Decluttering and making a house a home: a family effort!

It is a blessing to have someone on your life who loves you enough to kindly tell you how you could do better…some one who loves you enough–as you already are–to help you grow even better. My big stepsister Dymphny is like that. Totally accepting, yet boldly courageous in proclaiming the truth with love.

She flew down to help me reorganize my home, because we have been fortunate enough to be able to rent the suite below us, and now have the whole house! Instead of 3 bedrooms for 9 people, we have 5 and a den, besides an extra little kitchen and bathroom. One of the most exciting parts is the large living room, which will be our new homeschool room, instead of the tiny, narrow dining room we’ve used for school till now.

Things have been rather quiet on my blog because they’ve been so packed here! The kids and I, with some help from Grandpa, my brother and my lovely landlord Joe, repainted the downstairs…transforming the pale, depressing, hospital-gown green suite into cute Bubblegum Pink bedrooms, a Thai Teal bedroom, and a English Daisy yellow schoolroom! 🙂

Everybody helped…

It was quite the fun project…home renovation and interior decorating 101! My 12 year daughter became an overnight IKEA expert and made a massive list of everything we needed to make our new space beautiful. Since I never usually buy many new things for our home, the list was huge, and we had a rather epic expedition involving a 5 hour shop and a U-Haul. Happily my sister and brother were there to help!

Of course my productivity manager came along as well…

We survived!! IKEA soft ice cream was a definite must in our way out the door.

But besides buying new things to make our space lovely…we had an even more important job to do: purging everything unnecessary, ugly, extra, etc, that was currently making our home cluttered, chaotic and well, rather resembling a ramshackle thrift store instead of a beautiful, intentional space. No more!

My daughter’s new bedroom

This is where having a loving big sister with an objective eye for crap came in so handy. She wasn’t going to let me hang on to anything that didn’t make my life better. Rather, she helped me dig out the precious things hiding under the clutter so I can display and enjoy them instead of having them tucked away and forgotten, like the fancy tea pot I bought for my birthday on my last IKEA trip last Advent…and still haven’t used, less than a month till my next birthday!

It’s a gift to have someone affirm that you’re better than some kind of recycling bin, and that you don’t need to hold on to everything that comes your way. Sometimes when trying to sort stuff alone it’s hard to cut the invisible strings of guilt that make you keep stuff for “one day” or because it’s from “so and so”…or because getting rid of stuff feels wasteful.

Sorting books

The minimalist mom Allie Casazza says that whatever takes up your space, takes up your time. You don’t need to lose time shuffling around odds and ends you don’t need. I’ve done this for years. And what’s really wasteful is harming your relationships because of unnecessary stress….not being able to find things, arriving late, not wanting to have people over because of mess, etc.

It’s so freeing to let go. Chuck those old shampoo bottles and extra creams into the recycling. Take pictures of all those kids drawings and then let them go. Let someone else enjoy those books and clothes you don’t need. Live with a lighter heart and be able to find things. A clear beautiful space is so calming. A study quoted on a Gretchen Rubin’s podcast Happier found that women’s cortisol levels, indicative of stress, were directly related to the amount of clutter in her home. No wonder I’ve been on edge!

I was so grateful to have Big Brothers to pick up our porch full of donations, and Half Price Rubbish Removal to come the next day. Seeing what we don’t need has opened our eyes to see how we could enjoy our home even better. Having space to do so more peacefully and enjoying the presence of family, including our IKEA expert building expert Opa, has been the best gift so far this season!

Every “No” is also a “Yes”

Many people struggle with saying “no.” It is so hard to disappoint people, to imagine letting them down. It feels easier to take on added stress than to refuse someone and upset them. But this attitude can lead to burnout and resentment, and endanger the peace and well-being of the person giving. Boundaries are necessary to protect these things, and having healthy boundaries means being able to say “no” without excessive guilt or worry. 

Perhaps reframing things would be helpful to those who struggle with saying “no.” Within each situation where something is refused, another positive thing is chosen. Saying “no” to taking on an extra work project over the weekend means saying “yes” to quality time with your family. Saying “no” to joining an extra committee means saying “yes” to being able to take care of your own work and family, without getting so frazzled and stressed. Saying “no” to that late night movie means saying “yes” to gettting the rest you need. Every decision involves discerning and affirming your priorities. Decisions are a way to say “yes” to the life you wish to live…and that life requires the boundary of various “no’s” to maintain it. 

I think the key, which I am trying to learn myself, is to allow yourself to say “no” calmly, without the guilt or worry that can lead to harshness or sarcasm in order to protect the fragile boundaries around yourself. It is ok, and even necessary and good to take care of yourself and make sure that whatever you do give is given freely, with a cheerful and generous heart. We need to give this good example to our children and those around us. Love can only be given freely, and that means also having the freedom to say “no.”


