Paying for Postponed Decisions

It’s funny how my work with clients takes on certain patterns. I recently wrote about multiple clients with whom I worked on organizing their jewelry. Lately, I have been visiting storage units with my clients.

As I’ve mentioned before, my very wise organizing colleague, Barbara Hemphill, declared that “Clutter is postponed decisions.®” When you decide to put items into storage, you are not only postponing the decision of what to do with that stuff, you are also paying handily for the luxury of postponing that decision.

Many clients over the years have gotten tired of paying hundreds of dollars each month and have asked me for help in closing down their self-storage units. The one I worked on recently was very satisfying for both the client and me. We went through every box at her Manhattan Mini Storage unit. She decided what should be kept and what should be hauled away, and then I repacked the boxes and added colored tape to each box indicating its destination.

My client arranged for a small moving company and a junk company to come at our next session so that we could empty the unit and close it down. The stuff that the junk company hauled away will be donated or recycled where appropriate, or put in the trash as a last resort. The stuff that she is keeping was moved to her apartment, where we stacked it up in a corner for us to put away at a future date.

Another client asked me to help her organize the storage cage in her building’s basement. The building was planning to haul away anything that wasn’t located securely in the cages, so this was an opportunity for her to review what she had and dispose of what she no longer wanted at no cost. This review reinforced what I’ve always believe: anything kept in an opaque container becomes a mystery. If you can’t see it, you’ll forget what it is.

My favorite moment during that session occurred while looking at another resident’s storage cage. This cage was filled completely with boxes from floor to ceiling, and the only thing keeping the boxes from spilling out was the chain holding the door closed. One of the boxes was labeled “Clothes I Don’t Wear”. That’s telling it like it is! (I don’t suppose I need to tell you what I would advise someone to do about clothes they don’t wear.)

The third storage closet project also took place in the basement of the client’s building. This was a room filled with postponed decisions, much of it relating to the family’s now-adult child. This is a struggle that many of my clients deal with. What do you do with the childhood stuff that your kids leave behind? At what point do you tell them that they need to come review their stuff because you plan to get rid of it?

Here are a few pointers regarding storage units:

  • I believe in renting a storage unit if you know it will be temporary. If you need a few months or a year to park your stuff because of a life change, go for it. However, if you are simply postponing difficult decisions, you will ultimately regret sending the stuff to a costly storage space.
  • Pack your items in well-marked boxes, or put them in clear storage containers. You want to be able to tell at a glance what is in the storage unit so that you can find it when you need it, or decide when it’s time to trash it.
  • Keep a list of everything you’ve added to the unit. You think you will remember, but you won’t.

A Cautionary Tale about Ephemera

I’ve written about ephemera before (see my blog post entitled Ephemera).  If you need a reminder of what ephemera is, defines it as “items designed to be useful or important for only a short time, especially pamphlets, notices, tickets, etc.”  In this case, I’m writing about a theater program.  Specifically, a program I did not save for a show I did not see.  And yet it has been sitting on the end table in my living room for weeks, and has been in my house for a lot longer.

Let me explain.  Late in the summer of 2019, I was helping a client put away some new items that had come into her home.  We went into a cabinet in her bedroom where she thought she could make ample space, and she identified some things that she was ready to part with.  Among them was a collection of Playbills.

I’m a devoted theatergoer and I’m always excited to find that my clients have saved their Playbills.  A quick glance at my client’s Playbills revealed that some of them were from very recent shows and others were much older, going back to the 1980s and earlier.  I immediately thought of where these classic Playbills could be donated.  I told her that instead of recycling them, I was going to take them home and donate them.  She was fine with that and gave me a tote bag for them.  They were heavy, but I was only a short walk from home.

The charity Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has a flea market and auction near Times Square every September.  Proceeds go towards their amazing programs.  I reached out to a friend who has volunteered for them and asked if she knew whom I could contact about donating these Playbills to the flea market.  She gave me a name and when I had some time, I made a call.

