Two weeks ago I received a call from a woman in Maine who wanted me to visit her mother here in the city. "I love my mother, but she has lived in her apartment for 30 years, and it is just disgusting." She said, "My mother needs help. I saw you on television, and I thought that you would understand her."
This type of situation can be very difficult, so I asked her the most important question, "Is she ready?"
"Yes." She said.
Her mother, Martha, was a retired teacher with a lifetime's worth of books and papers in her 30 year old home in Chelsea.....
Though she had a spacious prewar two bedroom apartment, it had become a rabbit warren of books and boxes and furniture covered in sheets to protect from the cats. Walking in, I was worried I was going to meet someone down on their luck, whose daughter had stepped in to save the day. I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of meeting an tired, older woman, I was delighted to meet an energetic, professional, older woman whose last two years had involved a building flood, and the deaths of both her parents, leaving her apartment mixed up, full of their belongings and largely impassable.
Martha had been hit in the last two years with the kind of life changing events that often hit parents just as their children have left the nest and they have begun to reclaim their own lives. Her own life had suddenly taken the back seat as she had gone to care for others. This time it was her parents.
I have met many women at this time of life, whose husbands have passed on and whose homes have become so similarly clotted with belongings and history that they need an emergency to get them out. Rarely do they see any positive side to this situation at all in the beginning, and it takes time to lead them to the realization that this is a threshold into a new life. Martha, however, saw this instantly.
When your apartment fills up over many years, and the layers of dead skin that were supposed to have been shed but haven't pile up, your home goes through a near death experience.
In effect, the energy in your home becomes so stagnant that the very forces that once were alive fade and die, leaving you with a lifeless, heavy shell that must be reckoned with.
These are the homes where entertaining friends and guests has become a memory, and jovial dinners at the dining room table are a thing of the past. Once the hearth grows cold, it is hard to warm up again.
If you neglect your home long enough – or it suffers enough trauma – its death will either drive you crazy (literally) or kick you into action. You cannot avoid it. The home you live in will affect you one way or another. I have seen (and New York is famous for this) older people living in apartments that have filled up to the ceiling with newspapers, books and miscellany, where the only way through the room is a narrow pathway along what once was a living room floor.
These people (one is a dear friend) live increasingly on the borders of society, and the extreme ossification of their homes makes it hard for them to live a normal life. Extreme eccentricity or depression is typical, and their own health will often not last long.
When you get to that fork in the road when your children have grown up and moved away, and you stand on the doorstep of what has been called, "one's sunset years," your home will tell you.
And you have a choice.
You can hold on to the past and not let go, watching the life fade around you, or you can step into the future and embrace a whole new chapter of life. And it's a big chapter. Treated properly, it can be over a quarter of your life.
Martha was very exciting to work with, because she knew all of this already. Her desire to clean out, let go, move her bedroom and set up a new office unleashed energy upon her old apartment. In one hour we had mapped out a plan to build an outbox, and take care of two of her rooms. She had drawings, measurements and detailed product and store names so that she could begin work that week. I had also given her the name of an organizer who would help her actually sort through her things and move things out.
As I was leaving, she asked if I thought her daughter should come down and help out, because she had offered to help. I remembered how urgent her daughter's voice had been on the phone.
"What do you think? Do you need more help?" I asked her.
"No, I can do it. I think I'd rather she came down when I was done." She was smiling.
"Perfect answer." I thought to myself, saying goodbye and stepping out onto the street.