Many of these helpful ideas are found in the book Boundaries: When to say Yes, How to say No, to take Control of your Life by psychologists Dr.’s Cloud and Townsend. I believe I have written about this book before because I found it so eye-opening and transformative. After discussing boundaries with various people– family, spouses, children, co-workers, etc– the book ends with various tips and questions to see how you are growing in your ability to maintain your boundaries. The best quick check for responding to a request was this: if you hesitate to say “yes,” the answer is “no.” You shouldn’t have to force yourself into things because of fear of disappointing others or appearing badly. 

Remember, every “no” is also a “yes”…a “yes” to what you are able to do, what you desire to do, what makes your life better, what helps you feel free. Of course we should practice generosity and strive to live affectionately with those around us, but in the security of knowing that their love for us doesn’t depend on our unconditional “yes” to every request. And hopefully by learning to say “no” with confidence, we will also greatly respect the “no’s” of others, and never receive them with bitterness or resentment. 

The Feminine Touch

 

To deny that making a home a beautiful and loving place is a valuable task is to deny the value of woman’s innate ability to nurture…and to place value only on money and perceived external power. Sometimes feminism makes the mistake of equating equality with masculinity…thinking anything typically feminine is lesser. What an impoverished view! How far from respecting the feminine, how far from liberating women! 

True freedom lies in the ability to choose for love…whether it is to work in society, or to build society from within the family. Woman has much to add in both these spheres. 

Whatever we do, wherever we are, we do as women, and proudly so. Feminine qualities of empathy, wholistic vision, ability to multitask, to communicate and bring out the best in people should be part of everything we do, whether teaching our children or designing a bridge. So wear the power suit if you like, but don’t throw away your feminine soul. You are richer for it, and so are those around you. 

We are NOT our stuff

It’s easy to get mixed up about who we are…what is important to us and where we spend our time… Sadly those two things don’t always coincide. Sometimes we spend a lot of our time dealing with stuff that doesn’t really matter. Like our junk. Our millions of clothes, books, toys, papers, household supplies etc.     There’s a saying that where your treasure is, there is your heart also. We might think that our heart isn’t in our physical possessions, but if we spend huge amounts of time buying, organizing, sorting and maintaining them, then isn’t it true? Society (or at least advertisers) actually tries pretty hard to make us believe our happiness and identity does come from what we own. We define ourselves by our possessions:

I have Ferrari = I’m successful. I wear expensive jewelry = I’m classy. I have the latest fashions = I’m attractive. I eat organic = I’m pure.

There’s nothing wrong with these good things, but none of them actaully defines the core of who we are. None of these things come with us when we die. I believe it was St. John of the Cross who said, “At the evening of our lives we will be judged on love.”     So how does stuff relate to our capacity to love? St Augustine tells us that “any lessening of concupiscience (the disordered and selfish desire for or attachment to things) means an increase in charity (generous love for others).” So the less our heart is crammed with stuff, the more room there is for people.     I want to relate this again to how we use our time. What has the time you spend dealing with your excess stuff (at least if you have too much of it like me) prevented you from doing for others? Perhaps volunteering at an old folks home, visiting a lonely relative, having a friend over who really could use a heart to heart chat, etc.     Or what does needing to constantly clean and organize prevent you from doing for yourself? Reading great books? Exercising? Meditating? Praying? Reflecting? Writing? Wouldn’t doing these things make you happier than trying to shuffle around the belongings you don’t know what to do with?     We don’t want to live caught on the surface of life, amidst our clutter. We want to go deeper, love better, ponder life’s meaning and find ways to nourish our souls. Having too much stuff can trap us in the superficial…so there’s only one solution: get rid of it and free yourself to live better!     I’ll write more on doing major decluttering soon, including insights from organizational master Marie Kondo’s book “the life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing.” Until then, all the best, and remember, you are not your stuff, you are so much more! Trimming the excess clutter will only free you up to be more yourself… 

Why Posting an Imperfect Post is an Act of Freedom

Lately my husband and I have been on a theology kick and read to each other before bed…until we get totally confused, inspired or one of us ends up drooling on the pillow (usually me!)…It’s been really interesting, and definitely gives us something new to talk about beyond how’s work and what did the kids do at school today.

Tonight we were reading about freedom, and it made me ponder what it really means to make a free choice, and how it relates to the stifling danger of perfectionism in writing…as perfectionism leads to the inability to make definitive choices and complete things. (Yes, being writing-obsessed, I manage to relate pretty much everything back to blogging…just ask my husband).

