I’ve written about how I recently dealt with the sentimental paper clutter I’d been carting around for years.  Now I need to confess to some non-paper, large item, sentimental clutter that I struggle over.

The first involves a bit of back story.  I’d been helping my mom’s family clean out my grandmother’s home and garage, and I’d been able to select and keep a few furniture pieces that held loads of memories for me.  I was so glad to bring home these items; they put a smile on my face and made me think of her.  As the moving truck pulled up in our driveway, I gave directions on where I wanted the things to go.  We were the last stop on their list for the day; they’d dropped some things off at my sister’s house and my parent’s house and now were finishing their job at ours.

After getting things placed in the right rooms, I headed back into the garage, where I discovered them unloading a decrepit, broken-legged cedar chest onto the garage floor, complete with unattached lid (with holes in it).

I flipped.  “I said I didn’t want that!!” I hollered, in a joking-but-not-really-joking way.

One of the movers cracked up.  “Yeah, he said you’d say that,” he laughed, referring to my dad.

And why, you ask, would I not just cart the falling-apart cedar chest to the curb and pitch it?  Because my great-grandfather made it.  Those little words completely transform my view of that piece of furniture; it makes me responsible for it, in a way, and makes me feel the need to fix it, to mend it, to make it usable again, however that might be done.

The other piece of furniture is a beautiful chair that was in my other grandparents’ home.  It has an ornately carved back of dark wood, with hand-embroidered back and seat cushions done by my grandmother:  again, she made it, and now I feel responsible for it.  It actually hadn’t been a problem until our last move; up until now, the chair always had a place to “live,” even if it didn’t exactly match the rest of the house.  Here, though, there really was no place to put it; it was just sitting in the basement collecting dust, until my daughter needed a chair in her room.  I threw a bedsheet over it and cinched it with a big purple ribbon:  instant slipcover for a chair that would have otherwise never been used.  (My dad was teasing me about being so cheap that I didn’t want to buy a chair, but it’s hard to justify buying a chair when there’s a usable one stashed in the basement.)

I think this is my biggest struggle with some sentimental “stuff:”  that sense of responsibility toward it, the feeling that it’s my “job” to “take care” of it; that it’s been “entrusted” to me.  There are plenty of sentimental things that I’m happy to have, but some items have turned into burdens more than blessings.  In spite of that, I admit that I don’t know how to get past that idea of “responsibility” and finally let go of them.


Sentimental “Stuff”

March 28, 2012

Three houses ago, we moved for the “last time.”  (Haha.)  But three houses ago was when I cleaned out my bedroom at my parents’ house, and took everything I wanted to keep.  Most of that stuff was books; even back then, I knew I didn’t want to be moving books constantly.  I waited till we were settled, where we would be living “for good,” and then moved the books, along with more sentimental stuff like notes and letters from friends, papers I wrote in school….you get the idea.

Over the course of the next few years, I lost my grandparents, and gained more sentimental things:  this time, furniture related.  (I joke that our house is decorated in “acquired traditional.”)  Now, though, I was becoming more aware of how overwhelming all this “stuff” could be, because I was helping to clean out the houses, and I was becoming much more deliberate in the choices I was making.  Do I want my grandmother’s corner cabinets from her dining room?  Yes, please!  Do I want nine-tenths of the other furniture?  Absolutely not.

Two moves later, I was finally able to look at some of this “keepsake” stuff and be a bit more harsh in my evaluations:  our lugging it around so much had a lot to do with my change in attitude towards all of it.  One afternoon I forced myself to go through boxes of old photos and was able to pitch three-quarters of them.   I’d been taking pictures since middle school, and who wants pictures from middle school?  Ugh.  I read through old notes and letters, and was horrified at how obnoxiously self-centered I was:  trash it.  I went through my binders of papers written for school:  out.

One over-arching rule dictated my ruthlessness:  does this make me smile?  A few photos, a few notes and letters, yes, absolutely!  They brought a smile to my face every time I looked at them.  But after moving pounds and pounds of papers, over and over, I thought I was ready to let go.  Once they hit the recycling bin, I kept waiting for the sense of panic I sort of expected:  What have you done??  You got rid of that?!?  But it never came.  Instead, I was surprised to find that I felt more relief than panic.  We’re not planning on moving again, but that’s a lot less stuff to have to deal with if we do.

I think that rule is a good place to start when dealing with sentimental clutter:  does this make me smile?  Most of my paper stuff had been carried around for so long that lots of it meant very little to me anymore, and once I finally made myself go through it, it was remarkably easy to plow through quite quickly.

