20 for 2020: Get Your House In Order

A young Serena, left, with pixie-short red hair, thick black framed glasses, and a casual, funky style of dress, poses for a holiday picture in front of a Christmas tree with her mother, right, smiling serenely and dressed in holiday casual. They lean in gently toward one another.
A twenty-something me, left, pausing for a photo op with my mom at a family Christmas party.

2020 Bonus: Also Get Your Mom’s House in Order

To say I grew up in houses that were cluttered is an understatement. My mom was a hoarder. I never gave much more than superficial thought to the degree to which she hoarded, I always knew it was an unhealthy level. Not until she passed early this year and the reality that it would be up to me to process her house and its contents, something that always loomed in the back of my brain since I was very young. It was not until this time that I started doing a little online research to get a sense of how profound this task would be. I learned two very important things:

It’s bad, though it could be a whole lot worse

There’s a 5 level scale that categorizes hoarders, and my mom was dancing into the level 4 territory. Not solidly level 4 mostly because she didn’t have pets, though checking most of the other boxes. Between taking in the description of level 5 and watching just one episode of Hoarders, I can say with confidence that level 5 is a whole lot worse than what I’m up against and I’m very glad to not be confronting that level of disorder.

It is mind blowingly expensive to hire professionals to manage these situations

I can’t say it’s unfair—it’s nasty, exhausting work that is very potentially hazardous to your health. Once the sticker shock subsided, I also decided that, despite her flaws, my mom deserves better than to have her entire life rapid shoveled into a dumpster by people who never knew her. I just can’t.

So it’s for good reason that I’ve long had a complicated relationship with stuff, and this post is about getting my own house in order; it just looks like mom’s house will be joining my list for next year. Here are some of the ways I was able to bring order to my own home in just about the most disorderly year any of us have known:

Identify, inventory, and quantify the categories of closet items and purge at least 10%

View through the doorway of a walk in closet. It is reasonably organized, although jam-packed with hanging shirts and more folded in stacks on the shelves above, and items stacked on the floor below hanging items.

My closet is pretty organized, it’s just a little too full.

A small coat closet door stands open, revealing a rod packed with jackets and sweaters of all kinds and varieties, and an over the door hanger swollen with scarves and wraps.

Just a little too much squeeze to get into the front coat closet.

Two levels of brick and board shelving painted red and black line a length of wall just inside the front door and are lined with shoes, flanked at one end by a tall shoe cubby housing more pairs of snuggled shoes.
Yeah, most of these shoes are mine, not my SOs. For a chick that was never really into shoes, I sure do have a lot.

Got a satisfying start on this one, possibly digging a little too much into the weeds and overthinking, which is my habit, and sorting some things out for purging, or at least reorganizing and relocating, though I’ll admit not very much stuff has actually gone out the door. Mitigating the topsy turvy work-life boundaries that were abruptly reconfigured by 2020, followed by the passing of my parents squeezed out the periodic weekend time this project was to have taken place in.

I did, however, take stock of absurd quantities of gloves, hats, jackets, purses and bags, belts, dresses, suits, and fancy wear, and pajamas/house dresses, and sorted the target 10% minimum for donation. I’ll keep this on my list for next year, since there are a number of other categories to purge, like shoes, scarves, and most importantly, clothes, and more emphasis will need to be placed on actually moving the items out of my possession.

A collection of fashionable winter gloves, in burgundy knit, black with leopard print cuffs, and purple, blue, and white cotton.
Just a few too many pairs of gloves for a Californian.
Another three pairs of gloves laid out, fuzzy, pale blue, velvety black, and lacy black.
… and more gloves…
And yet another five pairs of gloves laid out, two black lacy pairs, and three fancy elbow length pairs in black, silver, & red.
… and somehow, still more gloves.
Two dozen or so hats of a variety of styles and colors displayed neatly, a variety of beanies, sun hats, fashionable accessories, and fuzzy headwear.
So many hats…

10 fun and fancy dress hats arranged neatly in a square.

… and still, more hats.

Enjoy this goofy video of me trying on every single jacket I own trying to figure out which ones to get rid of

And despite what Patsy says, you can, indeed, have too many hats, gloves, and shoes.