I learned that I would need to bring the Playbills to the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS office in midtown.  It’s a short subway ride from my home, but I never got there.  I was preparing to direct a musical, and auditions were coming up right after Labor Day, so I was very busy.  The date of the flea market came and went.  When my show was over, I called again to see if I could still bring the Playbills to the office so that they could be included in the following year’s auction.  I was told that they had no space to store them, and that I should mail them the following August. I put the Playbills in a box with the address on it and a sign saying “Mail in August 2020”.  I put it on the top shelf of a closet.

We all know what happened in 2020.  Everything shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  In mid-2021, I called Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS to find out if I could still send the Playbills for that year’s auction.  I learned that they were not planning to sell Playbills anymore, as they didn’t bring in enough money.  “Recycle them,” I was told.

The box of Playbills continued to sit in my closet until the December holidays.  That’s when I got up on my stepstool to get down all of my decorations.  I couldn’t ignore the box of Playbills, which was on the same shelf.  I decided that it was time to take care of these pieces of ephemera that had been in my home for almost 2 1/2 years.  I put them in a couple of recycling bags (too heavy for just one bag!) but something nagged at me.

The oldest Playbill in the collection was from 1969.  It was for the play Cactus Flower starring Julie Harris, whose photo was on the cover.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with Julie Harris, she had the distinction of winning the most Tony Awards of any actor — at least until Audra McDonald came along.  One of her Tony Awards was for this very show.  I just couldn’t recycle it.  I thought, “This must be valuable to someone!”  So I recycled the others and held on to this one.

Last week I finally got onto eBay to figure out if this Playbill was of interest to anyone.  Here is what I discovered: there are currently 17 of these Playbills on sale on eBay with nary a single bid. (One of them is even autographed.)  A look at completed auctions shows four more of them, only one of which sold.  Bottom line: it’s of very little interest to anyone.

So here is my current plan.  I’m going to read the Playbill from cover to cover, and then I’m going to recycle it.  Like I should have back in 2019 when my client said to.

Here is what I learned from this cautionary tale about ephemera:

  • Ephemera are meant to be thrown away.  It’s in the definition.
  • You can’t care more about a client’s castoffs than they do.
  • Whether it’s clutter in a client’s house or clutter in my house, it’s still clutter.


Honoring Your Family’s Legacy

When my father passed away in 2015, my sister and I took on the laborious process of going through everything that he and my mother had left behind in the apartment where they had lived for 40 years. (You can read more about that experience in Home is Where the Heart Is.)

Among the few things I brought home were two pieces of jewelry that I had never seen before. One was a tie clip that my teenage mother had given my father before they were even married. It had his initials (JL) and was accompanied by a note saying, “Because I love you.” I had never seen my father wear this tie clip and I didn’t know it existed. The other was a ring with several small diamonds that might have also predated my parents’ marriage, as I never saw my mother wear it.

I sat on these items for several years, not sure what I wanted to do with them. Recently, I reached out to my colleague Jane Becker of JB Jewels, to whom I have referred several of my clients when they wanted to remake jewelry. I knew that I wanted to turn the tie clip into a necklace but wasn’t sure what to do with the ring. Jane and I discussed some of the possibilities and ultimately decided to remove the stones from the ring and turn them into a unique pair of earrings.

My father’s tie clip is now a necklace

I recently received my new jewelry and was delighted with the results. I feel so good that these pieces that my parents saved for over 60 years have been given new life. Jane wrote about my new pieces (including photos) in her latest newsletter, which you can read here.

I’ve seen so many of my clients hold on to items that came from their parents and grandparents, burdened by the space they take up but not using them and not wanting to part with them. If this sounds like you, then I urge you to think about how you can make some of these items work for you. Don’t let them be sources of guilt when they can instead be wellsprings of joy.