What if everything makes you smile?  What if you’re knee-deep in sentiment and all of it “makes you smile,” but you’re overwhelmed by the amount and know that you need to give some away?  Take a picture.  If you’re really crafty you could make a scrapbook full of “special” things, and write why they’re special–and then pass on the things.  If you’re not so creatively talented, keep the photos stored on your computer and look at them whenever you want a smile–and then pass on the things.  (A screen-saver of “special things” could be great–a continual scroll of things that make you smile.)

I’m definitely not one of those people who thinks you should get rid of everything.  There comes a point, though, where it really is too much, and I think we know it when we get there.  That is the time to do something about it.  Preferably before your sixth move.

Merry Christmas!

March 27, 2012

If ever there was a sign that Christmas is too excessive around here, I just had it.  A ridiculous sign.  A completely embarrassing sign.  A sign that I’m mortified to write about, but because I feel that way, I know I should.  So here we go…..

My children’s school is holding their book fair next week, and my son got a “sneak preview” at his library time yesterday.  After school he sat, poring over the flyer with all the titles listed, thinking about what he wanted to get.  At some point, he informed me that there was a really cool amusement park DS game.

I stopped what I was doing and stood there a moment.  “Yeah, but didn’t you get that for Christmas?”

He looked at me, eyes wide.  “No.”

“Are you sure?  I’m almost positive I bought that for you at the last book fair, as a Christmas gift.”

“No, Mom, I don’t have it.  Do we have it?” He was getting excited now.  “Because I don’t have it.”

That started an evening full of me second guessing myself (Am I losing my mind?  Did I change my mind, put it back, and not buy it?  Did I never get it out to wrap?) and my son hounding me to look for it.  I told him I would look first thing after they went to school the next day, because I’m not disassembling the laundry room closet in front of my kids.

So this morning, yes, there it was, laying down flat on the very top shelf, well out of my line of vision.  The stupid DS game I’d gotten him for Christmas and forgotten to give to him.

What bothers me in this instance is not my absent-mindedness, although that’s admittedly a little distressing.  It’s the idea that we had so much stuff to unwrap, so many gifts given and received, that I didn’t even notice it was missing.  The really unfortunate part, for me, is that I thought we’d done a better job this season of not being so excessive in our….um…. “celebration.”  I truly thought we’d scaled back, and had been much more reasonable this year.

A thought proven wrong by one small game.



Left behind

March 20, 2012

We were halfway through a nine-hour drive home from our family vacation when my husband’s cell phone rang.  It was the hotel, informing us that we’d “left an item” behind.

“What?”  I asked, as in, what the heck was it?  We’d scoured that room repeatedly before we left; I was pretty sure it was empty.

She couldn’t tell me over the phone; my husband would have to figure out the missing item and call her back to identify it, and then we could make arrangements to pick it up.  (Um…..did you notice the area code you just dialed?  We’re not exactly next door.)

My husband and I spent the next five to ten minutes running through every possible item we could have possibly left behind.  My immediate response was to turn to the kids in the backseat and start an inventory of “loveys:”  “Do you have Blanket?  Do you have your Blanket?” and on down the line of stuffed animals that just had to come with us.  Finally, eventually, we realized we’d left a pair of my husband’s jeans hanging in the hotel closet.  Oops.

I tell this story because of two observations I made in that scramble of “what’s missing?”

First, the most important things to us, the “oh, no, we left that?” things, the things that would be truly heartbreaking to lose, are things that look like total garbage to other people.  Aside from my camera (photos) and our phones (photos and information), all the important stuff doesn’t look important.  Things like stuffed animals worn gray from so much love, and blankets that are–in the words of my son–no longer blankets, but “a wad of yarn.”  These are the things that no amount of money could ever replace; the things that, while we might not drive back for them, we would absolutely pay to ship home into the waiting arms of their owners.

Second, I wondered how many people have so much stuff that if they left something behind, they might never figure out what it was.  It took us a long time to walk through what we’d brought and what we possibly could have left, and we’d only been away for four nights.  I wondered how often the hotel would call people informing them of an “item left behind,” and people would never call back, because they didn’t ever really notice it was gone, they didn’t ever really miss it.  I’m beginning to look around my home, now, wondering:  would I miss that?  If that item went away, would I want it back?  Would I pay to retrieve it?  It’s been an interesting exercise.

If nothing else, I’ve learned to check hotel closets.  🙂

Moving Up

March 15, 2012

I struck up a conversation with a mom in the park one day.  She was one of those really easy-to-talk-to people; one of those people where one question—“So, you just moved?”—unleashes the entire backstory of the entire event, and all you need to do is nod and smile.

