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The Good Eye: Closet Therapy

Peeling back the layers of clutter to an organized you

By Amy Gentry, Fri., April 18, 2014

Professional organizer Sara Combs tames wild closets for a living.
Professional organizer Sara Combs tames wild closets for a living.
Photo by Amy Gentry

"April is the cruelest month," begins T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," "breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain."

Every time I teach Eliot's modernist leviathan, I begin by asking my students what makes April so cruel. My personal theory? Spring cleaning. Nothing mixes memory and desire like my yearly closet purge, prompted by the shifting of the seasons. Memories of a time when an orange polyester maxi-dress and Birkenstocks made viable evening wear; desire for that pair of final-sale pleated leather shorts I couldn't justify spending my stipend check on five years ago. Memories of the eyelet-lace Fifties wiggle dress I could only wear for five minutes in 2004 (who among us couldn't write an epic closet poem called "The Waist Band"?); desire for that Holy Grail of a woman's existence, a button-down that doesn't gap between the third and fourth buttons. The dull roots start stirring, and soon I'm sitting on the floor, dabbing at my eyes with the faded remains of a Tori Amos concert-T and mourning for the long-lost Converse I doodled on in high school French class. Où sont les neiges d'antan, indeed?

This is precisely why I decided to look into a professional organizer. To a professional organizer, your closet is not some kind of emotional Thermopylae, but rather a finite set of problems for which solutions lie in wait. To dip a toe into the organizing world, I turned to Sara Combs, closet whisperer and professional neatnik.

For Sara, as for many professional organizers, this is a second career, a passion career. After 15 years in the mortgage and banking industries, she was beginning to question the value of her work, and had decided to move back to her hometown of Austin. Then came the car wreck that changed everything. She remembers coming to consciousness lying in the middle of Loop 610 in Houston with broken ribs, a broken foot, and a concussion that would temporarily alter her personality and take away her lifelong facility with numbers. "Six times three was coming out 24, every time," she says. "And it was months before I was functional to interact with other people again."

While recovering from her concussion, Sara moved back into her mother's house in Austin, and it was there, in the house where she grew up, that she found her calling. Helping her mother repair, clean, and organize four decades' worth of living felt good – really good. Soon she was doing it for the neighbors, many of whom were aging family friends. Before long Sara had acquired a mentor in the Austin professional organizing community and started Solutions by Sara (www.solutionsbysara.blogspot.com). Now, she gets paid to straighten up people's lives.

She still feels a special affinity for retirees who are downsizing in order to go into assisted living. "One of my values is that I want to take care of the people who took care of me growing up," she says. Having gone through some sizable transitions in her own life, she understands how difficult it can be. In a post-reality TV world, a large part of her job is helping her clients overcome feelings of shame over the stuff they've accumulated over the course of their lives and reassuring them that it doesn't make them "hoarders." (At least, she's never had one so far.) "This isn't about getting rid of everything. You don't have to have an empty house," she says. She likes listening to the stories behind the stuff, and advocates strategies that allow clients to hold on to some of the memories without drowning in them – including storage solutions that she prefers to find in her clients' homes, a thrifty and environmentally responsible alternative to expensive plastic containers.

So that I could see her in action, Sara agreed to take a quick spin through a friend's crowded closet. First she offered plenty of praise for the organization that had already taken place. Then, peering up at the 30-odd pairs of pants stacked above eye level, she discussed ways to keep from being paralyzed or overwhelmed. "Think of it like peeling an onion," she said. "The outer layer comes off right away. Have you done the easiest stuff yet?" The "onion layer" sloughed off seven pairs right away, and my friend, encouraged, moved on to her dresses.

April, tough? Eliot never lived through July in Texas. I went home and opened up my closet. Outside, it started to rain.

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