The stuff of life

Raise your fist high in the air if you have any stressors in your relationship. Yes? Now flick out those frustrated fingers to count them down. You’ve got your money, your kids, your sex life, your time management—and last but not least, peel back that pesky pinky for your keys. Well, not just keys, but keys and cell phones and checkbooks and wallets. You know, the vital Stuff of Life.

Don’t have that one on your list? Then you and your partner must be blissfully on the same scale of organized/disorganized. But most folks aren’t.

Take my wife and I, for example. For years, she’s called me ‘Mr. Organized.’ On the grand scale of keeping track of stuff (one star terrible, and five stars excellent), I’m about a four most of the time. Edna’s a two, sometimes a one. Her problem? She’s a ‘horizontal-visual.’ Victim of our fast-paced world, Edna can’t remember anything about a task or a thing unless she can see it spread out on a horizontal surface.

Kitchen counters, flat topped toilet tanks, and even a slow-moving dog will do, as long as her stroller-sized key fob or fat work folder can be placed on it. But her favorite place of all is the dining room table. Our Great Plain of a dining room table.

The problem is, when you fill the plain with enough horizontal storage, things tend to get buried. Then objects are no longer visible, and thus, lost.

The dining room table has gotten so bad at times that even my incredibly messy six-year-old son has started to ask if we could have a “clean table dinner” like they have at his friends’ houses. I try to help by putting things in her office (yes, she has an office!) but invariably put the wrong thing in the wrong place.

Mr. Organized

I have things on the table, too, sometimes, but most of the time I try my hardest (inwardly desperate, outwardly calm), to model ‘Right’ thinking. That is, the Right Place for the Right Thing. Figure out a place for your keys or your cell phone, and then ALWAYS use it. I hang my keys up in the same place every time (inside the back door, on a hook on the wall). I put my cell phone on the cell phone charger station I set up. There is room for Edna’s phone there, too, but she doesn’t like to use it—nor does she consistently use the key hook. Her response: “My brain just doesn’t work like that—I just need to pay attention to where I put it.” Except she often can’t, since her brain is full of so many other things.

Which brings me to my most recent Mr. Organized moment: the loss of my cell phone. All I’d be able to tell detectives about this loss is that I came in from a long bike ride at Edna’s family’s cabin on the St. Croix river and that I took my cell phone out of my bike jersey pocket and set it on the cabin’s dining room table.

At least I think I did. It’s hard to say, because this cabin is a no-man’s land for me and I have no good spot to call my own. That means no Right Place for the Right Thing. Only wrong places, which is where I started to look. I looked everywhere obvious, and then cleaned the cabin of clutter (my usual solution for finding things).

Finally, I biked back over 20 miles of county road to see if I could find it. Two weeks later it still hadn’t shown up, in spite of my dogged efforts.

Normally, I’ve relied on having just enough brain space to keep track of such stuff, even without my Right Places. But with stressful lay-offs at work and an ongoing kitchen remodel and all the decisions that go with it, I think maybe my brain reached its limit—which is exactly the point Edna has been trying to make for years. That with her eventful job as a therapist (with dozens of clients’ stories to keep track off), her brain is always in an overloaded state. Her brain is busy thinking of ways to help her patients get saner and happier—and on helping our son be the healthiest kid he can be. Who has time for a key system?

The right solution, it turns out, isn’t always the Right Place at all. Though it is still Right Thinking. Edna’s started meditating more often, letting her thoughts settle so that she has more room for the Stuff of Life. And me, I’m learning to let go—of the cell phone, of course. But also of trying to manage my wife.

Part of doing that is reminding myself of the reasons why we fell in love—which had nothing to do with where she puts her keys. Or where I lost my cell phone. You know, the real Stuff of Life.


Sean Toren loves living the full catastrophe in Minneapolis with his wife and son. He can be contacted at with thoughts or suggestions.