The (condensed) story went something like this:

“Yes, we weren’t even looking to move, but then we found out about this foreclosure, this woman was telling me all about how her house was going to be foreclosed on and we started really talking and I talked to my husband and we went to take a look at it, and it’s SO much bigger than our other house, with all this space, and the kids wouldn’t even have to change schools [it was in a neighboring subdivision], so we totally jumped on it.  It’s got FIVE bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths; it’s SO much bigger than the other house we were in….”

At this point, I admit, I laughed.  “I wouldn’t want to clean three-and-a-half baths,” I joked.  “I can barely stay on top of the two-and-a-half we have.  Or have to clean five bedrooms.”

“Oh, it’s not a problem,” she assured me.  “We just keep the doors closed and don’t ever go in those rooms.”  And the story continued….

But I got kind of stuck there.

I’m not even going to comment on that statement.  I’m just going to let it stand, by itself, in all its ridiculous glory.  (Okay, I guess that was a comment.)

The rest of the “conversation,” all I could think was, what’s the point??  Why on earth subject yourself to the hassle of a move, to the sorting and packing and cleaning and unpacking and having to sell your house (in a terrible market, I might add), to get a bigger home that you weren’t even going to use??  I realize that as a Christian, my perspective is vastly different from some people’s; but this is one situation where even just logically, it doesn’t seem to make sense.  Am I the only one to see the unbelievable futility in this?

Unintended consequences

March 13, 2012

I’ve been thinking about the unintended consequences of the choices we make ever since I wrote the post about the banker and his $350K pay.  At that point, I focused on the biggest choice we make:  our attitude about our money; whether we treat it as a gift from God, or something we did ourselves.

Since then, though, I’ve been thinking more about the domino effect of our choices:  how one choice automatically leads to another, and another, and so on.    To use the banker as an example:  by deciding to become an investment banker on Wall Street, he (by default) chose an incredibly high cost of living.  While he could move to a cheaper area, (though probably not in this housing market), a move would result in a much, much longer commute.  His choice of occupation dictates much of the trouble he’s dealing with now.

We went through our own version of this a few years ago.  When my husband and I originally moved back to this area, we took his place of work and drew a “twenty-minute” radius around it.  Twenty minutes seemed like a reasonable commute, and we only looked for houses within that area.  Job change after job change would alter the commute, but never terribly far from that twenty minutes we started with.

Until his last job.  The twenty-minute commute turned into a forty-five minute commute (on a good day).  Sometimes, if traffic was exceptionally bad, we were looking at over an hour.  During overtime season (which would coincide with winter) he would be setting his alarm for 4:00 in the morning, to get to work early for OT, driving on snowy, icy highways.  It was getting really, really ugly.  So we decided to go back to our twenty-minute idea, and move; especially before the kids started school.

Keep in mind this was supposed to be a lateral move–we were not looking to “move up,” not going bigger and better, just closer to work (though I was shooting for a four-bedroom instead of a three).  But the definition of “closer to work” meant, we discovered, a more expensive house.  Not bigger or better or fancier (actually, most rooms are smaller); but still a bit more expensive.

Even now I think about “if we’d just moved a little farther west…..”  A few miles further and we would have paid a little less for housing–but it would have completely defeated the purpose of moving.  The goal was to save time (and get my husband his life back); a forty-five minute commute from the west instead of the east wouldn’t have gained us a thing.

(One other observation:  what we pay for in mortgage payments is MORE than made up for in what we save on gas.  So actually, we’re still coming out ahead.)

Think about choices and consequences, though, the next time you get tied up in knots about a problem.  What choices were made that lead up to this?  Is it something that can be changed?  I know that the housing market is a disaster right now, so harping about poor choices in housing is pointless.  But try to think back–really think back–to where the dominoes started to fall.  Is there a choice I can change to help simplify my life?  To help in my finances?  Is there something I thought was a “need” that’s actually a “want?”  Follow that trail of dominoes back to the beginning.  That is where the most effective change will be made.

Trash Day

March 9, 2012

I drive down our neighborhood streets after dropping the kids off at school and am in awe of trash day.  Every Friday, we pull our bins to the curb, and every Friday, it’s a learning experience.  Some houses will occasionally have stuffed-to-the-rim bins–you can tell they’ve just tackled a basement or a garage.  Other people have clearly moved in or out; large cardboard boxes stacked next to the recycling bins and lots of extra garbage for the week.  And there are a few houses–maybe one or two–who constantly, consistently, have trash bins overflowing, week after week after week.

