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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Being grateful for January

By the time I was 18, I really hated winter. I spent my last cold season in my home state of Michigan just grumbling about how much I didn’t want to be there. Then I left for good.

Even now that I live in the Mid-Atlantic region, winter is my least-favorite season. By the time January arrives, I know it’s going to be cold for three more months, I’m already sick of my winter clothes, and don’t even get me started about all the kale I see on restaurant menus! (I’m sorry, I just don’t like it.)

But this year, I’m resolved not to be the winter grinch, so I searched for the silver lining and came up with ten things to like about January:

  1. The world didn’t end on 12/21/12. The misinterpretation of the Mayan prediction was not true, and I am grateful to be alive in January 2013. (That “2012” movie was pretty fun, though.)
  2. Inaugurations. Every four years, we have a reason to continue celebrating in January. In Washington, where I live, a party spirit pervades the air this week.IMG_0740
  3. The start of the new semester in my teaching job. I look forward to meeting my new group of students and feeling like I have a clean slate with them.
  4. Eating comfort food is okay. Even the healthy eating columns are full of recipes for stews, soups and pasta. We can enjoy the warmth and savoriness of heavier food and find it richly satisfying.Comfort food_109
  5. Catching up on books and movies. With outdoor activities curtailed, and holiday craziness winding down, it’s a good time to curl up with a novel, or have a marathon viewing of Pride & Prejudice.
  6. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. More than just another day off, this is a day to try to give back and be of service to the community.IMG_2315
  7. Starting my new calendar. I still like to keep a paper engagement calendar where I write with ink or pencil. I love the feel of cracking open the new book each year and starting to enter birthdays and appointments.
  8. There’s no one at the beach. January is great time to walk along the shore and have the entire beach all to yourself. Just bundle up!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  9. The days are getting longer. Yes, the mornings are still pretty dark, but we’ve crossed over the hump of the shortest day and the light will increase bit by bit from now until June.
  10. Snow days. There’s no guarantee of snow days where I live. Sometimes two years can go by without one, but that makes it all the more special to wake up to that awesome quiet that comes with a huge snowstorm. I may not like winter, but I enjoy the way all my neighbors talk and laugh while shoveling snow together. There’s a great feeling of camraderie and community at those times.IMG_1052

The month of January is named for the Roman god, Janus, who had two faces. That way, he could look back to the year just finished, and forward to the year just beginning. “Janus” is actually the Latin word for arch, which makes the month of January a kind of doorway for us. Knowing that, I can begin to appreciate how we need to pass through January if we are going to reach the balmier days of spring.

My simple season

When my kids were small, they had a Little Golden Book called My Book of the Seasons. This book had an appealing way of using alliteration and repetition to bring to life the change of seasons. For each season, the book described traditional, iconic imagery, such as pumpkins and snowflakes, and then asked, “Can you see it, can you hear it, can you smell it?” It was wonderful to read out loud.

I think of the book fairly frequently, especially now when I am enjoying the  transition from late spring to early summer. At the beach for Memorial Day weekend, I have had my first local peaches and strawberries of the year. I’ve been basking in the warm sun on the sand. I’ve been taking in the aromas of the plants, as well as the smells of backyard barbeques. I’ve been listening to the birds calling to each other and the children splashing in the waves. Yes, I can feel it, I can smell it and I can taste it. Summer is here!

There’s something incredibly elemental about using the senses to experience the change of seasons. And while a lot of change can be unsettling to people, there is something comforting in the cycle of the seasons, and in knowing that these simple pleasures of summer (or any other season) will be available year after year.

This is also the easiest time of year to simplify and improve how we eat. John Schlimm, the author of a couple of vegan cookbooks, described his style of cooking recently on a radio program. One of his criteria is that all the ingredients he uses have to be available in any neighborhood supermarket, even in the smallest towns. The point is, we don’t need exotic ingredients to make a wonderful-tasting, healthy meal. And with summer here, the farmers’ markets are open, the fruits are ripening, the tomatoes are full of flavor, and there is an abundance of choices. Mmmm…I can see it, I can smell it, I can taste it….

