“Happier at Home:” Gretchen’s Project, KJ’s Clutter

You can’t really click to look inside, I was just too lazy to use my own image. You can, however, click the name of the book in the post to get to Amazon and buy the book.

Motherlode sneak peek: Next week, I’m going to Boston to meet up with Gretchen Rubin and record a video introduction to a series of posts she’ll be writing for Motherlode starting 9/17. Like so many of us, I found a friend when I first opened Gretchen’s book “The Happiness Project,” and when that words-only friend turned into an actual live friend (at the ASJA conference) a while ago, that was even better—especially now that it means Gretchen will be writing a weekly Motherlode post this fall. (About what? That’s the only part I’m not going to tell you here.)

Since Gretchen’s writing for me, I thought I’d turn the tables and write, well, not “for” her but “inspired by” her. I know plenty of people started their own “happiness projects” after Gretchen’s first book. I did nothing so official, but this time, perhaps instigated by the fact that her very first topic in “Happier at Home” is something I know would make me much happier if I could just get a grip on it: clutter.

Ok, Gretchen doesn’t call it clutter. She calls it, rightly, “Possessions,” and that just puts a much happier spin on the whole thing, or at least it would, if my “possessions” weren’t so buried in my clutter that it’s become very hard to tell the difference.

I’ll blog my own “Happier at Home” project, which conveniently enough Gretchen began one September, every Sunday night along with my now-weekly Motherlode sneak peaks (and probably the occasional mid-week picture update of my, um, progress).

Gretchen started her latest project with “Possessions” because she’s smart enough to know that the clutter isn’t all there is to her relationship to her stuff. “My possessions had a powerful influence over the atmosphere of my home, and they contributed to, and reflected, my sense of identity,” she wrote.

I know what she means. I battle the clutter and mess of two adults and four children with an abundance of identity in the form of books, toys, magazines, newspapers and small, indeterminate but invariably important plastic objects (whose importance rarely becomes clear before they’re thrown away) daily, but the clutter isn’t all I’m dissatisfied with as I survey my domain. We just don’t live, physically, they way I want to live, or even the way we want to live. It’s pretty depressingly Tobacco Road around here, and I suspect the friend who just sent me an email about her new no-filter fish tank may have been commenting on our tank, which has been fish-free and filled with evaporating water for months. (Ok, maybe longer.)

Gretchen’s goals, and mine.

Gretchen’s goal was to “Find a True Simplicity.” Mine is to Cultivate an Ordered Calm. “Simplicity” will never reign here; I like clear surfaces but I also like books and magazines and easy access to things we love and use, and a few toys here and there don’t bother me as long as, if the spirit moves the child to put the toy away (and my “spirit” I mean “allowance” or possibly “threat”), there is a clear place to put it.

I’m adopting Gretchen’s second resolution, “Go shelf by shelf” as my first. My goal is to remove and clear, and to keep only what I “know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” with an eye towards finding a place for everything that remains, even if not everything is in its place.

It’s not at all realistic to expect that I’ll have gone “shelf by shelf” in our 4 bedroom house by next Sunday, but I’ll at least write about where we stand, and whether the bookshelf I took out of the guest room upstairs and then couldn’t find anywhere to put except the hall floor is gone, next Sunday. Beyond that lie two more resolutions for September: Make it right, and Put it back.

I want to do more than clear the clutter. I want to get what stays behind right: to finally replace the kitchen soap dispenser and repair the broken dresser drawer and put all the pieces in the Monopoly game. That, to me, is “make it right.”

And then I want to learn to keep it that way. “Put it back,” means more than that. It means embracing David Allen’s requirement that if it takes less than 2 minutes, you do it now by putting the tape back after wrapping a present, or picking up the clump of hairbands and replacing them in the box instead of dropping them in the nearest bowl. If I’m going to be happy with my possessions, each thing needs a place, and I need to make a habit of resecting those places.

Honestly, I go into this discouraged and overwhelmed. We’ve been letting things pile up for the five years since we moved into this house, and we have both had to accept of late that the children never put anything away because we rarely do: yep, there are six plastic spaceships and a half-built lego on the coffee table, but then, there’s a Sunday times and an open notepad (mine) next to them, and the bag I brought out yesterday to dig out hand-me-down soccer cleats on the floor next to it, unreturned to its place, and next to me on the end table is the squirt bottle Rob used to squirt the dog for barking at the UPS man on Friday.

A sneak peak of hall chaos.

I set out to clean the hall today, and mostly just stood gazing miserably, knowing that I can’t really clean out the shoe cubbies unless I pull out all the outgrown shoes, and I can’t pull out the outgrown shoes without something to put them in, and then I will need to take the ones that aren’t handed down somewhere and put the ones that are somewhere else, with a label and the hope of finding them in two years (girls) or four (boys). And that’s just the shoes; there are jackets and rackets and swimsuits and kites and backpacks and hats…

I finally managed to open the four elfa drawers that store up the projects children bring home from school all year; in a happy, ideal family, one goes through these at the end of the year, pulls out treasures, tucks some away, frames a few pictures and talks to each child about his or her school year. Instead, I dumped last year’s contents into the four bins I keep their artwork in in the basement without a word while three were out with various friends and the fourth played Minecraft. Now they’re empty and ready for 2012-2013, filled only with my intent to do better next year and the near certainty that I won’t.