Anyway, the author described the misconception of freedom as the ability to make an endless succession of choices, without any of them ever being permanent and definitive. The idea that having options equals freedom, and the more options, the more free you are. “But why not?” you might ask…”Doesn’t that sound good?” The thing is to apply this idea and see where it leads. Here are some examples of how it changes, sometimes subconsciously, how we make decisions:

“I’m not going to choose what to study, because that way I can choose to study anything at all. I’m keeping my career options open.” Yes, and your empty wallet…Being open to the possibility of all jobs but having no job = unemployment, not freedom.

“I’m not going to choose someone to marry, because that way I can marry anyone at all…I’ll be so free.” Or so lonely and jaded, because it takes one real heart to love you and keep you warm at night, not several billion theoretical ones.

“I’m not going to post anything on my blog (ah, finally, blogging!) until I have something perfect. As long as it’s in my draft box, I have the freedom to keep changing it. It won’t be permanent.” Ah, yes, that horrific word….permanent! We are so afraid of it. It implies commitment, confidence, strength, endurance…yikes!

But tell me, is having a draft box full of unexplored possibilities really freedom?  Nothing wrong with drafts, but to really mean something and come alive they need to be released, imperfections and all, into the world. You need to say as a writer (or painter, photographer, chef, etc), “This isn’t perfect and I’m ok with that. It’s not perfect but it’s mine and I stand by it. This is me.”

That one irrevocable act of posting your little poem, photo, story or ponderings is a greater expression of true freedom and honesty than that of hoarding your drafts like treasures, choosing to hide them away lest they not shine as brightly in the light of day as you’d like. I think it was Julia Cameron who said that you need to be willing to be a crappy artist in order to become a great one. So be yourself, stand by your work, make a permanent choice to share your work and in that way really own it. Post that thing you’ve been hiding away so jealousy. Chances are what’s closest to your heart will resound in the hearts of others as well.  

A Small Step

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A small step
in the midst of great difficulties
can be a miracle

The heroic efforts of a bumble bee
more impressive
than a charging rhino kicking up dust
all show

It’s not perfection
but struggle that matters
not impressive credentials
but the straining of the heart
towards something truly beautiful

living a life of love
full of little sacrifices
getting up again and again

Keep trying
keep smiling
remember the ideal
that sets fire to your heart

Never let discouragement
drown the flames altogether

Blow on that ember of hope
Remember who you are

Forget trying to please others
modifying yourself to be more palatable to them

You can never please anyone
by pretending

It’s better to go down in flames
like a shooting star
completely crazy
but lighting up the world
with your own form of madness

You will inspire
or you will be despised
but at least you will be you

There are worse things
than being rejected

On Vulnerability

Lately I’ve become a little addicted to reading The Hunger Games Trilogy, despite my initial resistance. My husband wanted to watch the first movie one night, and I refused, claiming it was not my kind of movie, and that the idea of violent teenagers in an arena was enough to give me daymares. So he bought the books instead and got totally hooked, reading it tons while he was home sick for a few days. Then my husband, who loves to share, convinced me to read it too, and after this we’ll likely watch all the movies. That’s what I get for not watching one movie! 😉

But I’m glad, and it’s a lot more engrossing than I imagined. Certainly the ideas of media control, surveillance, and propaganda in their harsh society are politically relevant and spookily real at times. But honestly, what’s really grabbing me is the romance. Tortured teenage love triangle, which sounds cheesy but is actually quite beautifully done. I’m only half way through book two, but what interests me so far is the main character Katniss’ inability to authentically respond to love.

She craves the warmth and security of love a lot but fears it more. I think this is because to really open herself up to love would be the ultimate vulnerability. Her survival so far has been based on strength, grit, toughing it out, learning to lock away her emotions and overcome desperation to help her family survive. Her identity is the hunter, the provider, the one who doesn’t care about anyone but her family. The idea of letting her heart out of its cage frightens her, because she couldn’t defend it with violence, as she can her life. Her happiness would be out of her control.

As I said, love is the ultimate vulnerability; the more you love someone, the more their loss can hurt you, and in her precarious world this is a real danger. This is in a way the real tragedy in her world, that the freedom to love is choked by fear. But if we can’t love, are we really alive anyway?

When the baker’s son Peeta is repeatedly kind to her, she is suspicious. His willingness to repeatedly sacrifice himself for her causes confusion and shame; she can’t understand his actions. Only when he is severely wounded, and she can come to the rescue, does she allow herself to feel more. When he is strong, her pride rebels; when he is weak, she yearns to heal him.

It is similar with her best friend and hunting companion Gale; her strong attachment to him only becomes clearly romantic when he is flogged and near death. She only feels comfortable as the saviour, and gets evasive whenever love is expressed between equals. This changeable nature of her heart is extremely frustrating, and in a way, very realistic. After all, she’s a teenager!