Hang pants/skirts

Folded in half one direction then the other and stacked in piles on a deep shelf or other accomodating horizontal surface is how I’ve long stored things like pants and skirts; not ideal, though the abundance of shirts I’ve traditionally had usually takes all the rod space in my closet and then some. Endeavoring to thin the quantity of everything even just a little bit, I’ve had grand dreams that tops and bottoms will one day coexist harmoniously from hangers. This goal is totally contingent on the other related items here and hasn’t happened yet. It’s like a weird game of tetris or one of those little toys where there was just one missing tile and you had to slide all the others around until it made more sense or some recognizable picture.

Have a blanket made from old t-shirts

Also not done, another tile in that sliding tile tetris game that is keeping my closets manageable. Saw a post on Facebook for it once that involved shipping the shirts off to Tennessee. Didn’t investigate cost or logistics, though had a conversation about this with a friend recently who said you can get one made for about $1000 on Etsy. Yikes! That’s a lot to repurpose some old t-shirts. Maybe for all my old rock tees, probably not for other grouped themes of shirts I’ve collected over the years.

☑️Research options for selling/purging vintage items

Happened to catch a related thread on Facebook and took down some useful resources to investigate at some point.

Tackle mending/alterations pile

Contingent upon clearing physical and chronological space to actually use the sewing machine my SO and I bought each other for our cotton anniversary. Insert face with tears of joy here.

Create better use of space over shelf in coat closet

☑️Relocate hats downstairs

These two items were meant to be complimentary—I’ve got a decent sized hat collection that was in a set of large plastic drawers on my bedroom closet floor. In the spirit of clearing my bedroom closet and making it more user friendly, and putting the hats closer to the front door where I’d actually be more inclined to use them, and the extra winning of maximizing the space on the shelf in my coat closet downstairs, I envisioned Ikea cubes with drawers to hold the hats. We started the year with a trip to Ikea that moved the needle on a lot of these goals, and here we found the right item, measured, and purchased, it was going to be a perfect fit. Until we got it home and discovered, that yes, the measurements of the shelf did fit perfectly in the target space, but sadly, we did not account for the doorway it had to fit through and the angle required to even get close to getting it into the space. No amount of turning, twisting, or wedging would get the shelf into the desired space. We did find room for it against a living room wall and filled it with my hats. The shelf in the closet has received a basket to hold stray items for easy retrieval, though remains otherwise unenhanced.

A red and black striped stocking beanie lies rumpled on the floor, the remains of what used to be a pom-pom at the tip shredded and scattered all around it.
The first hat victim, and reason for desperately shoving furniture in front of the new hat storage location until a better solution is achieved.

This became hysterically more complicated when we brought home our newly adopted cats just weeks later, who quickly discovered that they could easily shove their paws into the tops of the soft cubical drawers and easily retrieve soft hats and beanies, which they would slink around the house with in their mouth like fresh kill. First line of deterrent was crimping a swatch of foil across the opening of each drawer, since I heard they don’t like it, which helped but didn’t prove to be a complete solution. In a pinch, the end table next to it got shoved in front of it, with a box of a friend’s records blocking access underneath, and a box of goods intended for donation on top. Between all that, and shaking an aluminum can full of coins anytime we caught them trying to dig into the drawers, they’ve mostly left it alone, though all these months later, we still haven’t dared relocate any of this stuff that was supposed to be temporary. Insert another face with tears of joy here.

☑️Organize yarn stash

Hey, this is a thing that actually happened! It’s a work in progress, though all yarn in my possession that is not currently in a project bag is packed into readily accessible plastic bins on top of a craft dresser in which two or so drawers are also packed.

Relocate and use metal racks in garage

The SO seamlessly stepped up to support on this one, nudging me to go down into the garage with him to work on the cleaning and reorganizing together and ordering two new sets of racks to match the old ones. He’s also a Boy Scout that was never a Boy Scout and a prepper that’s not a prepper, so this is as much about helping me clean and organize as it is about making an organized space for emergency rations of pasta, flour, water, canned goods, paper products, overflow pantry space beyond our one-butt kitchen, and other seasonal and emergency supplies.

