This week, I’m happy to share with you a guest column by Tina O’Keeffe, She’s the founder and formidable force behind Stow and Behold, a professional organizing company with a vision that extends beyond what you might expect. I know that according to the calendar, Spring started several weeks ago. The weather is just finally starting to clear up and warm up a little around here, and spring holidays are coming, all of which signal it’s a great time to look at getting our homes and heads ready for the sunnier days that hopefully await.
Balance and Compromise:
The Truth About Organizing You Will Never See on TV
I appeared on the TV show Hoarders in 2016. Go ahead. Gasp. Be in awe. I can wait for you to pull yourself together. You had no idea a celebrity just walked in, did you?
Wait, what? No, I was not the hoarder. Actually, can we not use that word? Correction: No, I was not the chronically disorganized individual. I was also not the celebrity organizer with lots of face time in front of the camera. I was actually a blur, one member of a team of organizers and professional cleaners working hard in the background to sort between salvageable items and, well, garbage. My job was to save what could be saved, box and label it. Then these boxes were moved out of sight, off camera, into the garage of the homeowner who would be given money toward therapy and future work with a professional organizer. As the only local organizer on the scene, I did give the homeowner my business card and told her I would be happy to come back and help her continue on her organizing journey. Not surprisingly, she never called.
Why did that homeowner never call me? This wasn’t The Home Edit. This wasn’t Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. This was Hoarders. This was the difficult, sad side of professional organizing. This was a client who was reluctant to clean out but had to due to circumstances getting out of her control. This was organizing with a distinct and practical purpose. This was more pragmatic and less aesthetic.
While I do not deal with chronic disorganization on a daily basis, I do see it. But more often, I deal with typical people who have a very distinct goal: reclaiming their space. Perhaps it is packing, unpacking, dealing with overwhelming paper, preparing for transition, or clearing storage that has gotten out of control. A typical client is not living in a mansion, but has a lovely home they want to restore to order. Perhaps they are looking for some of the jazziness they have seen on television, but mostly they just want to improve their daily lives, get back to a sense of normalcy, get their homes under control. This is more the type of organizing I deal with on a daily basis.
Please do not get me wrong: I love watching people organize on TV. I love it to the point of absurdity. How do know I am obsessed with observing organizing professionals? Because my preferred horror movie is Psycho and my all-time favorite scene in Psycho is when Norman Bates has to clean up the bathroom after the shower scene. I mean, the meticulous way he mopped that place up was impressive. This was pre-CSI, mind you, but still incredibly diligent all the same.
So, you can imagine how much I enjoy watching people on TV organize. The symmetry, the colors, the cleanliness, the sheer attractiveness of taking all the “bad bits” and bundling them inside bold, beautiful bins. These are fantastic and creative endeavors. These are big budgets and bold statements. To me, it is fun and entertaining but I have to stop it there. As gorgeous and pleasurable as TV organizing is, it is not necessarily the type of organizing in which I routinely engage.
To clarify, sometimes my work is aesthetic and beautiful too, but it takes a process to get there. For most clients, I have been called because the mess has become impractical and overwhelming. The goal is to bring things to a practical and manageable level. We do this together. Yes, that can sometimes mean beautiful bins and shiny shelves, hemp baskets and acrylic totes. But the main purpose of the endeavor is to make things better, easier, faster, more convenient, more efficient, safe and clean. The aesthetics is not necessarily the primary goal. It is often the secondary benefit.
I work with senior citizens. These are individuals who are looking to reduce the clutter in their homes. They want to go through boxes of memorabilia and begin the arduous process of paring down. They want someone to listen to their stories and share in their unique contributions to the world. Seniors want to hold on to the unique artifacts of their lives so they can pass it down to their children and grandchildren. They want you to use the items they have already accumulated for a purpose. They want to be in a home that is safe and clutter-free but they want the things they love to still surround them. It is about striking a balance. It is about compromise.
I work with middle-aged clients. They live with elderly parents who cannot reach high or low so we have to strategize the types of items that should be positioned at a median level. This often goes against the aesthetic ideal of keeping counters completely clear. But it serves a necessary purpose and brings comfort and ease to those who need it. These clients want a certain type of home but are willing to do what it takes to make all the members of their household happy. It is about striking a balance. It is about compromise.
I work for parents of young children. These are families with pre-school aged children who are never going to sustain books in rainbow order or dolls in size order. Unless there is a housekeeper to keep things in order, clients need to sustain systems on their own and they need a system that their children can also realistically manage. They want their children to have their space, enjoy their youth and freely play. But they also want their children to have the sense of pride and accomplishment from learning how to maintain order in their own spaces. It is about striking a balance. It is about compromise.
I work with budget-conscious clients who want to try to reuse bins and baskets they already own. They will look up innovative ideas and try to create the solutions on their own. They are the kings and queens of DIY. They are blessed to be handy but just need guidance to get them to their goal. They cannot afford the expensive acrylic bins from the Container Store so often displayed on TV but they can create their own versions of these systems and find deep satisfaction. It is about striking a balance and compromise.
Balance. Compromise. I repeated it for a reason. My job as a professional organizer is to look at the capability of the client in the short and long-term and create a system that THEY can sustain. A good organizer works to satisfy your goals and needs, not their own. No matter how small or humble the home, the rules of organizing can still be applied as basic, valuable, life-changing tools.
My purpose here is not to put down the beautiful aesthetics of what we see on television organizing programs. I want people to understand that the real work happens off camera. The negotiations over what is being kept and what is being given away. Where things should be located. How they should be presented. Sometimes the practical needs in those decisions outweighs the aesthetic ones. The real organizing is sometimes lovely, but, often, it is practical. There is room in the world for both.
Were you able to relate to this piece at all? If not, I hope you enjoyed it nevertheless. Email me with your thoughts on it at firstname.lastname@example.org and you just might find yourself as a winning commenter in the newsletter next week.