Fifty Ways To Leave Your Clutter

There are two kinds of people in the world.  Those whose clutter makes them feel secure and gives them comfort.  And those whose clutter gives them anxiety.

I fall into the second category.  I feel overwhelmed by too much.

My mother and my husband fall into the first category.  This is a problem.  Not for them, but for me.  People who enjoy clutter are seldom bothered by those who do not.  At least until their clutter goes missing.

My mother’s house is one (of many) reasons I fled Illinois at the age of 20 and moved to Texas — to find some wide open uncluttered space, albeit in a 350-square foot apartment.  All I owned at the time was a box of coat hangers so clutter was not a problem.  My husband, on the other hand, with that whole until death do us part thing, I can’t really just move to another state.  So I gotta figure something out.

Let it be said first and foremost, that I love my mother with all of my heart.  I love her and I admire her.  I just can’t be in her house for more than a day.  People love to drop by and visit my mother’s house, the door is always open and the coffee pot always on, but growing up in her house was stressful for me.  There was never any place to set anything down, you couldn’t ever find what you needed and if you did happen to find it, you would knock over or spill something in the process of getting to it and then once you had it in your hands, there was no place to set it down.

On the contrary, I could go out to the garage, my father’s domain, and every nut and bolt was stored neatly together by size and clearly labeled. And that made me feel happy and peaceful and as though all was well in the world.  Everything had a place and when not in use, was right there, in its happy little place.  My dad and I were alike and he was very happily married to my mother who is like AD — so I know a mixed marriage can work.  Somehow.  On the other hand my dad was a really easy going guy, a go with the flow sort of guy and I don’t believe anyone has ever described me that way.

Let it also be said that I love my husband, but for the past 15 years I have slowly given up on trying to keep order and have succumbed to drowning in his clutter.  But recently it has become apparent to me that the disorder and clutter that I had come to accept was causing chaos in our lives and that chaos created a lingering gray cloud of unhappiness and strife.  We were always cross with one another.   We were living in a constant state of emergency, constantly running late, never able to find anything because 90% of our space was being occupied by stuff that we don’t use, won’t use, can’t use and don’t love.  And I felt some resentment about that and that resentment further contributed to the collective unhappy.  Resentment never adds to happy, does it?

And more than anything in this whole world, I want a peaceful house and a happy family – so some changes are in order.

You might think that one day I snapped and said, no more, but that’s not really what  happened, although that’s usually how things go with me.  What happened was that one day I decided to work on me, to do what I could with de-cluttering and bringing order to my own small realm, bit by bit, day by day.

My guiding philosophy to de-cluttering and bringing order is this:  Do I use it? Do I love it?  If the answer is no to both of these questions, then it has to go.  Clutterers will say, no I don’t love it, and I can’t use it, but it’s good, somebody might need this, someday I might need this.  I say, if it is good and useful, give it to someone who will use it right now, not some day.  Hanging on to stuff until it is no longer usable by anyone is one of the defining characteristics of hoarding.

I started by de-cluttering my on-line life.  (My friend Karla writes about that here.)  I had numerous email accounts.  I closed most of them.  I closed on-line accounts and unsubscribed to email lists and blog feeds.  I had a number of web sites; I pared them down to three.  I got a password manager so all my passwords would be in one place.  And that’s the key to bringing order to life:  cut out the unnecessary and unused and put all similar items together in one place.

One day I woke up and the silk plants were on my nerves.  They were dusty, and truth be told, I never liked fake greenery.  So I got a garbage bag and went around the house and gathered them up and ruthlessly tossed them in, I maybe even tossed them in with a little therapeutic force. Such a small thing, but it felt amazing to have them gone.

One day I woke up and all the magazines and books were on my nerves.  So I culled out the books I love and use and the rest I boxed up and sold to Half Price Books or sent to charity.  Text books from college did not need to occupy space in my life, nor did magazines or newspapers.  Listen up people, if you haven’t read an article within one month of the publication date, it’s probably out of date.  And even if it isn’t, you can find it on the information highway.

One day I woke up and sifted through my closet.  I pulled out 50% of my clothes and shoes and purses and sent them to charity. I had stuff in my closet that I had not worn in three years, or even10 years, and in some cases probably 30 years — and I wasn’t going to ever wear that stuff ever again.  Several months later I weeded out again.  I could still get rid of another 50% of my clothes and have more clothes than a girl needs.  I keep a box in my closet and when I try something on and it doesn’t work, into the box it goes.  When the box gets full, I take a second glance just to make sure and then I send it off.  Now I have a little space between my clothes as they hang peacefully in the closet and I can see exactly what I have.  I no longer go out and buy another white shirt because I know what I have.

