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Hello, Spring. Where Are You? A Short Essay on COVID and Clutter

Phil was right. The groundhog predicted six more weeks of winter, and he was right.


For the last several months, we here in the upper Midwest have essentially never seen the sun. Gray, gloom, snow, subfreezing temperatures. You get the scene. But for some reason we continue to live here.


Yet for one day the sun did shine, and our spirits were lightened and there was joy.


And on that sunny day, as I walked our two golden retrievers, one of whom is blind (no jokes, please, about the seeing-eye human), I saw a woman, perhaps in her mid- to late forties walking her dog, some sort of mixed breed not yet ready for prime time at the Westminster Kennel Club.


We exchanged the usual pleasantries because we Minnesotans are polite. I asked her, “Are you new to the neighborhood?”


She explained that she was working with the family up the road and to the right. She then shared with me a very impressive business card: Professional Organizing Services.


I was intrigued since I was not aware of this type of company, and I was genuinely curious about this program. And I am perhaps the only person on earth who does not follow the work of Marie Kondo. I wondered why neighbors would hire a professional organizer.


Here is what I learned. And, more importantly, why we should care.


Susie (not her real name) was articulate, obviously educated, and informed, and she explained that COVID and the post-COVID world have completely changed everything. With the transition of many workers from the traditional office space to home, most of us were not prepared for the challenges of this seismic event in human history.


Stuffed with Stuff


We locked ourselves into quarantine. Our living spaces became stuffed with stuff. Bills and catalogs and mail piled up. Freezers overflowed. Amazon delivered—a lot more stuff. And we became slaves to digital dragons in the form of electronic devices, phones, tablets, and computers.


For some of us, Susie said, there was very little clear partition between workspace and private space in our homes and apartments. And there was no clear distinction between work and the rest of our lives. Sociologists are going to have a field day with this.


Psychologists already are. Diseases of despair became rampant in terms of alcohol and opioid addiction, depression, and suicide. Whether these can be directly related to COVID is unclear, but nevertheless, these ominous trends have continued.


People had more free time and more flexibility in their schedules than ever before but described being drained, fatigued, almost drifting aimlessly. And among business leaders, there was a concern about a decrease in productivity and loss of creative energy, which can be generated when individuals are in a communal collective environment at the workplace (not so with the home office space).


Susie explained that even though the pandemic is officially sort of over, there is an edginess to society, there is a draining fatigue about anxiety and uncertainty, and she described her clients as burned out, exhausted, and barely getting through the day.


Sprucing up, sorting out, rearranging, making space, letting go of clutter (physical and mental) has become her life’s work for our friends and neighbors. Instead of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, she assists people with uncluttering their lives and living spaces.


The COVID together-aloneness has fueled the emergence of an industry that saw a need and created an armada of licensed, certified, and bonded organizing professionals. Their main role is to come into homes for typically two to four hours, tackle one room at a time, and, with the input of the homeowner, put lives back in order.


Bringing Order to Chaos


When I logged onto Susie’s organization’s website I was amazed at the portfolio of services that directly or indirectly have been developed by the changes in society. Pack, unpack, donations and recycling, dumpster scheduling, downsizing, refuse management, deep cleaning services, errand management.


Unthinkable just a few years ago that these programs would address the mundane tasks we did ourselves, but with our depleted energy they simply did not get done. Think for a moment about the neighbors who still have Christmas lights up in March and holiday wreaths on the front door.


As our “stuff” piles up like an episode of Hoarding: Buried Alive, there is a clear urgency about getting back to basics. About organizing. About being resourceful and tidy. The ancient Chinese practice of feng shui claims to use energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment. It is unclear if these techniques about where to place your bed or if your desk chair should face the door actually create harmony, but if we reflect for a moment, when we are cluttered, disorganized, and unfocused, we are hardly in a “space” to be meaningfully productive.


Clearly, the COVID pandemic will go down as one of the most significant events in history—a “tipping point” after which everything changed. For every crisis in history, there have been opportunities, although they may be difficult to see when we are mired in confusion, controversy, and piles of to-do projects and unread books.


Perhaps we all should spring clean a bit. Oh, look, there’s the sun. Now where did I put my sunglasses?


Dr. Edward T. Creagan has been an oncology and internal medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for over forty winters, where he is the first Mayo physician board certified in palliative and hospice medicine. He is the author of the award-winning books, Farewell: Vital End-of-Life Questions with Candid Answers and How Not to Be My Patient.




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