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The Most Important Post I’ve Ever Written: The Story Behind Live Simply

Monday, May 19, 2014

It’s just about the dumbest thing ever that this story is appearing on Live Simply for the first time. That it hasn’t been shared up until now, here, with you all, my incredibly loyal readers, is idiocy. This I know.

But to tell my story in such an official capacity has always felt daunting. To communicate something so deeply personal and massively affecting in a way that it inspires understanding, rather than pity, is a difficult task. I’ve let it simmer on the back burner for far too long.

Each time I share that story with others I’m reminded how integral it is to everything. You can’t understand Live Simply, my company, this blog, or me without knowing it, and henceforward, everything will make more sense.

Now, for the first time, I’m ready to share my story.


The story of how one professional organizer got her start.

My love of organization, my excitement at the opportunity to sort through people’s belongings on a daily basis is perplexing to most people. When I tell them what they do, their first reaction is always, “How did you get into that?”

“I was sort of born this way,” I’ll say.

I was, after all, the student who volunteered for blackboard duty everyday just because I enjoyed doing it. I was the girl who would occasionally skip recess in favor of cleaning out my classmates grotesquely messy desks; the one who appointed each family member a cardboard box meant for capturing papers, carefully decorated according to their personal tastes (I recall my sister’s being covered in cut outs of dog faces).

But there’s more to the story than that.

I might well tell you that Live Simply began when I was five years old. That was the year my mom was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and the beginning of the biggest shift and defining element of my biography.

MS, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is a disease of the central nervous system wherein lesions form on your brain, and the sacred Myelin Sheath, this magical plasma membrane that enables the transmission of messages from one nerve to another begins to slowly, steadily—just slowly enough to make it seem as though you are being killed one failed neural connection at a time—break down.

That sounds like jargon and all you really need to know is that MS is the most bloodthirsty disease that, over time, affects the body and its functioning in just about every shit way you can possibly imagine.

My childhood was such: I grew up while my mom grew down.

Little by little, impairment by impairment, the MS began to make its presence increasingly known. Totally exhausted afternoons became the use of a cane became the occasional use of a wheelchair. With each adjustment, I inched my way into the realm of domestic management. Before I could drive and when my mom was too tired to get out of the car, I was the grocery shopper, the bill payer, the “I’ll stay in the car and you run in and do this” girl. Girl.

When I look back, I can’t really believe all the things that happened actually did. Like the nightly fight to get my mom to the top of the stairs.

There was me—ten, maybe, 70 pounds or something (how much does a person weigh at age ten?), and there was my mom, this beautiful 5’8” woman whose own body seemed to resist the notion of stairs.

I would get behind her, right behind and almost underneath. And then on the count of three, she would summon any energy should could, while I would push her up with all the force I could muster. One step.

Can you imagine? I hope you can’t.  

I would be her hands. When she was too tired to cook dinner, she would sit and instruct while I cooked. When she was having too bad an MS day to fold the laundry, I would do that too. When I got my license, I took on all the errand-running.

Over time, my mom’s MS morphed into full-on debilitating disease. The power wheelchair became mandatory, not merely for ventures out of the house, but inside it as well.

The advent of my mom’s seizures added a new element of frenzy into the already chaotic brew. And through it all, there were so many moments that affirmed for me the need for organizational systems; the paramedic’s Simple request for a list of my mom’s medications resulted in a sudden panic at being able to identify only three out of what must have been thirty. “We need to have a current medication and doctor list kept out in plain sight! ” I realized.

Eventually, the clutter that is MS began to manifest itself literally in my family’s home.  

My mom’s chair wheels tracked mud through the house in neat little tire mark segments of dirt. Her eyesight became compromised, and we found humor in her continuing to wear glasses that could do nothing to improve her vision. An almost-blind driver at the joystick. In-tact walls became a thing of the past. And not only walls–the furniture was dented, broken; cabinet doors were ripped clear off their hinges.