One day I woke up and Sean’s toys were on my nerves. So I sorted through them and chunked all the fast food toys and broken toys.  I stored all the toys in the attic that he had outgrown but that we still have a sentimental attachment.  Maybe in another year, we won’t feel sentimental towards those things and we’ll pass them along.  It’s always good to re-visit and re-evaluate the things you have stashed away.

One day I woke up and my medicine cabinet was on my nerves. I tossed out all the expired prescriptions.  I put all the band-aids together in one space, all the tummy medicine in one space, all the other like medicines together.  I must have had six boxes of Benedryl.  Because our allergies are that bad? No, because I could never find the Benedryl so I would go out and buy more.

The next day I purged my make-up drawer and the drawer I keep brushes and combs in.  I threw out bottles of lotion that had gone bad and probably weren’t good to begin with.

I threw out all the hotel soaps and shampoos we had hoarded over the years.  And we have travelled a lot so we had a very large supply. But let’s face it.  If you don’t use them at the hotel, why would you use them at home?  You won’t. Don’t bring them home.

I plan to go through my paper photos and pull out the good ones and throw out the rest. There is no reason to keep a blurry photo of the ceiling.  I will organize my pared down collection of good photos in an orderly way so that I can actually enjoy them instead of looking at a massive box of photos and feel so overwhelmed that I just shove it back on the shelf.

The process of de-cluttering the whole house overwhelmed me for so long that I just couldn’t get started, it was easier to let it go another day, and then all those days turned into years.  I think what happened for me naturally, just focusing on paring down one item at a time, starting with something like dusty fake greenery that didn’t require an emotional decision, helped make it doable and helped to get me started.  And it felt so good that it wasn’t hard to keep going and I realized I didn’t have to do it all at once.

I’m just getting started.  I have got a long way to go, but I am on a mission to bring order to my house and peace and happy to my family and I’m going to do it, one box at a time.

* * *

Instead of 50 ways to leave your clutter, how about 101?  If you are interested in simplifying and minimizing your life, Becoming Minimalist is a great place to start. 


The Truth About Late-In-Life Motherhood

I recently got a request from a well known publication to write a short piece on older motherhood.  I have responded to enough of these kinds of requests in the past to know they aren’t really looking for illumination. They are looking for inflammation. They are looking to stir up women who have (for whatever reason) delayed motherhood against those who have not, which creates drama, which creates traffic. But not illumination.

So I decided I would just skip all that and lay out the truth about older motherhood as I see it, right here.  It doesn’t mean what I’m saying is universally true, it just means this is how I see it based on my own experience and world view.

You may be surprised to find that the truth about older motherhood, as I see it, is that it ain’t ideal.

It’s a blessing.

It’s sweet.

I’m glad I didn’t miss out on it.

Better late than never…

But ideal it is not.

I didn’t really choose to be a late-in-life mother, that’s just sort of how the chips fell for me.  If I had the chance to do it over again, and I had a choice in the matter, I would have started my family much much sooner — if for no other reason than I would have liked for Sean to have known me when I still looked like myself.  And given the benefit of time, I might have liked to have had another.

The truth is that there are ups and down, pros and cons, no matter when you have children, whether at 24 or at 44 as I did.  But in hindsight, and as I look around, 24 seems a more ideal scenario than 44, if I am to be honest.

Why?  Maybe because younger motherhood is more in keeping with the harmony of the universe.  Fertility belongs to the young, it always has, even though thanks to modern medicine we can now prop that window open longer.  All the same, having children younger rather than older increases the odds (although does not guarantee) that you will have healthy children, that you will live to see them grown and that you will get to enjoy grandchildren.  And obviously reaping the benefit of those odds is more ideal than not, and who doesn’t like better odds?

But mostly what makes 24 more ideal than 44 is those extra 20 years of being a mom that you might get, that I won’t get.  There’s nothing I did from age 24 to 44 that I wouldn’t trade double to get more time with my kiddo, even on the worst of days.

But it’s not even about what’s ideal for me right now.  It’s about what’s ideal later for Sean, when under the very best of circumstances, age will catch up with me.  Health issues are inevitable as we age, let’s not pretend otherwise.  And when Sean is a young man, when he is in that exciting season of getting his life started, he will be stuck dealing with the complicated issues that go along with aging parents (if we’re still around), issues that AD and I are just now having to address with our own parents.  That’s part of the less than ideal package of late-in-life parenthood that they never talk about.


