Happier at Home

Go Shelf By Shelf and Snack By Snack: “Happier at Home” Week 2, in the Pantry

Sunday, September 16th, 2012 | Connecting the Dots | 9 Comments

I am, indeed, happier.

Saturday morning, our pantry looked like this:

Most dispiriting.

You may think that that is not so bad, and in some ways it is not. Certainly it could be worse. But in addition to general crudiness (and do, please, examine this close-up, below), there were other problems. The children couldn’t reach the crackers and cookies they typically snack on after school (or on Saturday morning while their father and I sleep). The microwave (no counter space) could only be used by moving a basket of nuts and bars and coffee filters (because there’s a grouping that makes sense) out of the way. And we had lots of stuff I had no idea we had. Note to self and husband: we simply don’t need to buy any more ketchup. For years.

You can’t actually see the spilled popcorn and goldfish, but trust me.

It was ugly, it was unpleasant, it was a constant annoyance. Every time I opened the doors, my heart sank. And you know, I open those doors a lot.

For months, I’ve been spending quality time with pantry porn in the form of Williams Sonoma and the kinds of magazines with headlines like “control your clutter” and “10 clutter-busting strategies!” And we’ve been distantly planning a kitchen remodel, so I like to draw my new pantry, which will have room for dishes and appliances and, I dunno, mops or something. Also, laundry, which is right now in my bathroom.

But distant plans and colored pencils are no substitute for immediate action. So Saturday, I opened the pantry doors, and I took everything out.

Every Thing Out!

I had to get a folding table. I had to use the stairs, and the floor, and the counter. It was astonishing, the amount of stuff that fit in those two cabinets.

I’m all done, right?

And once it was out, I sorted. I tossed (after the third time, the nearest available child began to refuse to taste-test any more crackers for staleness. It’s been a very, very damp summer.) I collected for a food pantry (no, not the stale stuff! I briefly had a babysitter who would grocery shop for me, and the food pantry will benefit from the continual misunderstandings that led to my not having a babysitter who would grocery shop for me any more. Grits; they’re getting lots of non-instant grits. Also, spaghettini, which is not at all the same thing as spaghetti. Actually, I don’t have a regular sitter at all anymore, but that’s another post.)

And then I replaced. Gently, slowly, with labels for the backs of the too-deep shelves. I moved shelves. I wiped, I vacuumed, I moved shelves again. I tried things out in a few places that didn’t work; I finally used a set of matching containers I bought ages ago in the hopes of doing just this; I scrounged baskets that were being misused in other rooms; I labeled, I thought, I dumped.

The result is beautiful. I didn’t spend one penny. (I’m not going to count those three extra plastic containers because I bought them months ago.) I didn’t order anything new from the Container Store. I didn’t do anything except what I should have done in the first place: think about the best place for stuff and put it there, and not shove anything into the back without making sure there was a way to find it again.

When I open the pantry doors now, I still want to cry … with happiness. I’m delighted, I’m relaxed, I’m happy to cook and happy to put away the groceries.

Will it stay this way? I think so, in part because I used another “Gretchen-ism:” I left empty spaces. (She says “Leave an empty shelf.”) We’re not always going to have exactly four boxes of crackers or two boxes of spaghetti (although we will always have exactly no boxes of spaghettini). Things will get used and replaced and bought–but in addition to going shelf by shelf in the pantry, I found myself thinking about a new resolution: the resolution not to stock up.

No more buying in bulk, no more getting five cans of coffee to save grabbing another on the next trip to the store. We don’t have room for ten boxes of macaroni and cheese no matter how much it’s on sale, and I pay a price in coping with all the excess, not to mention the price of losing it in the back of the cabinet, or watching it expire. It’s false economy, and false security. We need two boxes of macaroni and cheese. When one is eaten–or even, should we decide to live life to the fullest, when BOTH get eaten, we can go to the store and buy another.

Doesn’t that sound profligate? But we can. Should the apocalypse arrive, a stock of macaroni will not save us (I’m going for a stock of bourbon, actually). Should a flu epidemic prevent our shopping for weeks, some system will surely arise to allow us to get food. If it doesn’t: if systems fail and bourbon proves useless in the zombie economy, well, we have bigger problems than a few boxes of macaroni would have solved, and at least I got to enjoy my clean pantry in the meantime.

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

Sunday, September 9th, 2012 | Connecting the Dots, Motherlode | 9 Comments

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!

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