Happiness is rows of neatly folded towels, shirts hung in the colors of the spectrum (ROY G BIV), and books precisely aligned on shelves. I love order and the well-organized life it creates. The order in my home helps me to live deliberately, with purpose, and hopefully conveys my belief to cling to people, not to things.
I am a bit of a minimalist, but not in its current use as a lifestyle of very expensive items displayed painstakingly in a world of white on white. I’m not stark, just uncluttered. My minimalism started early. Growing up the youngest in a house with ten people, until middle school, two drawers and ½ of a closet held my clothes and worldly possessions. I liked my belongings tidy, not only to keep them in good shape, but to be aware of anyone ‘borrowing’ a favorite item.
As a college freshman, I lived in a single. It was the first room of my own and, even when I tossed my clothes on the floor or didn’t clean for a few weeks, the closet and drawers were neatly organized. Order was instinctive, but after a couple of years, I found I had accumulated a lot of stuff-mementos from events, worn out clothes, vases from flowers received, notebooks from classes, every gift given-and when I went to store my belongings for the summer, there was more than would fit into the boxes. I couldn’t keep everything, I had to glean my possessions. I examined them in a way I never had, looking beyond keeping them for the sake of familiarity and habit, but for usefulness and enjoyment. On that afternoon in early-May two insights for keeping order were learned: 1) There is no obligation to keep a gift I didn’t want, rather remember the kindness, and let go of the gift and the guilt. 2) Everything can’t be special-if you have numerous similar items, they can’t all be special-keep no more than three. I choose three because of the Trinity and teasingly say, “if it’s good enough for God, it’s definitely good enough for me”.
In my penny-pinching twenties, my husband and I had an assortment of hand-me down furniture and household items. I soon realized these items didn’t fit our needs. Though well-intentioned, these freebies were often accepted without thought of practicality and began to weigh me down. They created unwanted cluttered that made it a struggle to determine my style and preferences. It was when we owned our first home that I embraced, “Less is More”. I found less stuff helped keep order in a house with both of us working and two small children. There was less to take care of, less to clean, less to manage, less to pay for, and less distraction. And then there was ‘the more’: more space in the house for the kids to play, to spread out their trains, blocks and dollies, more time to read aloud or to cook, more focus on being with one another, and even a bit more money to save. I could straighten up quickly and was no longer frustrated trying to shove yet another seasonal towel into a kitchen drawer or another ninja turtle t-shirt into a bureau.
The order I created-toys neatly on shelves, kitchen items arranged carefully in cabinets, and clothes hung up by type and color-would serve us well with small children, especially when we learned one of our kids had poor working memory. Strengthening that memory and learning life skills was easier when there was a place for everything and everything is in its place. Many a night, I did a 20-minute clean-up to get everything back in place, but there was no daily drama of searching for lunches, shoes, or backpacks when each item was found in its place. And now, in my fifties, I am grateful for the order; I’m not in constant search of my keys or phone.
To keep the house uncluttered after the purging of the unnecessary and unwanted items, I had to focus on not filling the space again. This was hard with kids given that their clothes, interests, and activities changed as they grew older. Luckily, they only occasionally complained they didn’t have all the stuff that their friends had, or weren’t allowed to keep every trinket ever received, or that they didn’t get souvenirs on every outing. Instead, they had lots of experiences, including going to the theater, sporting events, and living abroad. I fought the consumer culture-the purchaser mentality and impulse buying pushed by marketers-the result was a tidier house, kids who learned the outing was the treat, and more money in their college fund.
Keeping a neat home was a priority, but I didn’t do it alone nor make it a drudge. I turned tidying up into game. Whether it was setting the timer for five minutes of clean up with the stereo blasting their favorite new song or everyone choosing a different room and racing to be finished first, or trying to pick up five things with one hand, there was a way to put some fun into cleaning. And when it was time for a clearing out of clothes or toys, on average twice a year, we did it together. Mostly the kids sat on their beds while I held up items to go into one of three piles: keep, give away, or toss out. An item that was loved but outgrown or beyond repair could be kept as an old friend but no more than three. We didn’t tackle everything, so as not to overwhelm ourselves, choosing to go through toys or clothes, but not both. We love books, they rarely left the house but would migrate from room to room based on reading level. And I had a ‘staging area’, usually in my bedroom, a place to put items that needed repaired or stuff we were unsure about stayed there until some time passed and we found them useful or not. When the kids were undecided about an item, I would ask them to consider the item’s intended purpose, current purpose, and possible purpose. With a little contemplation, they could sort out the item’s future without difficulty. And I was keen about finishing the task; a project 90% completed is discouraging. I chanted, “Be a finisher” more than my kids might care to remember as we lugged the last bags into the car and drove off to Goodwill.
With four moves in the last seven years, mostly into smaller spaces, I’ve discovered I have few special occasion items. There is no saving for later. I use the good stuff. The Edinburgh crystal wine glasses I bought on my first trip my granny’s homeland are used whenever I open a bottle of wine. And I don’t have collections; my ‘only three things are special’ rule limits that possibility along with my dislike for spending money on the similar things. I feel the same way about having multiple electronic devices, they suck money and then time in maintaining them. I want to own my possessions, not have them own me, whether it be my time, my money or my energy.
For the last three years, orderly, simple living is all the rage with Marie Kondo and her best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I read the book and agreed with much of it, but I found it a bit too stringent-even for me-pushing people to get rid of rarely used items, finished books, and nostalgia. I like to pull out our large champagne tub for festive occasions, reread books, and every couple of years’ comb through a box from my school days in the cool basement on a hot summer afternoon. These occasionally used items continue to enhance my life. And now that my kids are grown, I’ve discovered that passing on a family favorite possession to them is wonderful. I get to see their delight and they get to take a little bit of our home into the one they are creating.