Tag Archives: house

“The Soul-Crushing Futility of Tidying Up” or “Making Peace with our Beautiful Mess”

Last month I was sitting with KitKat, having a glass of wine and catching up, when I glanced down at her coffee table. The New York Times bestseller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo was sitting on top of another book (ironically titled, “A Beautiful Mess”).

I had read reviews of the book and its controversial “KonMari” method for determining what to keep and what to discard—so I asked KitKat what she thought of it. She said, “I haven’t had a chance to read it, and I won’t get to it for a while since I’m leaving on vacation. Why don’t you read it and report back to me?” I accepted the assignment and am sharing my findings with all of our readers for your collective organizational edification. KitKat, what do you think of these tips?

Highlights of the Book:

Go big or go home – Unlike many books on organizing that advocate tackling decluttering bit by bit (for example, one closet or drawer at a time), the author insists that the key to success is to do your whole house at once. “Tidying is a special event, not a daily chore,” she states. (If this sounds daunting, keep in mind that Marie Kondo is a professional declutterer based in Japan. This is important context because the average Japanese home is much smaller than the average American home so the average Japanese person has fewer possessions.) Even though this sounds ambitious, her rationale makes sense. By doing your entire home at once, you’ll experience the benefits of organized living and won’t want to revert back to your cluttering ways. Whereas if you just tackle clutter one drawer at a time, you’ll never experience the “life-changing magic” of an organized home.

KitKat: I understand how this would make sense. Take for example, cleaning. I never get to enjoy the true experience of a clean home since I only have time for a room or two each cleaning. By the time I get through a full round, the rooms I started with are messy again. The few times I splurged on hiring house cleaners, it was a magnificent feeling walking into a completely clean house. (I may have actually heard background music and saw glowing lights as I entered my home those magical days.)

“Getting rid of clutter would eliminate 40% of the housework in the average home.”  

-National Soap & Detergent Association

Does it spark joy? – This is the aforementioned controversial method of determining what to keep and the part of the book that most reviews focus on. Although a bit limiting, it’s an interesting way to look at one’s possessions. (Disclosure: I don’t think a toilet plunger will ever spark joy for me, but I intend to keep one around anyway.) A better way I’ve heard this stated is, “Don’t keep anything that isn’t beautiful, useful or preferably both.” This is my new litmus test and in my newer, smaller home, I’m working on “upgrading” my possessions rather than adding to them.

KitKat: It sounds like a logical test but I am not sure it would be that straightforward for me. Depending on my mood the day I do it (if doing it all at once, as advised), I will either have nothing left in my house or I will get rid of nothing. I function on extremes.

Sort by category, not location – Kondo’s method recommends that you start by discarding all items of a similar type and that what’s left should be kept together, not necessarily where the items are used. This seems practical in a small Japanese apartment, but maybe less so in a three-story home.

KitKat: So if I was sorting vases, they would all end up on one floor in one room? My hair accessories would have to live with my daughter? All kids’ entertainment lumped together? I don’t think this one would work in my house. For both visual pleasure and family peace, we do better with separation.

img_0545

Lucky needs more clutter like Stormy needs another pair of boots

Don’t force your clutter on other people – My girls could tell you all about this one. Lucky, Blossom and I are approximately the same size for tops and every time they come see me, I’m offering them my clothing discards. For some reason, it’s easier for me to part with something that I like (but never wear) if I’m giving it to one of my daughters. But the truth is, they’re in a very transient stage of their lives and the less “stuff” they have to move with them, the better.

KitKat: Agree! My grandma keeps sending me old artwork and cards and my mother-in-law brings a new bag of stuff she found cleaning out her place with her each time she visits. As everyone else is decluttering, I am drowning in stuff. 

Thanking items for their usefulness – One of Kondo’s more interesting points is that it’s hard to get rid of something if you don’t understand its purpose in your life, but its purpose may not be what you think. For example, you bought a beautiful sweater on sale but every time you go to wear it, you end up taking it off again. It’s beautiful, but for whatever reason, the color doesn’t suit you. This is the kind of thing people have trouble getting rid of. Kondo suggests you hold the item, recognize that it’s purpose may not have been to keep you warm, but rather to teach you that you shouldn’t buy chartreuse clothing, even if it is 100% cashmere and 75% off. Thank the item for the lesson it has taught you and let it go.

KitKat: Thank you super-expensive, camo mini-skirt for teaching me that there is a time where age comes into play with what you wear. You have done your duty and now it’s time to find a millennial who can pull you off.

Sorting clothing – Kondo recommends putting every item of clothing you own on the floor to see what you have and decide what to keep. I don’t have enough floor space for this.

