Category Archives: RECYCLING

Me, Myself and my Stuff

By Margaret Langston, Beautiful Corner

I am a voyeur at heart.  No, I don’t peek into people’s homes at night with binoculars.  However, being human, I will admit to being curious about what I see when working with a client, to clear their spaces and create order.

I think it’s important to remember that, for each of us, what we own is a reflection of our personal journey – where we’ve been, where we are and even where we’re going.  I’ve heard so many wonderful stories from clients about how they acquired treasured objects and why they’ve kept them.  I’ve also “kept confessional” for many people.  These confessors share painful and sometimes humiliating stories of unfulfilled dreams that haunt them in the form of extravagant purchases which then become white elephants, crowding their space and blocking their movement forward.  I’ve never learned more about a person in so short a time than when going through their bedroom closet.

To be the recipient of such intimate communication and the receiver of such a trust is probably the one thing that has kept me going as I persist in my relatively new organizing business.  Going through boxes of old correspondence, photos and other ephemera, I learn more about a client’s family history than probably even their closest friends are privy to.

And, interestingly enough, I think that my keen interest in what my client has to show me has been the key to helping them relate to their possessions in a fresh way and therefore, the key to change.  To know that I am open to listening to their stories – about themselves and their stuff – indicates my true interest.  My clients can relax, secure in the knowledge that I see them first as interesting and unique people, worthy in their own right, rather than as projects full of obstructions I intend to eradicate.

The most important teaching I’ve received was this: people don’t want you to tell them what to do – they want you to listen to them.  They already know what to do – they just need someone who is willing to create a loving space in which they can act in their own best interests.  I believe that this is true for all of us.

Have you ever gone into the home of a new or prospective client, and were met with chaos from the floor to the ceiling?  What went through your mind?  Where you so overwhelmed by the stuff that you couldn’t focus on the person standing in front of you?  People and their clutter (I’ve never liked this word, just can’t get used to it) are not only messy.  They are also colorful and interesting, like a 1950’s Expressionist painting.  I can look at a Jackson Pollock for hours, following the jumbled lines, trying to look deep into the crevices of the web of information before me.  How is that any different from my job?

Let’s Play a Game – 10 % is the Treasure

Let me tell you right away – in theory, what I’m offering to clients would make my service obsolete. I am a personal organizer who wants to go beyond the boundaries of your physical possessions. I want to help you organize the various aspects of your life – let’s start with your stuff, which is just the key which will unlock many doors to rooms which have other doors which will finally lead to the corner in which stands the box filled with what matters to you most.  I can’t tell you what that is but I think I can help you find the rooms that will guide you there.

I want to make a game of this process.

#1 – Stop buying non-essential stuff. Just for a little while. Go to the PUBLIC LIBRARY and look for Not Buying It – My Year without Shopping.  It’s a good read and will inspire.

#2 – Make a fun project for yourself which involves going through everything in the house. It’s called “Looking for Treasures”. The basic idea is this – rather than approaching the task as a purge of what you don’t want, take a more positive approach of looking for those possession which reflect your deepest goals, aspirations, interests and desires.  In fact, my position is that if you cannot define the foregoing playing “Finding Treasures” may very well help you to do so!

Try these steps. Remember, this is supposed to be fun, it’s a game that can span over a course of hours days or weeks. You can start and stop over and over, whenever you have time:

Set up three boxes somewhere where you don’t have to look at them all the time and label them as follows:

1) nothing to do with me
2) used to have something to do with me but not now and probably never will again and
3) nothing to do with my life at present but may very well serve me in the future.

Start in any part of the house or apartment, any closet, any drawer.  Take one thing out. Examine and ask yourself the following:

  • What is this and what do I do with it?
  • If I don’t use it what was its original purpose?
  • Is the original purpose one that has a place in my life now?

If the answers are all in the negative then put the item in question #2 box.  On the other hand, answering the same series of questions in the affirmative will lead you to a whole new query which will help to define what you are about now and, just maybe, who you are becoming or want to be.

I must digress, just for a moment – bear with me. A human being is not a solid object in stasis but an ongoing process of change, both body and mind, every day.   Some change we consciously seek – but much of it happens by way of the very nature of life itself.   We have much less control over this process than we may think, much of it being unconscious. Young adults start with a certain set of expectations for their lives and of themselves which may be fulfilled in part or in whole, or may not. And, as we mature, expectations and perspectives change. Our possessions can be a telling reflection of this process.  Much of the environment we create for ourselves in our 20s may not be relevant in our 40s or 50s.  A lot of people get hung up on this point.  Holding on to accumulated “stuff” when one has  moved to another level or in another direction altogether often indicates an unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of what one has  become and what is no longer important.

There is an important relationship between the amount of unused “stuff” which one holds onto and and the amount of energy and “head space” one has for direct experience of life and pursuit of one’s aspirations in the present.  The Western epidemic of over-consumption may be a collective avoidance – avoiding real experiences (in real time and in real space), pursuing our relationships and living our lives.

Notwithstanding the foregoing statements,  I am not a psychologist and I realize that there is a mental illness which involves hoarding, brought on by trauma, usually at a young age (i.e. victims of abuse, people who grew up in extreme poverty, etc.) and I do not mean to belittle in any way or oversimplify the complex issues anyone with such a condition faces, or is trying to overcome.  I only address what I sense is a general problem in our society and I am trying to offer some ways of approaching a problem which keeps many of us in an
unnecessarily “stuck” position.