Those are the houses that get me.  I’m amazed by the amount of waste generated by an “average” family in an “average” area of an “average” city.  I actually wonder how they do it.  Do they just have a really big family?  Do they not recycle at all?  Do they just buy that much stuff?  Are they cleaning out years worth of accumulation?  (This neighborhood is not that old.)  How do they do that?

So there I am, on my high horse, with my family that generates one bag of trash a week (though definitely a full recycling bin every two).  I consider it a successful birthday party if we can still throw away one bag of trash on party week; it’s actually something I really work toward.  (Silly, I know.)  I hate the idea that there are people who are piling on in landfills without a care in the world.

And now…..

Now we are tearing apart our decrepit deck, and there is a dumpster sitting in our driveway.  No more high horse for me.  We are about to generate, in two days worth of demolition, more trash that we’ve probably put out in our entire time living here.  Now I will take my self-inflated ego, newly punctured and deflated, and admit that yes, we make trash, too.  Sometimes, we make lots of it.  There comes a time, though, when I have to recognize that something just isn’t usable.  It isn’t recyclable, or donatable, or–in this case–even safe.  Sometimes, things have to get thrown away.  Hopefully, next week, we’ll be back to one bag of trash.  But it will take a lot of “one bag” trash days to make up for this morning.

Making a Plan

March 8, 2012

The unfinished part of the basement has returned to the forefront of my attention.  We pulled out the ping-pong table for Jonathan’s birthday party, months ago, which entailed scooting large amounts of stuff out of the way to move it.  We then turned around and put it back a few weeks after, which collided with Christmas and those boxes of decorations, which got pulled out and put back, and now—once again—you can barely walk in the unfinished part of the basement.  Once again, it’s time to look and think and be ruthless.

My current hang-up with getting rid of things is the thought that I could get money for some of them.  Usually I will donate without hesitation, loading up my car for Goodwill and dropping things off while running errands, but these items are such that I keep thinking I might actually be able to sell them.  That results in a total hold-up, though, as I think and sort and put off taking pictures and put off placing an ad on Craigslist and on and on….Weeks later, I have to confess that I would probably be much better off just getting the stuff to Goodwill and being done with it, if only for my peace of mind.

In a moment of clarity the other night, I realized that I needed to approach the basement differently.  Each time I walk in there, I’m overwhelmed by all the stuff, and I try to think of what I should be getting rid of and what needs to be moved….but I have no plan, no map to lead me in the way I should go.  It became suddenly obvious that what I needed to do first was to define what a basement should be used for.  In our family, the basement is for storing seasonal decorations, tools, and a few tubs of toys that only came out occasionally.  Once that mission was spelled out, the reality of how much junk was in there became apparent.  I had already noticed that the basement was where broken things went to die, and once my criteria for basement storage was outlined, all the things that didn’t fall into those categories leapt out at me in a new way.  I realized that if I truly had only those items in the basement that fit in my plan, it would look a completely different way—that was eye-opening.  It recharged me, and made me ready to attack the room with fresh eyes.

This same plan of attack can be used for each room in your home.  What is this room’s purpose?  What do we do here?  What is the room used for most frequently?  With those questions guiding you, begin to outline what should belong in the room and what makes no sense there.  By defining a room’s purpose, I can see more clearly that magazines don’t belong in the kitchen, boxes of markers and colored pencils don’t belong in the living room, and Legos don’t belong in the dining room.  (Actually, we’ve adapted to Legos in the dining room, but that’s another story.)

To use another example, take our garage, which is another area where things get dumped and never leave.  What should our garage be used for?  Storing two cars, gardening supplies and tools, and bikes and some sports equipment.  The swimming toys that got dropped in the corner this past summer should be living somewhere else (seasonal storage is in the basement, remember?), ancient (“antique?”) fishing rods need to be gotten rid of (we don’t fish!), and while storing basketballs here makes sense, do we really need three?  Especially since we no longer have a basketball hoop?

Remember that your plan for your room may be different; each family uses the rooms in their home differently.  Set your family’s mission for each room, and make sure each item in the room serves that mission.  When everything has a “home,” it’s much easier to put everything away.  Remember, also, that other family members need to have a say in what is going on.  When it became clear that the dining room was the room of choice to build with Legos, I got a couple of pretty baskets to set on the bottom shelf of a cabinet.  When we need the room, the toys go in the baskets; it takes about two minutes to clean up.  We use that room rarely enough that the kids can enjoy spreading out and having a place to set up and not have to tear down every thirty minutes.  So be ready and willing to adapt and work with the others in your home—it’s their home, too.  Even if it means the dining room is referred to as “the Lego room” by your youngest child.

