I’m never going to forget the first time I went into a grocery store and found all the shelves empty, the freezer bins ready to be set up as individual hot tubs for all the good they were doing anyone.
I’m also never going to forget the next three stores I went to, and how empty they were as well.
It was a rough month and I doubt any of us will ever completely let it go.
Now is the time, though, to realize that it would take an awful lot more than a global pandemic with millions dead to completely disrupt the food supply.
However we might feel about it, choices were made on higher levels. People would be called in to work, and in the first key months, they would be prohibited from wearing masks. Hundreds of thousands of people would die unnecessarily. Meanwhile, other people around the world maintained their ability to access such things as cinnamon rolls and children’s toys, chewing gum and energy drinks, fudge sauce and rum.
Whatever you want, at least in the US, you can get it. Not only that, you can probably get someone to deliver it right to your doorstep.
This is why I think we can pretty much rest assured that we will continue to be able to buy groceries throughout our lifetimes.
When I was a kid, the topic often came up of older people who had lived through the Great Depression. They hung onto (read: hoarded) all sorts of stuff that we considered useless, such as stacks of newspaper, empty cans, glass jars, and seemingly every consumer item they ever bought.
We don’t want that for ourselves, do we?
We can consciously acknowledge that we have been scarred and traumatized without acting that out in pointless hoarding behaviors, right?
I have done a lot of work with hoarders, and I can say right now that food hoarding is almost impossible to beat back. I think it only arises when some neurochemical switch has been flipped. Is there some form of therapy that might help a food hoarder to recover? I have no idea.
The best I can do is one of two things.
I can say that I myself have food hoarding tendencies, and that I am probably 95% cured.
I can also say that it’s probably harmless to examine one’s own behavior and question why one acts the way one does.
Does this serve me?
Does it really?
I think the solution to food hoarding is to keep looking at the evidence. What *exactly* is in all those cans and bottles and jars and bags and packages?
There is a way to maintain and rotate a pantry and keep up to four years’ supply of food on hand. I learned it from my mother-in-law, who did all her own gardening and canning. She kept it all in a cool room that she had designed herself, built for her by her husband on their own property.
If this is your dream, sounds great! Are you willing to learn her system or are you going to wing it? Because that kind of thing is a lot of work.
My MIL was one of those people who is up at sunrise. She busted her butt every single day in that garden. It took a lot of work to organize, sanitize, and even label everything. She had all her canning jars lined up by type of food and year canned, and she would rotate so there was never anything over four years old in her supplies. (Because it isn’t safe and it also drains of nutritional quality over time).
Personally, as much as I admired her, that has never been my dream lifestyle.
It always boggles my mind how many of my people fantasize about such throwback activities as churning their own butter, yet they can’t keep up with modern conveniences like unloading the dishwasher or the washer and dryer.
In 1890, housework was a full-time job. Even by the 1920s it took over 50 hours a week. Why would anyone yearn for that, I ask of you??
We presently have about twenty pounds of dry beans under our bed.
Dry beans are supposedly good for 2-3 years, and no longer nutritious after 5. I can tell you from experience, one time I made a black bean soup from dried beans, and it was inedible. I boiled those beans for like 8 hours and they never softened up. Dry beans do too go bad!
My food hoarders universally do not believe in expiration dates or germ theory. They will defend as “still perfectly good” the most sketchy foods you’ve ever seen: things that blew up and spattered all over the place, things that come out runny or chunky, things that smell like they are fermenting, even things with visible mold.
My record for oldest food found in a refrigerator was something that had been expired for 16 years.
If you are scoffing at that or wanting to know what it was, congratulations, you are a food safety skeptic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but I would ask you: is your digestion sometimes a bit dodgy? Is anyone in your household, including pets, prone to bouts of illness?
I am blessed, myself, with a cast iron stomach. I’d like to keep it that way, and that’s why I emphasize fresh foods in my own diet.
I cheat a little. I put my husband in charge of throwing away any food that is too old. He has zero patience with the whole concept of “it’s still good” or “it was expensive” and will just chuck stuff. When in doubt, throw it out!
I’m not suggesting that anybody throw anything away, unless of course it might make you sick.
What I am suggesting is that you start cooking up and eating the oldest stuff from your pantry now.
You can keep replacing it with new, fresh foods if it makes you feel better. If you really want to try to keep a year’s worth of food on hand at all times, sure, knock yourself out. Just please do yourself the favor of getting your money’s worth and using standard rotation.
Or if you don’t feel like socializing in the new normal, feed the old stuff to your guests and visitors!
Something occurred to me recently about why chronically disorganized people live the way they do. Often it’s because they are suspicious about things, and these suspicions keep them from relying on the same systems that ordinary people use.
This sounds bonkers, and it sort of is, but I think this is a missing piece in the puzzle of why some people struggle so much with basic life infrastructure.
Take banking and bill-paying, for example. This is something that I think about maybe 5-10 minutes a week. My paychecks are automatically deposited, and expenses like our phone bill are automatically deducted. I only have to mess with this system when I pay a one-off like a dental copay. I don’t mind doing this over the phone because I like to chat with the receptionists at my various dental offices.
What is simple in my life is extraordinarily complicated for all of my people. Every single one of them. They all have massive paper problems due to a combination of problems, but certainly one of the root causes is a complicated, 1970’s-level bill-paying system.
