I seethe with envy when I go to my friends’ houses and see sparkling, uncluttered counter tops. I secretly look for their “pile of papers”– checking under the sink in the bathroom, sneaking a peak in a closet when no one is looking. But alas, no paper piles fall on my head.

They must be very unpopular, I think. Their desks and counters make it look like they have never received a single invitation. Don’t they have any bills? Or, are they so computer efficient that they do it all online? Aren’t they inundated with requests from the dozens of charities that tug at my heart and mind every month? Aren’t they haunted by the same fears that I am? I worry that whatever disease I don’t give to, I’ll get. Who are these perfect people? I wonder if they actually follow the rule: “Only touch a piece of mail once: throw, file or do.”

⇐   Theirs vs. Mine   ⇒

If you do “do,” how do you make those decisions so quickly? I start a new “to do” file every month: either because A), I have lost the previous one, or B) the current one is overflowing.

I’m looking around at the stacks: blank old postcards from favorite trips I just know I will send someone or put in my scrapbook; a video that says “Caroline’s Birthday” with no date (will have to watch it to see which year it was, so I can file it properly); a box of ’80s CDs that I found in my son’s closet and couldn’t part with because I want to download them on iTunes–that is, after I take an Apple course. I will put that off as long as possible, because the Apple Store makes me so anxious I can only go in after I’ve taken several pills, which I dislike as they mix poorly with alcohol.

My bulletin board is stuffed with family pictures and even some of other people’s families. I have the Obamas’ Christmas picture, so when people visit they think we’re old friends. I also have a picture of my husband and I flanking President Bush, Sr. at a conference. There are invitations to events I attended long ago (so pretty I keep them up to admire) and invitations to events I said I was going to attend and didn’t (thus a reminder to write an apology note). I have coupons for flowers, books, gift certificates from 2010; coupons for free meals if I go listen to someone talk about senior living, and Social Security information I can’t access because I don’t remember the answers to the private questions about my life.

On my desk, I have loose photos of my children taken 15 years ago, a broken fan, and registration for the class “Organizing your Life in Six Short Weeks,” which started three weeks ago. I’m hoping to be a quick learner in half the time! My old calendar is still hanging in case I attend a trivia night and there is a question like: What day did February 12th fall on last year?

I glance under my desk where my dog used to sleep at my feet. Now there’s a little box with his ashes there, atop a pile of ten old phone books. Murray passed away when we were in the throes of wedding planning woes. I do intend to bury his ashes under a large stone that just arrived. The inscription reads: Murray, Wagging all the Way Down, which was how my son described his sad but “upbeat” departure from this world. Having Murray’s ashes under my desk is somewhat comforting, even though neatniks may think it untidy.

I’ve purchased more than the average number of books on organization—and read at least half of them. I never seem to be able to find one when I need it. I know The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is here somewhere, but it seems to have magically disappeared under the stacks of memorabilia that give me so much joy.

I considered taking a class called “Trash or Treasure” to help me choose what’s worthy of keeping. Ironically, it is full. So, there must be some people out there like me who need help. To assuage my self-doubt, I repeat daily: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me… even if I AM messy.


Grandma’s Memory Books

No matter how much I repeat this mantra, I still can’t throw away a receipt from a restaurant where I had lunch with my grandchildren when they were in town two weeks ago, because I think they’d like to know someday that Grandma took them to lunch. This could be important family history. Let’s say I am gone–in heaven, I hope–and they are visiting St. Louis in later years. Suddenly, they find themselves at Schneithorst’s (hopefully, it still exists), and one will ask: “Gee, didn’t we have lunch with Grandma here when we were four and six?” The other will quickly respond, “Yes, I just saw the receipt last night in Grandma’s Memory Book #52!”  Imagine how much richer this will make their adult lives!

I have no receipts from–nor even pictures of–my grandma.  I would give at least one of the boxes of paper treasures in my house to have a letter or card from her. Even though we didn’t go to restaurants back then, it would be fun to have the grocery receipt from a dinner she cooked.

I love digging a purse out of the back of my closet and finding a receipt from a New York restaurant in 2011. It brings back all kinds of wonderful memories. I want to share my excitement, so I stop to text my daughter a copy of the receipt. “Do you remember that dynamite sushi roll we shared on October 12th, 2011 at that little restaurant across the street from Rockefeller Center?”  Blink! Wow, she uncharacteristically gets right back to me! “Mom, get a grip, throw out the receipts.” I smile at her sense of humor and realize that she is young and doesn’t realize the value of history.


To do tomorrow– “After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Are there other family historians out there who feel this primal need to save? A need so deep, so entrenched in the very fiber of your being that when you try to clean out your basement, you can’t throw away old margarine containers with dried-up watercolor paints and the brittle paint brushes your children used? All those artistic treasures fill the many dress and shoe boxes in each of their closets. Yes, I’ve kept all that. And when I look at the rounded margarine tubs with their yellow corn cobs dancing merrily around them, I think: this relic will be worth something someday. And I’m sure my grandchildren will be thrilled to put water in the same plastic tub that their mother used. So, after visualizing my children painting in this basement and hearing their sweet little voices screaming, “No, that’s MY color red!!”, I realize the day has gone by. And I’m no closer to diminishing the clutter that surrounds me.

Saved by the bell! Ironically, it’s Goodwill calling to ask if I have anything to donate. I pause for a moment, wistfully taking in the dusty treasures surrounding me, and answer, “No, sorry, nothing right now.”