Space

Months ago, I moved our unused computer armoire and a chair into my son’s room, to be used as “Lego central.”  It gave him space to store his stuff and a nice, large area to spread out on to build; plus, you could close the doors when he wasn’t using it and his room would suddenly (magically!) look cleaner.  He loved it.  For about two days.

The reality is that my kids would always rather be close to the rest of the family, and not “banished” upstairs in their rooms.  So Lego building usually happens on the dining room table.  The giant cabinet sat in my son’s room, unused except for storage.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been evaluating what he really needed in his room.  The wood-tone cabinet is ginormous (around 2′ x 3′, and 5′ high), and his room isn’t that big, and if the thing isn’t being used for what it was intended for, why is it still in there?  It seemed like what he needed was some place to display the items he had built, not a place to actually do the construction.  So I painted a tall, narrow bookcase white; six shelves that might show off his creations.

I’d talked to my son a few times about changing things out; he’s not the kind of kid where you can just redo his room and expect him to be happy with the surprise.  He had gotten to the point where he completely understood the idea of “why are we keeping this in here?  I’m not using it,” and once I heard that understanding, I started asking permission to change things up; once permission was granted, I started warning him that he might come home one day to a change.

Tuesday was the day.  I moved the cabinet out, and moved the bookcase in.  I rearranged two other furniture pieces in the process, and I took away his area rug to run through the washer.  The difference was incredible.  (I actually think removing the rug made just as much difference–now there’s a big expanse of carpet, instead of the floor being “broken up” into smaller parts.)

His first response was, “Mom!  I like it!  I really like it,” which eventually shifted to “I love it!”  Finally, he lay on the floor, arms and legs splayed out everywhere, and yelled, “Space!  I have space!”  And that was the word he kept going back to for the rest of the night.  “I have space!  Look at all this space!”

If that is the response of a eight-year-old confirmed pack rat, how would the rest of us feel with more space?  I don’t mean “a bigger house” more space, I mean “clearing out, getting rid of, making room” more space.  I think we’re fooling ourselves when we think “If I just had a bigger house;” in reality, if we had a bigger house, we’d just buy more stuff to fill it up and then moan (again) about how we needed a bigger house.  Instead, work backwards.  Edit.  This is what I have; what can I get rid of?  What am I not using?  What is just taking up space?  Or, the definition of our computer cabinet:  What was a good idea in one house, that is not working in this one?  What one item would make me feel twenty pounds lighter if I got rid of it?  Is there someone I know that could really use this item?  Or do I just need to donate it to a charity?

There is something very calming about having space around you; space to move, space to breathe.  What can you get rid of today that will contribute to “space,” and that feeling of a more peaceful home?

 

Left behind

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

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

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.

Making a Plan

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.

How clutter hurts your life

I want to start the week off looking at some ways clutter makes our life harder, besides what Flylady calls CHAOS (Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome).  I think that’s the first and most obvious reason people want to unclutter their homes.  But what about other problems it causes?

  • Unnecessary complications and minor irritations:  I’ve had two little socks tucked into my laundry room cabinet for months, waiting for their mates to turn up.  Load after load has been done in my washer, and still those little socks sat.  Doing a deep clean-out of my laundry room closet resulted in me locating the missing socks—tucked away, at some point, waiting for their mates to turn up.  (Argh.)  Another perfect example:  each time I try to stuff one more plastic cup into my kids’ “cup drawer.”  If I just got rid of just one cup out of here, things would fit better.  Instead, I’m playing Tetris each time I unload the dishwasher.
  • Missing out on what is truly important to you:  Each time you buy a new widget or goo-gah, you’re spending money you could have spent on something truly important to you.  Avoiding even a few $20 impulse buys results in almost $100 worth of money that could be earmarked for something magnificent.  Think of it:  One $5 thingy that you discover during your weekly grocery trips; maybe one $20 item you discover “on sale” each month, and one more “oooooh, I love it!  I don’t do this very often, so it’s okay!” $100 splurge every, say, four months ends up totaling eight hundred dollars in a year.  Eight hundred dollars.  (And sixty-eight things that you have to figure out what to do with.)  Don’t whine at me about not having enough money to do [fill in the blank] when you’re up to your ears in stuff.
  • Wasted time:  This is huge, and I’m thinking about this because I just cleaned out the laundry room closet.  Again.  It appears to remain clean for about three days in a row, and I’m starting to think the only way to truly keep it clean is to take the door off and have it all on display.  By tucking things in there (out of sight) to deal with later, I’m skipping the less-than-five-minute route of dealing with something now, instead piling it up gradually into a morning-long project.  Less stuff, less time to deal with it.  This also covers the time you lose looking for things you’ve lost, because there’s no designated place for them or because they’re buried in all the other stuff you own.  More wasted time.
  • Wasted money:  This may be a reach, but in the piles of papers stacked on your desk there could be old forgotten checks or gift cards waiting to be dealt with.  There’s also the more common occurrence of buying things you already have (but can’t find), or not returning things you don’t need (once you get home and realize you already have one).

