For Christmas, my true love gave me singing lessons. I am a sing-in-the-shower, sing-while-cooking, sing-along-to-the-car-radio kind of singer, which is to say not much of a singer at all. But warbling a tune brings me pure joy, pure in part because I sing without the burden of expectations. My career, luckily, doesn’t depend on my doing it well, or at all. My dogs don’t care if I can’t hit the high notes when we’re out on a walk. The human members of my family, all of whom have lovely singing voices, tolerate mine.
And though I will never be Kristen Chenoweth, my voice isn’t bad, really. It’s just under-used, and I’m often not quite sure what to do with it—how to make it sound richer, truer, more sure of itself. Humans sing; it feels natural to do. But to do it well requires practice and skill and feeling and control. Lungs, larynx, palate, tongue, cheeks, mouth and brain—so much has to work well together to let a tune out and make it really flow and resonate.
Here’s where I make a predictable (but true!) observation: Writing also takes practice and skill and feeling and control. Like my singing voice, my writing voice has felt underused lately. As 2022 rolled in, I made a commitment to get back in touch with the creative side of myself that had gone quiet during this godforsaken and never-ending pandemic, which has left so many people exhausted and tapped out.
In 2021, I’d gotten distracted, too, by the aftermath of publishing a book. I learned how easy it is to get stuck on the work you have done rather than the work you could be doing now. And under what felt like COVID house arrest, I’d finally gotten around to sorting through a three-generational archive of family papers. My biggest accomplishment so far: I consolidated all my school papers, from kindergarten through grad school, into one archive box.
In a meaningful way, all the sorting represents a work in progress. It has felt important to do—to make peace with my mother’s death and to lighten the family-history load for my children—but as a WIP it’s far more interior than expressive. Satisfying, but not in the deep way that creating something does. That’s what I have missed this last year.
My husband thought singing lessons would help uncork the creative spirit. I’ve only had a few meetings so far with my voice teacher—a half-hour every Wednesday afternoon via Zoom—but I have loved the chance, the permission, to think about how I breathe and how to support my voice when I use it. I’m using it more and more often these days.
During our first lesson, my teacher talked about “singing into the mask” as a way to visualize where to project the voice to get the sound I wanted. The phrase has kicked around for a long time, but it feels like a pretty good motto for how to live a creative life two years into the pandemic: Stay safe, yes, but make yourself heard.
Here’s a YouTube singing-into-the-mask warmup by Jeff Rolka, whose videos I’ve found useful as I get going:
Some of what I’ve been reading/watching/listening to this month for inspiration and diversion:
The Revolutions podcast by Mike Duncan—I’m kind of addicted to this now, though it is a big commitment if you do the whole thing.
On the TV front, it’s been a weird mix of brutal and heartwarming and inspiring shows lately: “Succession” (such well-scripted and beautifully acted nihilism) and “Euphoria” (not sure how much longer my nerves will hold out for that one) and “All Greatures Great and Small” (because animals and Yorkshire and I loved the books as a kid) and the “Sex and the City” sequel (not proud of that one) and “Star Trek: Discovery” (because of course this OG Star Trek fangirl watches that).
I’ve had a thing for owls since I was a little kid. I’d draw them over and over again with pipes and top hats (go figure) and big asterisk eyes. Meet Mayor Owl:
In a more naturalistic vein, I still own my copy of The Owls of North America. And of course I have owls on my Christmas tree. Here’s one of my faves:
I came across Mayor Owl while going through the last (please lord please let them be the last) boxes of my mother’s papers and memorabilia. Those boxes had been living across the alley from my house in a rented storage unit, along with dozens of cartons of family photos, three generations’ worth of school papers, most of my writing files, many many many books, and stray pieces of furniture with nowhere to go.
We set a deadline of December 15 to clean out the unit. It turned out to be hard work, hours and hours of it, necessitating derangements and reorganizations and spinoff projects in various parts of the house as we found places for what we wanted to keep, but we did it. I’ve gotten a lot better about deadlines the last few years.
