How to find home in the clutter

It’s time to shake things up a bit. Get the dust out of the corners, check for cracks in the foundation and clear the clutter. Fall – the time of new clothes, new schools, new jobs – is the perfect time for spring cleaning – not just in your home, but maybe in your life.

imageTransitions into summer and winter feel almost seamless to me, but moving into spring or fall is always more significant. Wardrobes change, colors change, and the association with the start of the school year never fades, no matter how long I’ve been out of school. That trepidation I felt as a child is reflected in the feelings that start after Labor Day – time to get serious about work, start new projects, and stop spending dreamy afternoons in the sun. Start asking, “What serves me well, what doesn’t?”

The idea of spring cleaning (or fall, in this case) has roots in various religious and cultural traditions, often connected to the start of the New Year. The Iranian word for the practice translates as “shaking the house”, and what better image is there for the clearing of clutter, both literal and figurative?

Two weeks ago, I happened to be in California when an earthquake actually did “shake the house”. But we don’t need something quite that dramatic to spur us to take a look at what needs a revamp. Unfortunately, we often view the clutter in our lives with a lot of negative self-judgment, which sometimes just causes us to procrastinate more. By encouraging yourself, rather than focusing on shame, you leave the personalizing behind, accept where you are now, and begin to think creatively about it.

Carolyn Koehnline, a therapist who helps people with clutter, recommends “clearing clutter with compassion.” A lot of times, the physical things we need to lose, as well as the relationships we need to change, are so loaded with emotion that we just get stuck. Koehnline recommends some writing prompts that help get you past the stuck point:

Finish the sentences:

If I keep it…..”

“If I let it go….”

Or make lists:

It is time to let go of….”

“It is time to keep….”

“It is time to make space for….”

Not only do these writing exercises help us visualize possible scenarios, they also solidify our intentions, making action more likely. Notice that the list-making is constructed in the present tense – instead of wishfully saying I will do this in the future, I create a world where I am doing this right now.

In a Slate magazine piece, J. Bryan Lowder also recommends reassessing all of the “passive systems” in your environment that enable clutter. Is there something about the way things are designed or placed in your home or office that encourages accumulation and confusion? What habits do you have that support disorder? Can you change your relationship with your space and your stuff?

Sarah Susanka, architect and author of the best-selling book, The Not So Big House, followed that up a few years ago with a book called The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters. It is a workbook for examining our relationship to time, space, work, and possessions. She says that often our desire for more stuff is really a way of covering up what our hearts are actually longing for – a life that is a true reflection of who we are.

When I moved a few months ago, I had to face my clutter head-on and make tough decisions about what it was time to let go of. In many ways, I am still in that process of creating a life that reflects who I am. But I remind myself that home isn’t the building we live in, the furniture we sit on or the things we own. As Sarah Susanka says, “Home is a way of being in one’s life.”

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A new balance

I thought I had stress management under control until I decided to move. I was maybe even a little bit smug, staying calm when others fell apart, stepping in to support my friends and family through their crises. Now I’m realizing just how easily the balance can be disturbed, life can feel chaotic and turmoil can take over.

In most stressful situations, there are both emotional coping responses and practical, problem-focused responses that will help ease the feeling of discomfort. For me, it’s easier to focus on the practical steps, so I make the to-do lists; I schedule the cleaning, the repairing and the painting; I go through the closets; I sort things to keep or get rid of.

The problem is that focusing solely on the action steps is making me more than a little anxious and kind of obsessive. I literally can’t stop thinking about what needs to be done next. I can spend half a morning organizing my Craig’s list posts and Freecycle emails. I can spend half an afternoon organizing bags of castoffs for Goodwill. Meantime, all semblance of normal life is lost.image

Larry David once quipped, “I don’t like to be out my comfort zone, which is about a half inch wide.” Getting ready to move has been forcing me to see the limits of my own comfort zone.  I keep thinking that if I can just clear the clutter out of my house, I’ll feel calmer. But really what I need to do is clear the clutter out of my mind. It’s time for some emotion-focused stress management steps.

