Dreaming & scheming together

I was nearing my seventeenth birthday before I slept in a room without one of my sisters. I’ve always thought those years of close contact had something to do with my need for a lot of “alone” time now. As Joseph Campbell said, we all need “a sacred space,” even just a corner of a room, where “you can experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be.” And yet, my memories of the rooms I shared resonate so much more vividly than those I had to myself.

The Patient Voice Project at the University of Iowa (an expressive writing project for people who are ill) often assigns participants to write about their childhood bedrooms. After all, it’s a topic that virtually everyone can write about, and it offers a “way in” to the practice of expressive writing. Telling stories through expressive writing often changes the experience and shows us the way forward.

We lived first in a small duplex house built in 1924. The presence of my older sister, born only 16 months before, hovered over me. We napped together, played together, and shared everything. Shortly after our third sister was born (just  shy of two years after me) we moved to a “bigger” house, about 1000 square feet, but with three bedrooms. Most of my memories begin  there.

The musician Robert Smith says that he still goes back to his parents’ house so that he can just sit in his childhood bedroom and “feel small.” When I think about the shared rooms of my childhood, small is the operative word. We felt small and so we played small games and dreamed small dreams in those rooms.

Little golden bookMy older sister and I like to tell people how we constructed paths around our room with our collection of Little Golden Books. I have no idea how many books we actually had, but at the time, it seemed liked hundreds. Since they were all the same size, we could line them up and turn them into roads. While we were supposed to be napping, somehow we were developing a sense that we needed to have a path to somewhere else.

Role-playing the life of the adults we knew was another pastime in our room. Our mother went every week to have her hair done, so we decided to do it too. My sister (being the bossy one) decided to take the part of hairdresser, so it fell to me to have my hair “done.” She cut my hair with preschool scissors, we stuffed the shorn locks into a shoe box and thought no one would notice. I don’t recall feeling any remorse or regret, even after we were found out.

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After the haircut

For many years, the three of us shared a room with Sleeping Beauty cut-outs on the wall where we created our own fantasy lives. We had to go to bed when it was still light outside and other kids were playing in the streets, so we played “house” in our beds. By carefully turning down the covers (bedspread, blanket, sheet) to different intervals, we could delineate three different rooms atop the bed. There, we would each play-out grown-up life in our own “home.” Invariably, we ended up making too much noise and bringing down the wrath of our very real parents.

By high school, of course, our world had expanded, and the bedroom was no longer our playground. My older sister and I got a “new”, wood-paneled bedroom when my dad finished the basement of the house, but we fought like cats and dogs over the space. My sharpest memory of that time is when I divided our room by building a wall between our beds out of my shoe boxes. (Even then, I loved shoes!) We had gone from building roads to building walls, and I couldn’t wait for her to go off to college and leave me with a room of my own.

The funny thing is that I don’t remember much from the time when I had the room to myself. Sarah Susanka has written that, “We are all searching for home, but we are trying to find it by building more rooms and more space,” instead of thinking about the essence of what makes the spaces feel like home. Without someone to share it and fight over it, the room lost some its luster. There’s a line in the Beach Boys’ song, “In My Room,” that goes, “Do my dreaming and my scheming lie awake and pray…” I think I must have sensed that so much of the dreaming, scheming and praying had been a shared experience, that it was the people, not the place, that were important to me.

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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.”