Minimalist Blues

Inspired by the hip, minimal furnishings in the West Coast rental in which we stayed last week, I’ve decided to do some deep decluttering at my East Coast home.

Today, I got through one half of a closet full of unfinished crafts.

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Before decluttering, but after I took all of the crafts out of the closet.

I still haven’t figured out what to do with our hard-drive from 2008 or data backup CD-ROMs going back to 2003, but at least we made room for the microscope and the sheet music.

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After.

We might have a better shot at “hip” and “minimal” if we just buy the rental house. Or maybe I can just share pictures of that house and pretend it’s mine.

Everything Must Go!

I’m feeling a huge urge to de-clutter.

I always get that urge late at night when I ought to be sleeping. I’ve already done away with the easy stuff, though. Now I look around and everything seems to have utility.

I’m sure not all of it does because there’s just so much of it. How could we really use all of this stuff? We could chuck 50-75% of it, I think, with no ill effects whatsoever.

But…

There’s that lurking fear that I’ll get rid of something and then find a use for it. Take this clip-on desk lamp, for example.

Come to think of it, I probably don’t need that scrap of yarn. But Mardi Gras beads never lose their utility.

It’s not been plugged in for months. It’s not even been clipped to the desk for I don’t know how long. I don’t have a clear recollection of when it moved from the top edge of the shelf over the desk to lying on its side on the desktop.

Every day for the past two weeks, I’ve looked at that lamp and thought, “That’s something I’m sure I can give away.”

And then yesterday I got a book of easy astronomy-related experiments for my daughter’s science lessons, and what does one of them call for? A clip-on desk lamp.

Now I not only feel like I need to hold onto the desk lamp, but I wonder how many other things in my give-away box will shortly become integral to my children having a well-rounded education. If this desk lamp could mean the difference between my daughter becoming the first human on Mars and not going to Mars at all, then what future purpose might this wobbly desk chair hold? What career paths am I closing to my children if I finally get rid of the VCR? What consequences lie in store for our whole family if we pass along to someone else the old futon or the rusted card table with the torn vinyl top?

For now, however, it’s okay that these thoughts leave me paralyzed: I should really be in bed anyway.

Why I’m Not De-Cluttering My Baby Carriers

With all of my de-cluttering and simplification, there is one drawer I’ve not even been able to bring myself to de-clutter.

It’s the drawer where I keep my baby carriers.

My son hasn't ridden in a sling for at least a year, but he knew exactly what it was for ("Mommy, put my animals in it!")

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was so excited to acquire baby-related gear. We were living in a small apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area, so there was no discussion of whether to have a nursery or a crib or many of the other standard baby items, but there was still a remarkably large number of items that, as a new mom, I just had to have. I’ve since parted with nearly all of those things, several of them before my daughter was even out of her infancy as I realized just how superfluous most of those items were to the care of a being who was soothed by closeness to her mother and by nothing else.

There were three things I kept.

One was our cloth diapers. Those came in handy when our second was born. We still use the one-size dipes for overnight insurance and the prefolds for cleaning up spills and “accidents.”

The second thing I kept was outgrown baby clothes. Those proved largely unnecessary given my husband’s unwillingness to let our baby son wear dresses, despite my appeal to his normally frugal nature.

The last things I kept hold of were my many and various baby carriers. I even manufactured some excuses for acquiring even more baby carriers before and after my son’s birth.

I didn’t learn to use a ring sling until my daughter was eight weeks old when I finally visited La Leche League. Once those helpful mothers (who would become some of my dearest and most supportive friends) showed me to use that sling, I was hooked. Finally, I had a way to get my baby to SLEEP (and to leave that awful baby “bucket” seat in the car). From there, my love of babywearing just grew and grew.

When we were still in California, I went on weekly hikes (3-5 miles) with a family hiking group, with my daughter strapped to my back in a woven wrap carrier. I wore her on my back while cooking meals or lugging laundry to and from the coin-op machines. My husband wore her to the farmers market and street festivals and around the neighborhood when she had croup and needed the cool air to soothe her. In Utah, I wore her in a mei tai or the wrap on the bus and light rail where it was impractical to take a stroller. I wore her until my pregnant self could no longer comfortably wear a three-and-a-half-year-old.

