Monday, November 23, 2020

How to Create Kitchen Space

Autumn kitchen

The holidays are coming, and we're going to spending a lot more time in the kitchen.  But crowded counters and crammed, hard-to-access cupboards make holiday cooking more difficult, and steal some of the joy from preparing your special dishes.

To make your kitchen roomier before you start to cook for Thanksgiving, clear away these space-stealing items.

11 Items that Consume Kitchen Real Estate

1.  Excess serving pieces

I'm talking about fish platters, tureens, novelty chip-and-dip servers, deviled egg trays, chargers, or other specialty pieces you rarely use.  Get rid of the ones you're least attached to.  The extra space might be more valuable.

2.  Extra vases

Vases can accumulate and fill an entire cabinet.  If you regularly buy flowers or cut them from your garden, keep the same number of vases as your display areas (the mantel and the dining table, for example).  Either gift the remainder with some flowers or donate them.

3.  Old spices

In general, keep only those that you use regularly.  That dried fenugreek you bought for one Indian dish last year (and used 1/4 teaspoon) can probably go.  Additionally, if your herbs and spices are older than 2 to 3 years, they've probably lost their potency and should be replaced.

4.  Old plastic storage containers

Those that are warped, stained, or cracked probably aren't even safe to use anymore; those with missing lids can't be used for their intended purpose.  Unfortunately, you'll have to just throw them away.  Upgrade to a set of glass storage containers.  Leftovers taste better when they're stored in glass and are safer to reheat.  And nice glass bowls can even be used as serveware.

5.  Gimmicky gadgets

More trouble to use and clean than they're worth, you rarely reach for them.  Declutter, and make room for your well-used utensils.

6.  The knife block

How many knives do you actually use?  Minimalist chef and cookbook author Mark Bittman recommends an 8-inch all-purpose chef's knife, a serrated bread knife (also great for tomatoes), and a paring knife.  Get rid of the block and free up a chunk of counter space.

7.  Extra mugs

We all have some of these.  They crowd cupboards, the sink, and the dishwasher.  How many do you really use in a day?  Keep two per family member and declutter the rest.

8.  Reusable water bottles

These are a great way to keep millions of plastic bottles out of the waste stream, because even recycling uses tons of energy and creates pollution.  But the reusable bottles take a lot of cupboard space, and half of them are probably missing lids or straws.  Keep one per person – you'll take better care of yours if you have only one.  Donate the rest, and don't acquire any more (not even freebies).

9.  Condiment packets and disposable cutlery

You already have your own bottle of ketchup and your own forks.  Why do you need those little packages?  All of that plastic is a menace to the planet.  Next time, just ask the restaurant to leave them out of your to-go bag.

10.  Extraneous sauces

Your refrigerator is a valuable tool every day, so clear out the unneeded to make room for what's important.  Do you regularly use three types of mustard, two brands of barbecue sauce, and four different hot sauces?  Just how old is that jar of cranberry horseradish?  While you're at it, get rid of old or suspect foods at the back of the fridge and in the freezer.

11.  Junk drawers

Junk drawers seem convenient – quick places to stash items that have no regular home but might come in handy someday.  But I've noticed that once something is put in a junk drawer, it stays there, never to be used or even thought of again.  We cram in more and more, and pretty soon we have several catch-all spots, and no idea what's in them.  That's not useful!  Set a timer for 5 minutes.  Dump out the drawers.  Locate items you actually use, such as pens, notepads, flashlights, batteries, and the like.  Toss the rest.  Now you have one reasonably organized miscellaneous drawer, and empty drawers for kitchen utensils, oven mitts, and other oft-used items that currently crowd the counter.

P.S.  This post contains affiliate links.  I earn a small commission if you happen to click through and purchase items.

Photo by Dilyara Garifullina on Unsplash

Friday, November 20, 2020

Kids, Christmas, and Minimalism

Merry minimalism

If you check your calendar, you'll note that Christmas is exactly five weeks away, which probably means that your holiday planning has already begun.  My five-year-old grandson is old enough to begin to understand and participate in Christmas-related activities, such as decorating the tree, making cookies, and setting up the Nativity scene.  Of course, he's also old enough to anticipate gifts, and has already requested "another battery engine," which means that this is likely in his future. 

My parents didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up, yet I have some very happy Christmas memories.  Here are some suggestions on how to create a wonderful holiday for your kids while minimizing materialism and maximizing creativity.

7 Tips for a Fun Minimalist Family Christmas

1.  Don't go overboard on gifts.

No matter how great the gifts are, by the time your child opens her third or fourth package the experience seems to peak.  The gifts won't be met with as much enthusiasm and some may be tossed aside.  So focus on three or four quality gifts rather than a bunch of cheap, less desirable items.  It was because of this tactic that my parents were able to get me some memorable gifts without straining their budget.  They usually focused on one or two special gifts each for my siblings and I, added a few good books for each of us, and then finished with a new game the whole family could play together.

2.  Make sure at least one of the gifts for your child is very open-ended.

Open-ended toys encourage creative, child-guided play, rather than limited interactions that are controlled by the toy.  Compare an "educational" electronic toy or branded action figure with toys like blocks, Legos, K'Nex, baby dolls or a doll house, small vehicles, plastic zoo or farm animals, play dishes, drawing and craft supplies, bicycles, skateboards, and the like.  The more versatile the toy, the more resourceful your child's play will be and the more interesting the toy will remain.