Another common, perhaps universal, feature that my people have in common is that they will lose track of uncashed checks. Then we will find them years after they should have been deposited. Sometimes the same checks will turn up in more than one session, because my people can never stop punishing themselves for neglecting to get that money.
Whenever I try to explain my simple system (“automate everything and do it electronically”) my people all start violently shaking their heads back and forth. Literally they all do it.
Under no circumstances are they ever going to trust direct deposit
Absolutely not, no, they are not going to set up automated billing and have a single penny deducted from their accounts, not by anyone
They are suspicious, pure and simple. They don’t trust the system and they are not the kind of people to trust anything quickly - or slowly - even if everyone they know is doing it.
Does this remind you of anything? Any vaccine-hesitant people you know, perhaps?
It’s not just electronic banking, something that has been in use since the 1990s. I get that one because I, too, had to be convinced to give it a chance. By more than one person. I think it took two or three years of hearing the same testimonials from people who didn’t know each other at different workplaces. Aha, I thought, I guess I must be the last person in the world who isn’t in on this. What finally caught my attention was that I could get my money sooner each week.
But then I’m susceptible to that type of argument: that something is more convenient or cheaper.
Suspicious people are not convinced. In fact, the juicier the benefits, the more they feel that they are being bamboozled.
Another area where I think this natural suspicion comes up is in the most deep-set type of disorganization of all, food hoarding.
My people absolutely do not believe in the concept of expiration dates.
They also do not believe in germ theory.
Now, this one is emotional for me because I used to have a strong impulse to hoard food. It was painful for me to throw stuff out. I did draw the line, though, at anything visibly moldy, discolored, or otherwise spooky.
My people don’t. If someone else suggests that maybe it’s time to throw away something with blue fuzz on it, they will react as though someone is emptying out their bank account.
How dare you!
It doesn’t usually get you very far to make a direct challenge to a hoarder’s general policies and principles. Food hoarders, far more so. It’s not like nobody has ever told them that there are biological limits to how long a former foodstuff can be absorbed by the human body, or that nutritious content has a time limit. They know better.
Oh, they know all right. They just vehemently disagree.
These so-called “expiration dates” are just part of the plot. THEY are trying to trick you and make you spend money on stupid things like fresh, tasty, nutritious new food.
As a hint, abundance mindset would teach rather that we all deserve to get maximum enjoyment out of our meals, that there is plenty to go around, and there will always be plenty more.
I have had some mighty fine meals as a broke person, eating with other broke people, when we did potluck or stone-soup together. There are a lot of ways to get fed even if you are in debt and/or don’t have a job.
A large quantity of expired food says a lot of things. It says there was enough to share with others, except that nobody did. It says that there was plenty for the household to eat, and evidently more than they needed. It also says nobody is in charge of closing the loop - making sure that stuff gets finished up while it’s still good, that stores are being rotated, that someone is in charge of getting maximum value out of that pantry.
Similarly, stacks of unsorted papers say a lot of things, too. They say that someone is overwhelmed and confused. They suggest that someone is nervous about what might be in all those unopened envelopes. They also say that someone isn’t ready or willing to field-strip the mail as it comes in, because for whatever reason, they think it will need more mental energy to process than that.
There can be an element of suspicion in all of this. Suspicion that the world is going to fall apart and we’ll need every one of those boxes and cans - and isn’t it time to reevaluate all that stuff, a year and a half into this global pandemic? Suspicion that someone is going to steal my identity, and therefore I need to carefully shred every scrap of paper that comes in my door, only I don’t have time right now.
Some of this same suspicion and scarcity mindset is behind a lot of people’s so-called “yard sale” piles as well. I really need to get maximum value out of this stuff and I need to hang onto it until I can put enough time and attention into it. Otherwise people are going to try to bargain me down.
Meanwhile, the uncashed checks remain buried in the pile, and the food supplies are aging, and the yard-sale stuff is gradually becoming more dated and less valuable.
The punchline to all of this is that my people are unlikely to accept help when it is offered, and why? Because they don’t trust anyone’s motives and they don’t trust anyone to do it right.
Suspicion will keep you disorganized. It’s only when you start to examine the emotions behind why you do what you do, that you can gradually start to consider making your life easier.
There are lots of ways to do things. If something works for someone else, isn’t it possible it might work for you too?
Something that I learned from doing space cleaning with clients is that the root cause of most hoarding is grief and trauma. A lot of people were orderly their entire lives until one of their parents died, and that is usually the trigger. While that tends to be the major one, there are of course a million sadnesses that we mourn.
In all the home visits I ever did, I never once knew anyone to sort through or get rid of a single box of grief clutter. As far as I know it can’t be done.
This is because our culture does a very sparse job of acknowledging the dead. We don’t really have monuments or altars the way that a lot of other cultures have always done. Our funerary rites aren’t completing the work.
Right now I can personally identify with the idea of wearing black from head to foot, covering myself with a knee-length veil, and putting a dry dark wreath on my door so people know to stay the heck away from me with their pat phrases.
You Can Always Get Another One
Maybe You Can Clone Her
And the enduring winner, Did You Keep Her Wings?
Those of you who are mourning humans, I certainly hope nobody has said these things to you about your person, and if they have, send me a note and I will go throw rocks at their house for you.