Summer offers itself to us as a lesson in simplicity. It’s not just that the food is fresher and more basic. Our pace slows as we take school breaks and work vacations.  We don’t need to wear heavy clothes so our bodies feel lighter and easier. We can be more in touch with nature because it’s so easy to step outside. All that is required of us is to pay attention and make the choice to enjoy the simple pleasures without asking for more.

Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about voluntary simplicity as “seeing less  so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so that I can have more”. I see the truth of his words today when I feel so incredibly rich because of the simplest things I have – good, fresh food, beautiful surroundings, warm air, blue skies, and loving people.  

People often talk about simplifying their lives. But what they don’t realize is that there’s no “doing” involved in it. It’s all right in front of us already. Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”, who realized that she could go home any time she wanted, all we have to do is say, “I can see it, I can hear it, I can feel it…”

Zzzzzzzz

It’s cold outside, the leaves are falling, days are shorter and today it’s snowing! My body craves sleep more than ever.

While humans are not considered seasonal animals, some of us do experience stronger responses to seasonal changes. People with seasonal affective disorder (a form of depression that impacts people primarily in the northern latitudes) feel the change more than most. Recent research shows that they secrete more melatonin at night during the winter than they do in the summer. Melatonin is the hormone that makes us drowsy, and we produce it in response to darkness.

In a little over a week, we’ll be going off daylight savings time, which will require an adjustment of our internal clocks (also known as our circadian rhythms). This change is a stressor for us, throwing our bodies out of equilibrium, and some people can need as much as a week to make the shift. Moving time ahead in the spring is considered harder than falling back, but you could still experience an increase in daytime sleepiness until you get used to the fall time change.

Most of us already experience a low point in wakefulness in the early afternoon, so when the time changes, we could be even more prone to problems with concentration and productivity. It is a good idea to be more careful than usual to avoid accidents.

Seasonal adjustments are worse if you are one of the 63% of people who say they don’t get enough sleep. Sleep problems and sleep deprivation have been associated with memory problems, being overweight, and having reduced immunity to disease. A new study out of Norway even shows that people with the most symptoms of insomnia have the most heart attacks. Lack of sleep could cause these problems because the body stores memories and repairs itself during sleep. Melatonin (the hormone that promotes sleep) acts as an antioxidant, cleaning up damaging free radicals while we sleep. If we don’t sleep enough, we miss out on that protective benefit.

Getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis is also linked to living a longer, healthier life. So what can you do to sleep better and handle the time change more smoothly?

  • Go to bed at the same time every day and get up at the same time every day.
  • Get regular exercise each day (especially aerobic and stretching), but not too close to bedtime.
  • Expose yourself to outdoor (or bright) light each day.
  • Keep your bedroom a little on the cool side.
  • Make your bedroom quiet and dark. Turn off or cover anything with a glow (cell phones, digital clocks, and other electronics); and use white noise or ear plugs to muffle noises.
  • Use your bed only for sleep or sex.
  • Allow about 2 hours for “winding down” before going to sleep. Dim the lights, listen to quiet music, minimize screen time.

No-no’s:

  • Caffeine in the evening; too much alcohol                                           
  • Watching TV in bed
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Unprescribed sleeping pills
  • Forcing sleep
  • Sleeping with children or pets

And if you’re especially sensitive to the change back to standard time, these tips from the National Sleep Foundation might help:

  • On the night of the change, resist staying up much later than usual. Try to get your usual amount of sleep.
  • Be sure to use curtains or blinds to keep your room dark in the morning; it will be brighter at an earlier time which could cause you to wake sooner than you intend to.
  • Try making a gradual shift in your sleep/wake time over a few days.

For fun, you might want to check out this link for a list of 10 songs about sleep. Sweet dreams!