#18. Getting organized

A friend watching me knit once said to me, “I wish I knew how to knit.” I told her I’d be happy to teach her. She said, “Oh, no. I don’t want to learn how to knit. I just want to know how to knit.” This is how I feel about most things in life, perhaps none more so than Being Organized. I want to be an organized person; I like it when things are orderly. I just don’t wanna do any organizing. Which is why I find myself unable to put off any longer a week’s change I’ve been mulling for ages: getting organized. Returning from my recent, brief overseas jaunt left me feeling untethered and craving a little order. It seemed important to seize that moment, to harness that rare, magical energy and channel it into a little organizational frenzy. Otherwise, I would have taken a seat on my couch and not gotten up for seven days and nothing—I mean, nothing—would have been done.

Of course, the task of getting one’s life organized is a hefty undertaking. So hefty that a person might be tempted to declare it completely untenable. But part of this process of change, I’m discovering, is figuring out ways to make change manageable. So the rules for this week were simple: a single organizing project a day for seven days. Some bigger, some smaller.

By week’s end, by my estimate, my life would be a bastion of order and goodness. I would be a person transformed. I might even be a little taller. You just never know with these things.

Day One: The Bills

Bills. Nothing stresses me out more than forgetting to pay a bill or failing to record a payment in Quicken. I’m already genetically predisposed to worry constantly about money, so to say I don’t like financial surprises is an understatement. Thus, the first thing I did the morning after returning from Europe was sit down at my computer and roll up my proverbial sleeves (purely imaginary since it was friggin’ H-O-T), and set to town on our bills.

Chris gets paid monthly and I get paid, well, whenever the dribs and drabs that my half-assed career merit trickle in. So I like to make sure the piper’s paid right up front, everything accounted for. No surprises. Did I mention no surprises? For some people, this means just recording and scheduling everything on their computer program. For some, it means keeping a manual log of bills. For me, it means both. And things somehow still fall through the cracks.

But not this month. No, siree. I sat down and inside of an hour, I had all our bills paid or scheduled for payment. I had checks written, envelopes addressed. I had the account reconciled. I also had next to no money left and a near panic-attack, but no one said getting your bills in order was going to feel good, did they?

Day Two: Filing

Blech. Were it up to me, no one would ever have to file anything. Ever. Sure, you wouldn’t be able to find anything, either, but the beauty part is that nobody would. We’d all be equally lost. And isn’t much of the pressure of being organized just trying to keep up with the Joneses? Or maybe that’s just me.

Next to my desk is a sizeable pile of paperwork that has been waiting quite some time to be filed. How long, you ask? Well, let’s just say that at the bottom of the mix of receipts, clippings, pay stubs, invoices and magazines was the owner’s manual to my bike. Which I put there after I got it for my birthday. Last November.

Yes, I’m no math whiz but I’m pretty sure that means I’ve been avoiding filing for seven months. You can nearly gestate a human being in that time, but I can’t walk two feet to the filing cabinet and tuck something away. Feeling pretty good about that.

However, now everything is tucked away. Things I don’t need to keep have been discarded. Important documents have been filed in places where there’s a good chance I might not forget them. And, best of all, there’s a nice, clean space next to my desk…just waiting for new stuff to pile up. Sing it with me: it’s the ciiiiiircle of liiiife….

Day Three: Bathroom closet

One of my favorite things about the house we currently rent is the bathroom closet. It’s huge, which is unusual for a house this old. There are deep shelves of real estate going up to the ceiling. And they are packed. With crap. Much of it old, useless crap. We have lived in this house nearly four years, and this is the first time I attempted this feat.

My brave husband actually volunteered to help me with this task even though, at generous estimate, he is responsible for only about 10% of the stuff in there. I am the bathroom hoarder: beauty samples, travel size toiletries grabbed from hotel rooms, 85 different hair products, 1,000 bottles of bubble bath and gel, lotions I bought on sale and promptly forgot about, enough spare toothbrushes to supply a small orphanage.

So this was how we spent a romantic weekend evening together – raking our way through the bathroom closet and the medicine cabinet. We pulled everything off the shelves, scrutinized it, pared down, dispatched – and even cleaned the shelves themselves. (That rhymes!) Since the bathroom closet’s also the linen closet, that even meant folding and organizing the sheets and towels.

After a couple of hours of diligent work, I had a trash can full of stuff to toss, plus a bag full of unused goodies to take to the homeless shelter down the street. And after all that work, the shelves of my bathroom closet looked…pretty much the same. I mean, really? How can a person work that hard and have so little to show for it? Maybe because that person still thinks she needs three kinds of dry shampoo. Maybe that demands a change that’s a little bigger than organizing a simple closet.

Day Four: Desktop, Virtual

Remember the good old days when all we had to worry about was organizing our actual spaces? As though it isn’t enough of a struggle for me to keep my real desktop organized and free of clutter  -- I’m looking at nail polish, ear plugs, a travel case, three hoop earrings and several perfume samples as I type this – there’s my computer desktop to worry about, too. And, believe it or not, it’s the bigger problem for me.