Never forget, whatever is the worst thing you could possibly think for one person to say to another, someone will say it to you while you are grieving - and then someone else will invent a newly horrid way to express something yet worse and allow those words to pass their lips as well.
Grief makes us exquisitely sensitive, such that, even if someone somehow knew the “right” thing to say, it would only remind us of our loss. There’s no way through it without supreme irritability because our skins have just been flayed loose.
We don’t know what to do about death and loss and grief. Somewhere after the First World War, we lost the plot. The Victorians, now they knew how it was done.
I would humbly submit that keeping a catacomb of cardboard boxes would not be the most stately means of honoring our dearly departed.
Something that I try to express, while tiptoeing around grief, is that you probably know what your person would have wanted.
And it probably isn’t this.
I’ve written about this before, but if I died suddenly and my personal effects were distributed, I would be horrified if someone were to just keep a box of my random goods sitting in a closet or a storage unit. That is on my list of worst nightmares. I dedicated much of my adult working life to helping people learn to do space clearing, and thus a lingering crate of my own clutter would be like an anti-memorial. The exact opposite of everything I ever stood for.
I told my Nana once that I had every greeting card she had ever sent me. She looked appalled. “Why??” she wailed. “Throw that stuff away!”
What would your person say about those boxes?
What would be the memorial they would actually find touching?
This is actually a question worth asking of people who are still here, and certainly one worth asking of yourself.
My husband and I were sitting in a little park one afternoon in Spain, and I saw a plaque dedicating the park to the memory of a woman who had died nearly 150 years before. It was a really, really nice little park, with mature trees and plenty of benches. This is something to which I aspire. I’d like there to be a little park when I go, nothing too terribly morbid, but somewhere where young people would fall in love and families would push strollers and old-timers would sit and read.
That - not a stack of dusty old boxes, please!
We’ve been working on our grief cleaning for five days already, a little each day.
We had a bit of advance notice that the terrible day was coming, and we had already made a few decisions about where things would go.
Unfortunately, the work has been compounded a bit, because we didn’t really completely finish the job when our dog had to be put down last year. Now there are “perfectly good” items for both a dog and a parrot that really need to be heading out the door in one form or another.
Every single particle of them has memories wrapped around it.
It’s hard with a parrot because little downy feathers keep blowing out. I absolutely know that I will not be able to find them all, no matter how hard I try, and that at least a few more will swirl out of another dimension the next time we pack to move.
I know because I’ve been here before, exactly here. More than once. Turned inside out with the loss of a beloved pet and companion of many years. Undone by a floating feather.
Why we keep doing it to ourselves I don’t know. We must somehow forget what it is like to be gutted anew each time, at least enough to lose our hearts to yet another short-lived creature, and we set ourselves up for yet another heartbreak.
I wonder if Chewbacca felt this way about Han Solo.
We have to tease ourselves a bit because as real, heavy, and solid as our grief is, it only lasts forever if we let it. It only paralyzes us when we forget that our departed ones would never have wanted this for us.
I’m going to take the toys and perches and dishes and carriers and - oh lord - the sleeping cage. I’m going to somehow get them into a sad little mound in my dining room. Then I’m going to call around and find a bird sanctuary that can make use of them.
This work has already begun. It feels like my limbs are wading through quicksand as I do it, but I’m doing it. I can’t bear it, not in the least, but I am somehow bearing it, even as I definitely can’t.
How about you? Where are you keeping the grief clutter in your life? Are you going to do anything with it?
I’m midway through a seminar at work on Getting Things Done. We’ve spent two half-days learning the principles and doing hands-on exercises.
Have you ever gone back to something that you thought you knew very well and looked at it through fresh eyes?
I read GTD years ago, was very impressed with it, try to teach the concepts to my students and clients, and generally would have thought I was on board with it as a lifestyle.
Lately, however, large segments of my life are in turmoil. It feels like standing shoulder-deep in the ocean, attempting to watch the beach while tides and winds and storms roll up behind my back.
As we’ve gone through the exercises in the class, I’ve realized how many loose ends have started to escape from my fingers.
...oops, that one was my oar leash...
A major focus of this type of workshop is putting together a list. Or several lists. Everyone in the class does the exercises and chats about how it’s going, asking each other questions and trading ideas. Like, ‘what category does this fall in?’
Usually something that seems confusing and overwhelming to one person, like how to categorize ‘buy a new fridge,’ seems simple and obvious to someone else. A lot of these things are common or universal issues, and someone else will have direct experience.
It was cheering to realize that others are caught up in issues that I don’t have in my life. You might feel the same. I don’t have to plan a child’s birthday party or get my oil changed, and maybe you don’t have to figure out whether to do your breathing therapy in the morning or at bedtime.
At the same time, I was blindsided by how scattered I’ve become.
I was capturing tasks on at least 8 different systems. That’s like having eight brains. No, wait, actually that would probably have interesting network effects. Try again. It’s probably more like being a waiter and trying to memorize the orders for eight tables at once. Maybe it can be done, but poorly, and eventually someone is going to wind up with a milkshake with a side of ketchup.
That’s me, diner waitress. On roller skates.