Use What You Already Have

New clients often ask me if they should purchase any supplies before our first appointment. I tell them no, because we can often use containers that they already have in new ways. For example, a seldom-used coffee mug can become a holder for pens and pencils, and a plastic container missing a lid can become a repository for small accessories in the bedroom or loose change in the entryway. Shoe boxes can become a useful repository in any room.

In recent months, I finished up a project to organize my daughter’s childhood photos that I had had digitized (see my earlier post Making Lemonade). Once that was done, I disposed of all of the negatives. That left me with a couple of very attractive photo boxes that were now empty. I resisted tossing these boxes because I had a gut feeling that I would be able to use them for something. I have been doing a lot of organizing projects around my house during the pandemic, and I made a mental note to keep an eye out for a use for these boxes.

Happily, that use just revealed itself. Another project that I tackled recently was my own unfinished childhood album (see last week’s post When One Project Begets Many.) This required me to go through my box of memorabilia to find papers that might go in the album. I had a rather large box for not that much stuff, since a lot of it had been pulled out over the years and incorporated into various other projects. Things that were left were either small bulky items (such as my elementary school and middle school autograph books, and medals I received for various honors) or large papers (such as oversized certificates).

Picture boxes repurposed for memorabilia

I decided to try putting the small items into the now-empty photo boxes. A perfect fit! I now have one box that consists of items from my childhood, and another that consists of items related to my parents. I have a third never-used box (still in the shrink wrap) for any other small items I come across.

As for the oversized certificates, I decided to combine them with other even larger papers that I have saved over the years, such as newspapers in which my name appears. Last night I ordered an archival box that will be large enough for all of them.

I’m pretty excited that I am getting my memorabilia better organized, and also that I found a use for those pretty boxes. But one of the benefits of this project was that it required me to thoroughly review my memorabilia. I was often surprised, occasionally amazed, and sometimes tearful. I feel like I’m getting back in touch with parts of my life that I have forgotten.


When One Project Begets Many

Have you ever avoided a project because you knew the end result would be a lot more projects?

I had that experience a few days ago. The task “Organize photo shelves” has been on my list since the pandemic began.

All my life, I have put my photos in albums. I used loose-leaf binders, which fit very nicely on my bookcase. When I became a parent, however, I became a scrapbooker to better document my daughter’s life. I switched to 12″ by 12″ albums, which were too big for the bookcase. So I purchased a narrow but deep bookcase that I used just for the scrapbooks, photos, and the larger supplies that scrapbooking requires. The bookcase lives in my bedroom.

Thirty-seven scrapbooks in the living room!

Eventually the number of scrapbooks outgrew that bookcase and I relocated all of them into my living room, which was nice because they are very attractive, and it’s handy when I want to show someone a photo. The photo bookcase continued to hold photos and supplies, but also became a dumping ground for anything memorabilia-related, including documents I took from my parents’ home after they passed away.

Four years ago, I stopped scrapbooking and started using online software to create my albums. (See my post The Last Scrapbook). No more physical photos! In recent years, I started thinking that my bedroom would look better if that bookcase weren’t there. But I knew that clearing it off would be a big job that would require a lot of decisions, so I put it off.

Finishing up an album

Last weekend, I tackled those shelves. After I went through everything on the bookcase, I made a list of all of the things I need to do to be able to get rid of that bookcase. I ended up with a list of 8 additional projects!

Three of those projects involve finishing up some special albums that I started years ago. I tackled two of them over the weekend, and I hope to make some progress on the third one this weekend. Eventually I plan to sell or donate most of my unused scrapbooking supplies.

I know that I have more work and decision-making ahead of me before I can achieve my goal of getting rid of that bookcase. But I feel good that unfinished projects are getting done and that progress is being made towards getting unneeded things out of the house.

Photos and memorabilia are so important to us, and getting them into an accessible and enjoyable format is worth the time and energy put into it. Otherwise, they are just clutter.