Telling you I’m extremely organized feels like boasting that I floss regularly. Isn’t mentioning virtue itself a vice?
By organized, I mean that on New Year’s Day, rather than throwing a party, I happily tested every pen, marker, and brush in our family’s art supplies and tossed the duds.
When I say organized I mean I always put the most recently washed socks at the back of the stack in my drawer, and I know the logistics term for that strategy—it’s FIFO, as in first in, first out.
Being organized means I compete for “most chores completed” against a cartoon named Dusty on my chore app; I feel smug when I school him.
For all our society’s Container-Store-shopping, Real-Simple-reading habits, we’re a little suspicious of clean freaks. Hannibal Lecter is psychopathically organized. Adrian Monk, of the eponymous TV detective show, is neurotically organized. Let’s not even get into the Nazis. And is it just me, or was Martha Stewart’s penchant for order why everyone laughed when she went to jail?
We want people to aspire to organization without actually achieving it. Like becoming debt-free or choosing to eat healthy, there is a point past which too much trying becomes antisocial. Forcing yourself to eat kale is relatable; enjoying it makes you strange. We cheer on those who pay off their credit cards by avoiding restaurants for a season, but we get suspicious of people who live with their parents in order to retire by age thirty-five.
My kind of organizing—the no-junk-drawer-in-the-kitchen, punctual within five minutes, arranging my shirts by color—feels like too much. It feels odd, it feels obsessive (yes, obessive compulsive disorder runs in my family), and it feels neurotic—to me. All of it feels neurotic to me.
Maybe it’s not just our society that is suspicious of clean freaks. Frankly, my organizing feels like a flashing sign that says I’m not easy, not chill, and would like life to be more like socks.
Organizing is about order. But people, myself included, are a mess.
“You’ll thank me later,” says Adrian Monk when he insists on eliminating a table setting to make room for an even ten party guests, thereby disinviting someone standing next to him. “You’ll thank me later” is the cry of the organizer who knows that if everyone would just listen, they’d understand how things should be.
To organize is a kind of prophecy.
The term organize comes from the Greek organon, meaning an “implement, tool for making or doing” or an “organ of the body.” The even older root is the proto-Indo-European word werg, which means “to do”—it’s where we get the word work. So an organ is “that with which one works.” It is any kind of tool we use to make our aspirations physical. To organize is to imagine how things should be—and then, one-upping the prophets, to get chaotic reality to comply.
Organizing is arguably part of the Genesis invitation to dominion, a particularly human gifting (and, as Monk might say, a curse). Other animals use tools, but in human hands our technology reshapes the earth in our image.
Of course, the question with organizing is always whose vision will reign supreme—and for what ends? Who decides how things should be, and whose being is subpar? To bring order out of chaos sounds like a virtue unless you’re the chaos being eliminated.
It will surprise neither you nor Freud to learn that my mother is just as organized as I am.
Her pursuit of order was not an altogether bad thing. I still remember my horror at the jumbled drawers at my friends’ houses or the fact that all of their puzzles and games were missing pieces. In our house, if you left out the Monopoly thimble, it would appear in the box next time you opened it. Mom kept a Day-Timer with carefully noted appointments and contact information; I trusted its authority like some trust the Bible.
It wasn’t till I moved out that I realized that beautifully laundered clothes, infinite supplies of toilet paper, and coherent kitchen drawers were not the natural state of things.
If caregiving is about giving a care, my mother certainly did.
The problem, as it always is, was people, namely my brother and sister. Steve and Katie, seven and three years older than I am, respectively, were both adopted as infants. I only mention that fact because to me, growing up, their adoptedness seemed like the only logical explanation for why they could do no right. I adored them as much as I understood they were fundamentally flawed.
My sister is headstrong and outspoken; my brother, quietly absent. As children, somehow both tendencies were terribly wrong. It frightened me how angry my siblings made our mother.
Part of how they offended her was with their disorder. Mom grew enraged when Katie stained a washcloth with a permanent marker or lost possessions at school. She joked—caustically—that Steve wiped snot on a green chair or smelled like the steer he cared for in Future Farmers of America.
Mom set out to prove their brokenness with data. She compiled a book of my brother’s supposedly pathological symptoms—banging his head against the wall in his sleep, absently chewing on a mitten until much of it disappeared—and took it to therapist and specialist visits, aiming for a diagnosis that would explain him.
She went a different direction with Katie, visiting an astrologer to get their star charts made. Hers and Katie’s houses, she told me when I was ten, had been in conflict since the day Katie was born.
It’s worth mentioning that in the eighties (and now), if children struggled, our society did its own kind of gaslighting—declaring the mother fundamentally flawed. Our visions for how things should be crush all kinds of people.
