domesticity,  Family Matters,  Life Lessons,  spilling my guts,  the sticks

Operation Clean-Up

CC and me

My sister-in-law, CC, and I have been hanging out a lot lately. We were commiserating over the challenges that each of us has been facing and we struck a funny deal that will help both of us out. She’s going to watch my kid so I can get some work done (I’m really behind on some freelance jobs) and I’m going to help her clean her house! And we’re both happy with this arrangement! Imagine that!

CC has been fighting depression, financial issues compounded by an out-of-work husband, two crazy kids and a house that has become hopelessly overrun by clutter and chaos. Of course, chaos and clutter are nothing new in my family. It’s sort of a secret that I’ve let slip out a bit here and there. We deal with it.

clean-up 1

Sometimes I feel like I’m pulled between two worlds in my life: one a clean calm beach life surrounded by snobbery and beauty, and the other deeply rooted in mobile homes, fast food, government aid and Walmart. I don’t really belong in either. But this is not about me.

It’s about CC. Even though she’s okay with chaos and clutter it does wear her down. It’s hard to keep up with chores when there is no end in sight ever ever ever. Sometimes it’s just easier to crank up the air conditioner, stay in bed and ignore the world for days—which is not healthy for her or her family.

Anyway, we were talking about how much I love to borrow her camera all the time and how I wish I could pay her rent on it and pay her for the babysitting she does for me but how broke I am, etc. And then she suggested that maybe I could come help her do her dishes in exchange. I’ve helped her clean her house before but it was sort of awkward and embarrassing for her. I totally understand that.

But I love to clean. I love to organize. I love a good makeover project.

clean-up 2

So we struck a bargain, and as we worked together cleaning up her house, we started talking about the mental issues that go along with this kind of mess. I’m not trying to say that she’s a crazy loon (though sometimes I think she is, and I say that affectionately). Lots of people live in houses like this. Probably more than you think. I did.

I don’t know how I became the neatnik I am now. I just sort of broke the cycle (Toby would probably disagree). I can’t really judge CC because her home is bursting with love and acceptance while mine is rigid and stressful. It’s just fascinating to me, the complexities that make up our home life. The way some people are perfectionists but can’t keep anything neat because they are paralyzed by indecision or the fact that they cannot put things away in the perfect spot.

For example CC has all of her DVDs alphabetized and she has a spreadsheet cataloging them by genre and a bunch of other categories! Who does that?!!! Crazy lovable people who don’t do their dishes, that’s who. But if you went to my house, where the dishes are always done and the floor is clutter-free, you could open any drawer and have it explode out onto you with unfolded clothes or utensils that don’t have a home, or toys that are not sorted. I do not sort. I just stuff things in bins or drawers or closets and they are out of sight. I’m organized. I’m just not a perfectionist about it.

clean-up 3

Amazingly, CC is letting me write about this here. She is the most open-hearted person I know. Yes, she is embarrassed that she has fallen so far behind in her chores but I think she knows that me helping her is something bigger. Just the companionship of us both being there together dealing with it was a huge mood lifter for both of us. Sometimes you can’t do things on your own. You fall down a rabbit hole and it’s impossible to climb out. And this is my life too. It’s something that fascinates me, maybe because of the way I grew up. I don’t know. I just know that I love helping people with their out-of-control homes. Someday I want to write a book about it.

clean-up 4

Anyway, it was fun to work together on this. CC was on fire and by the end of eight hours we found the floor!


We even put together a home-cooked meal and made ourselves congratulatory drinks. We don’t need no stinkin’ Taco Bell or McDonald’s, we are women who get things done. Hear us roar!

We’re not going to be able to conquer the entire mess in three days, which is how long I’m out here. But I’m thinking I can come out and help once a month. Me helping won’t solve everything. I won’t be showing any magazine-style spreads of her home anytime soon but it’s fun, inspiring and I get free babysitting!


  • Danielle (elleinadspir)

    It is no secret that I LOVE a good clean up and organize project. What a great one to take on…and you both will feel so accomplished after it is done. A win-win. And thank you to CC for letting you share it here!

  • Madge

    Keep up the good work, the both of you! I used to be a really really bad clutterbug. I’m still one now, but I have been able to keep it to a minimum. I used to have a really hard time throwing papers away. I would keep all of my “important” paperwork in a drawer that started to get way too full. I distinctly remember my turnaround point when Fish went to that drawer and stared at it in disgust. He then started to throw all my precious papers away and I completely lost it. COMPLETELY. We had an argument with that ended with me doing this ridiculous arm flailing middle fingers pointed at him dance, that was so absurd that we both burst into laughter.