From that first sling until the time my son turned two, I acquired lots of baby carriers. Over the past six years I have had:

-three ring slings

-an adjustable pouch carrier

-two woven wraps (a Moritz and a blue-and-white Indio for those Didymos fans out there)

-a stretchy wrap

-two gauze wraps

-a water wrap (for the pool and the shower)

-two soft-structured carriers

-two mei tais

-a front-pack carrier (before I knew the ease and comfort of pretty much every other carrier ever created)

The one carrier I never had but always wanted was a podaegi, which is a Korean-style blanket carrier you don’t need to hook over your shoulders. It was the one carrier I’d never seen in person and I was afraid that if I bought one, I wouldn’t figure out how to wear it.

I’ve gotten rid of some of my carriers, but most of the ones on the list above are still in my baby carrier drawer or the trunk of my car. I really only use one of the soft-structured carriers and one of the mei tais anymore, and those I only use if my son falls asleep on the way somewhere or if we’re going on a long and/or snowy hike. He’s not as enthusiastic about toddler-wearing as my daughter was.

Logically, I know it’s time to pass along the rest of these carriers. But I’m just not ready to let go of that period of my life. The co-sleeper, the swing, the “stationary entertainer,” even the cloth diapers…those were easy to give away. They were utilitarian for a period of time and then they weren’t. I just found someone who needed them and I packed them up and felt good that they were going to a good home. And the maternity clothes? I practically celebrated when I got rid of those. No one makes clothes that fit a 5′ 2″ woman who births 9-pound babies.

But the carriers that remain in my drawer represent a closeness with my children, their little bodies snuggled close to me, a tinyness they’ll never have again. The carriers represent that brief and beautiful time between when my children and I occupied the same body and when they became their own little beings. Just the smell of the carriers in that drawer takes me back to my babies’ warm weight against my chest or snuggled up between my shoulder blades. I’d been telling myself I was holding onto the carriers in case we adopted a baby, but more and more it looks like our family is complete the way it is. So passing them along will also mean that we are, for sure, done anticipating the arrival of any more babies. And that realization is bittersweet. The transition from “woman” to “mother” was such a momentous one, it’s hard to imagine that I’m done with that “baby” period of my life, even though I feel ready and excited for this next phase.

I know it’s time to let the baby carriers go. But I think I’ll let myself hold onto them a little while longer.

What items do you let yourself hold onto even though you no longer need them?

An Embarrassment of Polo Shirts

“He who possesses most must be most afraid of loss.”

 Leonardo da Vinci (today’s Moment of Happiness from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project)

One of the multitude.

A couple of days ago during a conversation about de-cluttering, it came out that my husband feels very anxious about getting rid of things.

“But what if we need them?” he asked.

This particular part of the conversation was about his large collection of t-shirts and polo shirts.

Over the years, he’s received dozens of hand-me-down shirts from his dad and his brothers and as freebies from vendors. While he might not have needed the polo shirts for the past several years, now that he’s working at a place with a dress code that doesn’t allow t-shirts, am I not glad (he asked) that we kept seven years worth of polo shirts?

I pointed out that because his brothers are a bit bigger than my husband is, the polos they pass along to him are often ill-fitting across the chest and the seams hang down sloppily at the shoulders. So while I’m glad I didn’t have to wrestle him into a clothing store amid all the moving falderal, I would just as soon spend the money for him to get a few polo shirts that actually fit him and have him look sharp at his new job.

My husband looked skeptical. This is the man who would have worn his suit from high school to his job interviews had I not pointed out convincingly that his suit was not only outdated, but it was also tailored for a 210-pound high school football player, not a 170-pound bike-commuting scientist.

He reluctantly conceded the polo shirts point. He was not, however, ready to give up the fight.

“What if I get rid of all of my t-shirts then change jobs to a place that lets you wear t-shirts?”

“Honey,” I said as gently as I could, “your t-shirts are crap.”

Most of them are quite worn and the rest have logos and/or rather unprofessional (read, “beer-related”) messages on them that would make them inappropriate for most workplaces hiring PhD-level biologists.

