Last Sunday, my husband finally broke. Our schedule was packed, our luggage was not unpacked, the children were whiny and at least one of them could not find his shoes on the way out the door for Mass. “The stuff” he said, as he says from time to time, “has taken over.” Now, you know that we like to declutter and that we have done some re-arranging this spring, so we don’t have piles of random stuff all over, the “super-fling boogie” kind of stuff that you can quickly recognize as clutter, we were down to the good stuff, clothes that fit, toys and books that we use, but there was still just too much of it to manage.
As a city child, I was blessed to spend my summers in rental houses in the country. You had fresh air, swimming lessons, and only as many worldly possessions as could fit in a suitcase. This was the sort of summer I longed for, and our things were getting in the way.
After Mass, we had the children clean out the car while we made a nice breakfast. Then, we all sat down to blueberry pancakes and mulled over the plan. Dad would give you old moving boxes and trash bags, and you were to remove almost everything from your room. Things could go to the basement, trash or goodwill, and the basement things could come back a little bit at a time if you succeed in keeping your bed made, towel hung up and wet swimsuit off the floor.
I started in the nursery, and removed everything but one small basket of books for bedtime stories. I could see the carpet for the first time in months. For me, it is still really difficult to “fling” toys which have sentimental value or which I know have good play potential, so I was freed by the idea of just putting the things in the basement, I didn’t have to make the tough choices. Right now, I am telling myself that anything that sits in the basement for a year will be given away.
The big kids started on their own, but Dad and I eventually stepped in to help. The girls were amazed that they filled one large black bag of just trash from their room — old art projects, silly bands (“no longer cool”), single barbie shoes, and the broken bins that had been holding all this junk. All the books off of a bookcase were boxed up, whereupon the bookcase collapsed, probably in exhaustion from the strain. We need a new plan/place for storing the early novels which are between children right now, but the closet floor was not a good answer.
I have to admit, this all felt extremely harsh while we were doing it, but the tone in the house was not tense or angry. The children seemed to realize, as we did, that this was liberating. We were not asking them to make choices about what they needed or loved, to worry about how long they had it or who gave it to them, everything was out.
After three hours of solid work, there were two or three bags in the trash, four bags on the porch for pick up, and about 10 boxes in the basement. We headed off to a graduation party, leaving a clean house behind us.
The week which followed has been amazing. I can’t say that the children make their beds without being asked, though some do, but when I ask them to do a simple task — make your bed, put away your laundry or get dressed, they do it without a moan and without getting distracted and stopping to play along the way.
We have been cheerfully up and out and on time for swim practice EVERY DAY, with NO YELLING.
We spent an afternoon at the library, and I have felt free, as I used to in our small apartments, to sit and read in the afternoons to the children, book after book after book, without worrying about what else needed to get done.
Here is what they have for toys right now: In the school room, wooden blocks and one bin of matchbox cars. In the boys room, big bin of legos and brio trains. In the girls room, friendship bracelet making supplies. The first night they chose to take back a stuffed animal or two each to sleep with, but since then not much has been coming up from the basement, no one seems to want more stuff.
Winter will come, and with it more time to play indoors, and we will want the marble run or doll clothes from time to time, but in the fall I want to figure out a way to store these things in the basement or an extra closet so that they really get put away and taken out, so that they are not part of our decor each day. I think that as I put the things into a permanent storage, it will be easier to make decisions about what we really want to keep. That will take a whole weekend, I imagine.
From September-December we have 6 birthdays and Christmas, so I am already thinking of ways to ask for gifts which do not add to the accumulation. I really do not want to lose the joy of these occasions while worrying about managing the stuff, and I want my children to feel loved and gifted by those relatives that want to show love in that way. Hopefully a focus on experiences will help — I am thinking of giving them each an afternoon alone with me for their birthdays.
This week I also got a postcard from a local homeless organization asking for help with backpacks and other basic school supplies for the children they serve. These children face want and stress which I cannot imagine, so it made me feel sort of sick to realize that we have been creating feelings of want and stress in our family by misunderstanding our blessings. I hope to be able to channel my strong desire not to accumulate more stuff by cutting back on shopping and giving more to HomeFront.
On Friday, it was time to pack to head to my parents’ house for the holiday weekend. With an unpleasant, traffic filled and long drive ahead of us, this has always been a stressful task for me in the past, so much so that it almost ruins the weekend. This year, it was totally different. After lunch, I gave each child a small chore (take out the trash, see that windows are closed, etc). Then I had them all bring their suitcases to my (clean) bedroom. I gave them one small packing assignment at a time (bring me two pairs of pajamas, etc). They were all doing the same task, so I did not have to keep track. They brought the clothes as put them in the bag. Even Leo, who is 3! packed his own bag. Bring me a church outfit, bring me a swim suit, bring me your toothbrush. Now, that one threw me for a loop — Mary asked, should we put it in the little travel toothbrush bag — something I bought but which used to get lost in the shuffle?
Every child packed their bag, put it in the car and, when we arrived, brought it into the house — without being asked. My kids have never carried their own luggage before. For the weekend, they kept their bags with them and (more or less) kept track of their own things. Except for a few cases of lost flip-flops, I did not find myself searching for or stepping over their things all weekend. What an amazing difference this made to me.
I feel incredibly gifted by this decision to have less in our rooms right now, and amazed by the results. I think I underestimated the toll that cleaning up was taking on all of us. Now we have less stress, less anger, more time, more fun, more joy. We are able to focus on what we should be doing at any given moment, not distracted by the mess, or just the stuff, around us. We are more present to one another.