Anyway, you can see what I’ve been doing in spare moments when feeding the baby, and what I’ve been obsessing over while doing the dishes. Yup, I’m hooked, and rooting for Peeta, the kind, generous, giving one who lays down his life again and again for Katniss. He reminds me of my husband. The nice guy whose strength lies in self-giving, as opposed to the dark, brooding hunter that is Gale.

But don’t tell me what happens; I’ll be crushed if my little crush is crushed…which given the awful nature of the world of The Hunger Games, is very likely.

Find Your Sparkle!

I haven’t posted in so long but I have so many things I want to write about! I’m jotting them down, even in bits, so I don’t forget ideas, but my list of drafts is becoming like a Christmas wish list…longer and longer…One of my dear friends has been gently nudging me to publish more of them. Of course, as soon as I start writing this, one of my little girls comes running out of the bathroom to tell me a big blue-eyed story and pee on my bedroom floor. Looks like I’ll need to make it sparkle before I can get on with my story about finding my sparkle…

Anyway, back to writing. I’m really loving having a blog. It is challenging to find the time for it, but it’s so good to have a creative outlet, and I think it’s important. Sometimes I need a CIA badge in covert operations to sneak the writing in between dishes and diapers, but it’s worth it. As my buddy said of herself, “I have things to say.” I think we all do, but sometimes we’re afraid to do it. What if I sound funny, vain, stupid, crazy, or even worse, boring?! Well, so what? We can hide in a shell of “at least I didn’t fail, because I never tried,” but it’s a miserable place to be. Better to go out on a limb and try, come what may.

So after many years as a closet writer, I’m trying this blog, and my Mum gave me the nicest compliment about it, “I’m so glad you’ve found your sparkle!” Thanks, Mum! I want to encourage everyone who reads this to find what it is that brings them joy, and to go for it. Don’t think you’re not worth it or don’t have time or are being silly. Every person is a unique and unrepeatable creation, so really the only unreasonable attitude is the one that we have nothing to offer the world, nothing new, nothing distinctly us. Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

I’m reading an amazing book by Julia Cameron called “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.” She writes about overcoming our fears to unleash our creativity, and fighting our inner censor who can be such a perfectionist: “Remember that in order to recover as an artist, you must be willing to be a bad artist. Give yourself permission to be a beginner.” Like any important journey, this one begins with humility and hope.

She continues, “By being willing to be a bad artist, you have a chance to be an artist, and perhaps, over time, a very good one.  When I make this point in teaching, I am met with an instant, defensive hostility: “But do you know how old I will be by the time I learn to really play the piano/act/paint/ write a decent play?”  Yes…the same age you will be if you don’t.  So let’s start.”

So whatever makes you sparkle, whether painting or music, making soufflés or repairing old cars, do it! Do it with joy and abandon, with the simplicity of a child who does it just because it makes her happy. Chances are no one else writes quite the way you do, and certainly no one else can tell your story. Chances are no one can make tiny steam trains that really chug along with your distinct artistry, so if you don’t do it, you will have missed your unique chance to make the world a little more beautiful. All of us want to do that; what we need to believe is that we CAN.

Freedom in Giving

I was reading the encyclical “The Splendor of the Truth” by Pope John Paul the 2nd, when I came across an amazing statement: that it is by giving ourselves away freely and totally, dedicating ourselves to others, and to something greater than ourselves, that we become free.

This struck me as something beautiful and challenging, the idea that it is in seeking to go beyond ourselves, to reach out to the other, that we find true freedom, rather than by seeking first of all ourselves.  It is impossible to possess ourselves completely, to be in control of all things around us, and have things always our way (the dream of children). But it is perhaps possible, with struggle, to let go of ourselves.

If we can give ourselves fully to something we are passionate about–our family, our community, our faith, our work, our art–we can gradually be freed from the entanglements of resentment, bitterness, and self-pity that come from failing to give fully. When we only give half, we feel trapped, because we are still trying to hang on to control, to measure how much we give and make sure we are rewarded.

On the contrary, the person who gives freely, does so because she is inspired to do good; the beauty of goodness urges her on. The reward lies in overcoming herself in order to serve others, not being trapped by her own selfishness but escaping into the beautiful freedom of love, which seeks only to bring joy to others.

It’s a wonderful ideal, which flashed before me this morning like a shooting star…it made me realize that the more fully I give myself, the more I embrace my exact circumstances, the more I rejoice in serving my family, the more free and happy I will be. I guess my whole life will be a climb towards this freedom, an emerging from myself, a lesson in love.  Cheers to all my fellow climbers, and to never giving up, despite the struggles of each day.