I felt frustrated with my husband, as I do every time he disappears for half a day to de-clutter his closet and then comes downstairs proudly with a tank top, a pair of knee-length white jean shorts, and a threadbare t-shirt that declares, “I bench-pressed your mom.”

But I have to admit, I feel a similar anxiety when I go to get rid of things.

What if I need these clothes the kids have out-grown? That urologist might have been a quack, and I could end up with a surprise third child.

And yes, we’ve never once had a need for all 23 mismatched wine glasses in our cupboard, but what if we had a large dinner party? Sure, we don’t have a table large enough to accommodate that many people, and if we did, I’d want matching glasses, but still…what if?

Back during an extended period of unemployment after I graduated college, I watched a lot of daytime television. I caught Suze Orman on Oprah one day. She talked about making room for abundance. She said we should all clear all non-money items out of our wallets and organize the cash by denomination. This, she explained, would leave space for more money when it came in, which would help us to bring in more money.

It seemed unlikely that organizing my wallet would have that effect, but that didn’t stop me from trying it. At the very least it made it easier to find the right amount of money when I went to buy cigarettes at the gas station (yes, this was a very different time in my life. It was also before I knew what hydrogenated oils or gluten were). And it wasn’t long after that I found a couple of minimum-wage jobs that helped convince me to move out of my mom’s house and leave Ohio, so perhaps there was some magic to it after all.

This is kind of how I look at de-cluttering my house. No matter how organized, if my closets and basement and garage are full of things I don’t love, don’t want, and don’t use, how can I have room in my life for the things I do love and want and use? And what if there are things I love mixed in there? How would I ever know unless I sifted through and got rid of the extra stuff?

In a way, following my Happiness Project this past year has been an exercise in de-cluttering not only my physical space, but also my internal space. I’ve come a long way, but I still have more I want to do.

Does the idea of de-cluttering set your knees to knocking, or are you a fearless foe of all types of clutter?

Poo Happens

I’ve discovered a cure (or perhaps simply a treatment) for the anxiety that’s been following me around about this upcoming move: Compulsive cleaning.

“I have a job now,” my husband said to me yesterday. “Why are you still anxious?”

I just stared at him.

There are two main reasons I’m still anxious, 1) it’s my nature and my default response, and 2) in less than two weeks, we’re putting our house on the market and fixing to move 2400 miles away to a place I’ve never seen before.

While my poor husband expected my anxiety to simply dissolve, he’s doing his best to adjust to the permanent nature of my high-strungedness. After 16 years together, he’s still finding new things to learn about me.

Even though the anxiety is natural to me, I am still doing my best to alleviate it. And that’s where the compulsive cleaning comes in.

We’ve been decluttering, with the focus of avoiding shipping unnecessary items cross-country and clearing surfaces in anticipation of showing the house. I ramped this up over the past couple of days, challenging myself to keep the floors clean, surfaces clear, and the dishes done up constantly. I’m even wiping the oven out every time I use it (after it’s cool). I know I can’t keep up this level of order for too long, but for now, it seems to be giving me a release for my nervous energy.

At the same time all of this is going on, my toddler is making new strides in the gradual transition to independent pottying. He’s still not great at recognizing he has to go when he’s wearing trousers (much less being able to recognize it in time to pull down his trousers before going), so he runs about nekky quite a lot. He met our realtor at the door in his birthday suit this morning. Luckily she’s a mom of four and isn’t easily shocked by a toddler running about au naturale. I’m not sure how our fellow residents at the extended-stay hotel are going to feel about it, though. Perhaps we’ll institute a “pants mandatory” policy during the move.

Today, he made a valiant effort to take himself to the potty when he had to go poo. (Yes, I’m blogging about poo.) He didn’t even tell me when he had to go, just went into the bathroom and did his best to manage the situation on his own. The first I heard about all of this was my son coming into the kitchen where I was doing dishes and saying in a very tragic voice, “Poo!”

I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say there were some complications.

And that with the help of my children, I won’t be short of things to clean any time soon.

An Embarrassment of Riches

This is an addendum to my RV post from yesterday.

My husband asked me why we couldn’t just declutter without moving into an RV. A decent question, with a simple answer: because we can’t. I mean, clearly, if we have the space, we find a way to fill it. So it seems to me the answer is to have less space and force ourselves to make do with less.

