Our baby is here! Marie was born at 4:33 on the afternoon of November 26th, 1923.”

I find this announcement of my mother’s birth in a pile of papers that has been growing in my basement. A sepia photograph of a blonde little girl accompanies her birth record. It could be my mom, but it looks more like her sister. Not really sure who it is.

These family artifacts are some of many that lay hidden in stacks of photos and tons of other papers. Included in this mountain of memorabilia is a second grade report card for my son, who is now 23, the odd newspaper clipping, and a few Dunkin’ Donuts receipts. My life seems consumed by papers I don’t need. What is all this stuff?

I have heard that clutter can hold you back in more ways than one. In my case it is true. My mother and I are the original pack rats. The words ‘auction’ and ‘Doyle’s’ quicken our pulses, while a 15%-off coupon at Bloomingdale’s transforms us into heat-seeking missiles aimed at 59th Street. Years of this have made our closets and basements untenable. On a daily basis, we seem to function smoothly—until we have only five minutes to collect a wallet, the keys, and the little slip of paper that has the address on it.

My mother is now in her 80s and is unable to sort through what she has collected over a lifetime. She feels overwhelmed with the task of sorting the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Though my daughters and I have organized a lot of it for her. Knowing how much I am like her, I worry that I will face my 80s surrounded by clutter. So now, at 57, I have begun to sort my stuff out. Truthfully, I have not met with complete success.

Yesterday, my husband Jim found the pair of slippers he was looking for in his closet. I took it as a sign of my new organizational skills, because I had recently fished them out from under our bed and placed them triumphantly into his closet.

“What’s wrong with these slippers?”

“What do you mean?” I answered, casually dusting the baseboards with a tissue, another housekeeping trick I picked up from my mother.

“They’re two left feet. I tried them both on,” he replied, looking down at his feet, bewildered.

This sort of mix-up was bound to happen. Last year I’d bought two pairs of identical slippers—one for my son, who has no interest in slippers at this stage of life, and one for Jim, who along with me has embraced the warm-feet-and-bathrobe-in-the-morning philosophy. Admittedly, my organizational and de-cluttering skills still need some fine-tuning.

But when I give or throw things away, I feel a sense of order emerge in both my closet and my life. I need to do this now—because currently, I am up to my neck in chaff!

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  • L Sorensen-Jolink January 27, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Thank you for your article and the photograph about your battle with clutter. I have been fighting that battle, and losing (particularly concerning paper), since the birth of my first child 31 years ago. No matter how much paper I throw out or recycle, more seems to come in, and the more time I have to deal with the accumulation, the less I seem to get done. Thank goodness the Internet, and computer files, have made it unnecessary to save and organize a lot information on paper. For the rest…I may have to soon simply give up and send it all, unsorted, to the paper recycler. There is a limit to how much time it could possibly be worth!

    Reply
  • dore hammond January 8, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Thanks for the feedback! I guess I am not alone in this mess business.

    I am going offline now and getting back to work.

    But one more thing. About Bev’s problem with the family wedding announcement- keep it or frame it. Nice to have. Let the next generation decide if they want to keep this lovely bit of family history.

    Reply
  • hillsmom January 7, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    @ Judith Ross: OMG! That ceramic piece is worth $5000. Quick back to the Goodwill!

    Reply
  • Judith A.Ross January 7, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    The stuff of family history, what do you do with it? I’m not even a pack rat and I have trouble with this stuff. Recently, I let go of a ceramic thingamajig. I’m not even sure what it was meant to hold, but it was three hollow pilgrim-shaped figures on one base and their hats were stoppers for each little vessel. It probably came from my grandparent’s house. I closed my eyes and sent it to Goodwill. Oy.

    I’m going to share this post with a friend of mine who is an archivist, maybe she’ll have an answer for us. In the meantime, here’s her website: http://www.archivesinfo.com/

    Reply
  • Bev Schwartz January 7, 2012 at 11:55 am

    So what I’d like to know is …. what did you do with your mother’s birth announcement…and the photo of–maybe–your mother? If you’re like me, you’ve shoved it back in the pile, for a decision at some time in the future.
    After Christmas, I brought back to my home the marriage announcement of my maternal grandparents. The people who bought my father’s house when he died found it in the attic. It’s old, crumbling on the edges, decorated with pink flowers. They gave it to my brother … who promptly gave it to me. I had hoped to give it to my cousin, but she rejected it. So now what? It seems a sacrilege to throw it into the “mixed paper” recycling. If you come up with a solution for dilemmas of this sort, let me know!

    Reply
  • b.elliott January 7, 2012 at 11:44 am

    I spent all of yesterday sorting my side of the desk, part of my birth month ritual. My new favorite organizational tools are transparent zip-lock style pouches. They are great for instantly seeing what you have filed (probably unnecessarily) and nothing falls out. My reward today is a large whole milk cappuccino!

    Reply
  • Patricia Volin January 7, 2012 at 10:20 am

    I agree with Dr. Pat. Clutter in the mind is worse than any other clutter. It’s hard to know what to keep and what to toss.
    As for house and office clutter, some kind of attitude adjustment is required. Since so many of us have it as a problem in our lives, and we’re doing well otherwise, I wonder if it’s just not that important.
    On second thought, as I sit at my desk and look around, I really can’t stand this mess!!

    Reply
  • Dr Pat Allen January 7, 2012 at 9:50 am

    Dore,

    Thanks for writing about this issue. Some of us have clutter in our homes, others in their offices but the worst is those who have clutter in their minds. You don’t have that!

    I am constantly fighting the losing battle of increasing piles of medical journals that I have already read because “I never know when a reference will be needed for a medical article I might write”.

    We love that you are writing for us and look forward to more.

    Best,

    Dr. Pat

    Reply
  • hillsmom January 7, 2012 at 8:42 am

    Ah Ha! You are a woman I can definitely relate to. Would you like to borrow some of the many books on de-cluttering and organizing your life/home that I have collected over the years? Many of them are in mint condition. Of course, I’d have to find them. They might be with the other many books on dieting and exercise. Good luck and I hope this isn’t another New Year’s Resolution to break.

    Reply