MS ruled our home. It became the thing to maintain, to manage. The house stood there. Things broke and were not fixed because we were too preoccupied with trying to fix a person. Rooms dirtied. They collected dust. The routine household maintenance which occurred in my friends’ homes all but ceased. We made small efforts, movements to clean and repair, but they were inevitably swallowed back up into the toiling sea of disease.

Although I’m unable to trace the point at which the house crossed over, eventually it did. It became unmanageable, seemed impossible to recompose to its former state due to the paralyzing reality of what it would involve, or where precisely to start. This is how I find so many of my clients, and up until now, they’ve never realized just how much I understand how it feels to be in that position.

I began to feel the clutter accumulating around us, pushing me further up the stairs towards my bedroom. It’s not uncommon, I think, for teenagers to hide out in their rooms. What is uncommon is for that teen’s room to be the only orderly, clean room in the whole house.

I consciously carved out a den of simplicity. I went downstairs and was greeted by chaos and turmoil and messes of every kind. I would feel my pulse begin to race, my sense of centeredness dissipating. And then I would retreat to my room, feel how the order and beauty around me permeated to my insides.

It was a living experiment in the effects of clutter on one’s wellbeing. I was gradually cultivating a deeply rooted knowledge of how to remedy such a scenario and why one must, but at a pace that couldn’t keep up with the day-to-day struggle.

My life shaped me into a master of the art of navigating chaos, of distinguishing things of little or no import from those of high significance.

I am the cool-headed, rational one, the one you turn to when you’re at a crossroads and you need help seeing the reality of the situation and deciphering the most logical conclusions. The one you drive after when I’ve gone for a run and you find mom has fallen in the night, gashed her head open on the closet doors, and is laying in a pool of her own blood. I am excellent at dialing 911, at greeting EMTs, at assuring everyone it will be fine because I know despite all signs to the contrary that it will be.

I learned long ago how to behave in moments of crisis: speak clearly and at a steady volume; relay exactly what you know to be true and do not burden anyone with the extras; move swiftly but with the utmost intentionality. Be prepared to spring into action at any given moment.

Although my own home felt too overwhelming for me to tackle at the time (as is almost always the case), Simplifying and organizing became my way of being, a trait that I carried with me—to my cousin’s childhood bedroom, which I cleaned on nearly every visit, to the front desk of my city’s rec center that I staffed solo as a 12-year-old, to my friend’s houses in high school, helping them to pack for camp and organize their closets, to the families I nannied for, whose entire households I took on the management of, to the shared houses I resided in during college, to the homes I first organized professionally, to every one I have since, and every day thereafter— to the whole wide world.

This is how I formed my intolerance for clutter and bullshit. This is how I fell in love with helping others chip away at things that are weighing them down. This is how I fell in love with the peace that is achieved through the organizing process, how I acquired a divine appreciation for the feeling of lightness.

In all of it, order was the first thing to go. Before the eyesight, the bladder functioning, before even the walking, a sense of order, ease, and calm were the first things to bite the wretched dust. Because what rules in my home now, still I am sorry to say, is the most palpable sense of DIS-ease, chaos, and struggle that I have ever encountered and am fairly certain I ever will.

A sentiment worth sharing: simplicity is truly precious. Please pass this on.

Having witnessed it wane in the most horribly irrecoverable manner over the course of my lifetime I can tell you with certainty that Simplicity is one of the truly precious things in this life. The moment you begin to see it that way, you will start to Live Simply as well.

The house is better than it was, but the MS is as vengeful as ever. And so it seems as though we are perpetually engaged in a one step forward, two steps back kind of dance. In my quest to spread Simplicity and ease, my desire for my parents to achieve these luxuries is at the top of my list. I return home on a regular basis to support my parents, and I tackle at least one project on each visit. They are my Client #1’s, my VIPs, and my biggest challenge. Nothing can deter me from helping them, just as nothing can deter them from trying to continually move forward.