3.  Plan a fun family adventure.

The kids probably won't remember most of what you buy them for Christmas, but they will always remember the time you spent together.  An adventure doesn't have to be as costly as a visit to a theme park; trekking to a rural Christmas tree farm or attending a community theater holiday performance can be every bit as fun and memorable.  I remember being taken to see the ice skating and decorations on Union Square in San Francisco, and marveling at the gigantic Christmas tree in the beautiful rotunda at City of Paris.  My daughter and son-in-law buy tickets for the Christmas Train sponsored by the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento; maybe sleigh rides are a possibility where you live.  Do a little research and plan a special experience for your family.

4.  Use natural tree decorations, and let the kids help make them.

Everything except the lights (and maybe a few cherished ornaments) can be natural and/or recyclable.  String popcorn or Cheerios with fresh or dried cranberries.  Use raffia to hang pinecones.  Dried orange slices are festive and smell wonderful.  (You can dry apples the same way – slice them so the star appears in the core, and brush with lemon juice so they won't turn brown.)  I used to spend hours cutting paper snowflakes, and your kids may enjoy doing it too.  They look pretty on the tree, on windows, and on brown paper packages.

5.  Involve your children in food preparation.

From sugar cookies, frosting, and plenty of sprinkles, to ambrosia salad and roasted winter vegetables, kids can have fun and learn valuable skills in the kitchen.  Don't forget to let them help you make jars of five bean soup as gifts for neighbors and teachers.

6.  Have your children write thank you notes.

Gratitude for our many blessings is absolutely essential to a contented minimalist life, and kids should always be taught to say thank you.  Even a five-year-old can write "Thank you" and Love" and his or her name.  Mom or Dad can fill in the specific reason for thankfulness.  This is a great activity for Boxing Day.

7.  Speaking of Boxing Day – be sure to celebrate it.

Boxing Day is on December 26, the day after Christmas.  It's also the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr and a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem.  The word "boxing" doesn't refer to the sport, but to the tradition of giving boxes of food and clothing to servants and the poor.  Interestingly, the role of a deacon in the early Christian church was to serve the needs of the church members – to visit the sick and to distribute food to the poor.  The story in the carol "Good King Wenceslas" takes place "on the feast of Stephen," and ends with the reminder, "Ye who now will bless the poor/Shall yourselves find blessing."

So please don't go shopping the day after Christmas!  Write thank you notes and visit family you couldn't see on Christmas Day.  Maybe your kids could plan a canned food drive among your neighbors, or this could be the day that you purchase chickens or rabbits to help a poor family feed themselves.  If your town has a hospital, perhaps your family could visit the pediatric ward.  You could sing carols and bring small gifts to the kids who couldn't be at home for Christmas:

  • a bag of mixed fun-size candies and chocolates
  • a box of mixed snack-size packages of crackers, cookies, and dried fruit
  • Matchbox cars
  • a compact game such as Uno or Boggle
  • a cuddly stuffed animal (these rabbits, bears, and bunnies are super soft, machine washable, and baby-safe)
  • a sticker book (these have lots of great themes; some are reusable; all are amazing play value for the price)
  • flexible, fun Wiki Stix
  • pocket-size Spirograph in a tin
  • books that can be read to or read by boys and girls of many ages (these are great too).

P.S.  This post contains several paid links.  As an Amazon Associate, I will make a tiny commission if you happen to click through and purchase one of the items I recommend.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Monday, November 16, 2020

How to Downsize, Part 2

dream cottage

We are now entering the "tough love" section of this process.  If you think the first three steps were a challenge, prepare yourself.  These next two steps are the hardest but most necessary of all. 

Remember your motto:  "Life is not measured by how much you own." (Luke 12:15)

5 Steps to Downsize

4.  Choose some keepsakes.

  • Framed photos and documents are items you deemed worth displaying in the past.  Curate the best from this select group, and feel confident that they effectively represent your life.
  • Include any photo albums or scrapbooks.  You've taken time and effort to put these together – they deserve to be kept and enjoyed by you and your descendants.
  • Keep three, or at most four, collections.  Figure out which are your favorites.  (By the way, books are a collection.  So are videos and Christmas decorations.)
  • Choose your favorite pieces of wall art.  Set a limit, such as two or three items for each room of your new home.  (Okay, okay... you don't have to count a wall clock or your dresser mirror as wall décor.)

  • They aren't keepsakes, but you'll need important papers such as birth and marriage certificates, military discharge papers, loan documents or deeds, tax returns and the like.  For most people, these documents can be stored in one sturdy fireproof box. 
  • If you have memorabilia piled in boxes, decomposing, admit that no matter your emotional response, the truth is they don't actually mean much.  If they did, you would have done more than toss them into a box.  Don't say, "But they're my memories!"  They aren't facilitating memories – they're in a junk pile.  If a family member has offered to go through and digitize them, don't presume on his patience and good nature.  There's no reason for him to deal with what you couldn't be bothered to do yourself.  Choose one box to give to that generous person, and be thankful that he may make it worthwhile.

5.  Sell, donate, or throw away the rest.

Yep, you read that right.  Special occasion serving dishes, basketball trophies, all the other knickknacks and memorabilia, books you haven't opened in years, old camping equipment, holiday decorations, the piano no one plays, those extra chairs... release them.  Don't investigate the boxes, closets, attics, storage sheds, barns, under the beds, or anywhere else your accumulated items have gone to molder.  Release them all.

Please notice that only Steps 1 and 2 include items that are necessary to life (clothing and housewares) – and I bet you still have some extras mixed in.  Steps 3 and 4 (hobbies and keepsakes) are embellishments.  They nurture your personality, interests, memories, and values.  Even if you remove everything else after doing the first four steps, you are not in a deprived, comfortless situation.

Attachment to objects is fleeting.  When we box things up and store them away, or move them to a new house and then don't get around to unpacking them for several months (or maybe never), it's pretty clear we have no particular need or affection for those items.  Go to a yard sale, and notice all the things going for $1 or $2.  They aren't special at all.  They're just stuff.