Better late than never, but in my view, better is not so late — better for both mother and child.

Chore Charts, Eggs and Other Opportunities

The other day I was out of eggs, which as a person who adheres to a Paleo diet, is a crisis.

So I said to Sean, “Hop on your bike and run to the store and get me some eggs.”

“Yeah, right,” he said dryly.  And then we both slapped our knees and laughed heartily.

It was funny because the thought that I would send him the half mile to the store and across a busy 4-lane road on his bike was ridiculous.

It wasn’t ridiculous because he’s not capable, because he is — he is more than capable.  It’s not ridiculous that I would trust him to get the job done, because I am convinced he could.   It’s ridiculous because there is no way under the sun that I would let him go.  I have calculated the risk and it’s not one I’m willing to take.

After I quit chuckling, I felt everything from resentment to heavy heartedness that I couldn’t provide him such an excellent opportunity to practice responsibility in so many different ways from navigating his way there and back to managing the money to figuring out how to get a dozen eggs home without breaking any.

All throughout history, life has provided children with opportunities to practice being responsible.  They tended to the stove and garden and helped care for younger siblings. Boys learned to chop firewood and hunt and girls learned to wring the neck of a chicken and then clean, butcher and cook it up for dinner — all real life jobs that contributed to keeping the body and soul of the family together.

As a Babyboomer, I of course didn’t do any of those things, but I did occasionally ride my bike to the store for a loaf of bread or something for my mom.

And now we can’t even do that.

Today we have to invent responsibility, like chore charts with stickers.  Not getting a sticker or losing iPad privileges is not exactly the same as being the person responsible for not having enough food on the table. (Not a slam against chore charts or those who choose to use them. I love chore charts!)

I’m not saying we can’t raise responsible children in this day and age, I’m just thinking I’m going to have to be more creative in finding real life opportunities for practice.  Maybe the next time I’m out of eggs, I will drive to the store, drop him off with $5 and see what happens.

If he comes out with candy then I’ll start raising chickens.

From The Little Gym To The Big College

Today Sean and I are heading to a local community college so that he can take a math test which, if he passes, will allow him to do more challenging math type stuff this coming school year, which if my calculations are correct, is 4th grade.  (GULP!)

The reason Sean is taking a math test at a college campus instead of an elementary school, where 4th grade is generally located, is because through a red-tape snafu accounting error — or his mom wasn’t on top of the calendar — we missed the deadline for the spring testing.  And so, because we, meaning me, missed the deadline, Sean now has to take a math test in a college testing center with college people who have beards and cars, of which he has neither.  And there is more good news!  Sean’s mother has to pay $100 to have the test proctored instead of $18.  If ever there is an opportunity to pay more money for something – sign me up!

So as you can see, Sean not only has to be super smart at math, he has to develop a lot of other skills to offset the ineptitude of his mother.  But that will serve him well in life, because that’s pretty much how the world works.  So there’s that.

As I’m getting ready for this big day, for some reason I’m thinking back on when Sean was like two, and I felt like I had to sign him up for activities, because all the other moms and kids did activities, and I desperately wanted to do this mothering thing right and all I really knew about mothering was that I didn’t know ANYthing about it and therefore I should see which fork the other moms used for salad and do that.  But the fact of the matter was this, all we both really wanted to do was stay home and play on the floor in the den and pretend and read books.

So in an effort to do it right, I signed him up for a class at a little gym type place and I paid $100 or something ridiculous like that.  And every week I would take him, and he would not want to go, and I would not want to go, but I paid $100 dangit, so we went. And he would want to play with the water fountain, but he did not want to run under the parachute that was flapping up and down and he did not want to swing from the tiny little pull up bar.  And I would spend all my time trying to keep him out of the water fountain and redirecting him back to parachute (all for the low low price of $100!!). It was a great workout FOR ME.

And I was sort of blind to the fact that we were different, Sean and I.  We were happy doing our own thing just the two of us and the little gym thing made us both a little cranky when we were supposed to be having an Instagram moment.

So now I’m nine years into this gig, and once again, I’ve paid $100 for him to do something and at times in the past few weeks, I’ve had to push him to prepare for this test when he’d rather play on the iPad, and I’ve wondered if maybe this is one of those “little gym” scenarios.  Maybe he doesn’t want to run under the parachute, maybe it’s me who wants to run under the parachute.

I don’t think so, I think he wants this.  But we’ll see.  I’ll be waiting outside the testing center.  Near the water fountain, just in case.