A Grateful Heart

March 7, 2012

Our bedtime routines have always included reading.  Even if it’s something short and sweet on a late night, I try to fit in at least a bit of cuddle-with-a-book time.  We used to snuggle in the cushy chair-and-a-half in the corner of the master bedroom; now the kids are bigger and we spread out on the sofa downstairs.  One night my son had discovered a new book on the bookshelf; one I had slid in quietly, intending to see how long it took to be discovered.

It was an enormous book of fairy tales, with incredibly detailed illustrations on each page.  I’d been talking to my mom about how I wanted just a book of “regular fairy tales;” no Disney, no marketing ploys, just the basic stories, and she had found this and bought it for the kids.  And what did my son choose to read that first night of discovering the book?  Hansel and Gretel.

I hesitated.  Hansel and Gretel isn’t exactly a bedtime story.  Let me read to you about a terrible stepmother who’ll lead kids into the woods to die and a wicked witch who eats children….and now let me tuck you in! might not be the best way to end a day.  But I did it.  (I then ended the night with my daughter’s choice, a short board book of nursery rhymes, hoping to soften the blow a bit.)

Then things got interesting.  As I tucked my daughter in that night I asked her, as always, what she was thankful for.  “Mommy and Daddy and my whole life today” (her standard answer) “and food.”  She continued quickly, before I could say anything:  “Not food like dinner.  Food like, we have food.  Hansel and Gretel didn’t have food.”

I sat there for a moment.  My brain was going a million miles a minute:  all the things in that story, the evil stepmother, the candy house, the wicked witch, cooking children, eating children, conquering the witch and making it home safely, and she walks away with….they had no food.  They were poor and hungry; indeed, they were literally starving.  And she was grateful that she had a house full of food.

I made sure that I included in our prayers that night thanks for a kitchen full of food; thanks that God had blessed us with an abundance and that any time we were hungry all we had to do was open the pantry or the fridge and dozens of choices beckoned.  For the rest of the night I looked at things through different eyes:  we have a sturdy house, to keep us warm and dry from the wind and rain.  We have a furnace that works, and (thank goodness) air conditioning when we need it.  We have running water and indoor plumbing and even a yard to play in.  My kids have their own bedrooms. We are so overwhelmingly blessed in our standard, day-to-day life and we so often take it for granted.  I was reminded of the verses in Psalms:  “Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure.  The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.  I will praise the Lord…” (Psalms 16:5-7).  I breathed prayers of thanks and praise not only for all these material things that give me such comfort on a regular basis, but also prayers of thanks for a little girl that reminded me of it.  And I prayed that God would continue to work in her heart in that way:  to make her extraordinarily thankful for even the most basic things and recognize them as the blessings they are.

Where do I start?

March 6, 2012

A friend asked me a question the other day:  “Where do you start?”  Meaning, do you work on the public areas of your home first?  Or do you work on “your” areas, the ones where you spend time?

I said to work on wherever you spend the most time, and I still stand by that answer.  It makes sense to tackle the areas where you always are, since you then get to enjoy the results more often.  I jokingly call our living room “my happy place:”  if I can sit in my spot on the sofa, and everything in my viewing area is uncluttered, I can pretty much ignore the Legos all over the dining room table in the other room.

I would add to that answer, though:  whichever area is making you craziest, that should probably be tackled first.  Maybe you spend most of your time in the living room, but your bedroom closet is so full that you can hardly get in the door, and it’s a trial each morning to just get dressed.  Every day you have to deal with the mess.  No one else sees it, but it’s a hassle to you, each and every day; maybe multiple times a day.  If there is something that is making your life miserable, constantly, even if no one else sees it, then work on that; your life will be more peaceful for it.

My laundry room closet is my favorite example.  Really, who is going to go digging in my laundry room closet besides me?  Absolutely nobody.  But when I reach in there to grab an extra bottle of detergent or a couple of rags, do I really want things falling on my head?  Obviously not.  I referred to the closet as “the pit of despair” when the caseworker came over to do our adoption home study a few weeks ago; while I doubt it’s in such a condition as to prevent us from getting a child, it’s not exactly my pride and joy.  So keeping it cleaned up, even if no one else is looking, really does turn into a priority for me.  I’m in there often enough that it makes life much easier to have it cleaned out and “company ready,” even though company will never actually come.

Whichever you choose, most-used areas or private spaces, I encourage you to start.