When I was six, Mom, with Dad fully consenting, sent first Steve and then Katie to a group home for orphaned, abandoned, or impossible kids. My siblings stayed there for much of the rest of my childhood.
“Things were so chaotic before they left,” Mom told me. “We wanted you to have a normal childhood.”
I mostly accepted Mom and Dad’s explanations of the extreme reordering of our family until I was an adult. Then I started asking questions. Among other things, I discovered that as children, both my siblings suffered sexual abuse outside our home, right about the time that the “chaos” of our family became unbearable for us all. Similarly, their struggles in school and other developmental differences—cited as proof of how damaged they were—made far more sense when I learned that Mom regularly hit their heads together, likely giving them traumatic brain injuries.
Problems that once seemed ordained by God were instead caused by human hands.
As a child, I was afraid of my brother and sister, and just as afraid of myself. I thought that if our mother was angry and violent, they were the cause. I was afraid if I drew close to them, their chaos would turn me into a monster.
Deciding my siblings were not born bad was like gutting my house to get rid of toxic mold. It both healed me and was itself traumatic. Memory by memory, assumption by assumption, I had to Marie Kondo the crap out of my worldview. Instead of wondering whether something sparked joy, I had to ask: is this both true and kind?
The stories we tell ourselves about how things should be hold awesome power. I’d say they create our world even more than they reflect it. And we—in all our hubris, vulnerability, and brokenness—aren’t just storytellers. We’re characters too. Sometimes, we have so little distance from the stories we weave that we can’t separate fact from fiction from fantasy.
I feel ashamed that chaos still panics me. Deep down, I wonder whether my desire to control my world means I’m fundamentally flawed.
I wonder: what would it feel like to trust myself enough to be at peace?
In his book Second Nature,Michael Pollan describes the fight over trees in his hometown. The Cathedral Pines, a stand of white pines that was one of the oldest forests in Connecticut, was destroyed by a tornado in 1989. After the decimation, some residents wanted to replant, while others decried any kind of intervention as human interference. In the end, the Nature Conservancy, which owned the land, chose to let the fallen trees lie and do nothing to change the “state of nature.”
Pollan, exasperated with their passivity, reams the do-nothing stance as myopic and the idea that humans and nature are somehow “irreconcilably opposed” as wrong-headed. He pinpoints an underlying problem: we “don’t trust ourselves to do the right thing.”
Of course, Pollan understands why we doubt ourselves, but in his view, our self-hatred doesn’t help anything. “As Wendell Berry has pointed out, it is culture, and certainly not nature, that teaches us to observe and remember, to learn from our mistakes, to share our experiences, and perhaps most important of all, to restrain ourselves.”
There’s a similar story of fear—and the antidote for it—in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass. Indigenous basket makers in New York have traditionally harvested strands of native sweetgrass to make baskets. With the grasses in decline, the basket makers asked Kimmerer to study whether any harvesting methods harmed the plant. She encouraged one of her graduate students to focus her thesis on the issue. But the student, named Laurie, found her institution less than supportive because they thought the answer was obvious. The dean of her program said, “Anyone knows that [humans] harvesting a plant will damage the population.”
Laurie proved them wrong. Her study showed that “picking sweetgrass seemed to actually stimulate growth.” For this kind of grass, anyway, an organized human intervention helped both humans and grass. Kimmerer comments that the “Western science worldview . . . sets human beings outside of ‘nature’ and judges their interactions with other species as largely negative.” But Laurie’s findings instead affirmed that humans can organize our environment in positive ways.
Our society mistrusts itself so deeply that our destructiveness seems preordained. We are certain that our vision of the world will inevitably impoverish it. But that kind of societal self-loathing locks us in our current patterns. After all, we are the only beings who can change our way of relating to the world.
What caused our disdain for our own organizing power? I can’t help but think it’s our tools catching up to us. We’re in the geological epoch known as the Anthropocene, in which human intervention since the Industrial Revolution has reshaped our planet in unprecedented ways. The ravages of climate change, the dying off of species, the way social media is causing depression, anxiety and fake-truth metastization—everywhere I look, I see our technology threaten what we hold dear. We have used our tools with awe-inspiring power and only recently realized that we may well organize ourselves out of existence.
Western, scientific, and colonizing cultures are most implicated in these devastations. The more I learn about how my kind of people placed kidnapped Africans in brutal symmetry below decks on slave ships, or methodically handed out smallpox blankets to native tribes, or calibrated Christian missions to quash other spiritualities, the more I understand why the Nature Conservancy let the fallen Cathedral Pines rot rather than trust themselves to replace them.
And in my case, the reflexive shame I feel about my tidiness stems from the white-hot memories of what it means when order is more important than people.
But there is no way to heal these devastations without involving ourselves in the process. We aren’t going to live a better story going forward unless we trust ourselves to craft a new plot.