Blessings Recounted: Contentment

Today is my dad’s birthday.

As I think of him today and the many odd and unexpected blessings that were gathered to me in this last year of his life, the blessings that I am trying to capture here for Sean and for me so that we might recall them on some distant day, what comes to mind is how contented he was in all circumstances and the goodness it added to my life.

My dad was a simple guy.

That’s not to say he wasn’t smart.  He was good with numbers and had an intuitive knowledge of words, thanks to the Latin he learned as an altar boy.  He was loaded with common sense and had a terrific memory – some of the same qualities I see in Sean.

He never went to college, he never had an important job, never ran a company, never managed any one, nor did he want to.  But he was smart enough know this:  It’s not the finer things in life that bring joy but the simple things.

As a foolish teenager, I saw his contentedness with his modest middle-class life as a lack of ambition, and it is with shame that I confess that I had some resentment about that, that he was not terribly concerned about seeing to it that I get the material things I craved.

Eventually, after life knocked me around a bit, I learned that no amount of stuff you can accumulate will add one drop of goodness to life, but rather will usually get in the way of it if for no other reason than the pursuit of such things robs you of your most precious resource – time.

I’ve often wondered what is it that makes some people content and others restless?  For Dad, I think the fact that he always thought of himself as a pretty lucky guy was at the center of his contentment.  He wasn’t one of those annoying perpetually “glass is always half full” sunny side up guys, but he was grateful for the good things that rolled his way and I guess he felt like more good came his way than bad, or at least on the important matters.

In the early 1950s dad went into the army with three buddies.  There is a picture of the four of them standing together on the day they got their orders.  Three were sent to Korea or elsewhere where they were either killed or witnessed unspeakable horror.  But Dad shipped out to Germany, where he said it was like being on vacation.

He went skiing in the Alps, he went to Oktoberfest, he saw the great cathedrals and historic sites of Europe – but most importantly he came home.  He was lucky.  The only part of being in the Army that he didn’t like was the boat ride over and back.  One time I offered to take him and mom on an Alaskan cruise and he shook his head.  “No thanks,” he said, “I was on a big boat once in the army and I have no desire to do that again.”  I could have argued that a cruise boat was not exactly like the army, but sometimes Dad could be stubborn.

When he got out of the Army, the first thing he did was marry my mother, and if not one other thing went right in his life, marrying her would have made him feel like the luckiest guy who ever lived.  They bought a 50-year-old fixer upper and spent the next 58 years fixing it up and tending to the details of middle-class life:  three kids, boy scouts, bicycles, too much week for too little paycheck,  too cold winters, too short summers, old cars replaced by newer old cars, employment and unemployment, grandkids and then great-grandkids.


And it seems to me, and to those he left behind, those 58 years passed more quickly than the time it took you to read these ramblings.

When the cancer diagnosis came in April of last year, he didn’t feel so lucky.  He was having a great time in his retirement years with my mother and wasn’t ready for that to come to an end.

In time though, when the shock wore off, he came back around to seeing that even in the midst of awful, he was a lucky guy.  He had a wife and three children who would see to it that he felt well loved and well cared for to the very end.  He had seen his children raised and he knew he knew he could count on us to look after our mother.  He had outlived all but one of his life long friends.  He had enjoyed much sweetness and little bitterness in life.  And somewhere, beyond this life, he knew something wonderful was waiting for him.  What more could one hope for?

So on this day that would have been his 82nd birthday, I think of my dad and what a blessing it was to be raised by a man who thought of himself as a lucky guy and how he lived his life in pursuit and appreciation of simple things that neither rust nor moths will destroy.

It is a rich inheritance.


Blessings Recounted: Driveway Time

When we got the call in April that my dad had been diagnosed with cancer, we knew that our time with him was limited.  We just didn’t know what that limit was and it took some time for the doctors to sort that all out to the degree that they could.

That is something we all know, isn’t it?  That our time with the people we love is limited.  But most of us don’t live that way until the day we get that call.

Why is that?  Do we not live in the full light of that knowledge because we get so caught up in getting day-to-day life done; lunches packed, bills paid, laundry folded?  Or is it because living in the full light of that knowledge would be so paralyzing that we couldn’t go about the business of getting day-to-day life done?

Either way, a cancer diagnosis, is just that — it’s a blinding flash that seers the retina with that awful truth, that we are fragile and limited beings.  And it leaves you squinting, stumbling and disoriented, like walking out of dark movie theater into the mid-day sun. And the only way to move forward is to look down at your feet, looking no further ahead than the next safe place to step.