    I think we’ve all got something to deal with and having loving friends and family to wade through our somethings is what makes life grand.

  • Becca

    I can relate so well with CC. I’m so happy she has someone to help her – and you have someone to help you! There is so much more I wish I could say, that I can’t find the right words for.

    The people I have been meeting online (like you) restore my faith in humanity…

  • gretchen

    It is really interesting what helps us feel in control vs. out-of-control, isn’t it? Around the new year I cleaned up a family member’s apartment. On one hand I was quite shocked at how trashed it was. But then when I put myself in her (depressed, lonely) shoes, I realized how any one of us could easily find ourselves in that place. You and CC are lucky to have and understand one another. Good luck to both of you.

  • Mama in the City

    Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed and my mood is low, the chaotic mess in my apartment can really get to me. I lack energy to actually pull myself out of the pile of mess and I feel worse. Somehow when things are neat, tidy and clean my mood is so reflective of that. I feel in charge, in control and am able to manage much more every day stress.

    Can’t wait to hear the updates on CC’s home!

  • Jamie

    In an atmosphere of love, acceptance, and patience, a group of women (of any size) can accomplish ANYTHING. I’m so happy you two have found an arrangement that is fulfilling, enjoyable, and mutually beneficial. Here’s to healthy habits and happiness!

  • Kuky

    That’s so great that you two can do that for each other. And ummm…I think I’m like CC. I totally organize my DVDs alphabetically though I do not have them in a spreadsheet. I ummm do have them in a computer file though. And I even alphabetize my spices. I try to organize Isabelle’s toys. I made labels for her little drawers and everything but when Alan cleans he just tosses them wherever.

    I’m awful at housekeeping and have just recently, say about April, got a routine down. Just this weekend Alan asked what it was with me and cleaning the bathroom everyday. :-D I do not do it everyday though I would like to. But it just made me happy that he noticed.

  • jo's mom

    I will admit to the clutter. But we did not in a live in a trailer (mobile home) until about 12 years ago. Up till then we always had houses that were built of wood and stucco. Bren likes to make it sound like she comes from the wrong side of the tracks. She doesn’t. But she is right that our home was always cluttered. However, I always knew where every thing was!

  • Danna

    This post made me tear up. You are so kind to help her and not judge her. Now, can you come help organize my home??


  • Laura

    I understand, I so understand how CC feels. It can all be too much. And why is it that cleaning someone else’s place is so much more fun than cleaning your own? Sounds like you two came to the perfect answer!

  • Tiffany

    Oh how I relate to CC! I am trying to get my own house in order, I find myself shuffling the same things around. Then when it comes time for those weekly chores I am exhausted. I feel that my being unorganized is slowly but surely taking the joy from my life. It keeps me in a constant state of rushing… hurry to find this or that, I know I have it but where. It even affects my relationship with God. It goes on and on. It is so great that you both can help each other. Please tell her she is not alone! In fact I will comment on her blog! :)

  • mamalang

    I am reformed pack rat, married to a reforming pack rat. My turning point, as corny as it sounds, was watching that television show Clean Sweep. A lot of the points they make clicked…and being in the digital world, I realized pretty much every scrap of mail could be recreated if necessary. That has helped tremendously.

    I’ve found a happy medium. I’m a bit flaky, so the house can get away from us. The one thing I insisted on when I got promoted and hubby was going away was hiring a cleaning lady. I know that every other week my house will be clean. The side benefit of this is that every other week, my house is straightened as well (straightening for the cleaning lady is a necessary task, or else you lose items that take weeks to find.) That and learning to let go just a little has helped tremendously!

    I’m so happy that you two enjoy each other’s company and could strike a deal that works for you both. Good luck.

  • s

    oh, I am beyond excited for this and I hope you really do cover this in lots of detail in your blog. Some weird part of me was so fascinated by your blogs with Bethany when you were unpacking and arranging her house after the move – the way you made it a home, using things they already owned plus some new things, was great. But, since I am very much like how you describe CC in terms of chaos and clutter (my dishes are clean 99.9 % of the time, but my kitchen table is covered in papers and random stuff, corners are bulging with stacked toys and such, closets are unopenable – I know that feeling of it being out of control and pressing in – its insane and embarrasing and overwhelming. but feels so insurmountable So, I look forward to this series and kudos to CC for her bravery – I’m right there with ya, even though not in technicolor!

