Organizing vs. Simplifying

Here is my biggest problem with most home organization books:  they want to help you organize what you have, without regard to truly simplifying and cutting down.  One of my pet peeves is the idea that you have to buy something else to get yourself organized. “All you need is this system and you’ll be on your way!”  Wrong!  I’m getting agitated just thinking about it.  You don’t need to buy a bunch of new “stuff” to organize all your “stuff;” that just perpetuates the problem.  What do you have once you buy that fabulous system?  More stuff!  I would venture to say that 99% of the time, buying organizational supplies is not the solution.  Only by looking critically at what you have, recognizing if it’s useful to you, and getting rid of it if it’s not, will you truly become free of the clutter.

We recently moved our “home office” (I use the term loosely) from an upstairs bedroom to an area of the kitchen.  Absolutely no amount of organizational supplies would have eased the transition from an entire room, plus closet, down to only three cabinets.  We had to get rid of stuff.  That was the only way to make it work.

I am someone who has helped clean out homes of three grandparents; an excellent exercise in recognizing the meaninglessness of most “stuff.”  “Stuff” in basements and attics, in closets and cupboards, in drawers and desks and chests and trunks…..and when your life is over, what does all that “stuff” get you?  Absolutely nothing.  He who dies with the most toys still dies.  The only thing that happens is the family you’ve left behind is forced to deal with it:  to sort it, pile it, trash it, donate it, and maybe…keep it, so the cycle can begin again.

I have vivid memories of our sprinkler system breaking during our basement finishing; water pouring out of the box at the side of our house, into our poor neighbors’ yard.  I had to turn off the water at the shutoff valve inside.  All the “stuff” in our basement was crammed into the part that was to remain unfinished: stacked and stuffed into a space one-quarter of which it would eventually occupy.  And the water shutoff for the sprinkler system?  You guessed it.  Behind all the “stuff.”  As I inched my way to the back of the room, crawling over and under the piles, it occurred to me that some basements looked this way all the time.  Our basement, by virtue of being a basement, could end up looking this way permanently someday, not simply because we were in transition.  Any time the unfinished part of the basement starts to get out of control, I imagine crawling through those piles to get to the water line.  That visual works wonders.

Maybe your stuff is hidden stuff, in basements and closets.  Maybe your stuff has started the slow but steady creep out of hiding, and is piling on counters and tables.  I want to help you look at each room in your home and guide you into seeing each space, simplified.

Choices, choices

As I stress to my kids the difference between “needs” and “wants,” I’m struck by the incredible array of choices we have in purchasing for our “needs.”  Do we need soap?  Absolutely!  But walk down the “soap” aisle in any discount store and let your senses be assaulted for one moment by the sheer number of choices in front of you.  How many brands do you see?  How many different choices of soap within each brand are on the shelves?  This doesn’t even include the entire stores that are devoted to soaps, lotions, and potions….and remember, this started out as a genuine need.  Yes, we need soap, but if we’re honest with ourselves we would admit that we don’t need 500 different choices of soap.

Notice this the next time you shop.  I need laundry detergent, (though I realize some people make their own), and when I go to the closest store, they have mostly just one brand.  But there are shelves stacked five tall containing the various assortments of that brand.  (Ironically, it’s not the brand I use, which is why I buy my detergent elsewhere.)  Dish soap, cleaners, lotions, food….the list goes on and on.  It’s no wonder we’re overwhelmed with our stuff; we have so many options in front of us for legitimate needs.  We haven’t even gotten into “wants”!

How often do you try out a new choice in one of those “need” categories, and immediately decide you don’t like it?  What do you do with it?  Does it remain in your home, collecting dust, a constant reminder of the mistake you made?  Do you wince each time you open the cabinet and remember, “Yeah…I thought I’d really like that…it didn’t work at all.”  It is the gradual accumulation of mistakes we don’t get rid of that is part of what is overtaking our homes—and remember, we’re still only talking about “needs.”  Our “want” purchases create a whole extra mess.

Real life

I remember seeing a poster once, a 1950’s-replica photo with the mom in an apron, heels, and a huge grin serving a meal to her husband and “Dick and Jane”-ish children seated at the dining table.  The caption read, “It’s okay—I didn’t want a real life anyway!”

I tend to have a sense of humor about things like that, but for some reason, this one rubbed me the wrong way.  Maybe it was because I had chosen to stay home with my children, and I did try to get meals on the table with some regularity (don’t ask, however, about the quality of said meals).  Mostly, though, I was completely baffled by the idea that this wasn’t a “real” life.

