It was in my New York City apartment on 17th street in Chelsea that I first began to order space. Overwhelmed by my own lack of systems, I devoted one Saturday to the development of an action plan. It was 1997, and I was 24 years old.
I was just as overwhelmed as everyone about how to create a livable home. For me, the issue was light and space. I was raised in the country in a large house with sun-drenched rooms and porches off all the first floor doors. Home flowing into nature, and back again, was all I knew. With this removed, I had no idea what to do.
My bedroom suffered from a serious case of the grumps. It was on an airshaft, had no closet, and room enough only for a bed, nightstand and dresser. It was dark from morning until night. There was not a drop of character, space, or fresh air in this room, and my mood suffered.
One day, I sat on my futon and began to wonder, how can I find happiness here? I had New York City adventures galore outside my front door, but what could I do to smile when I settled in at night? Or when I woke first thing in the morning?
I found myself reflecting on my days as a student teacher at an innovative pre-school. The children at The Children’s Learning Center had amazing materials at their disposal, like wooden blocks for building and real forks and knives for cutting carrots at snack-time. The children learned materials were to be kept clean, carefully tended and, most importantly, given a home. Materials had a place to live. After all, without a home to return to, how would the next child find it?
I thought of another takeaway, how kids have an amazing capacity to personify things. A favorite doll needs clothes, a bed for naps, and a seat at the snack table. As adults, we lose this capacity to bring objects to life. What if I thought about my stuff like a child? What if I thought about everything in my room as living, breathing and precious, like a treasured friend?
In a frenzy, I began to tear through cheap college milk crates. I surrounded myself by piles that I had intuitively placed in categories according to the themes of my life: art stuff I want to use, things from college I don’t need anymore, crafty things that make me smile. As I worked I said out loud, “what is this?” and stories emerged. Not about whether to keep an item or let it go–but stories about the meaning and purpose of each piece of clothing, memorabilia or knick-knack in my life.
That’s how it started. I touched everything I owned once, told a story, and brought it to life. Some stories were rewarding–like when I uncovered my treasured craft supplies. While other stories caused me pause–like when I accepted there was no way to bring sunlight into my room, but I could cover my walls with sunny and cheerful objects.
By day’s end everything I owned was in front of me, grouped by theme. I began to place things away–up front and within easy reach for what I used daily–and in the back and below, or up high, for things I rarely needed. I thought about what I wanted access to at night as I wound down my day–my colored pencils and my journal. And what would propel me out of bed each morning–my yoga mat and my towel hanging on the door. Each time I placed each item away I said, this is where you live now, welcome home.
While I gave homes to most things, I also let stuff go. I found borrowed things, outdated things, and garbage–bits and pieces of life no longer worthy of a home. I left no item untouched–neither a bobby pin nor paperclip escaped my reach–and by evening, my room was in order.
My plan went way beyond picking up. I had discovered a series of philosophies that helped me to make sense of my relationship to space. I unearthed items that made me smile, and released items I had been carrying around for years, like dead weight. I fell asleep that night at peace. And woke the next morning feeling alive and ready to conquer the world.
In time, these core philosophies moved me towards larger achievements, things like active space, like things live together, and store it with style. I also thought deeply about systems: what needs to live where so that I can dance through my day?
The following year I moved apartments. My new home overcompensated by being flooded with light. But it was also a studio, with my kitchen and bed occupying the same room. I moved all my goodies from one home to the next, and for a year lived with things scattered about (occupied, in part, by a new kitten). Then one day I remembered my concepts, and in time transformed my home, this time with a renewed focus on small space solutions.
Eight years later a friend asked me to help her to get organized at home. I began to teach my concepts–now transformed to skills–launching a business that to date has helped thousands of individuals and families to reduce clutter, maximize space and create functional systems that meet their lifestyle dreams.
Living in darkness and then in light taught me we can’t always control our space. But we can control what we choose to do inside. I’ll never forgot the day I attacked my room with ferocity, turning a dark little room into a space that uplifted my mood on a daily basis. And I did it at no cost. I simply found the magic in what I already owned, in items that I already shared space with. I had simply lost touch with their meaning.
Photo credits: Burke Richmond, Maeve Richmond, Nicole Cingiser.