**Brief pause to share Flanders and Swann’s classic “The Gas Man Cometh,” about how home-improvement projects go off the rails. It gets invoked in my house on the regular.**
The hard labor involved was physical but also emotional. Spouse and I had a good practical reason to tackle the storage unit after years (years!) of neglect: That monthly rental fee was adding up. Deferred decisions turn out to be expensive. I had a powerful person reason too: With my mother gone six months now, I felt the need to get things sorted by the end of the year—not just her things but mine as well.
How would I describe the process? So many words apply: therapeutic, wistful, life-affirming, surprising, tedious, absorbing, dusty. Especially dusty. I will write eventually about what we choose to save—the obverse of clutter—but those words will do for now.
I think a lot these days about preservation and curation, what gets saved, who chooses, and why. I’ve been confronting those questions as I sort through the boxes we pulled from the storage unit: Keep Mom’s old college papers? (No.) Keep letters and telegrams sent to her many decades ago by friends and old flames? (A few.) My own college and grad-school papers I winnowed down from several cartons to a stack that will fit neatly in one archive box (that’s our cat Charlie for scale):
I tossed most of my class notes, figuring that if I hadn’t looked at them in 30 years, I probably wasn’t going to. Still, I was glad to be reminded that I paid close attention in class. I did keep some papers, though, especially ones with comments that delivered high professorial praise (“the best paper on Progressivism that I’ve read this year,” “your writing is unusually strong and clear”). But I also saved some with comments that urged me to do more, dig in more deeply, see how far an argument and evidence could take me—increasingly sophisticated iterations, as I moved from college through grad school, on the advice I got in 7th grade: Unpack your ideas. That advice I will hold on to. In different iterations, story by story, book by book, it’s what I will keep trying to do as long as I can write.
Speaking of comments, if you have read my book and enjoyed it, I’d love you for ever if you would rate and review it on Goodreads and Amazon (or LibraryThing or StoryGraph or your book platform of choice). Those reviews/ratings really help boost an author’s morale (yes, I do read them once in a while, even though authors aren’t supposed to read reviews), and they can help a book find new readers.
Oh, and on January 4, 2022, the book comes out in paperback! I wrote a new afterword about our pandemic relationships with stuff and trends like #cluttercore, so check it out.
October usually energizes me. Cooler temperatures, that slanting light, the sense of doors opening between the spirit world and ours—I have come to rely on this season to bring me a sense of hidden possibilities, other ways of being. But this fall I’ve felt stuck, uncertain about how to move forward and which way to go.
The world, or my little corner of it, feels stuck too. It’s late October and the mosquitoes refuse to die; the weather refuses to get cold enough to kill them off. I keep discovering more boxes of my late mother’s stuff, including a multi-generational trove of family photos. When will it end?
Say hi to one of my ancestors, who might or might not be the same child who died of diphtheria at the age of 11 in the first decade of the last century. Haunting, no? Those eyes follow you around the room.
I’ll likely write more about the photo organizing at some point, but first I need to get unstuck. I spent so much of the last few years buried in clutter, writing about clutter, promoting my book about clutter. (Did I mention there’s a paperback edition coming out in January 2022 with fewer typos and a brand-new afterword?)
Honestly, I thought/hoped I would be well into my next book project(s) by now. Pro tip: Self-flagellation doesn’t do much for productivity. I have to trust that I’ll figure out the next thing in good time. Then again, time’s a-wasting, as they say.
I did manage this summer to get back in the game and write a review-essay of John B. Thompson’s Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing for the LARB. The assignment gave me a chance to think about all the changes I’ve seen and been part of during my career as well as to assess Thompson’s latest substantial contribution to the ethnography of publishing.
Mostly, though, this year has felt like one long look back—at my own first book, at family history, at what’s been lost and what I still need to let go. That includes the fear of moving on to new work. Time to get unstuck and let the spirits move.
A lot happened this summer. In mid-June, I lost my mother (to a heart attack, not COVID-19). Two days later I sprained my ankle and learned the hard way about proprioception. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the reception of stimuli produced within the organism,” an ungraceful way of describing how the mind figures out what the body is up to—or, in my case, fails to figure that out at crucial moments. I missed the last two steps while carrying a double load of laundry down the stairs.