I used to fantasize about that in my early twenties. That I would run away and change my name to Ruby and work as a diner waitress somewhere in Nevada. But then I realized that this was a 1930s fantasy and that I probably made more money as an office assistant.
Escape is what we think we want when we’re very busy. We think it’s a way to finally be let off the hook and be able to abandon or abdicate some of our responsibilities.
The truth seems to be that escaping makes everything more complicated. Like faking your own death somewhere in the woods and then having to reestablish a new identity with new ID, bank cards, and a source of income.
Wouldn’t it be easier to write that into a novel or screenplay, sell it, and then remake yourself as a rich and famous writer?
It’s actually easier to do a brain dump and start methodically busting through the items.
The only thing about that plan is the challenge of blocking off time and making yourself do it. Hence the workshop.
Our class has all these exercise breaks with a timer. Three minutes here, six or seven minutes there. Everyone quietly works away.
During this time, it is astonishing how many quick tasks many of us have completed. That’s one of the games, to write a list of things you can do in two minutes or less and then compete to see who can finish the most.
What I discovered from working through this exercise is that almost everything on my backlog is a fairly large-scale project. They always say, “break that down into chunks and find one that you can do in two minutes.” That doesn’t, however, clear off any of the larger chunks. The list starts to become more concentrated.
One of mine is to compare four grad schools. The two-minute part of that exercise would be to gather all their websites and see if there is some independent rating organization that compares schools. What remains isn’t something I can do with divided attention, multi-tasking or skimming through a long list of petty busywork.
This is the big thing that most of us are missing: a large block of time that is free of distractions, when we can do deep focus and feel that yes, we have truly finished something and shut the door on it.
The other area where I tend to have a buildup is in social contacts. I fully realize that in our culture, many people fill every spare minute with this - phone calls, text messages, group chats, the occasional email or quick personal note.
I do not understand for the life of me how this is done!
Sometimes I’ll get to the end of the day and have 17 texts and something like 45 minutes of video clips that people have sent me. I thoroughly, endlessly can’t even.
I wish I felt excited and pleased when several people reach out and want to chat with me on the same day. Instead I often feel wounded and harassed. Why?? What do you people even want from me??
This is what comes of spending the day in a service role, switched ON for spontaneous requests from any of 150 people. This is also why my vision of myself as Ruby the Diner Waitress would have drained the marrow out of me.
The simple solution for my problem is the same as it is for others who don’t know how or when they can clean out their garage, exercise, read a book, or go to the dentist for the first time in eight years. Schedule a regular time for it and move other commitments around so you know you can get it done.
Time is the only thing we all have in common. We all get 24 hours in a day, queens and commoners, diner waitresses and dentists. That is all that we get, and it has to be enough, because the only other choices are on other planets.
The only other thing we all have in common is the ability to make choices, change our attitudes, and exert free will. These things are a little more variable. It’s possible that some people are so grumpy that it has carved physical channels into their brains. Or stress lines into their (our) foreheads.
As I come away from this workshop, my question to myself has to be, how long will it be until I need to do this again? Can I change or will I quickly default to my ordinary patterns?
How about you?
Something I’ve been noticing, as I contemplate moving from our 650-square-foot apartment, is that there are a lot of small apartments out there. In our area, there are entire houses that are smaller than this apartment!
It’s not just here. I’ve been trying to learn a little about interior design beyond “where do we put the rolling toolbox now that we don’t have a garage.” Maybe it’s just my algorithms, but I keep seeing places that are 500 square feet or smaller all around the world.
While it used to be common, before WWII, for most people to live in a home smaller than 800 square feet - and sometimes much smaller - we’ve come full circle. New construction seems to be going smaller as well. Tiny homes are hot, ADUs (accessory dwelling units) are growing in popularity, people are even bragging about how they live in a van.
DOWN BY THE RIVER!
Well, someone had to say it.
Personally, I don’t want to live in a McMansion for the single reason that I’m always freezing cold, and those big rooms seem to be drafty no matter how high you crank the heat. I think what’s going to happen to those big, multi-room homes is that more of them are going to be turned into hype houses or some other type of co-housing.
They’re going to have to, because there simply aren’t enough houses to go around. There is a shortfall of something like 4 million houses right now. By the time all those homes get built, there are going to be more young people entering adulthood and more new parents with young families. People have to live somewhere.
A lot of those somewheres are not going to be in a place with a big yard.
This is part of why I say the future is small. One of the things that I mean by that is that most people are going to be living in small homes, apartments, or shared housing for their entire lives. A century from now, nobody will even notice or care, just like most people didn’t a century in the past.
There are ramifications of this reversion to small homes.
When I think of the future, I always, literally always think of space habitats. I work in the space industry and I’m 100% positive that this is the direction we’re going. Consider the astronauts. Because of their passion to get off this dumb old rock and become spacefarers, they essentially give up all their privacy and personal space.
Dude, they don’t even have beds. The personal items they bring with them have to be weighed and measured. It’s like, I’m going to bring this roll of dimes as my item so I can distribute Space Dimes to all my friends. Well, and their families and neighbors, since I don’t have fifty friends.
In the future, I think the majority of people’s personal items will be digital. Our photos, journals, chat sessions, music playlists, and artwork will mostly be created and distributed in a virtual form. Because of this, it will be less and less common to have memorabilia in a physical form, other than something like a wedding ring.