I’d hoped for before and after pictures of a hallway transformed, but instead, I realized I needed the bins I keep Sam’s clothes in upstairs for mittens, etc., which meant taking Lily’s doll clothes out of his old dresser and giving it back to him and then switching the bins currently in the hallway for swimsuits up for doll clothes and…well, long story short, all the bins and the dresser are empty; the swimsuits and Sam’s entire wardrobe are in various piles, and it is all much, much worse than it was when I started.

What is it Gretchen always says? Happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy. But it really, really will feel so good when it’s done—and making the mess guarantees that one way or another, I’m going to have to pick it up!

KJ“Happier at Home:” Gretchen’s Project, KJ’s Clutter
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Behind the Scenes: Operation Vacation Recovery Begins

Where in the world is KJ? Cape Cod. Watchin’ whales, kickin’ back. Swimming pools, sand castles, the “Chatham Freeze.” It’s been a nearly completely “off” week: comments were kindly taken over by the NYT team, posts were nearly all from guests, no “quandary” last week, and thus no response.

Oh, I did a few things. Someone pointed me towards a fantastic blog about twins, and I immediately snagged the writer for a contribution–I can’t wait. She and I will be creating a dialog about what it’s like to “choose” twins in my particular way and what it’s like to have twins burst unexpectedly upon you. And when I forgot the bio on Eileen Riley-Hall’s post on letting her adolescent daughter (with her developmental challenges) grow up, I fixed it. And I had a few things I had to do to get set for Blogher next week (my first, although I’ve been a “member since 2007).

But other than that, I have been having the vacation I promised my family. Phone as camera. No emails. No sudden frantic posts on the news, no “just one more thing,” no reading submissions, no Twitter, no Facebook–or at least, very little. Vacation responders. Automated feeds–because I DID want to share the week’s fantastic posts.

And it was lovely. Vacation “entry” took some time (manifested by cranky parents and whiny children, who-sleeps-in-which-bed battles and audible fears that this would be “the worst trip to Cape Cod ever”). Several topics suggested themselves for future blogs (why, exactly, did that whining make me feel like it was all my fault for having raised these horrible ungrateful children instead of just being “one of those things?” Because that didn’t help.) but once settled, we thrived.

Tomorrow, though, One tired family, one 57 inch driftwood whale sculpture, as much of a large bucket of shells that my children can persuade us to transport and a whole lot of laundry head home. And Monday it’s back to the keyboard. I’m revved–so much I want to do! So much to pull together! And I’m panicked: wait, one child only has camp until noon and it’s 30 miles away daily? What was I thinking? And I’m thrilled to be off to Blogher, even if it’s not yet entirely clear who will be dropping four assorted children off in three totally different places Thursday and Friday mornings (that being a 2-person job at best).

But I wish I had some sort of template for re-entry. A plan. A goal for what to do first. I achieved the relaxed vacation–how do I slide back to work without losing the feeling of getting what’s important firmly up front and having time and space to enjoy it all? Someone needs to write a guide to that.

KJBehind the Scenes: Operation Vacation Recovery Begins
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Behind the Scenes at Motherlode, 3/4

Seriously, what was I thinking?

Ah, Sunday. The week always looks so CLEAN on Sunday! SO much time! So much glorious room to fill in the blog, so many great guest posts that I will so easily get to…

I probably shouldn’t hold my breath, time being the slippery beast it is… Tomorrow I’ll be posting about a really interesting survey about exactly that. I interviewed Kristin van Ogtrop (whose book I love) about an upcoming story of their about women and time, and it offered a few surprises that I can’t wait to riff on–not to mention the pleasure of talking to her, and to Amanda Schumacher, her lively and fun communications director.

I also know I’ll be writing about teacher ratings tomorrow, thanks to a pair of “bad teacher” articles, and interviewing a few experts on lead in our homes and how it impacts our children, and unborn children–and how the CDC may be about to hang us all out to dry.

And that’s just tomorrow! I’ve got 10 unread gusts posts from writers I know will have rocked it, and 6 waiting for a final edit and the cue to go (think homeschooling and homework next week, unless events intervene). I’ve got three unpublished reported topics I haven’t even embarked on–what’s the dumbest thing you ever bought as a new mom? Giving kids the gift of imperfection and–dang, something else! Plus I’m deep into the question of toxic chemicals and kids, and pondering lunch boxes and a million other things.

I love it when someone asks me how I “think of so much to write about.” It’s more like waking up every morning, sitting down at my desk, and being pelted with great topics like so many Angry Birds. It’s family–there’s nothing more important, and there’s an endless array of exciting stuff going on.

On another note entirely, someone using my credit card seems to have gone on quite the online shopping binge. Fortunately, she had it all sent here, and she had fantastic taste–but she seems to have been a little confused as to whose life we are living. See the shoes, pictured above–ideal for dirt roads and mud season, no? You should see the silk blouse she picked out. I love it. I can’t imagine where I’d wear it. It’s a good thing she got a couple of tshirts, too—and shops where return shipping is free.

I think maybe I need to limit my late-night reading of Vogue, particularly when I am feeling just a touch anxious about myself.

Oh–BIG announcement at Motherlode this week. Well, cool announcement, anyway. Hint: beloved author, me, conversations…

KJBehind the Scenes at Motherlode, 3/4
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