It’s hard to describe the sudden shock of an injury like that, the dislocating swerve from normal. Friends told me their own stories about mishaps suffered right after a traumatic event (see: death of a mother). It makes sense. As my therapist said, when a parent dies, the existential shift requires us to remap emotional landscapes we’ve lived in our whole lives. That burns up mental and physical energy that would otherwise be spent on being in the world. I felt that and feel it keenly, two months later. The ankle’s functional again, though I can’t run on it yet, but I get emotionally winded more quickly these days.
The day I sprained my ankle, I went to a beach in NC with my family for a long-planned week out of the city, our first real trip since before the pandemic. I hobbled down to the sea on crutches and read “Goodbye, Columbus” (don’t ask me why) and ate ice cream and thought about mortality and grief and relief. Mortality for the obvious reasons. Grief because even a complicated and often difficult parent—if you have read my book, you know something about my mother’s complexities—is still a parent, and we don’t get many of those. Mom was my gateway into this world and a reference point for most of my time in it so far. Relief because I don’t have to worry about her any more. It has been a long seven years, and counting, and I feel sadder but lighter now.
I noticed something else soon after Mom died: I remembered more about her. Older memories—some of them happy and some not, but all undeniably Mom—began to float up from the psychic depths. I’m glad to have them back and to be able to think about her as she was in earlier days, before the extreme clutter and the dementia swallowed her up. She feels more alive to me now than she did during her long years in assisted living. Here’s a photo of her taken by her second husband, when she was in her 40s:
On the Fourth of July, I boarded a plane to the West Coast to look at SoCal colleges with my younger kid, now a high-school senior. I wrote the obituary for my mother on the plane ride out. Obituaries are not a genre I have much experience with; I wanted enough detail to bring Mom to life, but some details felt out of reach, too private, too uncertain. Some I had to look up, a reminder of how much we do not know about each other, even in families.
By then I’d ditched the crutches for a walking boot and was able to drive again (sans boot). I love to drive manual (harder and harder to find these days, and we should all be driving EVs anyway if we drive at all), but the trip made me grateful that rental cars default to automatic transmissions.
Grateful, too, for the chance to make the trip at all, given a sprained ankle, the Delta variant, wildfires, historic heat waves, and the other uncertainties and risks of this second pandemic summer. (I hate to type that.) We were lucky, catching a break between waves of heat and wildfire smoke. Some of the colleges my son wanted to see had just started doing in-person tours again; others let visitors do self-guided tours. He saw enough to get a stronger sense of what he does and doesn’t want.
It was his first trip to the West Coast, and we made the most of it. We arrived on the Fourth of July and watched fireworks from the median strip on San Vicente Boulevard. We snuck in some sightseeing that made the trek feel almost like a vacation (remember those?): a stop at Amoeba Music in LA to pick up some vinyl, a near-sunset visit to the Griffith Observatory, a drive up the coast to Malibu. We ate some of the best tacos either of us has ever had at Guerrilla Tacos in Silverlake. (Try the sweet-potato tacos if you go.) We drove up into the vertiginous and twisting streets of the Hollywood Hills, underpowered rental-car engine complaining all the way, to get a look at the cantilevered house that doubles as Harry Bosch’s digs in the TV series. It was…well, it was fun.
Here’s a shot of me, boot and all, taken by Finn at the Observatory, in what one friend called my “clumsy Indiana Jones mode.” Indy has pretty much been my fashion idol all along, so I’m okay with that.
Back in DC, I took care of more details related to my mother’s death, sending out emails and calling friends. I’d already arranged for her to be cremated; beyond that, final arrangements—scatter the ashes or inter them? what about a memorial service?—can wait a while. One thing about death: it takes someone out of the slipstream of time. Memories first, memorials later.
In spite of losses and travels, I surprised myself and got some work done. Deadlines, which I used to dread and now rely on, pulled me back into action. Writing happened slowly, but it happened. I sweated for too long over my first review for the LARB, an outlet I’ve been eager to write for; that piece, the first review I’ve done since the Before Times, should be out next month. I filled notebook pages and index cards with the glimmerings of ideas for next books and new explorations.
I’ve been wrapping things up on the first-book front. The paperback of Clutter: An Untidy History will be published in January. I proofed an updated PDF of the book and caught a few lingering typos that will be fixed for the paperback edition (and in the ebook, where mistakes are easy to fix).