We won’t get as emotionally attached to things like our old electronics, because we’ll associate them with being clunky, slow, and frustrating compared to what we have now. Also, there won’t be as many of them. I had a stereo in the Nineties that was the size of a small suitcase, and I don’t miss it at all. Nor do I miss my corded phone that picked up AM radio signals, or my old clock radio with the blaring alarm, or my answering machine, or any of the other 25 pounds of obsolete electronics I had 25 years ago.
Eventually it will all be mined for the metals.
Or recycled into flash graphene.
My bedroom in 1995 had an entire wall of books, housed on homemade shelves made of boards, bricks, and crates. That old stereo sat there too. All of that is now virtualized.
Next to it was a little desk with an 8086 desktop computer, big monitor, and keyboard. Took up the entire desktop. All of those functions now live in my phone.
I also had a big box of papers, including old school notes, bills, personal records, and junk mail. All of that as well is now digital.
Half the contents of my bedroom at the time were physical objects that I believed represented my tastes and interests. The way I spent my leisure time - reading, listening to music, chatting on the internet - used to take up considerably more space than it does today.
Now, it lives in my pocket on my smartphone.
The rest of it: my bed and my clothes.
We’ll still need somewhere to sleep in the future, I assume. Actually I assume that sleep will be a bigger deal in the future, as it’s when we’ll do a lot of our body modifications and perhaps also osmotic learning. It may well be some of the only private time we get to mentally and emotionally decompress.
We’re already adjusting to more personalized entertainment, in a way that is foreign to those of us who remember the Seventies and Eighties. It used to be that everyone watched the same show at the same time, because that was what there was. Everyone knew the same Top 40 songs, because that was what there was. Now, there might be five people in the same room, each watching a different show on a different device, all wearing noise-canceling headphones.
Welcome to the future, only more so.
I think we’re not going to notice the shift to smaller homes as much because we’ve all had our attention pulled to smaller and smaller screens. Our true homes are our phones anyway.
In the future, we’ll have less personal space, less stuff, and a smaller footprint in general. Our pets will be smaller, perhaps even bred that way. Who wouldn’t want a mini-giraffe? It’s also possible that we’ll start selecting for mates of smaller stature, that a century from now the average human will be closer to medieval size again.
For today, take a look around. If you had the opportunity to visit a luxury space hotel, is there anything in the room with you that you’d want to take with you in the rocket?
I used to wonder all the time, what comes after hoarding? If someone is able to overcome the desire to hoard, what then? What will their place look like? What will they do instead?
Then I started to realize that the question I was pondering was actually bigger than just hoarding. It’s more about what anyone does after getting rid of any unhelpful state of being.
Procrastination, for example. Debt, for another. Nail biting or smoking, maybe another couple of examples.
Comparing something you are doing to something you would never do can be interesting. It’s a way of thinking of the problem in the third person and getting some distance from it.
I’ve never been a nail biter, so that’s an easy one for me. It looks painful! Why would I do that to myself? On the other hand (haha), I’m not into nail art either. I have a little parrot, and for some reason she is scared of all nail varnishes, even clear. I have no incentive to polish my nails. So for me that is a completely neutral area.
What if I felt about x habit the way I feel about my fingernails? (In other words, nothing much).
I imagine that someone with a nail biting habit might feel really proud to have a pretty manicure and show it off, maybe with a new ring to flash. Visualizing those enviable tips might be enough motivation to stay focused and get rid of the habit.
Why annoy myself when I could be living the dream?
Dream of what?
A nice manicure, running a marathon, saving a bunch of money...
Dot dot dot
What if you’re stuck on trying to visualize something nice, but you have no idea what you want?
Going back to hoarding, I have had successes. I’d say it’s about fifty-fifty whether people leave it behind as though it never happened, or whether they are so caught up in the glory of piles of dusty old moldy old stuff that they immediately start up again.
The two things that seem to keep the success stories motivated are 1. Having people over to visit and 2. Art.
It turns out that a lot of hoarders actually have fantastic taste!
One of the funniest things to me is that my people will have a beautiful prize item carefully wrapped up and hidden in a closet or in storage. Their favorite and most valued items are not on display. You’d never guess because what actually *is* on display is a drift of unopened mail or swathes of dirty laundry.
It takes a bit of convincing to get my people to reveal these hidden treasures. Then I ask, why not hang this up? Why not put it where you can see it and enjoy it every day? I’ll help you.
Sometimes there’s a basic design decision. Where should it go?
Decisions are sticky for a lot of people. They don’t like deciding on anything, from what to eat to what music to play, and they especially don’t want to feel stuck with the results of a decision like pounding a nail into a wall and then wishing it was somewhere else instead.
This is where having an extra, neutral party around can be so helpful.
Just say, How about over here? Hold it up - usually it’s a framed picture or a mirror - and if they shake their head, try it in another spot. It takes five minutes. Step two, hang it up, and step three, effusive compliments.
Once the magic object is in place, the rest of the room seems to come together quickly. The eye is drawn upward. The addition of the art piece makes the other nice features of the room, like the light fixtures or the window frames, stand out more. It also makes the remaining clutter look tawdry, more out of place than it did before.
