Catherine Kwon

We stared at the kitchen silently.

It was an overwhelming, horrifying, disastrous, catastrophic mess: precariously stacked wine glasses, Starbucks mugs, a cheese grater, five Tupperware, nine water bottles, countless stray knives, shards of glass (the byproduct of a bumpy move), three sets of silverware, the fine china, the good but not necessarily fine china, a stack of bowls with a clear lid sticking out the top, a green lid (no container), and an orange container (no lid). That was one counter. Another housed a jumble of whisks, mashers, and serving dishes, and a table in the corner contained two bags of Fairy dishwasher tablets (one Platinum and the other Platinum Plus), paper plates, ceramic bowls, pots, pans, and more glass serving dishes balanced on top of a lid that hopefully fit with something somewhere.

Leslie, the on-site manager hired by the moving company to supervise our unpacking and organizing, seemed apologetic and slightly panicked. She scanned our faces before settling on Mary’s. Looking positively delighted, Mary rocked on her heels, clapped twice, and, for the first time since entering the kitchen, spoke. “It’s fantastic!”


Professional home organizing is not for everyone. It’s a physically demanding job; organizers are often expected to carry boxes, haul glassware, and move furniture. It can be monotonous, with hours spent in the same room positioning and repositioning the same objects over and over again. It can be frustrating, as customers frequently make requests the organizer knows their clients will regret (and then, two hours later, they’re forced to redo entire sections of the home because the customer did indeed regret said choices). In other words, professional home organizers need to be strong. They need to be patient, they need to love their work, they need to smile easily and be slow to anger. In other words, they need to be Mary.

I first met Mary Draper at her home in the East Rock neighborhood of New Haven, which, as you might expect of the house of a professional organizer, was meticulous. It wasn’t sterile—there were pictures on tables, books on shelves, and throw pillows on couches. But everything had a place. The slate blue blanket, though thrown over the sofa, still looked as if its exact drapery had been scrutinized multiple times before the final position was chosen.

Mary’s mind worked similarly. Whenever she went off on a tangent in our conversations, she would somehow always find her way back to my original question and tie the entire discussion together. She spoke deliberately and with confidence, her thoughts neatly labeled and stacked into uniform containers. My thoughts, especially after arriving ten minutes late to our scheduled interview due to a faulty bike lock and some inopportune rain, were more akin to the scattered chaos of the aforementioned kitchen.

Mary’s affinity for systems and neatness is not new—a career as a professional organizer, she said, always seemed inevitable. While other kids wreaked havoc on their bedrooms and playsets, she spent her childhood happily unknotting balls of yarn and arranging her crayons in color sequence. Her penchant for neatness was a point of contention with one of her younger sisters (Mary was the oldest of six), as the two shared a bedroom but not organizing habits. In fact, her sister’s messiness bothered Mary so much that she divided their room in half. (“Her closet was on my side,” she added, laughing. “My answer to that was ‘jump.’”) Though her skills were not appreciated by her sister, they were welcomed by her parents, who put her to work folding clothes, labeling shelves, and tidying up the home. “I was born into a family that needed me to do those things,” she said, “and I was good at it.”

After graduating from college, Mary left small-town Illinois for New York City, where she managed continuing education programs at PricewaterhouseCoopers, an accounting firm. The job, according to Mary, put her organizational skills to good use (she was, of course, happy to oblige).

There was a marriage, a baby, and then, after a move to Redding, Connecticut, a divorce. Mary and her son, who was 15 years old at the time, soon moved to New Haven to nurture his interest in natural history and expose him to life in a bigger city. She briefly worked as an administrator in the academic emergency department at Yale University (“the worst job of my whole life”) until 2014, when she founded her professional organizing business, Morning Light.

In between working at Yale and founding Morning Light, Mary and her son volunteered at the Yale Peabody Museum, scraping the tissue away from dinosaur bones. It was an art. It was also, she acknowledges, a job perfect for someone who would end up removing the gunk from people’s homes and lives, leaving gleaming, spotless structures in her wake.


The house was a 7,000-square-foot, pastel-green colonial in Massachusetts. The clients were a very angry family from Israel subjected to an overseas corporate move (husband’s promotion) that had left belongings broken. Mary and her three Morning Light “contractors” (Gretchen, Sharon, and I) were damage control hired by the moving company. I’d planned to shadow Mary for the day, but she thought it would be “more fun” to hire me. “It’s not brain surgery,” she said when I told her she might want to look at my dorm room before making that decision. Normally, Mary hires contractors after a rigorous process that includes a resume screening, a thirty-minute interview, a contract, a training, a background check, and a reference call. I was hired in less than twelve seconds.

