The Pile

Pat Hitchens is nearly killed by clutter

Mother got me started. 

“Put things in piles,” she advised, surveying my teenage bedroom. “It’ll look better.” 

So I did. And it did look better. Until I had to find something.
---- especially in a pile of paper: history notes, math homework, assignment sheets, issues of Teen Magazine – nestled together in one inscrutable mound. 

Decades later, I’m still struggling to find things. And I suspect it’s not my problem alone. We live in cluttered times -- choking on our stuff. Junk-tending is big business, from closet systems to chain stores vowing to “contain” America. Paper clutter, in particular, is in a class by itself, resisting any attempt to corral it. Daily, it self-renews, overflowing the mailbox: catalogs, bills, bank statements -- and magazines trumpeting ideas to eliminate the heaps they help form. 

We can’t live with it -- or without it. Experts advise ridding ourselves of papers quickly by handling them only once --- as if you can answer a letter the moment you open it. Some recommend recycling right at the mailbox, but I’ve spent many hours digging through trash bins for documents hastily tossed. 

The promise of a paper-less society is a huge hoax: we are, instead, paper-more. Take email: electronic communiqués have not replaced those on paper, but added to them; whenever we print hard copies for “safe-keeping,” we actually swell the amount of information-overload. The business world is shamefully ambivalent in billing practices: at least half the companies offering me electronic invoices also send duplicates -- via envelope. Which may be just as well: try resolving a billing or banking dispute without a piece of paper at hand. 

My first adult battle with paperwork came soon after my older son was born. I’m not sure what was worse -- home-grown colic or the memos running riot across my consulting company desk, where my In-Box pyramid of memoranda trembled every time I hung up the phone. I took to cramming the desktop stockpile in my briefcase each night, hoping to handle it at home - - and hide how little I handled at work. 

But the briefcase strategy bombed. Already scary on my desk, the pile became downright menacing as I emptied it out on the coffee table. Could something in there be due tomorrow? New-mother tired, I never made real progress on the mess at home, routinely re-stashing the papers for their schlep to and fro. 

Several years later, my husband and I decided to move to Chicago. To sell our house, the realtor said, I would have to “Hide those toys!” and “Clean up your husband’s study!” (A room that made my teenage bedroom seem pristine by comparison.) I don’t remember what I did with the playroom, but I hid Bob’s papers in cartons tagged geographically: stuff under right side of desk, or folders on radiator. 

Months later, those boxes remained undisturbed in our new attic, still labeled by topographic origin. Missing his old boat shoes one day, Bob tracked them down, remembering that he used to kick them off on the pile of journals under right side of desk

“I knew just where they were,” he said, emerging from the hot storeroom with his now powdery Top-Siders. It impressed me that he could still remember where his shoes had been, but not the tax receipts also entombed in the third floor crypt; Bob’s mental map was of an abandoned cemetery. 

Understandable: buried papers must be visited once in a while, or risk disappearing from the mind’s eye.   In neat-freak moments, however, I do hide papers away. I’ve tried color-coordinated desk sets, veneered file boxes, and binders for warranties, take-out menus and vaccination records. 

Yet I can’t help feeling that paperwork scattered out in the open has a fighting chance to be noticed -- a to-do list with visual aids. What cries for attention were muffled in my husband’s attic cartons? Wary of silencing similar calls-to-action, I often fail to file papers in those pretty containers. 

But the resulting “to-do” piles must not be too tall. Items more than two inches down will be muzzled by more recent arrivals. An oversized reminder-mound also has the potential for super-sizing; unable to deal with it all at once (Really, who can?), I pile on Post-it notesTM detailing how I plan to handle things – later. 

And the more diversified, the harder it is to believe a pile holds what I seek, and the less carefully I search through it. A party invitation can’t be under a parking ticket, I tell myself, frantically pawing right past the desired invite. 

On the other hand, perhaps paper struggles are more generational than universal. My grown sons are confident they can bypass messy paperwork with neater digital documents, more or less expecting them to self-organize. But I seriously wonder whether they can duck the clutter gene altogether, especially given the stuff hidden in their childhood backpacks and under their beds. What might be the grown-up virtual analogues of their accordion-pleated school forms, overdue library notices and filthy, long-lost homework? 

Of course, even if I’m right and their electronic records come to resemble their chaotic teenage bedrooms, at least the mess will be two-dimensional and largely out of sight – and unaffected by a well-meaning mother’s advice about piles.