Once settled into your new life, you won't miss the stuff you got rid of.  You'll be too busy meeting new people and learning and doing new things.  You'll find that you enjoy being light and flexible.  Rather than tending to your piles of belongings, you can enjoy the people and activities that really matter to you.  It's a joyful way to live.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash


Friday, November 13, 2020

How to Downsize, Part 1

cozy corner

Many of us live in homes that hold far too much, and we find it hard to declutter unless and until something forces us to do so.  But downsizing in distress, because of illness, financial difficulty, natural disaster, or death is far more difficult.

That's why I appreciate the "gentle art" of Swedish death cleaning described by author Margareta Magnusson (paid link).  It's the process of mindfully clearing out your own possessions before others have to do it for you.  It lightens and eases your own life as well as removing a burden from your loved ones.  

Here's the motto for your lightened life.  The quote is from Jesus (Luke chapter 12, verse 15):

"Life is not measured by how much you own."

Whether you actually move from your current home into a smaller living space, or simply undertake a radical declutter, it's a challenge.  But it's also a chance to reinvent yourself, to carry only the essentials into your new life.  By divesting ourselves of decades of accumulated stuff, we emerge with more energy and more freedom.  We're looking ahead, not back.

Many people begin their approach to downsizing by sorting boxes of things they have in basements and back closets.  That can be very time-consuming and emotionally draining, and you're almost surely going to be side-tracked by stuff you can't even remember owning.  I recommend a different strategy:

Choose what you want to keep, rather than choosing things to toss.

This isn't the "declutter one item every day for a year," on-tiptoe method of getting rid of extraneous stuff.  The average American home contains 300,000 items, from toys to towels to toasters.  Removing 365 things won't make a dent.  We're going deeper than that.

5 Steps to Downsize

1.  Pack for a two-week vacation.

  • Pick all of your favorite clothes and shoes – the ones that fit comfortably and look good on you.
  • Include a couple of dressy outfits.  Unless you regularly walk a red carpet, two is plenty.
  • Plan for weather extremes.  Add a few sweaters, a jacket, hat, gloves and boots.  Include a few pairs of shorts and tank tops, or a couple of sun dresses and some sandals.  You're building a year-round wardrobe.
  • Don't forget underclothes, night clothes, and exercise clothes.
  • If you're like the average American, this will amount to far less than half of what's in your closet and dresser drawers.
  • Gather the grooming tools that you use every day, such as your comb, hair dryer, shaving implements, nail clippers, etc.
  • Assemble the other things you use every day.  For me that's my glasses, laptop, and phone.  You might have other devices.  Bring the things you would take on a trip and can't do without.

2.  Assemble some housewares.

  • Identify the furniture you must have in a new, smaller space.  I'm talking about pieces you use every day, such as your bed, dresser, perhaps a bedside table, the couch or your favorite easy chairs, a side table or two, some lamps, the refrigerator, the dining table and chairs.  Add a desk, TV, or other items only if you use them regularly and often.
  • Open the linen closet.  Quickly reach in and grab one or two sets of sheets, one or two blankets, and two pillows per bed.  Make sure these are in good condition.  Add two bath towels, hand towels, and wash cloths per person.  Close the closet door.  (Okay, grab a beach towel if you're bringing a bathing suit.)
  • Gather three or four sturdy boxes (or up to six or so if your family is larger than two people) and start loading your kitchen items in order of how often you use them.  Stop when the boxes are full.  Seriously, two place settings of dishes and flatware per person and two or three of your most-used pots and pans, along with some other cooking basics, are sufficient.  If you're protesting, "But I love to bake," see Step 3 below.
  • You'll also want your vacuum cleaner, broom, dustpan, and other cleaning tools (including your washer and dryer, if your new home has a laundry room).

3.  Evaluate hobbies.

  • Consider only the hobbies that you currently pursue or plan to devote serious time to in your new life.  Do not include hobbies that you have neglected for years unless you truly intend to resurrect them.
  • Some tools and supplies are expensive to replace, so if you are going to use your golf clubs, your telescope, your stand mixer, or your two sewing machines often, keep them.  But be honest with yourself.
  • Plenty of hobbies require only minimal supplies, and you might decide to focus on them going forward.  Knitting, crochet, drawing, reading, sudoku, walking, chess, yoga, tennis, blogging, crosswords, volunteering, and container gardening are some of your options.

Be sure to read next Monday's post – Part Two, outlining Steps 4 and 5, on the way!

Photo by Michael Browning on Unsplash

Monday, November 9, 2020

Most of Our Stuff is Worthless

a lifetime of stuff

Have you had to settle a parent's estate?  I have.  My last surviving parent lived in a typical middle-class suburban home filled with furniture, china, crystal, art, clothing, collectibles, and more.  There were even items inherited from my father's parents that had been stored for several decades.

My mother was a tidy housekeeper.  Her house didn't look cluttered.  But it was packed with stuff that was mostly unused on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis.  Every room, every closet, every shelf, every drawer was full of a lifetime of stuff.  And something needed to be done with all of it.

What do you do with a lifetime of stuff?

Losing a parent is hard enough.  But deciding which belongings should be saved, which have some resale value, which can be donated, and what will have to be hauled to the landfill is gut wrenching.  And the cost of hiring a company to go through all of the stuff, separating trash from treasure, and arranging and displaying all of it in preparation for an estate sale might actually be more than the sale itself generates.

The lesson learned from the whole experience is that most of the stuff we value and are so proud of it worthless.

Many of us live in good-sized houses that we've filled with stuff over the years.  I once owned dishes I used only at the holidays.  Special tools and appliances I used once or twice and continued to store "just in case" I might need them again.  Clothes, shoes, accessories, décor items, and more bought because they once caught my eye.  Old tech.  Mementos from my parents and grandparents.  Hundreds of books read once.