Emotion-focused coping means using techniques that help change how I’m looking at the stressor of moving. According to Richard Blonna, one such emotion-focused method comes from Morita therapy — accepting the strong feelings that I have right now, and turning my attention instead to productive work (like writing a blog post!) Another thing I could do is examine whether any of my thinking around the move is illogical. For instance, am I setting arbitrary deadlines for myself? Am I catastrophizing any aspects (if I don’t do this today, the move won’t happen)? If that’s the case, I can try substituting more positive statements for the negative ones.

I realize also that I’m making a classic mistake of people who have too much to do. I’m sacrificing some of the very activities that could make me feel better. While I’m continuing to do yoga regularly, its benefits would last longer if I also added some meditation or breathing breaks on the days in between classes. I could also be turning to my friends more for social support — a night out is okay, even when there’s a lot to do. And, in spite of the cold, a walk in the park would be calming.

Most of all I need to be mindful of spinning my wheels. As Robert Anthony has said, “Moving fast is not the same as going somewhere.” Maybe there are days when the best preparation for moving is not to pack, clean or organize anything.

Spring recharge

We take for granted that our phones and other devices have to be recharged every day or every week. If we don’t do it, we lose the ability to communicate or do our work. The same is true of our minds and bodies, but because we don’t totally shut down, we don’t sense the same urgency to recharge.

April is coming to a close and it’s starting to feel like spring. What can we do to refresh ourselves? The weather teases us, with a few warm days followed by a really cold one; the pollen is challenging some of us to keep our heads clear; flowers are blooming, yet we’re still wearing winter jackets; kids are getting restless in school, but they have two months to go – we can answer that uncertainty and unsettledness by learning what serves us well and making changes in our routines.

Here’s what my spring recharge looks like:

Rediscovering nature – Sustainability is a buzzword all year long, but Earth Day still serves as an opportunity to get people outdoors. A few days ago, I went on a Nature Conservancy hike at Great Falls Park in Virginia, overlooking the Potomac Gorge. As many times as I have been there, I never fail to be awestruck when I see the falls with all their power and beauty. Vultures, cormorants and herons were soaring over the gorge as the river rushed over the rocks. In the park we saw the first spring wildflowers, and I learned that the flowers of redbud trees are edible (salad garnish!) It doesn’t take a whole day to do something in nature: in the May issue of Yoga Journal, there are ideas for connecting with nature in a minute, an hour, a day or a week.Great Falls NP_1

Fresher, lighter food – The warm, comforting foods of winter will soon be a memory. Florida fruit is starting to appear in my grocery store, and I love tracking the progress of the blueberries for sale: first Florida, then Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey and later in summer, Michigan. Spring and summer will mean more local food, more raw or lightly-cooked food, more fruits and vegetables. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has published a book about the best basic foods including best fruit (guava, watermelon and kiwi), best vegetables (kale, spinach and collard greens) and best beans (soybeans, pinto beans and chickpeas). Think of the combinations!photo

Cleaner spaces – Our homes suffer over the winter too. They’re closed up with stale air; dirt and toxins have accumulated; and closets are cluttered with heavy coats, sweaters and boots. Last week I cleaned out my coat closet, and I can’t stop admiring its organization and empty space. (We’ll see how long that lasts!)

A clearer head — Working on mind clutter is valuable too. Could you possibly let go of activities that are draining you and wearing you out? Sometimes I realize that just the process by which I’m doing something is too complicated, that there is a simpler way that uses less energy. Often it’s because I’m trying to control something too much. But by letting go of some control, the process becomes easier, and I am freer in a way. Recommitting to a meditative practice helps me figure this out.

Reuniting with friends and family – Feeling other people’s energy can be a great way to recharge. Spring is the perfect time to connect with people who stimulate and challenge you, support you and nourish you. It’s the time when we start planning family reunions and summer picnics. Maybe it’s a time to commit to putting out more love, and less fear and judgment; to look for the beauty in people that mirrors springtime’s beauty.

Great Falls NP ChickweedI don’t think there is any season that nourishes the spirit, or gives us more reason to feel hope and optimism as spring does. As the writer and abolitionist Harriet Ann Jacobs wrote, “The beautiful spring came; and when Nature resumes her loveliness, the human soul is apt to revive also.