Pocket doors!

Our little townhouse was built in 1973, and apparently people were really narrower then, if the doorways are any indication. I have spent a fairamount of time in hotels over the years thanks significantly in part to my work with the National Federation of the Blind and have noticed the trend of barn doors and pocket doors showing up more and more. They are not the same, and I’ll not dive into the details here, just suffice it to say that pocket doors are potentially a space efficiency solution in the many narrow doorways of my home and I’ve been dreaming of upgrading the space ever so slightly by putting in at least a couple. When my SO noticed we’d accumulated a generous cushion of savings in our joint checking account and suggested he transfer it to an investment account, I exclaimed, “pocket doors!” A little digging and investigating, however, revealed that the savvier home improvement investment in our current situation will actually be one of the other home improvement goals—overhauling the HVAC. Our heater is the one that came with the building in 1973, a sturdy and well-made Singer. Bet you didn’t know Singer made heaters, and guess what? They’re as solidly built as their sewing machine counterparts and while noisy, it has heated our house satisfactorily for the three years we’ve lived here. There is, however, no AC, and knowing that the heater could meet it’s end with relative speed, not to mention the other exhaust fans in the house just being intolerably noisy, an HVAC overhaul has been high on the home improvement list.

It’s a good thing we opted for HVAC overhaul over pocket doors, since the chronic air quality issues in California now demand that we frequently keep windows and doors closed, and indoor climate control is more imperative. So we called a contractor for an estimate and started fighting with the HOA about the outdoor space the compressor will take, and then there was a heat wave, and the heater’s fan just started blowing ceaselessly. We figured it was so hot on the wall the heater shares with the exterior of the house that it thought the thermostat triggered heat, and we ended up having to unplug the heater to cut the fan. Now, weeks later, as California actually cools to something resembling fall and winter, we now find that our heater doesn’t work, that perhaps the thermocoupling device fried in the heat, and now we can’t turn it on. We’re still waiting on the HOA and opted to reach out to the contractor to just get a jump start on replacing the heater, which was part of our plan anyway.

So pocket doors will have to wait in favor of a necessary and desired upgrade instead.

☑️Redesign office space for two

With ideas around adopting cats and getting shelves for them to climb on, maximizing closet space, and most of all, overhauling our office floating around, the SO and I took a trip to Ikea early in the year and quickly started working at a few items on this list, and while it’s still a space in progress, I can say that the office has been overhauled for two. The redesigned space meant that I could haul boxes out of the garage, unpacking many boxes of books and stowing them on shelves, and unpacking other boxes of office supplies, documents and records, technology, and other related items that had remained packed for lack of a proper home and relocating them into drawers and onto shelves. On the more challenging side, now that I have a designated work space, it is difficult to work in because I’ve continued to haul boxes out of the garage for sorting and purging—good for the garage, not great for using my desk for any traditional work. Good thing I’m looking to carve out a work space in the garage, too. **more faces with tears of joy**

View of our office from the doorway, before our trip to Ikea. A small desk and office chair face the opposite wall under a window and there’s a futon just inside the door to the left.
One-butt office before Ikea.

View of our office after visiting Ikea. Two small desks face each other perpendicular to the wall under the window with corresponding chairs. The futon is still just inside the door to the left. Bookcases have been added and filled with books on the left and right walls, and a standing lantern shaded lampis just past the bookcase on the right. Miscellaneous boxes are stacked next to the desks and on top of one of them.

Two-butt office after visiting Ikea.

Hang decor & pictures

Not so much, except some little corner shelves displaying wool items from our time in Kyrgyzstan in one corner, and what became dubbed “COVID shelves” where my SO stashes mail and masks to quarantine. I’ll roll this one over to next year’s list—it keeps me moving toward sorting and organizing lots of boxes of decor and bric-a-brac, some sentimental.

