rye mom, who said, “I hear you, Sister. Maybe I can help.” Present Me felt a little defensive. I don’t need help. I get along just fine, even if I have to spend 30 minutes a day looking for things or explaining why I forgot to turn in the permission slip/health form/library book.

My new nemesis identified herself as Alexandra Hickey, Professional Organizer, and offered to come over and help me sort through my problem. Now there are several things I can’t stand: 1) help; 2) people telling me what to do; and 3) any invasion of my personal, private space. Call it a hunch, but I had a feeling she’d be tall too. In the spirit of hard-hitting journalism, however, I agreed to let her come goose step around my kitchen, and I felt my dread mount as we got closer to our appointment. My husband, on the other hand, was intrigued, asking every day, “Is the organized lady coming today?” To be honest, what man doesn’t have the maybe-there’s-someone-out-there-who-can-fix-my-wife fantasy?

She arrived promptly at 9 a.m., and she was tall. She had a shopping bag with mystery supplies and a surprisingly warm smile. With a flourish, I showed her the piles, my eyes asking as only Britney Spears and my 6 year old can: You want a piece of me? She did not blink, gasp, or run. She asked me a few questions and listened to my responses with sincere interest. Her goal seemed to be to figure out how I live and what I do (Where do you write? Everywhere. Where do you pay bills? Anywhere), and then create a system that would help me. I was surprised to learn that her game wasn’t to turn me into her personal Mini Me, rather she was just trying to invite Future Me to take a step forward. I was starting to see this as less and less of an assault.

We went through everything — things to file, things to do, things to pay, and things that I had a hard time explaining. She created a home for everything in a location that I could access, and then she created a system so that I could easily maintain it. For example, I now have a three-slotted device that contains my bills, my checkbook, and stamps. Sometimes genius flows from simplicity.

We then turned to the large pile of things that had gone obsolete. I had expired credit cards, broken crayons, greeting cards with no envelopes, and a stack of 50 business cards from Bear Stearns. Was I saving them for when they constructed the Museum of Financial Tragedies? I clutched a stack of ten 20{561629be3f96d02978fda61b89c97a8a85b4e3972afa8170615e91208b2c08fa} off coupons from Bed Bath and Beyond, and she kindly asked, “How many times are you going to go to Bed Bath and Beyond before they send you another one of these?” I haven’t been in two years. With a sigh, I threw half out.

Besides her compassion and alien skill set, one of the greatest gifts she gave me was permission to get rid of stuff. She’s not a wild or wasteful tosser but she made it okay for me to unburden myself of things that I thought I had to keep. I realized that I have a lot of guilt associated with getting rid of things. It’s as if I am declaring myself ungrateful if someone has given me something that I don’t want to hang on to forever. Alexandra helped me amass a trunk’s worth of giveaways, including a collection of 30 cookie cutters (in 42 years I have never made a cookie in any shape but round). Calmly, she repeated, “You don’t need it.” She’s practically a healer.

As we went though my fourth cabinet of junk, we came across a notebook where I had stashed receipts and service records when I first moved into my house. It was such an overwhelming time, and there were so many new switches and do-hickeys to understand, that I amassed all this information to protect myself. Flipping through them now, I am starting to understand that hanging on to stuff that you don’t need is really about fear. It’s the fear of not having the information, resources, and ability that you are going to need to survive. I understand how people can bury themselves in sweaters and receipts and canned soup, just in case.

When we were nearly done, she reached into her mystery bag and pulled out a label maker. I could have sworn I heard violins play, it was really so beautiful. She carefully labeled my cabinets so I would know what was what. On Mondays, new and improved Present Me is going to move all the way through that To-Do bin. It’s only 2 inches and is suddenly so unintimidating that I might even do it right now.

All I can say is that you should call her. She’ll tackle any room in your house with the compassion of a mom who knows life isn’t always (or ever) super-squeaky clean. I’m going to give her a little space to have a good night’s sleep and maybe a vitamin B-12 shot before I ask her to come back to have a look at my mud room.