The job started at 9 AM, which meant we left New Haven at 6:15 in the morning—a time that, Mary said, accounted for all potential traffic jams, wrong turns, and Google Maps miscalculations that we might face. I was haggard; Mary was perky. I had hoped to use the ride there as a chance to talk with her about what to expect and observe Mary in her pre-job preparation but was unfortunately so tired and carsick that I settled on asking my prewritten questions through half-closed eyes.

A professional organizer, I learned, usually charges anywhere from $60 to $150 per hour—higher depending on the location, gas prices, and the number and experience level of the contractors. Hiring an organizer is expensive, but so is the cost of running an organizing business, especially where insurance is concerned (the cost of breaking an antique vase is steep). Organizers can, she said, make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, though most in that range are in big cities and have an entire team. About half of Mary’s jobs—including the one we were driving to—are corporate moves, where she isn’t hired directly by the homeowners but instead paid by the employer. Corporate jobs, she says, are much easier than her regular, local ones. “These people move a lot, so have gotten rid of tchotchkes and extra stuff,” Mary added. In contrast, she described her other jobs —which can vary from organizing someone’s mail biweekly to decluttering a home after a death or messy divorce— as an often therapeutic process for people seeking solutions to problems much larger than a disorganized room.

Mary wears clothes that reflect the physical nature of the work, which, though she is 64 years old, has given her the athletic build of someone at least two decades younger. That day, her outfit was comprised of black jogging pants, a black, long-sleeve shirt, and a boxcutter attached to an elastic bracelet. She carried a tote bag filled with vegan snacks (chocolate-covered chickpeas were a crowd-pleaser) and bottles of water (so she never has to ask clients to use their supply). The car trunk was filled with clear, plastic bins and small, stackable containers from Bed Bath & Beyond, which Mary takes to almost every job, just in case.

We arrived at exactly 9 AM.

The rules for the staff, including me, were as follows: don’t do anything if you think it will hurt you. Take a break whenever you need to. Follow your gut.

My gut—though still suffering from residual carsickness—was fine.

I didn’t touch a mug and ignite a dormant passion for home organizing, but I also didn’t break anything or do such a bad job that Mary needed to redo my section. (However, the first thing Leslie asked me to do was put a serving dish in the butler’s pantry; I stood there for two minutes before working up the courage to ask her what exactly a butler’s pantry was.) For six hours, I shelved books, sorted wine glasses by rim size, stacked silverware, and reunited stray board game pieces. Sometimes I worked alone, shuttling kitchen supplies from the island to the pantry or folding towels and old dance costumes relegated to the back of a storage closet. Sometimes I joined Mary while she unpacked the home office or carried boxes into the basement (which, despite being forty years my senior, she lifted more deftly than I ever could). She navigated the home with comfort and ease, pausing only briefly before setting each object down in its final resting place and smiling with her entire face at the perfect result. Each time I moved an item, I’d spend the next minute or so tinkering with its position—Mary, I noticed, never looked back.

She’d whisper a torrent of advice as we worked: Carry cardboard boxes, so they don’t scratch the floor. Don’t throw anything away without permission. Books look best one inch away from the shelf’s edge.

There were moments, like when I finished hanging the wine glasses or finished arranging the Monopoly money by ascending numerical value, when I felt proud of my work. The family’s lives, whether they knew it or not, were easier because of me.

But mostly, I felt angry.

I felt angry that this family had lived in this house for almost a week before we came to unpack and not one person had managed to put the silverware away, instead waiting for a sleep-deprived college student to do it for them. I was angry that they never completely looked me in the eye when they surveyed my handiwork and nodded their approval. I was angry that they asked Mary to clean the top of a shelf when she was shorter than both parents. I was angry that the husband asked Sharon to move a couch on her own while he stood and watched. (“He couldn’t move his own fricken La-Z-Boy?” Mary commented on the drive home.) I was angry at the family’s anger—a few of their dozens of glasses broke, so the moving company had to tell their onsite manager to abandon a trip back home to hurricane-ravaged Florida, intended to see if her house was destroyed.

But most of all, I was angry at how much stuff they had, and I was angrier at how much they threw away. I was so angry that when Mary and I later ventured into the garage in search of a box to replace the bin that the husband said he didn’t need for storage (and later did need) and I saw in the trash an unopened box containing a pen engraved with the Hebrew and Arabic words for peace, I took it for myself.

It’s currently sitting on my desk. I haven’t opened it yet.