When clients work with me they do not merely get an organizer. They get a Life Simplifier. A spitfire whose own happiness rests in her ability to help others achieve a sense of lightness, whose ability to care for others comes from a lifetime of caretaking, who possesses a first-hand knowledge of the effects of disorder—both mental and material—who has been at it since before she reached double digits, whose small body is impressively strong, having been raised to lift a woman twice her size who has a habit of slipping like a lasagna noodle from her wheelchair onto the floor, and whose nose, like a bloodhound, can sniff out where the clutter truly lies. I get it. In a way others don’t and will never be able to.

I have already seen every ugliness. What is a messy closet when compared to a closet containing catheter equipment and latex gloves for wiping your own mom’s bottom? What is stress over managing two children’s differing sports schedules when compared to running back and forth between the ICU, where your grandfather lays dying, and the ER down below, where your mom is getting stitches in the same place over the same eye for the third time?

I can handle it. Whatever it is, I have navigated choppier waters already. 

My skill was not acquired through reading books or watching TV shows. It was lived. It is lived. This, Live Simply, this thing, it is my core. It is my truth. It is my gift to share with you. I yearn for nothing more than to pass on the wisdom my life has—for better or worse (and I choose to focus on the better)—instilled in me.

I want nothing other than to teach you to discern what truly matters in this life, to gain ultimate clarity about your priorities, develop the discipline to uphold those priorities, and cultivate an over-arching atmosphere of calm, order, and intention.

Why organization and simplicity matters. Share this with anyone you know who has been struggling with clutter or hardship of any kind.

Sometimes life hands us unpredictable cards that inherently create chaos. I believe that is our responsibility to do everything in our power to ensure that what is within our control is as Simple as it can possibly be. That it supports us in being the best version of ourselves we can possibly be. That it serves us, so that we, fulfilled, can serve the world. 

This is my story. This is my purpose. This is Live Simply.


Client Project: Butler’s Pantry Organizing

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

And now for the latest installment of Annie Lives Simply In Real Life, a client project of the pantry variety.

There wasn’t much decluttering to be done– a few extraneous things had wandered in over time, others had exceeded their intended life span–but for the most part it was a matter of organizing, of straightening and neatening.

Here’s where we started:

Just a bit overgrown, you know?

My mission was clear: pull everything off the shelves, give them a good wipe down, and then put everything back, albeit in a more orderly fashion.

I wanted it to look nice naturally, and I equally wanted to be conscious of maximizing the space, stacking things where necessary in order to prevent any one item or group of items from being greedy shelf-wise. My client also wanted to ensure that those things that were less than beautiful (read: plastic jugs for children’s lemonades stands, etc) were moved to less obvious locations than they had been previously residing. Accentuate the positive and all.

Take a gander at the overall B & A’s below.

There were vases in there, and were there ever vases (we talked about this predicament here if you’ll recall). After sorting through the collection, my client decided she could only part with a couple of them (which I more than granted her, as she happens to normally be a rockstar in the ruthlessly decluttering category). She entertains frequently, likes fresh flowers, yadah yadah, the vases were staying. So how to fit them all?

Ultimately, I solved the spatial accommodation dilemma by placing most all of the clear glass vases together on one shelf, while the colored vases I stored on the tippy-toppest shelf. That way, not only could we fit them all, but we gained a little bit of decor action as well.

And, you know, I did my thing with the food stuff as well.

The pantry had hanging sections like some builder expected a homeowner to hang up their rain coat in the butler’s pantry, which was not only perplexing but also sort of vexing: it meant that we lost all that space being that we had nothing to hang.

It annoyed me to no end until it dawned on me that we did have qualifying hanging things– tablecloths! So the hangers came out and the tablecloths went up and wah-bam, wasted space eradicated.

Here’s the side of the pantry (are we tired of this post yet?):

There’s one pantry down in the worldwide Live Simply mission.