Organizing my way back into life

emily birthday

Emily Zell celebrating her 67th birthday on July 1, 2016.

By Emily Zell

Cancer, cancer, cancer. It’s been living with me for the past year. It returned after 8 years of clean scans. Having been given a 1% chance for recurrence, I was shocked.

Surrounded by five close friends, I waited for the call giving me the result of the biopsy. I was frightened and then easily handed over the worry to my friends who absorbed the shock for me. My daughter, Lexi, her dad, Don, and Lexi’s partner, Sean, arrived soon after. Don brought cookies, Sean a doorbell to be installed and Lexi carried flowers and some silly things to cheer me up.

The reality didn’t sink in for a few days as I vacillated from being numb to being super cheerful. The days stretched out full of more tests and doctor appointments. My friends and family took turns accompanying me.

After the scans and chemo treatments were scheduled, I scheduled some other things. I looked around my house, especially my office and its closets and my desk drawer. All I imagined was my sister, ZiZi, sorting through everything to find passwords, contact information of friends and important papers. Even if I was only incapacitated and not already gone, I couldn’t bear the thought of her frustration, trying to figure out my filing system or my touchy garage door when it went up and down and wouldn’t stay at one elevation!

First thing on my list was re-organizing for my eventual demise, with a little room for doing something that brought pleasure to me: tackling my art studio. It was covered with unfinished and finished projects. I hadn’t minded because all the color made me smile when I passed it on the way to the laundry room. But I discovered that beginning to order the studio gave me room to work again without having to put things on the floor.

emily studio

Job #1: Bringing order to my art studio.

Next, I met with my attorney to be sure my will was in good shape. I already did that on an annual basis, so there wasn’t much to update. Then I typed out the pages of passwords and account numbers and ids for water, cable, garbage, Netflix, my Medicare and Kaiser accounts–and all the other accounts and passwords that have seemed to accumulate since the internet has become an insistent part of our lives.

As I worked, I added more and more categories of what needed to be organized. I cleaned and thinned out both office closets and the desk drawer. I ran stacks of an unnecessary accumulation of paper through the shredder after cleaning out my filing cabinet. I filled up the recycling bin many times and started to put in the garage things to give. Then there was a list of repairs, such as a water damaged spot in the living room wall and a window that needed to be replaced. I couldn’t deal with the idea of not having the house in order.

As I engaged in all this organizing, I thought less about my cancer.  The organizing took me away from cancer and into my life.

Several weeks before the re-diagnosis, I had ordered an additional 4 place settings of my stainless flatware, which arrived just in time for my diagnosis. This prompted me to start thinking about who would take all this perfectly usable stuff in my house after I was gone.

My grandmother, Lucile McKay Kelly, 1887 – 1988, left a three-inch binder with every silver serving piece, china and sterling flatware set, painting, garden sculpture, and piece of furniture, along with to whom it would be given. There were also notations indicating a back-up recipient, in the case that the first recipient did not want the item or was no longer around. Guess I received my organizational skills from my grandmother!

For the last twenty years, I have been the keeper of my grandmother’s binder, and I began to study its organization in order to prepare my own binder. I was always impressed how Gramma gave a brief history of many items telling when and where she acquired them. I didn’t want all my history to be lost either.

It took about four months to move through my house, getting everything in order:

  • Neighbor’s keys and who they belong to – photos of such keys
  • Photo and operation of garage door and the sponge that keeps the electric eye from coming out of alignment
  • A written description of quirks about the house
  • A description of every item of furniture or piece of jewelry and how I ended up being its custodian
  • Passwords
  • List of friends and family with email addresses and phone numbers, in groups of “in town,” “out of town,”  ”neighbors,” “close friends in town,” “close friends out of town,”“repair people I have used,” “house cleaner, etc
  • Envelope for my sister, ZiZi, with all things business related
  • Once I’d finished all of this, I was feeling pretty set. Then I opened the drawer in my dining room chest and realized that I needed to get some organization into that as well. The seven drawers’ ingredients included camera equipment, junk, too many tablecloths and placemats that I rarely used. (My orange placemats are my favorite and I am always drawn to them.)

I called friends Toni and Ramsey’s oldest daughter, Erika, who according to her mom, is a whiz at cleaning out and organizing.

Together, we began to bring order to my dining room chest — including painting it — then to my bookshelves and the many stacks of books around the house. It took hours to reorganize the books I could not part with. Next: my sewing room. Erika opened up the armoire where the yarn and fabric stash lived. For those of you who do not know what a stash of yarn and fabric may entail, it can be massive. I didn’t consider mine to be in that category; nonetheless, there was hardly any free space on the three shelves.

emily yarn

The yarn I am saving.

Erika helped me sort through all the yarn and fabric. The armoire is now clean and I can see everything easily. Erika and I also sorted all the fabric, which left me with two stacks I will use for a “Day of the Dead” quilt I will sew. It has been in the works for seven years.

(Click on images to view captions.)

We also organized and sorted give-a-way piles of clothes and other items, which had lined the walls of the sewing room. Once we were finished, I could walk easily–and even roll out my yoga mat, there was now so much space. The room was empty.

Or maybe it just felt that way.