On March 21, 1947, seven patrol officers from the 122nd Police Precinct broke a window and climbed into the second-story bedroom of a home owned by brothers Homer Lusk Collyer and Langley Wakeman Collyer. Law enforcement had received an anonymous tip that one of the pair had died. After five hours of digging, they found Homer’s body. Eighteen days later, they found Langley, partially decomposed. It took so long to find him because the brothers were hoarders; the officers had to dig not through dirt but through the more than 140 tons of objects that surrounded them. Homer died from starvation. They suspect that Langley had died around two weeks earlier, crushed by the weight of a lifetime of things.

Hoarding is not a new concept. In the Divine Comedy, Dante relegates hoarders, often corrupt Catholic Church officials, to the fourth circle of Hell, and in Greek mythology, King Midas is introduced as a hoarder of gold. Hoarding was historically considered an act of greed—there wasn’t enough to go around, so taking more for yourself almost certainly meant that someone else would have less.

Now, hoarding is classified as a mental illness, a shift that recognizes that the disorder is not caused by greed but rather influenced by stress, genetics, and even injuries. There is, however, another key difference between the hoarders of ancient literature and the hoarders of now—accumulating massive amounts of objects has never been easier. The world now consumes over 100 billion tons of material each year, including 400 million tons of plastic. The average American house contains 300,000 objects, with 1 out of every 10 of those households renting a storage unit, of which there are over 50,000 facilities throughout the United States (more than the number of Starbucks and McDonald’s in the country, combined). Every American is not considered a hoarder (most aren’t), but we all nevertheless have too much shit. And those of us who don’t keep most of it in our homes waste a mind-boggling amount. Americans throw out 12 million tons of furniture annually and 11.3 million tons of garments (which comes out to over 2,000 pieces of clothing per second). On average, an American produces five pounds of trash per day, or a little under one ton yearly.

Furniture, clothing, and just about everything can now be made more quickly and cheaply than in the past. More people can afford more products, which is a plus, but cheapness and speed mean that quality suffers. Clothes that should last a decade instead last a few months. The longevity of furniture is measured in years rather than centuries. Worse quality leads to more waste, more waste leads to more demand, etcetera etcetera.

Too. Much. Shit.

Though professional organizers seek to declutter a client’s home, their job is born out of and entirely reliant on this culture of excess, an irony Mary acknowledges. “There would be no job for organizers unless we have consumerism,” she said.


Mary divides her clients into two categories—“very very nice” and “nice but not personable.” Most clients, she says, fit into the former. They’re just grateful to have the help. A small number are in the latter, including the Massachusetts clients. When I told Mary about my own feelings of animosity towards them and asked if she ever felt similarly, she was steadfastly diplomatic, acknowledging that she certainly has jobs she enjoys more than others. But when I asked if the wealth of the client, or the way she is treated, ever affects her interest in taking on a job or completing it to the best of her ability, Mary strongly disagreed with the premise of my question—that she is in a position to judge. “If I’m offering a service, part of what my service is is not to be judgmental,” she said. “So, I just have to trust that what I’m doing is supportive and helpful to people, and it seems to be. People aren’t going to ask you into their homes unless they need some sort of help.”

This lack of judgment extends beyond clients’ personalities to their objects, which are often weird, hilarious, and deeply private. She sees love notes, correspondence with therapists, briefcases filled with money. Once, she entered a closet with so many “personal items” (she later clarified that she meant sex toys, specifically dildos of all shapes, colors, and sizes, as well as a stack of BDSM contracts) that she had to leave to compose herself. She walked to a different room to find one of her contractors folding dozens of thongs. “I was laughing hysterically,” Mary said (laughing hysterically again as she recalled the moment). “I said it’s time for lunch because I’m losing it.”

But when Mary speaks about her clients, even the ones with amusing items, she is never derisive. There is always a baseline of respect. The home, to her, is “a sacred palace” where people go to nurture, to rejuvenate, to be in the company of loved ones. The physical space is connected to our emotional well-being—when we take care of our home, we take care of ourselves. Mary may not consider herself a therapist, but she does understand that her job gives so much more to people than just a clean home. It gives them relief. It gives them peace. And it teaches them to treat their house with the level of regard Mary believes it deserves.


There is one figure most responsible for the public’s widespread exposure to the field of home organizing: a 4-foot-7, soft-spoken Japanese woman named Marie Kondo. Indeed, whenever I told my friends I was profiling a professional organizer, they would almost always respond with “Oh! Like Marie Kondo!” (This refrain became so common that I started prefacing my explanation of Mary’s job by asking people if they’ve watched Kondo’s shows.) She is most famous for her 2019 Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, where she teaches overwhelmed clients her KonMari Method of organizing, which involves gathering all of one’s items in a particular category together and asking the now-famous question: Does it spark joy? Instead of figuring out what to throw away, Kondo’s method does the opposite—focuses on what should be kept.

