Glorious weekend!

Don’t get me wrong. Even though this week was busier than I like–with something to do every evening after work–I had a great week. I had interesting things to do at the office, I learned something new every day, I played a lot of music, I got together with friends, I heard some good stories, I walked in the sunshine. I am just really glad it is Saturday, and I have the whole day ahead of me to catch up some things around the house and garden that I have let go for lack of time. Since the weather is predicted to be warm and sunny today, I need to make sure I spend plenty of time outside before the temperature drops tomorrow, even though the house is a complete wreck.

For weeks it seems, we have been running into the house after work, dropping things on the nearest flat surface, and running back out. It looks like crazy people live here. (I don’t even have children to blame for the mess.) There are two keyboards, two stands, a bench, a banjo, and a large canvas bag of dance cards and dance shoes in the middle of the living room floor. What is that about? We literally have no space on the dining room table to put our plates down when it’s time to eat. And the kitchen counter? Forget about it! It looks like the bottom of a hamster cage. Now that the political ads and the brochures from the cable companies have slowed down, the Christmas catalogs have started to arrive in force.

Jim and I switch off kitchen duties week by week. Lucky for me, last week was Jim’s turn to plan the menus, make the grocery list, cook, and clean up. Starting tomorrow it’s my week. On busy weeks like we’ve had recently, whoever is in the kitchen often ends up cooking one big meal and then reheating leftovers the rest of the week. Last week Jim made a delicious squash casserole and a three-bean casserole (both from Moosewood recipes), which got us through the whole week. The week before I made a roast in the crock pot, and we ate from it all week. Sometimes we try to disguise the leftovers (e.g., shred the beef and add sauteed onions and green peppers and roll it all in a tortilla; add extra carrots and potatoes and turn the roast into a stew). But the last two weeks, we just shamelessly heated the same dishes over and over until we had finished them off.

We are both pretty happy with the way we share kitchen duties and have been doing it this way for several years. It kind of sucks the week you’re doing everything, but then you get a whole week off where you don’t have to think about what to eat or make any motions toward cooking or feel guilty about not cleaning up after a meal. We do usually try to go to the grocery together, but the person who is in charge that week pushes the cart. We also do a good job sharing laundry, although we are not as organized about who does what when. One of us will wash and dry everything, but we each fold our own clothes. But in the fourteen years we have been together we have never worked out a system for taking care of other household chores, which could explain a lot about why the house is in the shape it’s in!

I used to think I had to dust and vacuum and mop and clean the bathrooms every Saturday, but I’ve since learned that is a complete myth. Possibly I was trying to impress my children at the time or trying to live up to some idealized view of how a good wife and mother should act (never mind that I held full-time jobs the whole time I was raising children). But lately I haven’t cared about dust and dirt as much as clutter, so I have started (again) to try to get rid of stuff I don’t need. My goal at some point is to have only things that are both useful and beautiful, but I am a very long way from meeting that goal. Still, one thing I have learned is that as long as I am making steady movement toward a goal, I will eventually get there. Even if I only knit one row a day (or one row a week), that is one row closer to finishing the project. It took me a year to make the last sweater. So far I have been working for two and a half years on an afghan for my son and his wife. But I’m getting there.

So…today. What to do? How to spend my precious allotment of time? Sitting here in my favorite chair, drinking my morning tea, I can already feel myself being torn in many different directions, making mental to-do lists that would be impossible to accomplish in a week (let alone a day). Lately when I feel overwhelmed and indecisive, I set a timer for 25 or 30 minutes and just start doing whatever first catches my attention. When the timer goes off, I am always surprised at how much I can accomplish in such a short time. I am also usually re-energized, ready to set the timer again.

Sometimes I work room by room (25 minutes in the living room, then 25 minutes in the den). Sometimes I work project by project (25 minutes straightening the linen closet or organizing my sewing supplies, followed by 25 minutes of raking leaves). This strategy (based on the Pomodoro system) works well when I have a whole lot of different kinds of things I want to do, but any one of them could take all day. It also works well for reminding me to take regular breaks and to tackle projects in smaller chunks. Rather than jump in and try to declutter the entire house in one weekend (which is impossible; I know because I’ve tried!), I focus on one drawer or one shelf or one task at a time. And then I remind myself that it’s like knitting. I might not have an immaculate, clutter-free, and well-decorated house by the end of the day, but I’ll be that much closer to my goals.

Wish me luck!

Could I live with just 100 things?