I realized that if I didn't streamline what I owned, eventually someone, probably my children, would be burdened with the job of getting rid of it.

Did you know that even the stuff you worry about the most, the stuff you think is so good that you hardly use it for fear of breaking or staining it, has little or no resale value?  Baby boomers have flooded the market with their castoffs: china cabinets, entertainment centers, tea sets, crystal, collectible figurines, and more.  Millennials, the next generation of buyers, don't want them. 

Millennials are shackled by student loans, tend to rent for many years before buying a home (if they ever do), and move often.  They don't want to be moving a piano, a grandfather clock, or fragile special-occasion china from apartment to apartment.  They don't do formal in-home entertaining, and they don't like "brown furniture," meaning any furniture (regardless of quality) other than clean-lined modern styles.  According to many estate professionals, there's no market for brown (also known as "grandma") furniture.  Even if it's donated, most of it can't be resold.  Much of it will wind up in a landfill.

There are three things you might have in your house that have a decent resale value:

  • Guns
  • LPs (vinyl records), but only 50s and 60s rock 'n' roll, jazz, or R&B in excellent condition and with the original cover
  • Precious gems and metals (including solid silver flatware)

5 Steps to Reduce the Burden

1.  If you aren't using it, but it might be useful, donate it now.

There is absolutely no sense in letting something sit for years or decades gathering dust.  If it's dusty now, you don't need it.  But maybe it will get some use if you remove it from your home today.

2.  Resist the HGTV mentality.

Constant home makeovers are good business for furniture manufacturers and home stores, but really bad for our wallets and the environment.  And much modern furniture is made of particle board or MDF (medium-density fiberboard) that contain formaldehyde and other toxic substances.

Keep what you have if you are using it now, and take care of it.  Update some of that solid wood "brown furniture" by refinishing or painting it, replacing knobs and other hardware for a more modern look, if you want to.  Paint your kitchen cabinets instead of replacing them.

Resist trendiness and stick with the colors you like.  Create your own art, or decorate with those family heirlooms you claim mean so much to you.  Have old rugs cut down and rebound.  Embrace empty space.

3.  Buy fewer, but better quality, clothing and shoes.

The world is overflowing with used clothing.  

Clothing made today is meant to last no more than a season or two.  In fact, a lot of clothing isn't going to withstand more than a few washes.  And I'm sorry to say you aren't doing much good when you donate unwanted clothing to Goodwill.  Most of it will never make it to the racks in the store, and only a small portion will eventually be sold.

It's much better to buy a few high quality, classically-styled items that you will keep and wear for many years.

4.  Buy fewer books.

Used book sellers provide an important service, but a surprising number of books end up in landfills because many paper recycling facilities can't process the glue in their bindings.

However, you don't have to stop reading books.  If you haven't been to the library in a while, now is the time to go back.  It might also be time to invest in an e-reader (paid link).

5.  Be ruthless about sentimental items.

Keep just enough stuff to remind you of someone, but not so much that your own kids will be dealing with piles of stuff in another 30 years.  I kept some photographs, two pieces of furniture that I use every day, and one item of Christmas décor.

By keeping only one item, you have the opportunity to use or display it in a place of honor.  One useful or display-worthy item will actually have the chance to trigger memories of your loved one.  If a bunch of stuff is only going to sit in the back of a closet or in your attic or garage, you might as well dump it now.

This goes for photos too.  If you actually create a small scrapbook that will have pride of place on your coffee table, or if you choose a lovely portrait, frame it nicely, and hang it prominently, then you honor your loved one and have a chance to regularly see and remember her.  Simply keeping a pile of moldering photos in a box in the basement isn't preserving memories for anyone.  Might as well toss them.

I'll definitely think twice before keeping any of my own sentimental items for someone else to deal with after I die.

P.S.  Yes, it's ironic, but my book, Minimalism for the Holidays, is currently being offered at 51% off in the Kindle edition.  This fantastic sale ends tonight at midnight (Pacific time).

Photo by Julien-Pier Belanger on Unsplash

Friday, November 6, 2020

The Magic of Owning Less

serene and tidy

I don't enjoy housework.  Cleaning and scrubbing are not my idea of a good time.  But I do enjoy a clean, tidy, uncluttered home.  I've learned that minimalism works in spite of my natural laziness.

You might be lazy like me or a bit messy by nature.  But that doesn't mean you can't be a minimalist.

Surprised?  Don't be.  If we create homes that allow us to be lazy, we will be lazy.  If we own an excessive number of dishes, we will continue to reach for more from the cabinet instead of rinsing out the water glass we used an hour ago.  Dishes don't make it to the sink or the dishwasher when we know we can just grab another out of the cupboard.

If we own a large number of clothes, we continue to drop the ones we just took off on the floor, or we keep piling them in the laundry room, because we have plenty of clean clothes left in the closet.  We might complain about the mountain of dirty laundry, but we don't do anything about it as long as we have anything clean to wear.

My grandsons own a ton of toys, and when they are playing they gravitate from one thing to another.  They don't have to focus on playing with anything, because there are boxes and cubbies full of toys they haven't accessed yet.  And cleaning up the playroom is a time-consuming, nearly impossible chore.  However, when they come to my house, there are only a few toys for them.  They get very creative with those toys because there aren't very many.  They may still wind up spread all over the floor, but they are not just discards, they are part of some elaborate pretend world.  And when it's time to clean up, it doesn't take too long.

The situations that allow us to be lazy or messy today actually end up creating much more work for us in the long run.  If you want to have less laundry to do, own less clothing.  If you want to have fewer dishes to wash, own fewer dishes.  If you want to spend less time putting away toys, own fewer toys.