There is a complication in adding art to the room. That is that while my people tend to have good taste in art, they don’t necessarily have good design sense. They will want to keep an item because it is beautiful, and another item because it is also beautiful, and yet those items look terrible next to one another. It’s an unconscious attempt to replicate a thrift store.
Another thing that many of my people have in common is that every single thing they own has a pattern. Tapestry mixed with floral mixed with paisley mixed with stripes and on and on. It is almost impossible to pull off this look and have it make aesthetic sense.
Ah, but this can be a form of rebellion. My people do not like to be told that there are “rules.” They hear a disapproving, critical voice all the time and one of the ways they shut it up is to act on impulse. I do what I want!
It is entirely likely that, given a few dozen interior design photos, one of my people will reject them all. They are simply too ordinary.
I have a suspicion that most of my people actually do have a hidden design vision. If they were able to afford it or put it into effect, they would almost instantaneously start keeping their rooms orderly.
Something to take pride in, something to show off!
(I also think it can be a great form of revenge for all the critics. Anyone in the family who ever said you were lazy or messy can simply eat their words at this point).
What I try to tell my students is that when you walk into your home, the feeling you should feel is: Ahhh! A deep relaxation that drops your shoulders and makes you breathe deep. Home at last. Your home should be a place where you can restore your energy and truly be yourself.
Possibly what it will take to feel this way is to have the surroundings match your internal vision. Let the outsides match the insides so that the insides can match the outsides.
What does your dream room look like? Is it different than any room that ever was?
Everyone I know seems to be thinking of one thing right now, which is pine-scented and red and green and has a bunch of tinsel hanging off it. Me, I’m thinking about how close we are to the New Year! There are only two weeks until New Year’s Eve and I am oh so ready for it.
Is it just me, or is saying goodbye to 2020 going to feel much more jubilant than other years?
It is hard to express just how seriously I take the transition between the new year and the old. For years, all the biggest and most interesting stuff I have done is because of intentions that I set formally at the new year.
Some of what I am doing over the next two weeks, traditionally, is digging out whatever I wrote down the previous year and checking to see if I’ve done it. If not, do I have time to check it off?
(Goal-setting and success are really technicalities. They’re measurements that you choose for yourself and decisions that you make about what is important to you. Therefore, just pick things you want to do and make rules that get you a win!)
What I’m going for is a sparkling feeling of starting the new year off with a clean slate. Part of how I do that is to try to make sure that I don’t drag anything from the old year that is unfinished.
No unfinished books, or maybe just one
Clean fridge and freezer
Donations dropped off
No worn-out socks, underwear, t-shirts etc with holes
No pending notifications on my phone, which is something I struggle with
Nothing expired, whether food, medications, or whatever
Current on doctor, dentist, haircut, vet, whatever appointments (although this year exceptions have been made on the haircut front)
No dried-out pens, broken pencils, etc
I am consistently doing drawer and closet purges throughout the year. That makes it easy to do the big year-end roundup. I physically walk around my apartment, scanning over every shelf in every cupboard and asking, Is it obvious why I have this?
In a small place, this can be done in well under an hour, even if there are a lot of inventory decisions to be made. Examples would be whether the clothes in our go bags still fit or whether all the bandages in the first aid kit are still sealed.
What tends to take longer is digital clutter. Do I really use all the apps on my phone? (No, of course not, but am I ready to do anything about that?) How close am I to the storage limit? Do I really need to save a dozen copies of a photo I accidentally took in burst mode?
Something that I do every month is to change the wallpaper and the lock screen on my phone. This is fun, and it also reminds me that time is passing and the seasons are changing. I like the image I choose for January to be something upbeat and bright, unlike, say, the weather. (This is in contrast to what I choose for October, which tends to be dark and spooky).
Another big deal is the choosing of the new day planner. I love them all. In theory I like the idea of having a neat row of matching planners, but in practice, I prefer swapping them out. It wouldn’t be beyond me to get a new yearly planner every month. A silly waste, not Organized at all, but a fun and frivolous idea nonetheless.
The most important thing that I do during this time, while I am winding down, is to think about what has become the default setting for my life. How am I spending most of my time? Where is my attention going? Who am I spending time with, and is that a coincidence? What does my home look like on an average day, and am I happy with that?
These, to me, aren’t really answers that I can jot down in an hour or two of New Year’s Eve planning. I find it better to let them settle so that I’m sure I have a true sense of where my time is going and how I feel about that.
Usually I come to the same conclusions: That I don’t get enough sleep, that I should probably try to relax more and be more social, that we could use more art on the walls, that I should be listening to music more often, that my wardrobe is shifting back toward more somber colors again, that I could probably spend a bit more time doing things I enjoy, like solving cryptograms or reading poetry.
Then we all launch into the New Year and, like everyone else, my good intentions start to dissipate, to vanish into the atmosphere until I am back on my BS.
Why do I seem to keep voluntarily choosing to be a stress case?
This year my self-care goals are perhaps more important than they’ve ever been. At this time last year, I was recovering from a minor surgery after a life-threatening infection. Just a few months later I got COVID-19. I’ve never been so tired for so long, and it’s really challenging sometimes just to drag myself through the day.
This annual planning, though, is perking me up. It’s helping me to remember who I am, and it’s helping me to imagine a time a year from now when I might not feel unwell any more.