I’m intrigued by the 100-Thing Challenge. Apparently, it’s been around for a while, but I first heard about it in an article in my alumni magazine about a first-year resident who has decreased the items he owns from more than 700 to 86. The article was accompanied by a photograph of him with 39 of his possessions that fit into his backpack. Although I find the minimalist urge admirable, I do question the way he counts. For example, since he is living with his mother-in-law during his residency, he doesn’t count any of her furniture or possessions, including dishes and pots and pans. He also doesn’t count his wife’s belongings or any of the things he left in his permanent home when he came up here for his residency. However, from what I can tell, this bargaining appears to be a common theme, once people realize how very few items it takes to reach 100.

I have been trying to simplify my life for years and have made quite a bit of progress. By some standards, I don’t have a lot of clutter, but I sure own a whole lot more than 100 things. So when I start thinking this would be a fun challenge to take on, I immediately slip into the same sort of bargaining: Do I count all my books as 1? What about the china cabinet filled with dishes? Can I count them all as 2 (1 for the set of dishes that belonged to my grandmother + 1 for the set of dishes that belonged to my husband’s grandmother)? By that logic, the table and four chairs would be another 1. And the stereo and CDs—only 1! Hey, this is easier than I thought! At this rate I’ll be down to 100 items in no time!

1 set of dishes + 1 set of dishes = 2 things, right?

Don’t worry, Ma, your room is almost ready!

Of course, I’ve turned this into a bigger project than necessary, as usual. To prepare for my mom’s upcoming visit during Thanksgiving week, I could have just changed the sheets and vacuumed the rug in the spare bedroom, put away the mailing supplies for the care packages I’ve been sending to soldiers in Afghanistan, filed the papers that have piled up near the computer desk (or not), and called it good. She would have been perfectly happy with the accommodations. But no. For some reason, I had to make this into the kind of project where I pull all the books off the shelves, empty all the drawers, and drag all the boxes from under the bed and out of the closet in order to “sort things out.”

It started with a small bookshelf just inside the door. I was simply going to remove the books, dust, pull the shelf away from the wall so I could vacuum behind it, and then put the books back where they had been. But as I took a closer look, I noticed that the shelf held few actual books. Mostly, it was loaded with back issues of magazines, old catalogs, manuals for computer programs that probably don’t even work on Windows XP, ring binders of handouts from various workshops I’ve taken over the years (e.g., water quality monitoring, tree keepers), and a notebook of brochures I had picked up when we remodeled our kitchen three years ago. So naturally, I decided I should clear out the clutter this week before my mom arrives.

Well, one thing led to another, and by the time I finished with the bookshelf, I had filled two boxes and one large bag with recycled paper. I filled another box with empty ring binders, and I relocated a collection of books about traditional American dance music to the newly emptied bookshelf. In the process, I went through all the boxes and shelves in the closet.

While digging through the closet, I ran across a box of my old piano music books, which I decided I simply must have out where I can see them—I suppose in case someone stops by the house sometime and asks me to play my old recital pieces again. Not that I have time to play piano, mind you, because I also rediscovered two large bags of wool that I have been meaning to spin into yarn, a table-top loom, and twelve knitted squares that I was planning to sew together into an afghan.  I have a little over a week before mom arrives. I still need to change the sheets on the bed and vacuum the carpet and file those papers that have piled up near the computer.

At least, I didn’t do as my mammaw was known to do when company was coming and decide this would be an absolutely great time to repaint the walls and perhaps replace the carpet, as well (although I must say, the thought did cross my mind). Mom still tells about the year we arrived at mammaw’s house for Christmas to find paint buckets in the guest room and plastic draped over the furniture. Apparently, mammaw had big plans but then abandoned the painting project halfway through, realizing, I suppose, that it was high time to start making pies before company showed up at her doorstep. The remodeling project would have to wait.

I remember that as the year my younger cousin drank turpentine and there was a big discussion about whether to take him to the clinic an hour and a half away or just give him some raw egg. No one actually saw him drink turpentine, but we smelled it on his shirt when he came in to tell someone “that don’t taste good.” But he seemed all right, so no one got too upset. When he later said that the raw egg “don’t taste good, either” and refused to take it, the consensus was that he must not have had that much turpentine, after all, and he would probably be fine. There’s nothing quite like spending time with family for the holidays.

Downsizing

The story was that my grandmother sold the cabin on the lake—furnishings and all—while my grandaddy was out fishing, and then they retired to Boca Raton, Florida, where they bought all new everything, including dishes, towels, and linens. Possibly that was even true.