I have a tendency, as some people do, to save crap to my desktop when I can’t be bothered figuring out where it goes, or if I’m in a rush. Some might argue that that’s what it’s there for. But then I wind up with rows and rows of strange documents and folders, with odd names, poking at me, mocking me every time I start up my computer. They demand to be dealt with. Only I don’t. Why? Mostly because…I can’t for the life of me remember what they are.

There are photos, executable files, html documents. Folders with word documents that might be backups of something else, but might be…completely useless. One by one, I waded my way through this stuff. I put documents and photos I needed in the right folders. I trashed downloaded files I didn’t need any more. I removed desktop icons for applications I rarely, if ever use.

When all was said and done, I had a wide open virtual desktop space and I felt … meh. Very little. Turns out, at least for me, organizing virtual stuff is akin to organizing imaginary things. It doesn’t feel like you’ve done very much at all, and you’ve a sneaking suspicion it doesn’t make the least bit of difference.

Day Five: The Pantry

How long does ground cinnamon last? Well, more specifically, is it more or less than nine years? Because I found an untouched jar of it we got as part of wedding present and I figured it probably needed to go.

God, cleaning out the pantry was a thankless task. I mean, they’re all thankless tasks. But this one was particularly heinous. Why? Perhaps because the pantry’s so damn big. Perhaps because there are so many bits and pieces that need pulled out and rearranged. Or perhaps it’s because there are possible even more opportunities for general ickiness in a pantry than in a bathroom closet. But most likely? It’s just that I’m a whiner.

There are no stunning surprises from this particular organizational effort, unless you consider two containers of soy milk that expired in early 2009 stunning. Sure, there were a few things I can’t conceive of buying and, therefore, can’t quite figure out how they got into my cupboard, including a multi-pack of jerky and a heinous-looking styrofoam cup of instant shrimp soup. (Instant shrimp!)

Now, the shelves have been removed and washed clean of spills of olive oil, agave syrup and God knows what else. The spice jars are alphabetized and lined up like good little soldiers. The solid brick of brown sugar has been discarded, ditto the inexplicably large number of baking powder canisters I unearthed. And if the end times come, and you need to know where you can find a bigger stock of canned black beans than any two humans should be allowed to possess, well, you’ll know right where to come.

Day Six: The Refrigerator

Why? Because cleaning out the pantry wasn’t disgusting enough. Actually, for the first time in recorded history, I was a little bit excited about cleaning out the fridge. This time, I had incentive: a brand new refrigerator on its way. There was no way a two-year-old jar of black bean sauce was going to sully the shelves of my new fridge. Not a chance.

Cleaning out one’s fridge is a curious statement on one’s life. Forensic scientists would be able to tell a lot about me from the contents of my refrigerator. For example, that I am a person who sometimes eats sugar free jam, and sometimes does not. Complicated! Also, that I seem to be a person who acquires large quantities of goat cheese … then promptly forgets about it. Not to mention that I seem to be starting an unintentional caper collection. (Not madcap capers, either. Just the regular salty kind, in the jar.)

But then there are the confusing items: like two full bottles of blue cheese dressing. Considering no one in this house likes blue cheese, that’s a head-scratcher. The fact that they both expired a year or so ago doesn’t help solve the mystery. Did you break into my house and leave some dressing? If so, it’s gone. Kaput. Outta here.

I have to say my very favorite thing about this version of emptying out the refrigerator was this: knowing I didn’t have to clean all the slop and gunk off the shelves. Nope. Not anymore. Because I’m getting a brand new fridge. And I’ll never, ever have to clean it. Ever. Wait. What?

Day Seven: Yarn

Okay. I realize this doesn’t happen to most people. Maybe to most knitters, but not to most people. You wake up, and your life seems to have been completely overrun with yarn. Balls, skeins, tangled piles. Cotton, wool, linen. All colors, all styles. And there’s just too much of it. Some of it you’ve had for years and, despite waiting, it’s not going to knit itself into a sweater.

That means it’s time to do something a crafter (read: hoarder) hates to do most: pare down. Sort. Make piles of similar materials. Or similar colors. Decide which kinds have enough to make something other than a small doll’s beret. Figure out which stuff you’ll really ever, actually use.

The problem with this project, as opposed to, say, the fridge or the pantry is that it has the opposite effect on me. Instead of being revolted and wanting to get rid of tons of bizarre stuff, instead I revel in rediscovering new pretty and soft and shiny things and become newly convinced that I can’t possibly part with any of it. Any of it!

Then I remind myself, as only a world-class rationalizer can, that no one said I had to get rid of anything. The goal here was, if I’m not mistaken, getting organized. So that means it’s okay to hang on to all of this stuff, as long as it’s organized. And so I did. I went to town on my yarn stash, sorting it and dividing it, putting some on shelves and other bits in baggies. I filled a tote with the stuff I use less often and moved to the forefront the supplies I have an actual idea for.

And, reader, it looked so pretty. All the beautiful colors, nicely organized, so that – should I need it – I can find exactly what I want, when I want it. Of course, I know that I won’t. I know that I’ll promptly forget about most of it and then when and if the organizing buzz hits me next, it’ll all be one big surprise all over again. But that’s part of the fun of getting organized, isn’t it? Wait ... did I say fun? Because I meant to say hell.