These two weeks are my pre-planning phase. These are the things I do before the big night. On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I sit down together and make goals for the year to come. We talk about where we’d like to go on vacation and how we might want to spend our wedding anniversary, that sort of thing.
This year, it’s going to be so much more exciting than usual. This is the year that we may get our vaccines. This is the year that everything has a chance to go back to normal. Normal never sounded so good.
It came up in casual conversation that my friend’s purse weighs over six pounds. The only reason she knows this is that she is recovering from major surgery and she is not supposed to lift anything that weighs more than... five pounds.
“What do you even have in there?”
“Everything! I’m like a Boy Scout - except I was never a Boy Scout - be prepared, right?”
“My husband is an Eagle Scout and he doesn’t carry a six-pound purse.”
Everyone knows that it’s a little silly to carry a huge, heavy purse. That’s fine - I am a big proponent of silly, as my sock drawer will attest. The main reason not to carry that big of a bag is that it can lead to chiropractic problems and chronic neck and shoulder pain.
Or at least it used to be.
The main reason not to carry a big, heavy purse now is that everything in it is vulnerable to contamination from coronavirus.
It also raises a few pertinent questions.
I happen to know that my friend still goes to church almost every day of the week. Physically. There are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of people doing this, which makes me really sad, because I was under the impression that church is about love and caring and having a close community. In my mind, that means protecting each other from deadly infections at the bare minimum!
Let’s change that subject, though, and talk a bit more about the whole “being prepared” aspect of scouting. I know a bit about it because I’ve been trekking for weeks on end with my husband, the Eagle Scout. It drives me crazy with envy that he got to do that, since girls are still not allowed, and I was obsessed with survivalism when I was around 12.
You mean to tell me you know how to build an actual snow cave?? And start a fire without matches??
This is why my hubby doesn’t carry a six-pound purse - or any purse. As long as I have known him, he carries:
...and, now, his eyeglasses and a mask.
I have learned this, having absorbed these lessons through proximity. And distance running. On the vanishingly rare occasions when I leave the apartment, I bring:
...and two fabric masks and a plastic face shield.
I bring my phone and keys even when I take out the trash, because I have to let myself back through the security system. One night I forgot, and I wasn’t able to go back up the elevator, and then the call box no longer worked due to a security upgrade. I had to call my hubby to come downstairs and let me in. Good thing he doesn’t go on travel anymore!
What a big purse is about is not really being prepared - it’s feeling like you can handle anything that might come up.
Is that actually true?
My friend mentioned that she carries a sewing kit. Yeah, me too. I have a sewing kit in my expedition backpack and another one in my suitcase. How would I deal with it if I... had a sewing emergency while I was outside somewhere??
...I... look over my clothes when I fold the laundry?
I have owned a sewing kit since at least the age of ten. I have used one several times. Not once have I needed it while doing errands or out for a run. Why not just keep it in the car?
There is one “emergency” item that I keep in my work bag - a bag that currently resides inside my bedroom closet - and that is a backup battery for my phone. I used to use it at least once a week, since I spent a lot of time on the bus, going to club meetings, or writing for hours in a cafe. (Remember when?) Then it turned out that I almost never needed it, because I got a phone upgrade and the battery life was better.
Why carry such a relatively heavy item everywhere I went?
My friend evidently feels safe and prepared because she has a sewing kit, among nameless other items, in her six-pound purse.
In reality, she is endangering her health post-surgery, causing herself actual physical pain by carrying so much.
She is also endangering her health by continuing to leave her house and socialize with people in enclosed indoor spaces, like she used to do before the pandemic.
Look, I know a lot of people are still gallivanting around because they believe they have evaluated the risk and made a conscious, adult decision. I know that. One of them had a phone conversation with me last week, wanting to know why I hadn’t made a bigger fuss about how serious my COVID symptoms were, because if she had realized she might not have traveled with three other families who all wound up getting sick.
What I’m talking about is how people make decisions, and how we evaluate risks, and what we do to mitigate those risks.
I changed a few things after I got sick with COVID. One of them was to reevaluate who I accept into my social group. One of my close friends is a loving, giving person who tolerates a wide spectrum of behavior in her friends that I don’t really tolerate in mine. I don’t trust her friends, and therefore I won’t socialize with my friend until the pandemic is over. Afterward, well, I’m still going to reevaluate.
We had a quaranteam buddy for a while. That ended a few months ago for a variety of reasons.
My husband and I now socialize with zero people in person. The only people we see are our inconsiderate neighbors who refuse to wear masks in our building lobby, laundry room, elevator, etc. We are physically afraid to open our front door, much less go anywhere.
That’s why neither of us will be found carrying a six-pound purse. Carry it where?
This is the best, most important book on paper organizing that I have yet read. The reason is that Lisa Woodruff focuses on the papers we all should keep, and why.
To wit: Disaster preparedness and financial security.
Woodruff shares how she got started. Her paper organizing system was born in chaos, debt, and depression. She also has special needs kids. Her system helped her resolve her financial issues, advocate for her children, and build a business that helps others do the same.
More importantly, Woodruff’s clients have been able to grab their important documents while escaping from natural disasters. This gives me life!
The revolutionary feature of The Paper Solution is that certain specific papers should be consolidated for action and reference. These are what I would call ‘action items’ and ‘reference.’ Woodruff’s Sunday Basket system would be a huge help for anyone who has a lot of paper in their life or especially anyone with little kids.