That’s the point I want to focus on for a moment.  This life, right here, right now, is your real life.  Whatever you are choosing to do, however you are spending your time, the things you are choosing to surround yourself with and fill your heart with, THIS is IT.  There are no do-overs.  Don’t misunderstand me….there is definitely eternity, which we as believers can anticipate with hopeful hearts, and when you get right down to it that THAT is truly “real life.”  But for our time on earth, this short breath we have here, this is it.  This is your one life, no matter if you’re wasting it or using it wisely; doing something you love or faking it through something you actually hate.  This is it.  So ask yourself:  how much time do I want to spend on “things?”  Cleaning, clearing, piling, pulling, stacking, sorting, moving, and managing things?  Is that what you want to get the best of your days, the bulk of your time?  How are you going to use this “real life?”  Choose wisely.

By uncluttering, you simplify by default:  less to dust, clean, move, and care for; which frees up time to spend doing what is important to you.  Let’s start there:  what is most important to you?

What do you love spending time doing?  Who do you love spending time with?  List four or five items for each question, and post it where you can see it regularly.  This is why you want to simplify: to free up time to spend with these people, doing these things.  Keep that first and foremost in your mind, and the actual physical process of uncluttering becomes easier.

Too Much, Part 2

Recently I dreamed that I was with my kids at the library (which I had been, just that afternoon).  I spotted a few books out of order on a shelf and thought I would fix it—I worked in a library one summer, and now it’s a habit for me to correct the occasional mis-shelved book.  I pulled the six books off the shelf and began alphabetizing them properly; it was easy because they were clearly in a series:  same size, same shape, even the same color.  But as I was sorting the handful of books, I began to notice more “stuff” on the shelves out of order.  More books….more ratty, torn-up books….now, suddenly, paper pamphlets….plastic tubs of junk…..and soon the “stuff” wasn’t even in tubs, it was spilling out all over the shelving.  I kept looking at all the things, compared to the neat, short stack of books in my hand, and wondering how on earth I was going to sort through and put that mess in order.  Too much!  Too many things that didn’t even belong there, and things that while “technically” library appropriate were still better fit for the recycling bin.  It was a powerful reminder that some things should not be organized; some things just need to go.

My favorite example of this is a box I saw once labeled “non-working Christmas tree lights.”  Umm….. really?

I heard of two separate instances, just weeks apart, of parents who had saved every single paper their children had done at school.  They then took those boxes and bins and dumped them on their now-grown children, saying, essentially, “This is all your stuff…..I don’t want it anymore.”

I contrast that with a folder we discovered in my sister’s room as she was moving out of the house.  Filed away were some of the notes, poems, and cartoons she and I had drawn and traded with each other over the years we lived together.  The fun we had going through that folder—

“Remember this?”

“Oh, my goodness, I forgot all about this!”

“Look at this one!  Do you remember when that happened?”

It was such joy and a fun memory all its own, over a folder of paper.  Not bins and bins of it.  As my kids are growing up and going through the school system, I try to keep that afternoon first and foremost in my mind as I look at the papers they bring home; or the papers they create at home.  I want, someday, to hand them a binder and have them laugh and shout and say things like “remember this?” and “look at this one!”  I want those papers to be a gift; to be a blessing, not a curse; to be a moment of joy that they will remember fondly, maybe even as their own touchstone for how they keep their own children’s work.

‘You are my everything’

Singing a praise chorus in church one morning, I was struck by the words “You are my everything.”  It hit me, almost physically:  Wait.  If He is our everything, why do we have so much stuff?  If God is supposed to be our all in all (having noticed it once, I began to notice it everywhere; how often we sing the idea of God being “our all” and “our everything”), why are we so inundated with things, drowning in our clutter?  It makes no sense.  I was struck by the almost hypocrisy of singing the words, knowing how abundantly we were blessed with material goods.  Is he really my everything?  How much do I need to get rid of before he actually becomes that, in truth?

Think about the things we need to survive.  We absolutely need food, and we do need pots and pans to cook it in, dishes and glasses to eat and drink off of.  Now think about how full our kitchens are of specialty equipment, designed to make our lives easier and do all the hard work for us.  Gadgets and gizmos which once looked like a great idea; now jammed in our drawers and cabinets, broken or breaking other items as we try to stuff one more thing in amongst the crowd.  The I can’t get rid of this, I paid good money for it, I might use it someday stuff that makes it hard to close the pantry door.  Or—the saddest kind of clutter—the we’re saving that for a special occasion stuff.  I don’t necessarily mean the Christmas china that comes out seasonally, each year being used for its special, appropriate time.  I mean the china that doesn’t ever come out, the kind that’s “too.”  Too fragile, too antique, too special, too important—it’s a family heirloom!  That was my grandmother’s!  So it never gets used, ever, and instead sits in storage until the day you die, at which point your children (thankfully?) will have no memory of it and will be able to part with it much more easily.  Unless, of course, it’s completely ruined from being stored in a hot, dusty attic or a cold, damp, musty basement.

