Help, I'm lost in a sea of paper

Help, I'm lost in a sea of paper

I got a reality check the other day from my son.

“Hey Mom,” he asked in all earnestness, “what does our dining room table look like?”

It’s important to note that this particular piece of furniture is not hidden away in storage where he can’t see it. He has to walk past it approximately 10 times a day.

What he sees, though, is not the smooth maple finish or the clean Shaker lines. He sees stacks of bills, ads for summer camps, piles of school papers and the photo cards I never sent out over the holidays.

My decorating style is what you might call Early Clutter. (I blogged about this last year when my husband decided to start clearing the junk out Blog Photoof our breezeway and I wasn’t home to protect my treasures. I have a hard time letting go.)

But I’m talking now about paper, people. I come from a long line of paper savers.

At my parents’ house, every horizontal surface tended to accumulate paper — newspapers, mail, notes, artwork, homework, books, magazines, you name it.

In part, it reflected a respect for the written word. My brother put it best: Wherever you sat down in our house, you could reach out and find something to read. Even in the “library.”

I have become my parents. Our kitchen counters, aforesaid dining room table, nightstands, desks and cabinets are all paper repositories.
Every once in a while, I attack the piles. But I never make it all the way to the bottom.

Last year, in my usual fit of New Year’s organizing, I stayed up late one night getting rid of three grocery bags full of paper from the top of my desk.

It’s an antique oak rolltop I bought in Mahomet years ago, in part because the brass hardware said, “St. Louis.” And the rolltop still worked, which was ideal for my pack-rat tendencies. Friends coming over? Roll the top closed — presto chango! — no more clutter.

Since we moved into this house (10 years ago), it’s really only been cleaned, down to the wood, um, once.

Hence the avalanche of bills, receipts and assorted papers that were threatening to take over our living room. My brother, the extremely organized accountant, tried to tackle it one weekend on a visit but really didn’t know where to start.

Even with the three grocery bags, I only scratched the surface. Which is why the dining room table has become the working desk.

Part of the problem is the decision-making involved (I just heard my husband cough loudly in the background). To sort effectively, we must cull - (blogger Thrifty Decor Chick calls it “decrapification," which I learned from Serenity Now), but I have a hard time with that. And I need somewhere to put the stuff I save.

I have less sentimental friends who toss just about everything. I am alternately appalled and envious.

Surveying the landfill, I asked my 8-year-old the other day what I should do about all the clutter.

“Throw it away,” she said simply, but then added, “That might make you sad.”

I have a hard time tossing notes scrawled in her 5-year-old handwriting, like her creative grocery lists (“cute-cumbers”) or the one left on my nightstand that said, “I have the best family in the world.”

I save school papers so one day my kids can see what they learned in kindergarten, or third grade, or middle school.

Will they care? Maybe not. But a friend told me the other day how her mom had saved boxes of her school papers, which she had to go through when her parents downsized. She didn’t keep everything, but she was thankful her mom had given her the choice.

I’m taking that as vindication. I think I just need to tone it down a bit.

Of course, time — or the lack thereof — is the main culprit. I really don’t want to live in a sea of paper, and every month or so I get the urge to Blog Photoclear everything out. But I usually run out of time.

Last weekend, I cleaned off one entire end of the table, recycling, tossing, sorting into piles on the floor — and then stalled because we had events scheduled the rest of the weekend. We spent five days stepping over those piles until I had time to finish the job.

So I know I’m going to have to tackle this in stages, which is kind of how things go once you have kids. Projects really don’t get done all at once anymore. You learn to tackle them a bit at a time: clean off the top layer, toss and recycle, live to de-clutter another day.

Musing about all of this the other night, I stumbled across a website called “Wurth Organizing” by a real-life professional organizer in Arizona named Danielle Wurth. I do not know this woman, but I am taking this as a sign from above.

She holds workshops with irresistible titles like “Bringing Calmness (I gather that is calmer than calm) to Your Life and Home.” It promises organizing concepts that will give you that “Pottery Barn Perfect” feeling every day.

I’d be happy to see the top of my dining room table.


Reporter/columnist Julie Wurth writes about family issues and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, or


SHNS illustration by Melissa Lewis/Anderson Independent-Mail

Photo: Maybe I need some of these colorful organizers for my clutter - except mine would be overflowing with paper. John Dixon/The News-Gazette

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catpaws wrote on January 17, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Have you thought about scanning some of your daughter's stuff that you want to save into Evernote or something similar?  That way you can have it forever, but not have to deal with the paper sitting around.

Julie Wurth wrote on January 18, 2012 at 11:01 am
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Thanks! I've seen that suggestion before, and it is a good one.

I confess that I do love to have the original copy, crafted by their little hands. But I know I can't keep everything, and some of it deteriorates over time anyway. I still have a picture my daughter drew, showing her and my son holding hands, taped to our bedroom wall, even though it's yellowed over time. I realize I have to get over this. :)