They had already moved out of the large two-story house in Georgetown, Kentucky, where they had lived for more than twenty years while teaching at the college. I don’t know what happened to everything they once owned, but I know my mother has a few family items—a cherry press, a Seth Thomas clock, and a rocking chair with arms carved into swans that used to be in the formal living room. My brother may have another rocker that was in their master bedroom.

I used to own the Starr piano that was in my grandparents’ dining room, until I traded it in when I bought a new Baldwin the summer after I graduated from college. I also have a few items that somehow came down to me over the years, although I can’t quite remember how I ended up with them:

  • a small writing desk
  • a few sheets of piano music from the nineteen-fifties that belonged to my mother when she was a teenager
  • a ceramic pig that held sugar cookies in the large pantry off the kitchen
  • a set of Noritake china with pale pink and yellow roses and an ornately patterned rim
  • a small wicker rocker that belonged to grandmother when she was a girl

I also have a copy of my grandparents’ college yearbook from 1920, which they gave me when I graduated from their alma mater fifty-five years later, and a book called Boys and Girls at School, which grandaddy used to teach my mother how to read when she was only four.

I used to think my grandparents were crazy for getting rid of everything the way they did, but now I think they were very wise. Much of what they owned was not particularly valuable, but I have seen families break up over less. I have also seen people hold onto things well past the time when they still bring anyone pleasure, perhaps because they think the objects might be worth something someday, or the children might want them, or because they paid “good money” for them and it would be wasteful to get rid of something that is “still good.” These days there is also the guilt of adding one more thing to the landfills. I can definitely relate to all those reasons, but I’m trying to learn to let go. After all, every one of us will have to walk away from everything some day, whether we are ready or not.

For someone who claims not to care about material things, I sure have accumulated a lot of stuff over the years. As I look around my house at the cluttered tabletops, the crowded bookshelves, the overstuffed closets, I wonder what it would be like to leave it all and not look back.  Mostly I think it would bring a wonderful sense of freedom, although I suspect I would soon discover that there are, in fact, things I can’t live without, things I would miss terribly. Over the years I have often played this little game with myself in which I imagine coming home and finding that my house has burned to the ground or been blown away in a tornado. In these scenes, I am always grateful that no one was hurt, but immediately I begin to alternate between feelings of immense relief that I am no longer burdened with possessions and deep-seated grief over all those things that can’t be replaced.

Boxes

For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed by boxes. Perhaps it has something to do with the way we used to move every eighteen months the whole time I was growing up, even after dad got out of the Navy and we didn’t technically have to pack all our belongings in cardboard boxes and move from one place to another all the time. Or maybe my obsession started with the sweet-smelling cedar pencil box my aunt gave me for Christmas the year I learned to write, a hinged box with my name engraved on a brass plate; inside were a dozen pencils with my name printed in gold leaf. Or maybe it goes back to the year I turned fourteen, when we left a basement full of boxes in a house we had rented from the college where my mother worked. My dad fully intended to go back and move all those boxes of belongings before the college bulldozed the house, but somehow he never got around to it. For years I dreamed about those boxes and wondered what we had lost.

I like all kinds of boxes: plain cardboard boxes, wooden cigar boxes, round or octagonal hat boxes, music boxes, velvet-covered ring boxes, heart-shaped candy boxes, nested plastic boxes with pictures of unicorns on the lids, little tin boxes with pictures of fairies, wine boxes with collapsible dividers, acid-free bankers boxes, file boxes with or without handles, oval wooden Shaker boxes, jewelry boxes carved out of stone, Victorian powder boxes with pink powder puffs inside, wooden doll cases with a place to hang the clothes and little drawers for the shoes, plastic storage boxes, button boxes, sewing boxes, rubbermaid containers, heart-shaped wooden boxes, boxes decorated with inlays of native hardwoods.

Over the years I have squirreled away many things in boxes that I would then stash in a closet or behind the books on a shelf or in the back of a drawer or in the garage, to be discovered at some later date and marveled at: bits of colored ribbon, smooth round stones, seashells, paperdolls, old address books, my children’s baby teeth, a lock of hair, a bar of sandalwood soap. I had this idea that I could charge each item with so much meaning that even the smallest pebble could carry the weight of an entire week at the beach that I would never forget. In fact, sometimes I couldn’t remember why I had kept a particular object, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away, either, because I knew that at one time, it had meant something to me. Sometimes I would search and search through boxes, trying to find things that weren’t there, wondering how I could have misplaced something important. Other times, I would open a box I had forgotten about and suddenly find myself weeping over its contents.

This year I intend to open each box in my house and see what I can discover about my life: where I’ve been and where I’m going. I intend to examine every item I have accumulated over the years and figure out which ones still serve a need and which ones I can let go.