I can only imagine what it might be like to keep an orderly house. Mine is disorderly—not in the legal sense, which I think equals a house of ill repute. Just messy. The public rooms are tidy enough, if not always free of dust. But the corners and closets upstairs are defined by clutter.
I'd like to say I struggle with this, but that's much too active a verb. I ponder it—that's closer to the truth. And occasionally (this is quite an active approach, for me) I add to my day's to-do list some tiny solution to an even tinier part of the problem.
Recently, for example, I decided that every day (which has turned out to be every other day, or even every third day) I would remove all the jars and bottles from one of the shallow shelves near the back door, wash the shelf, wash the jars and bottles if they needed it (a subjective decision, for sure) and then replace everything neatly onto the now-clean shelf. This is terrific. So far I've done two shelves—the two at mid-level, the two most clearly visible to the casual observer. The rest remain to be done. It takes no more than ten minutes per shelf—and I just now realized that I frittered away a whole afternoon yesterday when I could at least have cleaned one more shelf. Ah, well. I'll keep putting it on the list.
Recently I tackled another area of mess, and that led to the discovery of what I call the "Piles System" of home management. More and more self-help books are available these days on how to clean your house, how to fold your laundry, how to fill a bucket with water (no, that last one is a joke). Obviously these books are aimed at young women whose own mothers rebelled, beginning in the late 60s, against the drudgery of housework. They thus failed to teach their children (boys as well as girls) how to maintain a house. (My own mother was many years ahead of the curve; she failed to teach us housekeeping skills as early as the 40s and 50s.)
So the time is right for me to make my "Piles System" available to a wide audience. Please do not confuse my System with the more common "pile" technique of making stack after stack of unfiled and unfile-able papers. That's just slovenliness. My system is methodical.
The idea came to me when I undertook to clear the eight-inch high stack of papers on top of the two-drawer filing cabinet in my little room. Item by item I sorted through them. Some of the papers had been in the pile so long that they had lost their relevance, so I was able to toss them. (Any papers with one side blank will be used in the computer's printer.) Thank-you cards for dinner parties are always appreciated when they arrive in the mail, and I used to keep them forever ("Dear Ann & Dean—What a wonderful evening that was. The food was delicious. I particularly liked the smoked cod cheeks . . ." and so forth.) But now I was taking a more rigorous approach.
Piece by piece I whittled down the pile. Quite a few items were set aside for the "Friends and Family" folder in my filing cabinet, a folder that itself has become a massive collection that needs its own day of reckoning. And as I filed items I came across dead folders holding clutches of paper I would never look at again. These papers became one-side-blank additions to the computer printer stack, thereby loosening the crush of file folders in the drawer.
When I finished sorting that eight-inch pile of papers on top of the filing cabinet, I trotted from room to room disposing of the resulting stacks: the recycling bin, printer paper, cards useful for crafts. Finally I was left with eight pictures that I had removed from god-only-knows-what-photo-album for a workshop project. I don't know how to find their original album homes, so those eight pictures now sit on top of my dresser.
Here is the beauty of the "Piles System." These homeless pictures are forming the basis for a new pile. Leftovers from sorting are like a yogurt culture. From them will grow a new set of papers. But by moving this "culture" to a new location, I ensure that the top of my filing cabinet will remain uncluttered even as I watch the new pile grow on the top of my dresser.
Over time, the continuous re-positioning of piles moves the clutter from one room to another, which keeps the eye fresh. I'm going to be copyrighting this system, just as soon as I find the copyright application form. It's in a pile somewhere . . .