  • Amanda Brown

    I loved everything about this post: your love for CC and your family rings loudly through the chaos and you show no judgement, only empathy, for people who might be struggling. What an amazing sister-in-law you are….and so glad you’ve found a switch-off that works. Free babysitting rocks!!

  • Jennifer T

    Thank you for posting this. I also grew up in a chaotic/messy home and strive for organization on a daily basis. It’s so good of you two to help each other!

  • bonnie

    I grew up in a house far worse than that, actually, but hearing this makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. I remember my friend’s mom came and helped us one of the times my mom was in the hospital for alcoholism. Actually lots of people helped us lots of times to clean up, but this time, my friend’s mom went so far as to buy us a new set of bathroom towels. Anyway, it stands out in my mind as one of the nicest things ever.

    This post brings up so much emotion that I just really love both and CC right now. LOL

  • Ninabi

    What a great help you are to each other, SAJ! Sending warm wishes to CC that things get better soon for her- her blog does show how much love she has for her children. Hopefully the cleaning and organizing will be just the right boost. You did do a lot of work.

    I have a relative who lived in a lot of clutter too. Drove me nuts- I wanted to fix the place so badly, clean, sort, donate, organize, etc. But it was hers and sadly, I’ve moved so far across the country I am not much help now. But- she found a kind and patient home organizer and room by room, things are getting better and she feels wonderful about her home’s current condition. It’s not all done, but much better. I can tell from her emails how happy it makes her. And I hope that all your efforts help CC to feel better, too.

    By sharing the clutter details with us- plus all your other wonderful posts- you’ve shared with others that it is “just stuff” and it shouldn’t define people- you have a warm and wonderful family with many, many talents.

  • Gramma

    This morning I ‘m feeling very noble. Not only is my kitchen cleaned up and the dishwasher loaded, I’ve already browned the pork ribs and stashed them in the crock pot with barbecue sauce. AND I’ve pitted those wonderful cherries I cannot eat raw. We’ll have a cobbler tonight made with Splenda and Bisquick. It was not always so…I would think of supper at 5:15, a mere 10 minutes before Dad got home (way too late). For six children I did laundry six days a week, changed one bed every day. LaLa helped me with this. Dad obligingly sent his shirts out to be done…he really didn’t like wearing cold, still damp, hurriedly ironed ones. I hate ironing. Now I buy only clothing that can hang in the bathroom during a shower so wrinkles disappear. Someone of the six always needed something, whether it was help with a school project, a kiss on a skinned knee or catching the mammoth spider in the shower. I had a really short attention span, was easily distracted. I would sweep everything into a pile to sort “later” when I had more time. Howevere, when anyone said :”let’s go to the beach,” I’d leave the dirty dishes in the sink, the beds unmade, load the beach umbrella in the wagon along with towels and TAKE OFF! My reasoning was: You are only lent your children for a little while. Cherish them while you can. Now, I do not handle mail more than once. It either goes in the trash or file to pay bills. My goal now is to finish all those exciting projects… sweaters that I started and now will fit the next generation. It does get easier…now that I’m pushing 84.

  • a chris

    Good on you for being there for each other. And I know how “stuff” has a way of weighing you down! Even stuff you need, can’t get rid of, but that doesn’t want to find its place somehow. I’m not that good at keeping on top of the clutter either. It can be a real energy-sapper.

    That’s why when I win the Nobel Prize/win a lottery/strike gold/plant a magic bean/? I will buy a great big huge house! :P Wait, I think the bean plan has a lot more steps than just planting; I vaguely recall more work after that. Forget the bean option.

    Umm, and soon after I move into my giant house I will have to ask you and Bug to come and find places for all my stuff because I will still not be able to figure out where to put it all.

  • ioi

    “For example CC has all of her DVDs alphabetized and she has a spreadsheet cataloging them by genre and a bunch of other categories! Who does that?!!!”

    I do. I indexed (and alphabatized) my mom’s entire VHS collection before I moved away and now my kids’ sippy cups are arranged rainbow-ettically, bookshelves are alphabetized and the utensil drawers have designated places for various items. Even the plastic forks and spoons are in their own little trays in the silverware drawer and the hooks on the coat rack are assigned individually. And we do not have a big toy box either – instead we have an old dresser with a drawer for blocks, plastic animals, dress up, little people, plastic food, toy dishes etc.