The next morning, I came downstairs to survey my cleaned sewing room. On the sewing table, rather than piles of fabric and mending, only the machine was visible. There was plenty of room to sew now. I opened the cupboard and viewed the few stacks of projects I had chosen to finish. Then I went back upstairs.

I felt empty. Somehow the rooms full of stuff had been comforting. I sat down at my clean desk and paid bills and wrote several letters. Then I wandered back downstairs. I pulled out one of the mending projects to finish. In 20 minutes, I had altered the waistband on a pair of pants, adding fresh elastic. It felt pretty great getting that out of the way.

The thread was at my fingertips and the instruction book for the rethreading of the machine was within arm’s reach. I no longer had to dig through the armoir for what I needed.

Feeling encouraged, I pulled out the largest project, which was a quilt I began in 2008. It was almost complete; I just had to bind it. The quilt was for a double bed, but I had never had enough room to lay it out so that I could pin it. Now I did. With confidence, I spread the quilt onto the tile floor and worked my way around it with my pin cushion. Less than an hour later, I had changed the thread color in the machine and was ready to proceed. The quilt was bound before lunch.

emily quilt finished

The finished quilt.

Later, while enjoying avocado toast, I realized that I had made room in my life for all my creativity.  I was surprised that I was no longer organizing for my demise, but so that I could live.

Update: My prognosis is pretty good. I am off chemo and on a pill-a-day regime. In the meantime. I am living!


emily chair

Emily Zell in her “comfy chemo chair.”

Emily Zell was born and raised in Portland. She graduated, in Education, from Portland State University, in 1971. She migrated to the Bay Area in 1977, raised two daughters and taught elementary school. Among other things, she works in her art studio, is a history docent for the Oakland Museum of California and writes a blog called Zellously, all about living!

Editor’s note: Emily is the older sister of my wife’s longtime friend, Alexandra, aka Zizi. Lori’s connections have led to my own, such as teaming up with ZiZi’s partner, Brian, on a coed bowling team. It was at a milestone birthday party for Brian that I met Emily and took an instant liking to her. Last year, she made her debut on Rough and Rede II as a guest blogger

Tomorrow: Andrea Cano, When four corners are really five


17 thoughts on “Organizing my way back into life

  1. You and my sister could be twins. Same age, give or take. Similar disease. Quilting as a hobby/passion. I hope that things continue to go well for you. I love the picture of you in the chemo chair. You look like a little girl.

  2. Emily, your words were inspiring and courageous. You have been in my thoughts lately, as well as your sis, ZiZi who I have not talked to in some time. I know she has been with you through this journey and so happy you made it with a great diagnosis.

    Congratulations and all the best to you. And I love organizing too.

    Peace and harmony,
    Jineen Feammelli

  3. Thanks for sharing your story. It must have been so hard when you first got that phone call. Glad that your organizing journey led to a good place. When I read the book “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” by Marie Kondo I realized that it was actually a spiritual book. The principles can apply in any area of one’s life and not just clutter. Incidentally, she says that many people who tidied up using these principles felt a lightness – they lost weight that they were trying to lose or healed from an illness. So glad you chose this path of keeping occupied instead of focusing on an illness.

    • I was not a fan of the tidying up book. Too many things needed to be disposed of. But I found my own way and Erika and I made it fun. The best is that I pretty much have kept up the clutter-freeness and am doing more art without more mess (mostly)!

  4. Emily
    so sad to hear about the return of the cancer, but thanks for sharing your organizing journey and its focus on living. You have the same smile I remember from when we were kids…keep it up.

    • So good to read your post about your travels. I traveled a lot after college and then with children and teaching for 30 years – mostly third grade – I just didn’t. But my life has been really great and continues to be. This is a new community and having so many friends who have started this path before me, I have a village. Having this disease is a bummer, but I am living a really rich life as you are. Small world and so nice to be connected! Emily

  5. So glad you have a good prognosis. I can relate to organization being a healing balm. I don’t know if that’s more for the clean slate it offers or the productivity while getting to the clean slate.
    Don’t get me started on passwords!!! I have a traumatic brain injury and passwords are mean.
    I love the following thought and how you expressed it: ” Later, while enjoying avocado toast, I realized that I had made room in my life for all my creativity. I was surprised that I was no longer organizing for my demise, but so that I could live.” Ahhhh.

    • Love that you liked the avocado toast comment! It is such the trendy thing here. A few years ago it was brussels sprouts cooked every which way and now its the avocado! I guess at that moment, I felt myself lighten up!

  6. Good news about the positive results! I envy your creativity and your organizational skills. Since 2006, I’ve had to move three times, with only the first truly by choice, and each time I’ve downsized stuff. Now I live in the smallest home – 1,400 square feet – and it’s still crammed with stuff!

    • Nine years I moved out of a 350 sq. ft. cottage and into a 1200 sq. ft. home and I still have plenty of room! It was the reverse of the old Jewish folktale: The woman goes to the Rabbi and complains that her house is too small. The Rabbi instructs her to put the chickens in the house. The next week she returns to him with the same complaint. So, he suggests that she put the goats in the house. This continues until the horse and the cow are also in the house and she is hysterical and fed up. Then he tells her to take everything out and she feels like yer house is suddenly huge and it finally happy!! I love that folktale! So, cram away until you can’t stand it and then…..:)

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