KitKat: I am with you, Stormy. I couldn’t test this one out. My clothes-to-floor ratio doesn’t work out, even if done in categories of clothing.

Treat your socks with respect – One of the more amusing chapters was on the topic of socks, which featured this gem: “Never, ever ball up your socks.” The author described her conversation with a client who had done just that, “Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?” She then explained that socks and stockings in your drawer are essentially on holiday from the difficult chore of protecting your feet and the time they spend in the drawer is their only chance to rest… As much as I like the idea of my socks having a secret life in my drawer that is unknown to me, I opened my sock drawer quickly at several random times throughout the day and was never able to catch any of them with an umbrella drink in their hand, so I’m questioning this one a bit.

folded-socks

Who knew KitKat was a sock sadist?

KitKat: I can’t do this one. One of my weird pleasures when sorting laundry is finding matching socks and then balling the pair up. It’s the only part of folding laundry I enjoy. When I end up with no single ones, it’s like I won the game. If a sock doesn’t have a match to become a ball, it has to sit on the dryer waiting for its mate. (Another bonus of this method is I don’t get called into my kids’ rooms during our rushed morning chaos because they can’t find matching socks.)

Unread books: Sometime equals never – If you have a book that’s been lying around for more than a month, thinking you’ll read it someday, you’re lying to yourself. Just get rid of it. (Note: This may apply to the book I’m reviewing, KitKat!)

KitKat: Very true. I love reading and am usually searching for new books to read. But if I haven’t picked it up in a month, then it hasn’t caught my interest enough. Usually the fiction books are devoured, while self-help books on getting your shit together, self-improvement, or organizing all lay around mocking me.

Decorate your closet with secret delights – This was just an interesting note that if you have something you love that doesn’t fit anywhere else in your house, you can decorate your closet with it. Love posters of kittens or your Best Thespian certificate from high school? Put them in your closet! I actually have some little star shaped mirrors that I put in my walk-in closet (to remind myself that I’m a superstar, naturally) and of course, this is a perfect place to keep a vision board.

KitKat: I have kept my vision boards there! It is a perfect spot. I also put up photos I rip out of magazines of cool ways to style my hair or pull together an outfit. I used to keep them in a file, but never looked at them. Yet I didn’t want to throw them away because they inspired me. Now I actually sometimes even try to pull off the looks I see when opening closet doors.  

Your possessions want to help you – Again with the anthropomorphism. Kondo must spend a lot of time alone, because she has a very rich imagination. She believes that “Everything you own wants to be of use to you. Even if you throw it away or burn it, it will only leave behind the energy of wanting to be of service. Freed from its physical form, it will move about your world as energy, letting other things know that you are a special person, and come back to you as the thing that will be of most use to who you are now, the thing that will bring you the most happiness.”

KitKat:  Hmmm. She may have have poured one too many glasses of wine at this point in her writing. Plus, I don’t want to imagine that the energy of the life-sized doll I “decluttered” when my daughter was at camp is haunting us. 

The big payoff – One of the more grandiose claims of the book is the transformational power of tidying. The author asserts that once you’re no longer distracted by the clutter in your house, you’ll be able to see other parts of your life more clearly and may end up changing self-defeating personal habits, your unfulfilling job, maybe even your deadbeat spouse! 😉

KitKat: The clutter does distract and overwhelm me. Then, add in holiday decorations or bags of items collected and waiting to go up to the cabin, and I have actually lost it from being inundated by all the stuff. If I had time, let’s say I could send my family away for a month or have a paid week off to focus just on decluttering, I think it would be transformational—at least for my temper.

Stormy’s Summary – Having downsized a year ago, I find that much of what the author says is true. It’s amazing to think about how many things my husband and I got rid of that we have not missed one bit. I hope those objects were able to “spark joy” (or at least be useful) to someone else and sending them off to their new homes enabled us to make room for some new things (not necessarily “stuff,” but concepts, hobbies, habits) in our new life.

KitKat: We took your extension ladder and it was very useful. We used it to change the light bulb in our cabin garage that was out for over a year, so we could see the ping pong table we added. And the light sparked a lot of joy (and competition).

Getting to “Sold”

Dear Readers, It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me, but I don’t want you to think I’ve taken this absence lightly. We know our legions of followers depend on our dysfunctional tales to help them feel good about themselves, and KitKat and I are loath to disappoint. I want to take this moment to thank you for indulging me in my prolonged absence and assure you that the dry spell is nearly over. I hope that when you read what I’ve been up to, you can forgive me my negligence… And now, where has Stormy been the last three months?