☑️Reclaim your personal email account

Super happy with this item, having essentially reached the goal Of actively using my personal email account, checking it at least once a day, curating by making time to clear out old mail and unsubscribe from items that no longer serve me, and following up on at least the most priority items. While I still have a staggering number of unread emails, I am satisfied with the habits established by this item and consider it a checked item. Unread mails have just inched over the six digit mark, and aside from occasional retrieval of lost emails/passwords or intentionally peeking in for something that someone specifically pointed my attention to, I really didn’t actively use the email for something like almost five years, so checking it daily, knowing what’s in there, and making small inroads at clearing out old stuff, I can say confidently that I’m as on top of my personal email as I possibly can be at this point.

Get a robovacuum

A small, lightweight handheld vacuum cleaner, including extension attachment, hangs on the side wall of a closet, resting on its charging mount. Mounted on the wall next to it is a caddy holding a variety of interchangeable heads.
The V8 Dyson Animal, the better than robovacuum solution I didn’t know we needed.

Didn’t get a robovacuum, though I’m calling this one good, thanks to my SO. When we bought our house three and a half years ago, neither one of us had a vacuum. I dreamed of investing in a sturdy Dyson, he wasn’t so excited at the price of the investment, and did what he does well, found a used one cheap. It’s a solid, well-made sucker, though it didn’t take long for us to abandon the chore due to the fact that it weighs a thousand pounds and we’ve got three floors, even if they are small and one is mostly wood and another concrete; we quickly gave up on lugging the thing up and down all those stairs, and when we discovered that our cats can’t resist chewing holes in the sides of plastic bags, resulting in an avalanched mountain of cat litter in the closet where their litterboxes are, it became a perfect obstructing weight to keep them out of the box the litter started going in by parking the monsteras thing on top of the box.

Per my 20 for 2020, I suggested a robovacuum to at least keep a minimum of grub off the floor and he dove into the interwebs, resurfacing with a brand new Dyson Animal that is super lightweight, easy to use, and didn’t ding our wallets too bad for a Dyson. It’s cordless and lives on a charger mounted in the catbox closet, next to a rack of easy to change heads, and is super convenient to grab and suck up all that tracked litter, carry downstairs to hit the area rugs or stairs down to the garage, or give a spot run over the bedroom or office. And the old Dynosaur still holds down the lid to the box that holds the litter.

Bonus organization: Messy Stair Landing

While not explicitly on my 20 for 2020 list, like a number of other Happiness Stumbling Blocks, it could have been and just happened to be an item that my SO and I spontaneously decided to tackle one day this year.

Our cozy little townhouse is layered into three levels, the ground-level main floor with one-butt kitchen and living room, a basement-like garage downstairs, and bedrooms upstairs, all connected by a spine of stairwells. The landing at the top of the stairs leading down to the garage quickly became cluttered with items I had grand dreams of organizing into some kind of wall storage. For lack of a much better place, a large quiver of old canes I keep for back up, alternate uses, or possible donations, got stashed just inside the door, leaned precariously into one corner, while a variety of brooms, mops, and a dustpan leaned into another, against the corner shelves we had already put up to hold overflow kitchen items, mostly cleaning supplies, that didn’t quite fit anywhere in our small kitchen—fresh sponges, the tub of dishwasher tabs from which we fill a small container that fits under the sink, and cleaners that don’t get used quite as often, like that for our wood floors.. A large bucket was also parked in the corner to collect towels and rags from the kitchen for later relocation to the washing machine downstairs, and once we discovered that plastic and other bags were no longer safe in the presence of our little murder monsters, their bags of kibble started landing there, too. Not only was it getting cluttered and messy, it was becoming a safety hazard in the already tight space. I relocated my quiver of canes to a better location down in the garage, we mounted a hanging rack for brooms and mops, and we’ve finally worked our way through excess bags of kibble that unintentionally accumulated. Next step is acquiring just the right airtight, cat-proof bin to store kibble in inside the house and not on the landing.

View of our stairwell landing from a few stairs down, looking up. A small set of corner shelves is mounted in the left corner holding a few small cleaning supplies, and a rack to hold brooms and mops is mounted on the wall to the right of it, holding brooms, mops, Swiffer, and a nesting dustpan/brush combo. On the floor in the left corner stands a large white bucket for rags and kitchen towels, and two small/medium sized bags of cat food lean against the wall to its right.

A neater and safer landing.

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