This seems like minimalist magic.  But it isn't really.  After all, everything we own is something else to look for, find, move, clean, put away, maintain, and worry about.  Less stuff means less of all of these things, and more time to get on with life.

The answer isn't more or better storage.  This is what sometimes gets us into trouble in the first place.  We may have a lot of storage areas: tons of drawers and cubbies and back closets and spare rooms and garden sheds; attic space, basement space, and garage space.  The house itself may look tidy, but all of those storage spaces are jumbled and unruly, as if lying in wait ready to jump out and overwhelm us.  The more storage spaces we have, the harder it is to remember where anything is, and the longer it takes to search.

Alternatively, we try to "Martha Stewart" our closets and cupboards.  Everything looks beautiful and color-coordinated.  It's stacked and organized and labeled.  But we spend so much time maintaining our pretty setup that it becomes a pain to access anything or put it away.  It's just too much work, so our lovely system returns to its natural disorder.  And if we live with other people, this may happen more quickly.  The more complex our system, the less likely anyone else will be inclined to follow it.

I admit there are a few things that minimalism by itself simply cannot change:

  • Houses don't tidy themselves.  If you want your home to be neat and clean, you will still have to do the work.  I find that when I clean as I go, doing little tasks before they become big ones, I create a routine that makes tidying nearly effortless.
  • The cleaning will never be finished.  It's not simply a matter of making your home shine.  Enjoy those few moments when it's in pristine condition, because now you're going to live in it, and it won't stay that way.  It's far better to accept that, and create daily habits that keep things from becoming completely dirty and chaotic.  It's a lot easier to keep up than to catch up.
  • A tidy home requires mindfulness.  Of course you're tired when you get home.  But if you mindlessly toss your bag and your jacket on the sofa, lay your sunglasses on the kitchen counter, your keys on the bookshelf in the hall, and the mail on your dresser in the bedroom, you've created a mess and insured that you're going to be frantically looking for something that you scattered without thinking about it.  It only takes a bit of time and attention to leave your shoes in the cubby by the door, to hang your jacket and bag on their hook in the closet (insuring that your keys and sunglasses are in the bag), and to open the mail over the recycling bin, setting bills and items that need attention in designated spots on your desk.  This immediately reduces clutter and actually saves time in the long run.

Tidying is a habit, and I realize it doesn't come naturally to everyone.  But anyone can learn tidiness.  If we practice consciously every day, it will eventually become an unconscious habit.  And minimalism makes it so much easier!

  • When we own less, those lazy habits that created such huge piles of dirt and disorder are no longer possible.
  • When we own less, it's faster and easier to keep everything organized and put away.
  • When we own less, we create more space and time for activities that are far more satisfying than housework.

Minimalism doesn't require me to become a control freak.

It simply gives me a handle on my home so that it becomes a place of refuge and support for my best life (paid link).

P.S.  Don't forget: The Kindle edition of Minimalism for the Holidays is on sale now for only $1.99.  Hurry – the sale ends next Monday, November 9th at midnight.

Photo by Hutomo Abrianto on Unsplash

Monday, November 2, 2020

How to Declutter Books

leaf through a book

It's ironic, I know... but I want to let you know about a book sale!  My latest, the revised and expanded Kindle edition of Minimalism for the Holidays, is on sale for 51% off starting tomorrow, November 3rd at 6:00 a.m. Pacific Time, and continuing through next Monday, November 9th, at midnight.

* * * * *

I have loved reading since I was 6, when my bright yellow hardcover copy of Key to the Treasure was one of my most precious possessions.  Even before that, when Mama read a fairy tale or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I was smitten by the magic contained between the covers of a book.

Book stores are among my most favorite places to spend an afternoon, and I used to purchase something from every school and library book drive I came across.  After all, who wouldn't want all the books you can carry for only $1 or $2 apiece?  I would buy books just because the title or subject looked interesting, or the author was one I recognized, or it was something I had once read but didn't actually own.

At one point, my home had five bookshelves, and all were completely full.  Most of the books were mine, some were my husband's, and each of my kids had substantial collections as well.  I'm not sure what the total number was, but I'd guess it was over 300.

My daughter got married, and we started thinking about downsizing, even though our son lived with us for another three years.  After we packed, there were boxes and boxes of books – HEAVY boxes.  And guess what?  Our new home didn't have room for five bookshelves.  We squeezed in three.  There was no way to organize my way out of the situation.  There simply wasn't room to keep every book I owned.

Decluttering books was difficult at first.  There were books that I'd loved in my teens, or twenties, or thirties, and even though I didn't really want to read most of them again, it was hard to think about parting with them.  There were children's books that I cherished because I had read them to my kids, or because they were exceptionally beautiful illustrated hardcover editions.  And there were other books that made me feel guilty.  Purchased on a whim, they had looked interesting in the store or at the used book drive, but I had never actually read them.  But maybe I should, and that meant I had to keep them.

Fast forward a few years.  I now own 56 books, plus 17 picture books that my grandsons keep here.  I also have a physical copy of each of the books I've written and published (seven so far).  Everything fits on one bookshelf.  And I think I'm ready to remove another half dozen volumes, which leaves room for something new and interesting!

How did I deal with my emotional attachments, change my thinking, and ultimately reduce the weight of my book collection?

5 Realizations That Can Help You Declutter Books (and other things)

1.  Buying books and reading books are not two sides of the same coin.

I've always been an avid reader, but I don't read or finish every book that catches my eye or piques my interest, and I certainly don't need to buy all of them.  It's fun to dip into something new and different, but I don't need to make a purchase to have that opportunity.  The public library is the perfect place to grab an armload of books that you might want to spend time reading.  Libraries let you explore new reading possibilities to your heart's delight, without guilt or clutter.

