I stood on a green yoga mat in my office, which due to the pandemic, had also been turned into a storage room. Stretching my cold arms in warrior pose, a pose designed for concentration, I felt everything in my life move out of focus. Reading one of the six library books stacked on a chair. Checking off items on my lists contained on four separate post-it notes. Even my handwriting was no longer clear. Cluttered enveloped me, as the purpose to my office had been converted to multi-use.
Professional organizer Peter Walsh says, “We all think of clutter as the physical stuff, but we need to think beyond that,” he tells us. “Clutter is anything that gets between you and the life you want to be living.”
In a particularly challenging year, how could any of us find the space in our home or minds that hadn’t already been muddled by the pandemic?
Organizing as a Way of Healing
This November, I found myself on crutches for the second time in ten months. My foot missed a rung on the ladder and my knee crashed into a wall. Confined to the couch, I cringed whenever I surveyed my disordered home. My husband would cook dinner and wash dishes, but didn’t wipe the counters. Or, I smelled leftover turkey coming from my lunch plate left in the sink.
When able, I started moving catalogs from the mail to the garbage. I shifted a pot lid to its owner. It would take me all day to straighten the house, but to quote Marie Kondo, author of The Life Saving Magic of Tidying Up, “a messy environment taxes the brain...we can’t focus on what we should be doing in the moment, and our decision-making ability is impaired.” I needed to unburden my brain so I could heal, and also write again.
The UCLA Center for Families developed a study regarding clutter and depression and discovered what most women already knew. Researchers found a link between high cortisol (the stress hormone) levels in female homeowners and a high density of household objects. More mess equaled more stress.
My mother was known for obsessively cleaning the house before our family left on vacation. As kids, we joked, “Are you cleaning the house for the burglars, Mom?” For her, a return from vacation meant a return to chores and laundry. She didn’t need the added task of cleaning bathrooms from weeks-old grime or picking toys up off the floor. Hobbling around my house, I felt the same. When I returned to mobility, I didn’t want more obstacles in my way.
Letting Go of the Past
The end of the year is also the perfect time to make room—in our minds—to consider future endeavors. Yet, so many of us hold on to the past in the literal sense. Old newspaper clippings from high school days. Riveting books we swore we would read again. Clothes we planned to fit into—again. And these too become obstacles for the life we want to lead.
As caregiver for my mother, I hung on to many of her final possessions, like her Christmas caroler dolls, an old cake pan in the shape of a bunny, and a shoebox of recipes she cut from magazines. In the corner of my office, three cartons of photos from unknown Italian ancestors on both sides of the family were piled high. And despite my best efforts, I had no way to uncover details about places and names.
According to Marie Kondo, "When we really delve into the reasons for why we can't let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future."
I wondered what would happen to our family tree and our beloved distant relatives when we divested ourselves from those belongings? I was still attached to my parents’ lives but also feared I would forget the memories, like my mother had in her dementia.
My husband produced a wise answer. “Keep what your grandchildren will want to know about your parents. Whatever was important to their identity and yours, will be important to theirs.”
Revisiting what I saved after my mother’s death, I rid myself of little more of paperwork that told the story of her chaotic hospital admissions, her clip-on jewelry that wasn’t precious, just practical like her, and let her go a little more. But the handwritten cookbooks, with recipes for meals she prepared with love and sometimes determination? I stored them safely under lock and key.
When given the doctor’s release from crutches, I planned to cook my holiday dinner and desserts, straight from those recipe books. After I put the seasonal décor in storage, I intended to scan each of those recipes, and design a cookbook for my children to keep.
Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours: What my mother taught me about dementia, cookies, music, the outside, and her life inside a care home (Three Arch Press), available through online retailers and distributors, and is a recipient of a 2020 National Society of Newspaper Columnists award. Visit annettejwick.com to engage her services or learn more.