And I wrote an afterword for the paperback that explores how our relationship to our stuff did and didn’t change because of the pandemic. I wrote about my mother’s death, too, the end of the most personal part of the story. I’m proud of the afterword, and can’t wait for you all to read it.
Pre-order the paperback now; January will be here before you know it.
In August, Finn and I made another trip, this one by car, to the Northeast to visit liberal-arts colleges. (So many lovely, leafy campuses. So many terrifyingly low acceptance rates and rattlingly high tuitions.) In between campus tours, we made pilgrimages to the graves of my mother’s New England relatives.
Halfway between Worcester and Boston, Finn spotted a sign for Walden, and on a whim we took the exit and tramped around the pond and thought about Thoreau’s sojourn in the woods. HDT and I share a birthday and a fondness for nature, so I’ve always felt some kinship with him. And transcendentalism, at least as described at the Walden Pond visitor’s center, sounded pretty appealing to a smart 17-old who’s well aware of the shortcomings of modern life.
Then it was back on the road, bound east and north. We had dinner with an old friend in Brunswick, Maine, and her son—the experience of an in-person dinner party astonishes me these days—and then Finn headed off to spend some time with friends by a lake in western Maine. Solo, I visited my aunt in South Portland, and heard stories about my mother I’d never heard before, or had forgotten.
The day before I drove back to DC, I went to Portland Head Light on Cape Elizabeth. I sat on the rocks and looked out at the sea and pretended I was in an adventure tale. Maybe I was. Maybe I’ll write one. I’m ready to tell another story.
I hope you’re staying cool and finding adventures, near or far, during these dog days of summer. Thanks for reading.
It has been a year. That’s a long time to be hunkered down in the same place with the same stuff. As someone with an abiding interest in humans’ material lives, I’ve been wondering: How has a year of pandemic living changed the way people feel about their things? Are we all maximalists now?
When I was working on CLUTTER: AN UNTIDY HISTORY, I talked to a lot of people on the front lines: first responders, junk haulers, and pro organizers like Heather. She was a key source, generous with her expertise and experience. I’m grateful to her for that and for making time for this Q&A, which we did via email in early March 2021.
Read on for Heather’s insights on how decluttering and organizing can be a help in tough times, how a Zoom-ready work-from-home office is “the new business suit,” the Instagrammable vogue for ROYGBIV organizing, whether workers will ever go back to open-offices plans, and more.
JEN: Many of us have been stuck at home—living, working, and going to school in the same place—for a year now. That puts a lot of pressure on domestic spaces. Has quarantine life led to a decluttering boom, or are people too overwhelmed just trying to get through the day/week/month/year? How busy have professional organizers been in 2020-21?
HEATHER:Quarantine has led to a decluttering boom, as shown by a two-month waitlist for charity donation pickup services and the launch of many new junk-hauling companies.
Because of the pandemic, as much as people wanted to get organized, they also wanted to protect themselves and their families for not having too many people in the home. However, with the release of the Netflix series “Get Organized With The Home Edit" in August 2020, people were incredibly inspired, and professional organizers were busy again if they chose to work in homes.
Even though the pandemic is overwhelming at times, organizing can give a sense of control that can be empowering in a tough time like this. However, many professional organizing companies [in the DC area] are still not fully operational, as sections of the DMV remain in only Phase 2 Reopening.
Lastly, many professional organizers were able to still be employed through the pandemic by pivoting slightly and redirecting their services to move coordination and unpacking to support moving, as 2020 was a record-breaking year for the U.S. housing market.
“Even though the pandemic is overwhelming at times, organizing can give a sense of control that can be empowering in a tough time like this.”
JEN: What are the top three things—projects, particular spaces, categories of stuff—that clients want your help with? Has that changed over the last year?
HEATHER: The top three things, which are all a change from pre-COVID times, are move preparation/move coordination (for residential and commercial spaces), Instagrammable kitchen pantries, and downsizing/donating & selling (for residential and commercial spaces).
HEATHER: I will not be surprised if people go full-tilt tacky, because who cares? No one walks into our homes anymore, and after living through a pandemic, people are much less judgmental.“Decor” is what makes you happy. Did I tell you my neighbor has a blow-up inflatable unicorn and leprechaun bigger than his house currently on his front lawn? And I actually don't care.