Maybe the RV is extreme, and putting our house up for sale in the current housing market probably isn’t the best idea. But how else can I get myself to make do with less?

And then the other decent question my husband asked: Why should we make do with less?

“We got rid of a whole bunch of stuff in October,” he observes. “I look around and pretty much everything I see has a use or a potential use. Why would we get rid of something useful?”

“Because it’s more than we need,” I explain. “It’s too much for me to keep track of and care for. It weighs on me.”

There seems to be something almost spiritual about letting go of possessions. Buddhists like the idea. The Happy Janssens were motivated to minimize and hit the road in large part from a desire to emulate Jesus and his disciples back in the day. Nuns, priests, and monks in a variety of religious traditions take vows of poverty and live with the least number of possessions necessary, some even making a living from literally begging for what they need.

Is there value in this practice for the non-priests among us? In Buddhism, there are the monks, who devote their lives to meditation and live physically separated from the rest of the world. And then there are the householders, who practice the non-attachment and other facets of Buddhism while living within the world. Living within the world and especially living the life of a parent makes the practice of minimal living more difficult. I mean, would it really make sense for me to get rid of my son’s play kitchen or my daughter’s board games as part of my own spiritual practice? Would it have any benefit to them?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. I really want to know.

There are plenty of decisions I make as a parent that are unpopular with my children (getting them immunizations, enforcing their bedtimes, washing their faces) but which I do because I can see the big picture and the benefits for them in the long run. Is living with less one of those decisions?

When my daughter was born, I bought a minimum of baby items, with the plan to avoid bringing so much stuff into the house. I figured it would be easier to not have the stuff in the first place than it would be to get rid of it after we had it. I found out very quickly just how difficult it is to stop the influx of stuff.

Is it really bad to have stuff? Is it better to live a more minimalist life? Would having fewer material possessions help us focus on the things that really matter to us, like our relationships with each other?

I don’t know. But what I’ve realized lately is that I’m embarrassed  by the amount of stuff we have. Back when I was buying all of those gifts for the charitable causes, we had a big stack of wrapped presents on the window seat in our dining room. When people would come over, I was quick to explain that those weren’t ours. We were giving those gifts away. I didn’t want them to think that so many gifts were for just our family. Then when the Christmas gifts from friends and family for us started coming in and stacking up under the tree and overflowing onto the floor and the couches on either side, I no longer had the “we’re giving these away” defense. I was embarrassed that we had so much already and were getting so much more stuff.

They're not ours, I swear!

My husband calls it “Liberal guilt.” I don’t think that encompasses what I’m feeling. It’s more that I’m worried that we’re flaunting our wealth by having so many things. Not that we’re “wealthy” per se, except as compared with the vast majority of the rest of the world. I always wanted to live on much less than what we made and give away the rest. I’m embarrassed that we’re not doing that.

In some ways, I preferred it when we made half as much money in a place with a much higher cost of living. It necessitated some difficult choices, but having to make such choices on a daily basis helped keep our values and ideals as a family in mind all of the time.

I just feel like we have too much. I know how to get more, but it’s not clear to me how to get less.

I did find this post on the becoming minimalist blog about minimalism with kids. Maybe I’ll take a look at the book he mentions in the post, too.

That’s It. I’m Buying an RV.

English: A Class A motorhome with the slide-ou...

Image via Wikipedia

OK, not really.

I’ve found myself recently looking wistfully at the blogs of RVing families, like The Happy Janssens and The Ticknor Tribe, imagining what it would be like to sell everything we own and move into an RV. Aside from the fact that neither my husband nor I have any practical skills that could bring us money on the road, and the fact that constant travel, while it would bring us the chance to have friendships with a broader range of people, would potentially hinder the development of deeper relationship connections, RVing is quite appealing to me.

I love road trips. I love mapping out the route and finding fun places to stop along the way. There’s a difference in experiencing a place from the outside in, like you can when you’re driving to that place, than from just jumping into the place from an airport and bypassing everything in between.

And as anyone who’s ever traveled with me can attest, simply bringing my dwelling with me on the trip is the next logical step in the evolution of my road-tripping life.