Even e-books can become clutter, if you purchase many that you never read or that you read once and will never refer to again.  An alternative is Amazon's Kindle Unlimited (paid link), a service which lets you borrow unlimited books to read or listen to for a small monthly fee.

Instead of collecting books, consider keeping a book journal instead.  That way you can look back to see what you've read without feeling the need to possess it all.

After all, the value comes from reading the books, not owning them.

If you've acquired more books (or anything else) than you can possibly use, ask yourself why you buy so much.  Are you buying for the sake of buying?

2.  You don't have to read every book you've bought.

Let go of guilt, and let go of books you bought but never read, or that you've abandoned part way through.  There are no book police!  Thousands and thousands of new books are published every year.  You can't possibly read everything.  It's perfectly fine to spend time reading what you want to read, rather than what you feel obligated to get through.  Once you let it go, you probably won't even miss it.  And if you ever do want to read it – that's what the library is for.

3.  You can't recoup the money you spent by hanging on to the book.

Decluttering anything can be hard if you feel guilty about how much you spent for it.  It's tempting to feel that you have to keep things because you don't want your money to be wasted.  In fact, the money has already been spent.  It's called the "sunk cost," and nothing will bring it back.  But you can still free up space and make wiser choices in the future.

4.  Sometimes we grow away from books.

Some books become treasures that you revisit over and over through the years.  For me, To Kill a Mockingbird and Emma fit into that category.  My husband and I both love The Lord of the Rings, Hatchet, and The Martian.  But like some old friends, there are other books we cared for in the past that we have drifted away from (Agatha Christie and Harry Potter, for example).  As time passes and we evolve, our preferences may change too.  That includes things like books, music, art, or hobbies that we once enjoyed but no longer do.  When you remove them, you create space, time, and energy to explore what adds value to your life today.

5.  Your books don't define who you are.

You might think that having lots of classics on your shelves shows that you are well-read, or that beautiful travel books or cutting-edge science books show that you are sophisticated, adventurous, or super-smart.  Do read these books if they interest you, but it's your lively, intelligent conversation that will display these attributes, not the books sitting on your shelf.

Of course some books will have a profound impact on you.  A few are so rich that they will continue to provide knowledge, guidance, or support for a long while, or even forever (for me that includes the Bible and a handful of books by C. S. Lewis).

The books that we have read and studied in the past have shaped who we are, and how we think and act in the world today.  They are part of our memories and experiences.  But the benefits we gained came from the act of reading, not the act of owning.  

Decluttering books won't diminish us at all.  

Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Minimalist Fun

Simple Fun

A common myth about minimalists is that we have boring, empty wardrobes, homes, and lives.  That we can't do anything fun because we don't go in for consumer items.  That all we do is declutter.

It's a reason some people hesitate to embrace minimalism – they think it's Scrooge-like and no fun.

Stimulation Junkies

A lot of us want entertainment that distracts us from day-to-day life, something that makes an exciting or relaxing change.  We don't want to expend much energy; we just want to be amused.  So we might turn to TV, movies, video games, theme parks, shopping, Disney cruises, concerts, parties, bars, or casinos for entertainment.  Plenty of these activities have their merits (a good film is a work of art, travel broadens the mind, etc.), but for the most part they allow us to remain passive observers, simply soaking it in.

Ultimately, these diversions are only temporary, and some of them are empty, or even harmful.  And when we're constantly looking for variety and excitement, we need to keep upping the ante.  We always need something new and different.  After all, we live in a culture that relies on keeping us in a constant state of desire.  At some point we can no longer tolerate a quiet evening or weekend, because it's "boring."

I'm sure you've seen children and teens who are in constant need of entertainment and stimulation.  Most of their waking hours are scheduled.  They get constant snacks and new toys, play adult-organized sports or take classes every afternoon, attend over-the-top birthday parties every weekend, play video games or watch TV, or if all else fails, sit for hours with their cell phones and surf social media or chat sites.  They complain of boredom, and seem to hate to be at home.  They have great difficulty finding something to do on their own.  They never just play outside or color a picture or pet the dog.

These kids have been entertained.  They're not lacking for distraction, amusement, playthings, or activities.  But they lack imagination.  They can't take the initiative.  They're dependent on outside stimulation.  They're constantly buying things, or nagging for things to be bought for them.  They have no patience for solving problems, and they absolutely cannot tolerate being thoughtful or alone.

I'm not suggesting that we should never watch TV or go to a theme park or go out with friends.  But constant passive entertainment makes us dull and incapable. 

The Goal of Leisure

I'm going to get just a bit philosophical here and share an idea of Aristotle's.  Entertainment (he called it "amusements") diverts the mind with something pleasant.  It may allow us to forget our cares, and so in that sense it's relaxing, and gives us a break from work or more serious matters.

But the goal of leisure, according to Aristotle, is meaningful activity.  It's not enough to spend time on passive distractions from work or daily cares.  True leisure allows for learning and creativity.  It's purposeful and enriching.  It fulfills and refreshes us.

Think about how you feel (or how your kids behave) after you've spent hours in front of the TV or on social media, or at the mall, or in chitchat and gossip.  Do you feel energized, resourceful, satisfied, happy?

Now contrast that with your feelings after a day spent hiking, gardening, practicing an instrument, or crafting something.  Do you feel energized (even if you're physically tired), resourceful, pleased with your accomplishments, cheerful and in good spirits?

Too much passive distraction makes us bored and restless.  It's not all bad – we can certainly enjoy it sometimes.  But humans thrive when they are active, purposeful, and productive in ways that fulfill them.