Sean’s second-grade year ended late in May and the very next day, the three of us left for Illinois not knowing what to expect when we got there.

Steroid therapy and radiation had shrunk the brain tumor enough to restore his cognitive and speech abilities, so by the time we got home that first week in June, he was more or less like his old self, albeit a bit more tired and a lot more cold.

We spent our time together that week mostly out on the drive way, just as we often did in my growing up years in that house.  Only this time instead of fixing stuff, mowing or working on a car, he sat in a lawn chair in the gentle June sun, wearing a hat and coat, trying to absorb the heat from the concrete, and watching the earth awaken to another season.  I wore shorts and a t-shirt and tried to amuse him like I was seven again. “Hey Dad! Watch this! Watch me jump rope! Hey Dad watch me do a cartwheel!  Hey Dad!…”  Until he would nod off.  Then I would sit beside him and watch the cars go past and his chest rise and fall until he stirred again.


That week was as unremarkable as any other week I might have come home in the past 32 years.  We hung out together on the driveway, not doing anything in particular, just happy to occupy the same space. That’s the way it’s always been with us, that’s the way we like it.

We didn’t really talk about the cancer, we talked around it.  We didn’t deny it, but at the same time, we didn’t acknowledge it.  We are not a people who cry and hug and pour out our feelings.  We know how we feel about each other, so pointing it out with words isn’t necessary.

At the end of the week, I stood beside our packed car.  We had said our goodbyes and now it was time to head back to Texas.  AD was behind the wheel with the engine running, Sean, in the backseat, having done several rounds of hugs and waves and had settled in for the long drive.  But I stood there beside the car, with the door open, paralyzed, unable to make myself get in.

My dad stood away from the car on the driveway, just as he did 32 years earlier, the day I got in a car and left for Texas, where I would make my life.  On that day, long ago, I was but 21-years-old and did not yet fully understand that time was limited. But I did take note of something about him on that day, something about his posture or the tensing of his mouth that told me that this day had come too soon for him, that it was snatching something he loved and treasured, right out of his hand and out of his house and out of his life.  And I never needed him to say that.

On this day, he held the same posture of 32 years before, only now he leaned on a cane, the same tensing of the mouth, only now he looked tired and small and his fragility was beginning to show.

I dropped my chin to my chest and began to sob.  “I don’t want to leave, I don’t want to leave…” was all I could say.  My mother hugged me.  My dad stood away and looked down.

I took a deep breath and got in the car and we backed out of the driveway.  AD patted my leg because what else is there to do?

I would make two more trips home to spend time with my dad but Sean would not.  As we  pulled out of the driveway, he hung out the window and waved and yelled, “Goodbye Papa Ed! See ya later alligator!”

It was time to get time to get back to getting day-to-day life done for awhile, until the next phone call.

I cried all the way to St. Louis.

Blessings Recounted

It was last year, in this month of April, that I got the phone call.

My mother, trying to sound only mildly concerned, called to tell me that they had taken my dad to the hospital and they were running tests.  The catch in her voice betrayed her calm.

While working his usual Saturday morning crossword puzzle his brain had gone a little fuzzy.  He couldn’t seem to get the words to travel the familiar path from his brain to his tongue.

Don’t worry, she said, don’t worry,  I’ll call you when I know more.  I heard the phone click as she hung up, and just like the click of a light switch, my world went dark.

In 52 years, I have never known of a world without my father.  And somewhere in the part of my mind that stores all things that are unbearably true, emerged something that I had been denying since I was a little girl – that someday my father was going to die.  And now dawn was breaking on that someday.

Over the course of the next week, we would learn that my dad had cancer.  It had started in his lungs and made it’s way to the brain, which was further complicated by a multitude of other existing issues.

My parents were referred to an oncologist who laid the cards plainly on the table.  Cancer was my dad’s new landlord and this heartless landlord was serving an eviction notice.

Together my parents decided that they would not do chemo, but they would do radiation to buy some time, but whatever time they had left, they wanted it to be free of the misery that medicine often brings.

My mother asked the doctor how long he thought they might have.  Doctors don’t like to answer that question, so she asked him another way:  Could they have the summer? she asked, as if for permission.  The doctor said yes, with radiation they would probably get to enjoy the summer. But after that all bets were off.

And so that’s what they set about to do – to enjoy the last of what would be nearly 60 summers together.

As tragic and sorrowful as this past year has been, it has also blessed me in countless and unexpected ways.

The stories that follow in the coming days and weeks (or however long it takes to get it all out) are those blessings recounted.