In addition, I just love all of the nooks and crannies and tiny little spaces that are in RVs. Everything goes somewhere. It has to. There’s nowhere else to put it. It would be like a really advanced decluttering exercise to pare things down enough to fit all of our possessions into the storage space in an RV.

When we were in California, my husband’s grant was running out and his job search was taking longer than we’d anticipated. I looked into all manner of contingency plans to try and make our money stretch further in the event that his income stopped and there was no concrete prospect for future income. One option I explored was selling everything in our apartment but the bare minimum, and moving my husband, our then two-year-old daughter, and our two cats into a small RV. We could, I figured, live at one of the nearby campgrounds. My husband could take the car to work and my daughter and I could go hiking every day. When my husband got a job just weeks before his funding ran out, I was relieved, but also just a tiny bit disappointed that we hadn’t had the chance to do something so bold as to live in a vehicle. We had to settle for moving to Salt Lake City, which at that time seemed pretty darned bold.

When I spoke with my husband about this, he was very calm.

“When I was younger,” he said, “I used to worry when you would talk like this. But I’ve known you for a long time, and I know you’re just trying to work something out.”

“This too shall pass?” I suggested.

“Well, yeah,” he said. “I like that you look at things from so many different perspectives. And I know that you have to go to extremes to get things to make sense. If you’re here,” he put one index finger down on the table, “and you want to make a change, you think about going here,” he put his other index finger about 18 inches from the first, “so you can end up here,” and he moved his second index finger to a spot just inches from the first.

Yep. My husband knows me.

I know that the only reason I’m fantasizing about buying an RV is that I’m trying to work something out in my head, something that I think is related to the rapid influx of material possessions (currently all over my living room floor) that occurred on Christmas morning. And Christmas night, the baby head-butted me in the nose while I slept. You may find this surprising, but being awakened by a loud crack inside your head, searing pain in your nose, and stars before your eyes isn’t the best way to start the day after Christmas feeling relaxed.

In fact, I feel quite squirmy and unsettled.

Facing three days with my husband back at work, I find myself thinking, “What on EARTH am I going to do with these children?” And I have the babysitter for three hours Monday afternoon (and I’m thinking, “What on EARTH am I going to do with three hours on my own?”).

I guess I could always go looking at RVs. Or maybe I could just rearrange furniture.

3,384 Words and the Messy House to Prove It

Day 2 of NaNoWriMo, and I’m 50 words ahead of my goal of 1,667 words per day.

I wrote tonight’s words on my new MacBook, which arrived this afternoon. I set it up in fits and starts, which is how I do everything with my kids around.

My husband observed this evening that the house is starting to look like a wreck again. I think the word he used was “mess,” but I encouraged him to watch what he says unless he’s going to lose sleep to clean up, which is how I clean up when I manage to clean up. Perhaps my mistake was getting it clean in the first place. It seems the contrast is what’s getting to him.

I’m doing my best to let neither the mess nor the comments from my beloved get me down. I’m having fun with this little story, which is taking me in directions I’d never considered writing before, and if that means we have to kick toys to the side to create walkways through the house until December, so be it.

I got an unexpectedly long walk this afternoon when we all walked over to our polling place as a family, and I remembered just as we opened the doors to the elementary school that I’d forgotten my picture ID. This is the first state I’ve voted in (and I’ve voted in four) that required picture ID. I actually thought that was unconstitutional. But then, I also thought you weren’t allowed to specify “male” or “female” in an ad seeking a tenant for a rental property or to sell a used mattress, but they do that here, too. Maybe I was mistaken. Wouldn’t be the first time.

At any rate, I turned around, walked home, grabbed my wallet (after making sure my drivers license wasn’t one of the things my son had strewn all over the kitchen floor when he was going through my wallet while I was setting up the laptop), and then walked back to vote. The paper printout that accompanied my touch-screen ballot seemed to be a little messed up, though. I hope my vote went through OK. If the results aren’t how I want them to be, I’ll know I was disenfranchised. That is the only reasonable explanation.