    But you’re right, the paralysis caused by the indecion to place something in the ‘perfect spot’ does leave lots of time for other stuff to clutter up. My problem is assigning the ‘place’ for every thing’. Once that’s done it’s easy to keep ‘every thing in it’s place’.

  • Jen

    “The way some people are perfectionists but can’t keep anything neat because they are paralyzed by indecision or the fact that they cannot put things away in the perfect spot. ”

    That’s me.

    My house looks like that once in a while. I’m glad you have each other to balance the other out. Sounds like you’ve got yourself a great system.


  • Leanne

    I’ve been reading your blog for years although I almost never comment. I think this post was my favourite post of yours ever, along with the one you wrote about Toby and your refrigerator.

    Love love it. You are so lucky to have each other.

  • Jess

    Me, too! I’m just like CC. The chaos has won at our house, but the kids are happy and loved…we just can’t have anyone over. When CC’s house is done, can you move to Chicago, SAJ?

  • Jackee

    What an awesome buddy you are! It’s always more fun to clean and organize another persons house than it is your own. CC is indeed a brave and wonderful soul to allow you to shoot pictures of her “splinter under her skin”.

    I agree with the commenter who said that she’d leave her dishes and go to the beach when asked. Your time with your kids may SEEM long, but it’s fleeting and never comes back. It’s the best time of your life, even if you don’t realize it now, you will.

  • Kate

    I struggle with depression, too, and it’s amazing how connected the orderliness of my space is to my mood. It can get to a certain point where it seems so overwhelming to clean up that you just don’t know where to start, and then it gets even messier! In those times I wish my sister-in-law would come sort with me. You’re a good lady :)

  • mel

    I’m a longtime reader, and haven’t commented before, but CC’s story really touched me. As someone recovering from alcohol abuse, and anxiety, I know exactly the cycle of depression and mess that CC is struggling with. I guess I could also consider myself a recovering clutterbug! You are a wonderful friend to help her with this.

    And CC, if you are reading comments here: I absolutely promise you that all the work will be worth it a hundred times over. Peter Walsh is a home organizer and recurring guest on Oprah’s show, and has this nice quote:
    “I know the world outside your front door feels uncertain and unpredictable right now, but that’s why it’s more important than ever to transform your messy space into a comfortable and safe place that you can call home.”
    He is a very kind and warm man (not some tough-love drill seargent) and you might (if you haven’t already) enjoy watching some of his guest spot videos on I found him very inspirational.

    You might also like this site:
    At first glance it’s a little silly, but she has some wonderful tips and motivations for keeping a clean home. No more CHAOS! (stands for Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome).

    I wish you all the best. You can do it – I am living proof of that. It, of course, is not going to be the cure for your depression, and tidiness isn’t a paycheck for past-due bills, but you are going to wake in the morning to a clean house with more energy and optimism in the face of all that you can’t control right now.

    Bless your heart, and best of luck.

  • KA

    …also grew up in clutter (and felt deeply ashamed – but more ashamed of feeling ashamed!). My parents would be so terribly hurt if they realised that I couldn’t bear bringing people round, that I HATED it and couldn’t wait to leave… and, yes: I’m a neat freak now. Their house is somewhat better but I still long to sort out drawers full of decades of thrift-store-bought rubbish, and to just get the cutlery holder into a bit of bleach for a soak, and to… hose down the walls. And each and every one of those feelings makes me feel shallow and unkind. Don’t get me started on the garage!! Argh!

  • aj

    This post is hitting close to home as I’ll be spending this entire Saturday helping my mom with her unbelievably out of control home. She’s not as bad as the folks you see on Hoarders (at least not as bad as the worst ones on Hoarders), but it’s bad. Very, very bad and has been building up for the past 10 years. I used to help her almost every weekend. But then I became a mom and now have 3 children and simply have not had the time to help her anymore. But now that she’s finally coming out of her depression and finally realzing something’s gotta change, I’m willing to do what I must to help her with the chaos. Wish me luck…it’s gonna be a long day!

  • BeachMama

    I just commented on CC’s post about how I need to fly you out here to declutter for me. I have had my Mom come over and help me out. I get stuck and don’t know where to put stuff so it piles up. Sometimes I can get through it on my own, other times I call for reinforcements. We all have our exploding closets (and mine explodes for sure) but it’s the love that we all have that truly matters.