If God is our everything, why do we have those kinds of items overtaking our homes?

Jesus warns us about this idea in his parable of the rich fool.  Luke 12:16-21 states, “And he told them this parable:  ‘The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.  He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do?  I have no place to store my crops.’

‘Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do.  I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years.  Take life easy; eat, drink, and be merry.’

‘But God said to him, ‘You fool!  This very night your life will be demanded from you.  Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

‘This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.’”

Is God truly my everything?

Too Much

Recently my six-year-old daughter gave me a perfect illustration of “too much.”  Yesterday I was putting a few things away in her room and made the mistake of opening her bedside table drawer.  It actually clattered with all of the random pieces of junk rolling around in it.  So I took the opportunity to…ahem….take care of some things.  I pulled everything out, laid it on her bed, sorted the important (a few books and her precious blanket) from the not important (broken crayons, dried up markers, ancient party favors, dozens of scraps of paper….); dumped the trash and put back what remained.  I always wonder, when I tackle a job like that, what the response will be:  Mom! This looks great!  Or Mom!  Where’s all my stuff!?!

I got my answer that night as I put her to bed.  As she danced around the room getting ready, she looked at me with slightly accusing eyes and demanded, “I want to know who did THAT,” as she pointed to her drawer.

“What?” I asked, as though I had no idea what she was talking about.

“THAT!” she responded.  “That drawer was full of stuff, and now it’s almost empty.  It used to have all this stuff in it, and look,” she pulled it open, “now it only has books and my blanket.”

“Well…..what used to be in there?”

Lots of stuff!” she cried.

I started to become slightly concerned….after all, maybe there was a treasure in there that she was truly looking for.  It was okay, the stuff hadn’t gone far; it was still retrievable, so I asked her, “What are you missing, sweet girl?”

I’ll never forget the look on her face as she froze, mouth slightly open in an “o,” eyes round and wide.  A pause.  “Nothing!” she finally said, bursting into a smile.

I explained that I’d tried to leave her important things for her, and cleared out all the junk, and she responded joyfully that I had left what was most important (the most important thing in the world is her blanket), and that she didn’t know what else was in there anyway.  She then went back to dancing around her room as she got ready for bed.

That is the kind of uncluttering I’m talking about.  The kind where we’re so buried by stuff we don’t even know what we have; the kind where if it were gone, we wouldn’t even miss it.  The kind that drowns the things that are truly important to us and rattles and clatters around our lives and homes, getting moved from here to there because it has no home, because it doesn’t belong.  The stuff that we don’t even miss when it goes away.  The stuff that makes us want to dance when it’s gone.  That is what I want to expel from my life.  That is what I want to encourage others to expel from theirs.

How much is enough?

The seed of the idea for this blog was planted one spring day after school.  I was standing in the crowd of waiting parents outside the “first grade doors,” keeping one eye on my daughter and listening, with growing fascination, to two fathers talking nearby.  Well…one was talking; the other was mostly listening.

“We’re almost done!  The drywall’s finished and they’ve started painting today!” one said with excitement.  The other dad murmured his approval.  I remembered only a year earlier getting our basement finished, and I smiled as I thought of the thrill that things like framing, drywall, mudding and paint brought to me not all that long ago.

“And—get this!  We’re gonna have three TV’s down there!” Dad number one announced with a huge grin.  “It’s awesome!”  He then went on to describe the location and purpose of each.  Dad Number Two seemed even quieter now….or maybe that was just me reading into the situation.  The three TV comment, though, got my wheels to turning.  How much is enough?  Three TV’s in one space…..isn’t that too much?

The phrase “sour grapes” leaps to mind—but I have to admit that we, too, have three TV’s in our house.  (Dear 20-year-old Jen:  Many apologies for selling out so badly.  Love, 38-year-old Jen.)  One in the living room,  the “big screen” in the basement, and the old-school, almost twenty-year-old tube set in the far corner of the basement, hooked up to the Wii.  So it’s not so much that I wanted what I didn’t have.  It was more of a sudden, overwhelming awareness of how much we have.  How much is enough?  When does it become too much?  Where is the line drawn?

The other push to start this blog came from the search that question began.  As I began researching about the concept of simplifying your life and uncluttering, it seemed that there were only a handful of books and blogs on the subject.  I kept looking for a book that would meet me where I was at, “simplifying from a Christian perspective,” and eventually I found some excellent resources.  Most of the time, however, the idea of “decluttering” was noted and jumped over in favor of “organizing.”  In my experience, I’m realizing more and more that organization is not always the answer.  Getting rid of stuff is.  That led to me wanting to write down my own thoughts and experiences with simplifying.  Hopefully it will be a benefit to someone else.