I’m sure there’s more; I’d love to hear your ideas.  I think that once we recognize how much harm we’re doing to ourselves and our lives, we finally have the reason to change.

 

From Yahoo: “Banker’s $350K Pay Not Enough”

Sometimes blog topics just fall in your lap.

This headline made me roll my eyes–but isn’t that what it was supposed to do?  The article (http://finance.yahoo.com/news/bonus-withdrawal-puts-bankers-malaise-050100338.html) was an interesting read.  Some quotes:

“[Andrew] Schiff, 46, is facing another kind of jam this year: Paid a lower bonus, he said the $350,000 he earns, enough to put him in the country’s top 1 percent by income, doesn’t cover his family’s private-school tuition, a Kent, Connecticut, summer rental and the upgrade they would like from their 1,200-square- foot Brooklyn duplex.”

 

“Facing a slump in revenue from investment banking and trading, Wall Street firms have trimmed 2011 discretionary pay. At Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) and Barclays Capital, the cuts were at least 25 percent. Morgan Stanley (MS) capped cash bonuses at $125,000, and Deutsche Bank AG (DBK) increased the percentage of deferred pay.

‘It’s a disaster,’ said Ilana Weinstein, chief executive officer of New York-based search firm IDW Group LLC. ‘The entire construct of compensation has changed.’ ”

 

“M. Todd Henderson, a University of Chicago law professor who’s teaching a seminar on executive compensation, said the suffering is relative and real. He wrote two years ago that his family was ‘just getting by’ on more than $250,000 a year, setting off what he called a firestorm of criticism.

‘Yes, terminal diseases are worse than getting the flu,’ he said. ‘But you suffer when you get the flu.’ ”

 

” ‘I wouldn’t want to whine,’ Schiff said. ‘All I want is the stuff that I always thought, growing up, that successful parents had.’ ”

 

(My personal favorite is the “it’s a disaster” quote.  But that’s beside the point.)

What I want to think about for a moment is how each one of us, from billionaires to people making nearly nothing, are faced with choices every day.  (Alan Dlugash, an accountant quoted in the article, states, “If you’re making $50,000 and your salary gets down to $40,000 and you have to cut, it’s very severe to you… But it’s no less severe to these other people with these big numbers.”)  We each have to decide how we’re spending our money and our time, and all of us can sometimes be forced to make decisions and slash certain items, regardless of our total income.  Where do we choose to live?  Do we choose private school or public?  Do we choose cable TV or no?  Do we choose a restaurant meal or eating in?

This is our biggest and most important choice, though:  Are we recognizing our income and our ability to earn it as a gift from God, or are we looking at it as something that we worked hard for and earned on our own?  (America loves the idea of the “self-made man.”)  How we view the source of our finances should make a big difference in what we do with them.

Richard Foster defines “Inner Simplicity” in Celebration of Discipline:

First: receive what we have as a gift from God.

Second:  know that it is God’s business (not ours) to care for what we have.  We can trust Him.

Third:  have our goods available to others—“if our goods are not available to the community when it is clearly right and good, then they are stolen goods.”

“If we truly believe that God is who Jesus says he is, then we do not need to be afraid…the almighty Creator and our loving Father…we can share because we know that he will care for us.”

Are the financial choices I make as a believer reflective of God’s work in my life?  Am I allowing him to lead my use of our resources, putting Him first, and trusting him to faithfully provide?  Hopefully I will let God guide my choices, as I start with the choice to be thankful to Him for the gifts He has given my family.

One parting thought:  “There are two ways to get enough:  one is to continue to accumulate more and more.  The other is to desire less.” (–G.K. Chesterton)

“Better a little…”

“Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil.”  –Proverbs 15:16

“Turmoil” is such a strong word.  When I read about “great wealth with turmoil” I tend to think in a “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” sort of way; of people with indescribable amounts of money making poor choices and ending up in the headlines on a regular basis.  What I think we forget is how, compared to so many others on this earth, we have “indescribable amounts of money,” which we’re using to buy things, which are in turn sometimes causing us “turmoil.”  Or, at the very least, the Message version:  “a ton of headaches.”