I can share from my experience working with hoarders and the chronically disorganized that my people struggle to think of things in categories or systems. The Paper Solution would be a very good choice, because Woodruff teaches in meticulous detail how to set up and use a streamlined, effective system.
“I feel like I’m getting back my house.”
“I have made my feelings about filing cabinets known. Get them out of your house!”
I’m hoping everyone is being smart about Thanksgiving plans this week, you know, making sure we’re all still here to do it properly next year. It’s been on my mind a lot. I thought, what could we all do with the extra time off if we aren’t either traveling or getting ready for guests?
(Obviously I know not everyone gets Thanksgiving off - my family has eaten our meal on the Friday for over 30 years due to work schedules. Something to keep in mind, this year more so than others: what a luxury it is to be with family, even if you have mixed feelings about it).
The thing I came up with was to sort out all the rarely-used platters and serving dishes and kitchen gizmos that are only used on special occasions.
There are three things to do in the kitchen when it comes to this stuff.
One is to ask if you even want it, much less use it at all.
The second is to get rid of, fix, or reunite the pieces of anything that has issues.
Third is to rearrange everything based on whether you wish you used it more often or whether it’s driving you nuts and getting in the way all the time.
There is literally never a good time to do this kind of chore. If it were easy and obvious, it would have happened already. I’ve been asking myself this question about my book collection:
If I’m not going through it in 2020, of all years, when will I ever??
Clutter can be a minor tragedy. We tend to gather objects that represent a wish, something we would ideally like to be doing or to have as part of our lifestyle. The accumulated stuff then fills up the *space* we would need to actually do that thing.
Examples: The garage so full of tools and supplies that it can’t be used as a workspace. The sewing room so full of fabric that nothing can be made. The shed (and yard) so full of stuff that no gardening is being done.
And, of course, the kitchen so full of stuff that nobody can cook.
My available counter space is typically about 2’x3.’ That because we have lived in tiny apartments for the past five years. There’s nowhere to put anything like a kitchen island or a butcher block or a rolling cart or a baker’s rack. The space we have is the space we have, and that’s why I keep our pantry staples in the fridge.
What do I keep on my counter?
Other people keep astonishing amounts of stuff on their counters and dining tables. This is what I usually see:
A cookie jar
A stand mixer
Both a toaster and a toaster oven
A crock of utensils
Soda cans or bottles
Cooking oil, spice jars, etc.
A coffee maker, sometimes two
Dirty dishes, of course
Random junk that wandered in from elsewhere
Four of those items I don’t even own, but the rest can indeed be found in my tiny little kitchen that has only two dinky drawers.
This is because my husband and I take turns cooking, and the focus for us has always been having enough space to actually make the food.
We’re maniacs. We make our own jam. We have a couple dozen canning jars in our kitchen. The canning equipment stays on a high shelf in the linen closet, because it only gets used a few days a year. This is an important principle: Store things based on how often you use them, not necessarily “where they fit.”
What goes where?
We have a cabinet above the fridge. It always fascinates me what people keep up there, because that space is so challenging to reach. That is where I keep all our baking equipment, including various sizes of muffin tins, loaf pans, a Bundt cake pan, springform cake pans, pie pans, and even a cupcake caddy. Most people keep their baking stuff in a low cabinet, where it’s easy to reach, but how often are most people baking fancy desserts on the average weeknight?
I keep my serving dishes in the same cabinet where we keep the plates, bowls, and glasses. All our plastic storage containers and their lids are there, too, basically because we only have two cabinets. Same stuff as everyone else, just less of it.
In most kitchens, there are plenty of cabinets, but they are chock-full of coffee mugs and plastic cups and plastic travel coffee cups. This has always mystified me. Cupboards go to things that are almost never used, so stuff that does get used has to sit on the countertop instead.
What if I told you there was triple the amount of stuff in your kitchen than it was designed to hold?
Not everyone has the problem with the unintentional multiplication of plastics. For some, it’s more of a shopping hobby that got out of hand. That shopping hobby might be their own, or it might be someone else’s, someone who uses gift-giving as a sort of pressure valve for their own habit. For some reason, this category of person often fixates on holiday decorations and special occasions. Anything holiday-related becomes instantly full of special spiritual qualities that mean it must be kept forever.
This is why Thanksgiving is such a good time to reevaluate all the fancy cooking gear. Can it all realistically be used at one meal?
Another thing to reevaluate at the time of cooking fancy foods is the recipe collection. I’m willing to bet that the majority of home cookbooks have never been used at all, and almost all the rest are kept for one or two specific recipes. Scan the ones you use and get your counter space back.
Not sure who needs to hear this, but: You don’t have to keep any of it. Not everyone cooks at all. I read about a woman who used her kitchen cabinets to store her books; she didn’t even own any pots or pans because she never cooked at home. It’s not against the law. You can do that.
The emphasis on any holiday should be on enjoying yourself and doing the things you like to do to relax. If one of those things is cooking, then is your kitchen serving you? Or is it really a kitchen-shaped storage unit?
Whatever else you do this week, keep the focus on what works for your household and take a moment to reconsider what doesn’t.
Stay safe, be well, and start planning now for Thanksgiving 2021!
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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