Real Fun

Minimalism is not about emptying your life.  It's about making space for things that matter to you by eliminating the unnecessary.  So a minimalist can make time for valuable work and plenty of leisure.

True leisure involves creation rather than consumption.  It lets you take the initiative, rather than watching someone else perform.  It happens in the real world rather than a virtual one.

Here are some examples of things I've done in the last week for fun:

  • Made things with Legos and played with a wooden train set with my grandsons.
  • Wrote three posts for my blog (writing is fun for me).
  • Crocheted while watching TV.
  • Started reading a new book; also read several articles online.
  • Went to dinner with my husband (restaurants are serving inside now, with COVID cleaning and distancing protocols in place).
  • Attended a small family get-together for my grandson's 5th birthday.
  • Completed several crossword puzzles.
  • Listened to classical music while balancing the checkbook and writing a letter to my aunt.
  • Observed and rejoiced in the beginnings of autumn weather on several short walks.
  • Watched an old favorite movie with my husband.
  • Helped my husband organize photos for my father-in-law's upcoming memorial service (it might not sound like fun, but it was enjoyable to look at old photos and reminisce).

Some examples of things we did for fun when my kids were young:
  • Played board games.
  • Played in the park.
  • Made up silly songs and poems.
  • Visited family.
  • Used binoculars for stargazing.
  • Attended the Draft Horse Classic at the fairgrounds.
  • Acted, sang, and otherwise participated in community theater.
  • Read aloud (favorites included the entire Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and Harry Potter sagas).
  • Went to lots of different museums in California and Oregon.
  • Saw several plays at the famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
  • Played chess.
  • Rode bikes.
  • Pursued arts and crafts like drawing, scrapbooking, beading, knitting, and more.
  • Camped and hiked in Yosemite and Lassen national parks.
  • Our son took ceramic classes at the community college.
  • Our kids made up their own language and fantasy country (inspired by Tolkien).
  • Our daughter played the piano.
  • Our son taught himself to sew using online video tutorials.

These are just a few examples, but you get the idea.  Now go have some fun!

Photo by Alaric Sim on Unsplash

Monday, October 26, 2020

Free to Fly

tiny bird on a wire


When I moved from one house to another

there were many things I had no room for.

What does one do?  I rented a storage

space.  And filled it.  Years passed.

Occasionally I went there and looked in,

but nothing happened, not a single

twinge of the heart...  Things!

Burn them, burn them!  Make a beautiful

fire!  More room in your heart for love,

for the trees!  For the birds who who own

nothing –  the reason they can fly.

Mary Oliver, "Storage" 

Sometimes it seems that the longer I've had something, the harder it is to let go, even if I no longer have a use for it.  There are books I haven't read in a long time, and probably won't read again... but they once held a special place in my heart, so there they sit on my shelf.  There's art that I bought years ago and probably wouldn't choose today... but it's been on my wall for so long that it seems grown there.  It's hard to imagine something new.  Music that I once performed, cookbooks that I once consulted, a tea set that I once used quite often.  They still sit in my cupboards and closets, even though I've decluttered so much already.

Is it the same for you?  Maybe you hang on to clothing, or sports gear, or Grandma's Victorian dining table with 12 chairs (even though you don't have a formal dining room).

The U.S. Department of Energy reports that 25% of Americans with two-car garages have so much stuff in them that they can't park a car.  I think that number must be higher in northern California – most of our residential streets are choked with parked cars.

And in spite of clutter in our garages (and attics, basements, and backyard storage sheds), almost 10% of American households rent additional storage space.  There are more self-storage facilities than there are high schools in the U.S.  There are more self-storage facilities than there are Starbucks, McDonald's, and Subway locations combined.  And the self-storage industry has grown by more than 7% every year since 2012.

To cap it off, the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals reports that 80% of the items we own are never used.  It's the Pareto Principle showing up in our day-to-day life.  But if we use 20% of our stuff 80% of the time, that means that the vast majority of our possessions aren't that special or important.  Our lives would probably go on just as well without them.

In fact, neuroscientists at Princeton University have found that physical clutter in our surroundings reduces our ability to focus, making it harder to do well at anything, from work to relationships.

Imagine how our lives would improve if we only kept the things we use!  Imagine how much time, energy, and money we might save, and in what other more fulfilling ways we might use those finite resources.

Jesus taught that we should consider the flowers, and pay attention to the birds, who do not plant or reap or spin or sew, and yet are clothed in beauty and provided with food.  They are not busy trying to acquire more and more, and they don't worry about things outside of their control (Matthew chapter 6, verses 26-30).

If you feel weighed down with stuff, with tasks, with worries, it's possible to live differently.  That's what minimalism is all about.

Minimalism lets you identify what is most valuable to you so that you can prune away what crowds or distracts from it.

It's a golden opportunity to let go and live a bit lighter.

P.S.  Thinking about adding some seasonal touches to your home?    You don't have to buy any plastic décor.  A few large pumpkins are going on my porch today, and I'm using this easy pattern to crochet a couple of spider webs.  (This pattern uses U.S. terminology, but there are lots of others online if you look).  This post contains a few other ideas for consumable Halloween decorating.  Have fun!

Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

Friday, October 23, 2020

How to Get More Done

Several situations have conspired lately to give me a longer-than-usual to-do list.  My husband, too, is extra-busy planning lessons for online teaching (his students are all still learning from home).  Deadlines loom and they must be met, and it feels a bit overwhelming.

I'm sure you can relate.  Lots of people have this problem.

I'm fairly organized, so I usually have EVERYTHING I need to accomplish on my to-do list, and right now it's getting longer and longer.  But at least I have a list (however long) of tasks in front of me.  Plenty of people don't have everything on a list.  Their tasks might be scattered across different organizational systems, in email inboxes, in browser tabs, on Post-It notes and random pieces of paper, and in their heads.