Week 13/October Review

What a trip this month has been! I’ve not gotten through the whole house yet, but much of it has been decluttered, or at least organized so that the clutter can be easily stashed. With my mother’s help, I’ve finished a bazillion unfinished tasks — mounted and hung my belly cast, cleaned out the garage, put the garden beds to bed for the winter, caulked the bathtub, framed and hung our photos and cross stitch birth samplers — and only have about 347 to go. I don’t know that I’ve made much progress on daily and weekly routines, but I’m not doing any worse than I was in September. On that, at least. I’m back to late bedtime and eating fewer vegetables, but I’m not going to dwell in that.

Oh, the purchasing fast? What purchasing fast?

Focussing on Order was more emotionally turbulent than I’d expected, and only became more difficult as the month progressed. It’s brought some awareness to how I use material possessions to try to meet emotional and spiritual needs. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that now at the end of the month I’m looking to renew my search for a local religious congregation.

Yesterday I attended the Kick-Off Party for NaNoWriMo 2010 and was reminded that writers can be a socially awkward bunch (and that it’s not just me). Tune in tomorrow for more about what’s in store for me in November!

A Record of my Accomplishments (Decluttering-wise)

Here’s what I did yesterday while the sitter was with the kids:

 

Left side of upstairs closet #1. Luckily, it passed the cat's rigorous inspection.

Right side of upstairs closet #1. Don't ask what's in those plastic storage bins.

Pantry (aka, closet under the stairs with the low doorframe I always whack my forehead on). Yes, it's stuffed. But that's a good thing, right?

 

If you sent us a card for our wedding, sorry but it’s now in the recycling. (Well, I kept a couple of personal notes, but the cards that were just signed are outta here.) And what you don’t see is that there used to be a ridiculous set of white plastic shelves just inside our office door that served as our pantry. I managed to get rid of enough stuff that I was able to fit all of the items from those shelves into either the kitchen cupboards or that under-the-stairs closet, which might explode next time we go to Costco. The shelves are now in the upstairs bathroom waiting for the extra toilet paper and tissues that are currently stored in my clothes closet.

Today, I moved all of the craft supplies from the upstairs closet to the hutch-and-buffet thing in our dining room, which is where we do most all of our crafts anyway. I made space in that piece of furniture by moving a bunch of cake pans and glass pitchers to the otherwise useless space in the back of the corner cupboard in the kitchen. I did this while standing on a stool with my son clinging to my legs and laughing.

The bottom shelf still holds food items, but the upper two shelves are all crafts.

 

Craft closet/pantry extension/hutch and buffet. The green boxes are from the extra wedding invitations I finally discarded. They now hold pompoms and sheets of colored craft foam.

 

While the potatoes simmered on the stove this afternoon, the kids and I raked the yard in preparation for the snow/rain/sleet/slush we’re getting as I type this. Mostly what the kids did was sit in the leaves I piled on the tarp then rode on the tarp as I hauled them and the leaves to the holding piles under the big evergreen tree things at the edge of the yard.

I got one heck of a workout this afternoon.

 

Leaves that were, until a few hours ago, covering our lawn. We keep them in piles to use as "brown" for the compost throughout the year and to cover the garden beds in the hopes we'll have lovely soil in them that's ready to plant come spring.

 

I also went through a collection of keepsakes in the antique trunk my mom gave me when I got married. I found portions of my childhood rock and shell collections, which I gave to my daughter, and several stuffed toys which I tossed towards the children and let them dive upon. Included in the bunch was a plush football with the initials of my high school on it that my brother made in home ec class, a hand-made “word fun” activity sheet (an Easter-themed word-find) that my sister made for me, I think when I left for college, and this:

 

I'm pretty sure my little brother drew this for me to take with me when I left for college. I love that Garfield is saying, "Rad."

 

I also found several school photos, band photos, and homecoming photos of friends from middle school and high school. I considered scanning and posting those to my Facebook profile, but decided that these were people I’d prefer didn’t unfriend me.

When my husband returned home from work, my daughter immediately showed him all of the great stuff I’d given her and made a point of how special they’d been to me when I was a kid and that now I had given them to her. My husband spent the evening asking me where things were. (“Honey, where are the crackers these days?”) I gave him helpful responses. (“In the cracker cupboard, dear.”)