That goes for me, too. There is no possibility of wholeness in my family that does not somehow involve me, no matter how broken I feel. Disdaining my gifts is just giving myself over to the dead end of despair.
We cannot escape the scope of our human powers. So how do we learn to steward that power for good instead of harm?
Last summer, my sister asked me to help her prepare for a major downsizing.
I’d never been able to help her with a move before, and the intimacy of her invitation awed me. We’d spent so many years of our childhood not living together. I jumped at the chance to be family so practically.
But I also felt deeply afraid. Over the years, my sister’s spontaneity—the inheritance of her biological family—has come to seem as normal to me as my fondness for a tidy sock drawer. But still, after a lifetime of our natures being pitted against each other, I worried my help might be anything but helpful. I felt like I needed to protect her from my impulse to sort, categorize, and eliminate.
Regardless, I flew cross-country and began. My first day there, while Katie was at work, I sorted possessions to cull into bins. When she got home, she changed, pulled her long brown hair into a ponytail, and then came down into the basement. She gasped at my progress and thanked me, but her face looked suddenly vulnerable.
This was hard for us both, I realized.
“You ready?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
I pulled objects from the piles in a game of Would You Rather? Would you rather have a ski suit or scuba gear? Would you rather have a sequined party dress or a lace one? Katie had always lived in sprawling houses with basements and extra bedrooms, but now she was moving to an apartment with eight hundred square feet. I, ever the minimalist, was severe: One peach cardigan, not three. Eight pairs of jeans, not sixteen.
Even as I culled, I felt terrible. Her year had been biblical in its devastations: besides the pandemic, she had lived through a flood that destroyed her furniture, a fire that killed her pets, and a major illness in which she, already petite, lost a tenth of her body weight. Each time I held up an item to cull I added it to a mental scale measuring terrible losses.
Over and over, her eyes filled with tears as she had to let go of things she loved but no longer had space for.
I started backpedaling. “You don’t have to get rid of anything if you don’t want,” I said, urging her to sit on the decisions for a few days. I reminded her again and again that I wouldn’t be offended if she decided to ignore my advice.
“No,” she said, every time. “I need to do this. I want my stuff to fit in this new place.”
When we were done that night, she showered and took me out for Iraqi food. Sitting in the round booth together, slathering fresh pita with garlic dip, our sisterhood felt refreshingly physical. I consider Katie and I close, but I hadn’t seen her sock drawer since I was eight. Rediscovering that kind of intimacy was a holy gift.
Still, I held my breath once I returned home, waiting for the verdict.
To my immense relief, she sounded jubilant when she called the day of the move.
“Everything fit, Heather,” she said. She texted me pictures of her new place, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, with panoramic views of downtown Detroit. It was stunning.
“I didn’t traumatize you?” I asked.
“No, honey. I needed it. I really did.”
I still find myself questioning whether my help was actually helpful or if I asked her to get rid of too much, but it occurs to me that by not trusting myself, I also doubt my sister’s honesty. Trust and its lack spreads outward like the universe. We have to choose which we’ll cultivate.
I want rules to tell me how to never do harm with my power. I want clear categories and guidelines to limit the hubris of my aspirations for the world. But with people, nature, and ourselves, we’re never going to tidy away our dilemmas. Instead, to treat others with love, we need more connection, more humanity, more chances for mess—not less.
It seems to me that the kind of organizing we’re desperate for is not about tools but becoming whole. Organ-izing ourselves means becoming organs together, becoming one body. It’s not about order imposed from the top down but creating a life we’ll experience together.
We think of organic as being free from human contaminants, but it’s a cousin-word to organize too. These are bodily words, words of the life inside us. God calls us to be the body of Christ, organized for holy purposes, ordered out of a marvelous chaos. Repair, reconciliation, and restoration are, after all, a way of reordering for good. What if we assumed wholeness could grow out of us like grass grows out of good earth?
My time sorting my sister’s stuff was a holy encounter because I tried to listen without imposing my will; together, we not only reorganized her possessions but our sisterhood. Laurie, Robin Kimmerer’s student, listened both to the basket maker’s needs and, through her scientific investigation, the sweetgrass itself. The result was not only beautiful baskets but a healed ecosystem.
What would it look like to become more alive together, through mutual, loving collaboration? What would it look like for us to approach others and ourselves with holy curiosity, humility, and love?
 Etymology Online, s.v. “Organize,” last modified September 25, 2019, https://www.etymonline.com/word/organize#etymonline_v_7142.
 Pollan, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (New York, NY: Grove, 2007), 177.
 Pollan, Second Nature, 178 and 185.
 Pollan, Second Nature, 195.
 Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2020), 159.
 Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 162.