Mary thinks this is bullshit. (Though she says so in much nicer terms.) She cites the example of laundry detergent—it doesn’t “spark joy” but it’s still a necessary household item. Though the two share a deep appreciation for the home (Kondo spends a few minutes near the start of each episode kneeling and thanking the home for its protection), Mary ultimately sees Kondo as a brand created by a marketing team, capable of giving good overall organizing tips but not realistic advice tailored to the individual needs of each client. For instance, though Kondo encourages mass decluttering, Mary would never tell a client to get rid of most of their clothing. Doing so, she says, only creates more waste and leads to the kept clothes wearing out quickly from frequent use. “One has to be careful that it’s not just another marketing ploy and use common sense,” she said.

While Mary relies on the system of consumerism to sustain her business, Marie Kondo and similar shows actively capitalize on it, earning money not just from in-person organizing but also from their books, shows, and brands.

The Home Edit, another popular home organizing show that spotlights organizers Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin, promises to “rainbowfy” homes, emphasizing beauty just as much as, and sometimes even more than, functionality. (In one episode, a contractor described her vision for Reese Witherspoon’s closet as “not utilitarian, but purely for like a visual effect.”) Almost all of Shearer and Teplin’s clients on the show (including Witherspoon) find them from the Home Edit’s Instagram page, which boasts 6.6 million followers. And their feed is indeed enticing, square after square displaying colorful closets and refrigerators exploding with fresh produce kept in elegantly labeled containers.

Realistically, that type of system is impossible. According to Mary, people’s wardrobes are often mostly black, since the color can easily pair with almost anything else, and most refrigerators do not have room for dozens of bins, nor are they constantly stocked with the amount of fresh produce necessary to keep those containers filled. “If you see the Kardashians’ Instagram, nothing is real,” Mary said, referring to the boxes of apples, oranges, and drinks that fill their pantry in photos, rather than “real food.”

Still, Mary has clients who ask for a similar aesthetic, doubtless because they’ve seen it on television or social media. She obliged one client who, she recalls, was less concerned about how livable her home was than how it might appear to relatives and visitors. While the ultimate design looked “like it should go in a magazine,” it came at a price—Mary spent over $1,000 on bins, none of which, she said, was necessary. “All the organizing supplies are just more stuff, and I do not recommend getting more stuff unless there’s a good need for it,” Mary added.


When Mary dropped me off in front of my dorm at the end of the organizing job, she handed me a sealed envelope and, before I could open my mouth to ask what it was, quickly drove away. Inside was $240 in 50s and 20s—compensation for my day as a contractor. It was more cash than I’d ever held in my life (and given my expedited hiring process, which did not involve a background check or tax forms, was likely the only feasible method of payment). I generally enjoy receiving money unexpectedly, except in this case I had told Mary days earlier that journalistic ethics forbade me from accepting payment. I thought Mary had agreed, albeit reluctantly, to the arrangement.

I decided to deal with the problem by donating the payment to Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), a nonprofit Mary loves so deeply that she organizes their warehouse yearly for free. It is an especially moving choice of a cause given her line of work. Mary’s clients have too much—the refugees that IRIS helps often arrive with not enough.

But then I got busy and stressed, so instead of donating right away, the envelope of cash ultimately became partially submerged on my desk under an empty white folder with a tear in the corner, a crumpled piece of paper advertising how to track my absentee ballot, a knotted necklace, an unused earring pouch, a broken charger, four paperback books, and a plastic tiara with golden fringes.

An overwhelming, horrifying, disastrous, catastrophic mess. One day, I came home from class and had enough. I recited the Hebrew blessing over my room and kissed my Mezuzah (for extra protection), then grabbed a Swiffer, a trash bag, and a package of alcohol wipes, and went to work. I stacked the books on my desk (one inch from the edge), I recycled the paper and threw away the tiara. I filled the bins under my bed (carrying, not dragging them across the hardwood floor). I went to the IRIS website and donated the money.

Under the envelope was the (still unopened) pen. Weeks earlier, I had saved it from certain death, but this wasting away, doomed to a life at the bottom of a constantly rotating pile of objects, seemed a worse fate.

Nevertheless, I decided to keep it.

I know Marie Kondo and Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin and probably Mary Draper as well are shaking their heads and telling me that I’m assigning sentimental value to a meaningless item. They’re right. But in a world of 300,000+ object homes, of people crushed by the weight of hundreds of tons of stuff, of kitchens with five spatulas and multiple sets of china, I’m keeping my pen.

We all have too much shit anyway. What’s one more thing?

Madison Hahamy is a junior from Chicago, Illinois majoring in English and in Human Rights. She previously wrote for the Yale Daily News and served as Senior Editor for The New Journal.