Moving prep can kill you.

Moving prep can kill you.

Well, last year I mentioned that my husband and I were going to downsize. Part of this is just due to entering a new phase of our lives—our kids are grown and starting their own lives. At the same time, it’s also a concession to my husband’s Parkinson’s Disease. Twelve years into this disease, certain things have become difficult—and although he’s still able to do quite a bit when his meds are working, we’d both rather he didn’t have to spend his “quality time” doing routine household chores and yard work. After the holidays, we consulted with a realtor friend of my brother’s and decided we’d try to list our house in the spring. (In Minnesota, there’s a definite season to house-hunting and it peaks in April/May.)

Originally, I had a very pragmatic outlook to moving and told myself (and my husband) that we’d first focus on selling our house and then take our time finding the perfect new home. After all, we have a vacation condo (“urban cabin”) about 40 minutes away that we could live in temporarily if needed. Well, this strategy lasted about one week. I started thinking about the limitations involved in moving to our vacation condo—impossible for my husband to drive to his personal trainer appts., harder to see my elderly parents, farther away from other friends and relatives, longer drive to work—and decided I just wanted to get the process over with. (As I like to say, I’m fine with change—it’s changing, I can’t stand. Yet that’s the action verb that gets one to a new stage in life. It’s unavoidable—like death and taxes.)

I think that the power is the principle. The principle of moving forward, as though you have the confidence to move forward, eventually gives you confidence when you look back and see what you’ve done.

– Robert Downey, Jr.

It’s also a fact that I tend to become a little obsessed over things like this—as my husband could attest—and so I started poring over online listings looking for our new home. This process was both exciting and frustrating. After so many years in the same house, it was exhilarating to think, “I can have a big walk-in closet!” “I can have a big master bathroom!” But it was also discouraging to realize that my husband’s illness meant we couldn’t pursue some properties—like the cool old brownstone in St. Paul with tons of character that required the owners to walk a long flight of stairs to reach the house from the detached garage out back (a perilous journey in the winter for someone whose meds aren’t working).

In mid-March we went to an open house for a property that showed promise. It was in one of our favorite areas of town and, although it wasn’t perfect, it “ticked enough of the boxes” to warrant serious consideration. Unfortunately, there were two major problems for us. 1) They didn’t allow dogs and 2) We were about to leave for a week long trip for Mexico. I decided I would just relax, enjoy our vacation fully and reassess the condo situation once we returned (if the unit had not been sold by that time).

Ziplines in the jungle were a fun distraction from house-hunting.

Ziplines in the jungle were a fun distraction from house-hunting.

However, during our vacation I found myself keeping one eye on the listing, and during the week a couple of additional properties popped up that were worth looking into as well. I was starting to feel more confident that we would ultimately find something that would work for us.

The morning after our vacation, I emailed our realtor three properties that we wanted to see. We wanted to go back to “the one that ticked the boxes” for a closer look, and there were two new places we wanted to check out. He responded that the two new ones were already off the market, but he’d scheduled a return visit to the condo we had seen before vacation. It seemed like a sign.

Blossom and Pixie in younger days

Blossom and Pixie in younger days

When we went back the second time, we took a closer look at the place and started talking about how we would redecorate, where we would put furniture and what we would do to make the condo “ours”…We were both able to envision ourselves living there fairly easily, but we still had the issue of our dog. I asked my youngest, college-age Blossom, whether she’d consider taking our elderly Westie. (In Pixie’s eyes, Blossom has always been her one true master.) And she graciously agreed to help us out her by taking on custody of her childhood companion. After that was settled, we made an offer on the condo that was under the asking price and were thrilled when the buyers accepted it quickly. One half of our journey was complete!

However, there was still the small detail of selling our house. So we dove headfirst into the arduous process of getting our house ready to list. This was no minor task. After 25 years, there were a myriad of small repairs needed: painting, pintucking our bricks, replacing fixtures and outlets, staining woodwork. Fixing the broken windows, quite literally. And cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning. (Our realtor recommended everything be “surgically clean,” which is a notch or two higher than my personal bar: “the illusion of clean.”)

Our realtor always lists on Fridays and holds an open house the first weekend—part of a strategy to generate interest quickly—so we set a personal deadline for listing our house. A week before our self-imposed deadline, we knew we wouldn’t make it. My ADD was kicking in, so if I had to go into a new room to find a paintbrush or tape, I’d be distracted by 10 other things that needed doing. This meant there were half-packed boxes and half-finished projects EVERYWHERE and the clutter was stressing me out, making it even harder to focus. There was still way too much to do. Moreover, we were both incredibly tired, and I hadn’t been feeling well either—but since we now had a closing date set for our new place, we were determined to push through and finish.