Here’s an example from my own life.  It’s been years now since I donated a beautiful box of oil paints to a nonprofit that supplies under funded schools with art supplies.  When I hit my mid-thirties I started a long-term stint at the Art Students League in New York 2-3 times a week. I had much less responsibility and I was looking to avoid, well, certain realities one often faces approaching midlife.  Art  was my outlet. Now, I’ll be honest with you.  I have some talent which I’d never pursued as a younger person, as do many middle-aged dilettantes who frequent such non-accredited institutions. At the time I bought the paints I was on a roll – living in a fantasy world in which I was a burgeoning talent living on the edge of the NY art scene. Of course, this was far from the reality.  Anyone observing from the outside could see that I was one more frustrated office worker trying to muster a slightly above average gift into some alternate reality. So, I bought books. I bought the best brushes. I sought out instructors for advice on just the right “palette”, telling myself that getting it JUST RIGHT would make me the great painter I knew myself to be! So – I also bought paint – lots of it.  One instructor said, “you must have umber, ultramarine and cadmium red. But you also need Thalo blue.” Another said, “No, I find turquoise to be much more useful then Thalo and lead white is a must for glazing, etc, etc.”  I solved the dilemma by buying ALL the colors.

Long story short, after one tiny failed showing in a Park Slope coffee shop I gave my two best still-lifes to the friend who helped me get the showing.  I took digital photos of the rest of the paintings and trashed them.  Maybe they ended up at  a local thrift shop and some lone admirer of my work bought all of them.  Or not.  After a realignment of priorities (top of the list, my husband and the acquisition of two big dogs who keep me outside most of my free time) the paints and brushes went into the closet for three years.

So, going back to our game.  When I took the paints out last year the answer to Q#1 was: “This is a box of beautiful oil paints I paid dearly for.  I don’t do anything with them nor am I likely to in the near future.  They are slowly losing shelf life (drying, separation, etc).”  The answer to Q#2 was: “the original purpose of the paints was to give me the pleasure of painting.”  But, if I were honest I would have to say that there were two competing agenda, one apparent and one hidden, the latter being the narcissistic fantasy that I was destined to be a great (and need I say famous and successful) artist?   The hidden agenda was the stronger and driving force behind much of that paint purchase.  The answer to Q#3 was that, at this point in my life I do not take painting classes, I have no dedicated space for oil painting, nor do I have the time and inclination to paint, nor am I likely to before all the paints dry out.  So, the box of paints went to charity.  After that, I approached the decision of what to do with the brushes and the more apparent and far healthier agenda won out.  I did love to paint and still do. And I definitely hope to have time to go back to it in the future – but I don’t expect it will be the near future.  The brushes will be fine in 10 or 15 years when I’m ready for them.  They take a tiny corner of drawer space. They are waiting for me and
I’ll be back to visit them some day.

OK, now, you play the game with me!  Lets say you have picked an item and upon considering it, you were actually able to answer the three questions in the affirmative. Now, what deeper questions arise from your answers?  I’ll go so far as to say that you can gain some important insight from just about anything you own if you ask yourself the three questions, give a bit of time for answers and are not afraid to be honest.  Let’s say you are looking at a beautiful sweater, one that you don’t wear often but that you love, that is flattering and always gets compliments. Hold it take a nice long look. Enjoy this process.  So, here we go:

  1. What is this and what do I do with it? This is a beautiful sweater that I bought a year ago – I wear it over a simple black dress to very special occasions. It brightens me up and just looks great on me.  I feel great when I wear it.
  2. If I don’t use it what was it’s original purpose? I bought a year ago when I was feeling sad and just looking for something that would bring a little color back into my life – but I don’t wear it often, only for special occasions.
  3. Is the original purpose one that has a place in my life now? Yes, I’m still looking for more color in my life, in so many ways. Color, a feeling of luxury and pleasure. That’s it – I’m looking to get more pleasure.  How can I do that? What’s holding me back?

And so on, and so on…what I’m trying to do here is give you some rather unorthodox ways of firing up the imagination a bit, to help you figure out what has meaning in your life and what doesn’t.  I’d wager that 90% doesn’t, which makes it hard to see the other 10%. But it’s that 10% that hold the signposts pointing the way you really want to go.  Weed out the 90% and find the 10% that is treasure.


In the year 2000 I was invited by a good friend to visit Japan.  This was long before I ever dreamed of becoming a professional organizer.  While there I made a solo trip to Kurashiki to visit the Museum of Folkcraft.  Upon entering the museum, I read the slogan “Usability Equals Beauty” and, indeed, everything in the museum (mostly household items) was not only useful but beautiful.  This little phrase made quite an impression on me.  Slowly, over the years, this slogan stuck with me and informed how I chose to live, what I chose to let into my life – and what things to leave out.

Without being aware of it, my husband, Mark, is a strong proponent of this slogan.  He comes from a place where, at one time, useful and frivolous things were scarce.  I only got a taste of what life must have been like in 1970’s USSR when Mark and I visited St. Petersburg in 1996.

Mark scavenges the streets of NYC for small and large things, which he always finds useful.  To me, they are rarely beautiful but in his hands they become so.  The apartment we sold in 2005 had a pot rack made from an old bike rack and a wall unit with a pull down Murphy Bed made from lumber scraps scavenged from other apartments in our building.  Both creations fit both criteria found in my favorite slogan and attracted many prospective buyers.  Still, even now that I have evidence to the contrary, when Mark occasionally hauls these treasures into our apartment, often all I see is junk.  Like so many of us my knee jerk reaction is that only the shiny and new can be beautiful.  The old and dirty has lost its value and, once lost, that value is irretrievable.

I see my attitude echoed when working with clients.  Here, in New York City, in the US, there is so much to have.  The options never end and my clients’ overflowing closets attest to this.  Are we fortunate?  Or rather, as we drift in a sea of stuff, have we lost the ability to discern usefulness in what we own?  Anxious to get even better things tomorrow, can I actually find the time to use what I have today?  And, if I don’t use it wherein does that object’s beauty lie?  Who is there to notice it?