For some reason I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our second apartment.  It was a tiny two bedroom, but I loved it:  it was nearly new, so it was incredibly clean, and it had a south-facing sliding glass door in the living area that looked out on the street, not another apartment.  In hindsight, I keep thinking about how small it was, but it was just exactly right for our needs at that time.  A living room, a kitchen big enough for a card table and two chairs, a bedroom, and a “bedroom” we could use as an office.  (Also a big bonus:  a laundry room, which was the deciding factor in moving there.)  That apartment represents simplicity for me:  small, clean, sparse, basic, yet pleasant–the sunny living room guaranteed that.  We didn’t have a ton of extra “stuff” because we didn’t have a ton of money (insert “we didn’t need money, we had each other” type of quote here), which kept the place clean and simple.  No turmoil, no headaches.

Let’s be real, though:  that was before kids and dogs.  If we had to fit our current family in that apartment, my feelings about it would be very different.  It wouldn’t be simple anymore; it would be cramped, crowded, and difficult.  (Where on earth would we seat everyone for dinner?)  So I’m not about to complain about the space we enjoy now.

What I need to be careful of, though, is how we fill that space.  More space doesn’t have to be filled.  What’s wrong with just enjoying….space?  Less turmoil, less headaches.

I asked my kids the other day, if they could keep just three things in their rooms, what would they be?  My pack-rat son answered immediately and decisively:  “My bed and my stuffed animals and my books.”  Even he, who is loathe to get rid of things, knew exactly what was most important to him.  (I won’t talk about how many stuffed animals and books there actually are.)  If we can keep the “stuff” in our spaces limited to what it truly important to us, keep it pared down to “a little,” we can hopefully save ourselves “a ton of headaches.”

The 100-Item Challenge

I remember reading a few months back about a “100-item challenge,” where minimalists were encouraging each other to pare down to only one hundred possessions.  Upon first reading, I burst out laughing—I have a hundred items in my two china cabinets!  (Turns out I only have fifty-six, but you get the idea.)  The more I read, the more I had to laugh.  Except for a few people who truly took this idea very seriously, it seemed that there were addendums and caveats around everything.  I understood how two shoes could equal one pair, but things started to get fuzzier when a set of plates—either four or eight—could be counted as “one” item.  My favorite exception was to not count the things the family shared.  Um…..that’s pretty much my entire house.

I appreciate the idea, though; the thought that the less we have, the more freedom we have.  And I was reminded of the challenge when I was reading the “Simplicity” chapter of The Pursuit of Discipline, by Richard Foster.   “De-accumulate!  Masses of things that are not needed complicate life.  They must be sorted and stored and dusted and re-sorted and re-stored ad nauseum.  Most of us could get rid of half our possessions without any serious sacrifice.”  (p. 92)

That, to me, is a challenge.  That is a concrete, specific, doable idea, with very little “fuzziness.”  That means half our books…. half our CD’s….half our shirts, pants, sweaters, etc…half the stuff in the china cabinets…..[Sentimentality enters, stage left:  “But, but, but!!!!”]  There are a concrete number of things we own, which can then be divided by two.  Is it possible?  Could I actually get rid of half of all these things “without any serious sacrifice”?

Richard Foster reminds us, in that same chapter, that “if our goods are not available to the community when it is clearly right and good, then they are stolen goods.”  Keep that idea in the back of your mind the next time you open a cabinet or closet.  I will be.

Ronald McWho?

I had one of my proudest parenting moments ever last week.

I was driving the kids to school in the morning, and they were discussing possible substitute teachers for my daughter’s class.  My son mentioned that it might be our neighbor across the street, Mrs. McDonald.  He then immediately got the giggles.  “Whose husband’s name is Ronald,” he laughed.  (It actually is…. we’ve mistakenly gotten their mail before.)

My daughter didn’t get it.

You know!”  My son continued.  “Ronald McDonald!”

My daughter remained oblivious.

You know!  Ronald McDonald!  From McDonalds!”  One last valiant effort to make his sister “get it.”

She still, really, didn’t get it.  My six-year-old daughter had no idea who Ronald McDonald was.

Words cannot express how unbelievably excited I was at that moment.  All my attempts to keep my kids from advertising, which seem to be rapidly crumbling the older they get, have, apparently, made a difference.

Now, I do think that if you gave my daughter a picture of Ronald McDonald, she would likely know who he was affiliated with.  And she definitely recognizes the “Golden Arches.”  But the fact that she didn’t know his name is a fact I will hold near and dear to my heart for a long time.

I think we’re starting to think we’re immune to the lure of the ad, since they’re everywhere.  We think we’re “above” that, and not affected by them anymore.  It comes down to this, though:  usually, if you don’t know something exists, you don’t want it.

I’m sure an argument could be made for “I could really use a [insert made-up useful item here],” but for the most part, no one wants something until that little seed of desire is planted in the back of their mind.  And then it grows.  I like that…I could use that….I want that….I need that.

I don’t know how much longer I can shield my kids from that creeping desire for “more” that ads give, but I’m not giving up without a fight.