The Lean Mean Cleaning Machine (Will work for food!)

The Lean Mean Cleaning Machine (Will work for food!)

I sent a “HELP!” text to my two sisters who live closest and they both volunteered their services immediately. I’ve mentioned before that I have a challenging relationship with my mom—but my sisters make up for it in love and support. I know that I can call on them for anything and they’ll be there. Because most of them were already teenagers when I was born, they did a lot of the heavy lifting involved in raising me when I was little and served as great sounding boards when I was a teen/young adult myself. After buying my sisters a nice breakfast, I proceeded to work them like slaves the rest of the day. But by the end of the weekend, we finally turned a corner and I could see that we would in fact make our deadline. We were ecstatic to actually see the finish line ahead.

First thing Friday morning, I searched the Internet for our listing and there it was: For Sale. The professionally taken photos of the surgically clean rooms—completely devoid of any family photos or usual signs of life (like ironing boards and dirty laundry)—looked nothing to me like the house I had lived in all of these years. But it looked good, nonetheless. So much so that text messages for showing requests arrived all day and over the course of the first two days, there were about eight private showings in addition to the open house. By Sunday morning we had FIVE offers—the best one a full $20k over our asking price. Even better, when we received the paperwork for the offer, we discovered that the buyer was the son of one of my husband’s college buddies. It was the icing on the cake to know that our house was going to a young couple, just starting out, that seem to love it as much as we do.

This impending move has been weighing heavily on my mind for the last five years or longer. To have everything turn out better than I expected was a much-needed reminder that in this dog-eat-dog world, sometimes life throws you a bone and it’s best to just wag your tail and savor the sweet taste of success. 😉

Fixing the broken windows

KitKat and I have known each other for 15 years now and have become closer over the years due to some eerily similar personality traits. Really, it’s quite fascinating. To look at the two of us, you wouldn’t think we were that much alike, but our core attitudes—how we view the world—are so similar that I sometimes think we were separated at birth.

So when KitKat talks about making a mess of her life, I can admit that I’ve also got some cleaning up to do in mine. An article I read recently cited a theory about crime, the Broken Windows Theory, which I found interesting. In a nutshell, the theory is that small indicators of disorder can quickly escalate into something much more serious. That is: broken windows in an abandoned building lead to widespread vandalism which leads to squatters which leads to drug deals which lead to homicide… you get the picture.

The assumption is that your personal life has to be a mess to create, but how much chaos can you allow in before it takes over?                                  – David Byrne

This got me thinking about the broken windows in my own life. For example, I know this theory holds true in my house. When my house is clean, I make an effort to keep it that way—I’m more likely to put things away, wipe up the crumbs on the counter, etc. But if I’m tired one evening and leave a pile of papers on the coffee table or my shoes strewn on the living room floor, look out. A few days later, the house will be one big mound of clutter.

The broken window effect at work in my then-teenaged daughter’s room.

I’m sure a lot of you can relate to this example, but broken windows can also be more individual. A few months ago, I was having lunch with a friend. This friend was completely buried from a work standpoint, but had made time for lunch on the condition that on the way he could drop off his car to get it cleaned/detailed. I was a bit surprised he was concerned with something as superficial as his car, given all the critical work issues he was facing. He explained that his car was a mess—overflowing with the usual kid detritus and even dirty underwear from the gym. While as a dad this was understandable, as a sales person, it was a source of stress if he was suddenly required to drive a client or prospect to dinner or the airport.

This made sense, of course. The messy car was his broken window.

Since learning about this theory, I’ve been looking for the broken windows in my own life and I’m chagrined to admit that I’ve neglected a few. Part of it is summer laziness. Part of it is denial about what the future holds (like KitKat, I’m also uncomfortable Living in the Maybe). Part of it is just getting overwhelmed by the weeds… Every year, I have a beautiful, enviable garden through the month of June. Then the heat ratchets up, the mosquitoes all hatch and the weeds take over. Against this triple threat, I simply give up. With weeds, the consequences are not that serious (heck, even ragweed adds a striking touch of yellow to my late season garden), but when I let weeds take root in my life they seem to choke out every healthy thing.

From this...

From this…

...to this

…to this

So, like KitKat, I’m going to use this back-to-school time as a new start as well. I’m going to identify all the broken windows in my life and set about fixing them. It won’t happen in a day or even a week, but I’m hoping when the real new year begins (2014), I’ll feel more optimistic about the future than I do today.