Yes, I know people buying green sofas and going glam. Who knows, I might even maxi my office—just not the side people can see on Zoom. :)
Marie Kondo espouses the idea that if you declutter, you don’t need to organize, because it is so simple no systems are needed. I would say we’re not more comfortable with clutter but we’re not minimalists either.
Minimalism has never been a very realistic option for our clients. In wanting to provide long-lasting and effective solutions for our clients, minimalism was rarely ever the answer, then or now. A client might like the look but wouldn’t be able to keep it up. There is nothing wrong with a closet of art supplies, as long as it is organized, and you get Instagram bonus points if it is sorted in rainbow colors (ROYGBIV).
JEN: Do you think the pandemic will lead to any permanent changes in how we organize our homes and what objects we decide to keep—or to get rid of?
HEATHER: Permanent change would be work from home (WFH) space for those who's jobs remain at least partly remote. The WFH office is becoming the new business suit, so to give off a good impression to clients, you will want to keep it organized.
With regards to objects, there was A LOT of bulk buying in the beginning of the pandemic, even by professional organizers, because 1) so many thing were out of stock and 2) we were warned that the pandemic would interrupt the supply chain of getting goods, so business owners were told to stock up. It will take a long time for folks to work through the wipes, water, hand sanitizer, and masks, so these items are here to stay for a while. Establish an organized system for these pandemic products so that you know what you have.
Lastly, multi-generational housing has become a thing, along with families with pandemic-born babies becoming first time home owners moving out to the suburbs. The pandemic gave people a new appreciation for families, so I believe we will continue to help consolidate and organize multiple households into one home.
“The WFH office is becoming the new business suit, so to give off a good impression to clients, you will want to keep it organized.”
JEN: You and I have talked about digital clutter, like the thousands of family photos I keep meaning to organize. How big an issue is that for your clients? Do you spend more time on digital organization now than you used to? What's the next frontier for professional organizers?
HEATHER:The WFH model increases people's need for “digital fluency” and the management of digital files. I anticipate an increase in requests from clients to help with digital organization, because now it’s been over a year since the WHO announced the pandemic. People can sometimes keep their files organized for one year, but after that, it all starts to build up and it gets harder and harder to find their files.
JEN: You work with institutions and companies as well as with individuals. With so many employees working from home, have your business clients changed how they want or need to organize their workplaces and systems? What trends do you see emerging there?
HEATHER:Cocozza Organizing + Design has been advising clients on how to downsize, but COVID-19 has put another twist on office downsizing. The open-office concept was all the rage to increase communication and build community. One year later, we are living in a very different environment that discourages face-to-face interaction, requests six feet of social distancing, and encourages barriers.
Business owners are starting to pivot their commercial work spaces to reduce their overall office space footprint, de-densify the office space that remains, and declutter to facilitate cleaning. We have helped businesses achieve this downsizing goal COVID-19-style, through project planning, office furniture liquidation, records management, and hands-on organizing.
Even as vaccines become more widely available and the threat of COVID-19 is perhaps diminishing, many businesses are still choosing to downsize. Working from home for a year has shown them how their business might work without a traditional office and how much money they can save by doing it.
In work situations where paper files are still needed (e.g., case files, contract files), companies still have restrictions on how often and how many people can be in an office space at one time. The result of this is that paper files which are still being used need to be extremely organized, because now people need to find exactly what they need very quickly. We are still helping clients organize these files.
“The open-office concept was all the rage to increase communication and build community. One year later, we are living in a very different environment.”
JEN: What haven't I asked that you'd like to talk about?
HEATHER: Our residential clients who are seniors I think are really missing that face to face interaction in their home. Physically handling their stuff and going through it together—there is an art to it. It is somewhat intimate, and the trust has to be there.
We aim to make them feel comfortable with a task that sometimes causes anxiety or stress, and that’s a delicate task. We’ve done pretty well transitioning that to phone and Zoom, but we and our clients would both agree it’s just not the same! It will be good to develop those special kinds of relationships in person again. We miss it.
Happy pandemic decluttering, readers, if that’s your thing. And if you’re all about embracing clutter these days, I won’t judge. Keep masking up and social distancing, get vaccinated when it’s your turn, and we’ll get through this.
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