Either way, it can feel overwhelming.  We need to deal with the stress, the fear (of forgetting, of failing), and the lack of ability to focus.

4 Ways to Handle a Long To-Do List

1.  Become clear about priorities.

If you don't know what matters, if everything seems urgent and important, you'll be scattered and stressed.

If you know what's essential, you can focus.  The rest can wait.  It's as if you're a doctor performing triage, and the person having the heart attack gets cared for before the dozens of people with ankle sprains, sore throats, and weird rashes.  Eventually you'll get to those others, but the person who can't survive without your attention gets it first.

So get clear on what matters to you.  Think about why, and make a list.  It's worth spending some time on this.  You might even decide that some of your tasks and commitments should be given up completely.

If you can do this, you'll be so much more effective (and calm) that if you try to do everything.

2.  Change your attitude toward your tasks.

This is an idea from Leo Babauta of Zen Habits.  He points out that when you feel overwhelmed and stressed by your list of tasks, this is a sign that you think of them as burdens.  You're letting your fear that you're going to let people down, or fail, or look incompetent or stupid get the better of you.

I've often felt this way when faced with a task.  I do fear being unable to perform, or producing something that is less than what people expect of me.  It's a little like stage fright, which as a long-time professional singer, I know something about.  As a performer, there are ways to deal with stage fright that I've found pretty effective.  Maybe some of those methods can empower us to take on other tasks.  For example:

  • Think of the task as a challenge: a way to grow, discover, and create.
  • Recall your successes and failures of the past.  They have prepared you for this task, because you've learned from all of them.  Appreciate and rely on your past experience.
  • Just do it!  Rather than spending time in fear and doubt, simply begin.  You may find that breaking free of inertia gives you access to energy and forward momentum.  Simply settling to the task may be half the battle.
  • When you encounter a difficult section of your work, slow down.  Stop and consider different ways to approach the problem.  Don't let yourself give up and move on to something else, because you'll just keep delaying and procrastinating and never reach a solution.  Even five minutes' focus on a detail can make a big difference, perhaps even leading to a breakthrough.

These are examples from my life, but you may have other methods that empower you.  Find them and put them to practice.

3.  "Shortlist" your tasks.

You may have a long list of jobs to do: some for work, some for family, some for finances, some that are personal.  But this long list can't all be accomplished today.

So, as with an award, create a shortlist.  This is the stuff you plan to do today, reduced from that long list of candidates for your time and attention.  I try to keep my shortlist to four or five things, but more or less may work best for you.  Sometimes I group several very short tasks together (like phone calls) as one "chunk."

If you have meetings or appointments, those need to be on the list, so you'll want to add fewer tasks.

Think about what must be done today.  What would be a powerful use of your time and energy today?  Focus on those things, and let the rest come later.

4.  Single-task.

You know your priorities, you've improved your mindset and approach to dealing with tasks, and you've created your shortlist.  The final piece of the puzzle is to focus on one thing at a time.  If you can practice this regularly, you'll feel less overwhelmed.

I've had jobs where I had bookkeeping tasks to accomplish, clients to greet and serve, and a boss who might hand me a new task at any time.  I've met the needs of two young children while managing household tasks and honoring volunteer commitments.  I felt rushed, would lose focus and have to backtrack, trying to remember where I left off.  I didn't always give my full attention to one thing at a time, so everything took longer.

We're told we can accomplish more if we just learn to multi-task more efficiently.  But if our attention is diffused, we actually accomplish less while feeling more frazzled.  What we call multi-tasking is really our brains frantically switching back and forth between jobs.  Multi-tasking is actually a practice of constant interruption and distraction.

When you single-task, you pick something important to work on and clear everything else away.  You decide to be immersed in your task.  It's the only thing in front of you for 15 or 30 or 60 minutes.  You may feel the urge to do something else, but you're simply going to acknowledge the urge and then bring your focus back to the task.

It's ironic, but we get more done when we focus on fewer things.

Can you try this today?


Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash

Monday, October 19, 2020

How to Inspire Change

A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.

Winston Churchill 

I might be a fanatic about minimalism.

And I would add to Sir Winston's definition the warning that it's easy for a fanatic to alienate people from the very point of view he wants them to embrace.  We see it often in discussions of religion and politics, but it can happen any time people have firm opinions about a subject.

I've been guilty of all of the following behaviors from time to time.  I try hard not to fall into them, but as you may have discovered during this election season, it is sometimes hard to keep your opinions to yourself.  So these are simply words to the wise.

5 Alienation Techniques

1.  Offer your opinion when no one has asked for it.

Enter a family member's cluttered kitchen or encounter a co-worker's cluttered desk, and you may be tempted to offer tips that would help them clear the excess.  You may sincerely want to help them, but it's likely they won't see it that way.  If you want to increase the likelihood that they won't pay attention to your ideas, go ahead and share even if you have to interrupt your previous conversation.

2.  Offer to help them "clean up."

Unless you're talking to a child under the age of 8 or so, offers like this will be taken as an insult, no matter how carefully worded or how much you sincerely want to help.  If the fact that you have to move a pile of papers or a load of unfolded laundry in order to sit down doesn't bother them, try not to let it bother you.

3.  Share statistics about how much clutter the average person lives with, or how much it hampers their everyday lives.

The average American home contains 300,000 items, and I've been in a few that make it easy to believe that number.  Clutter makes it harder to clean our living spaces.  It increases the time we spend looking for things we've mislaid and the likelihood we won't find them.  It makes daily life more difficult.  But inserting that information into a conversation isn't going to make your listener suddenly anxious to declutter.  It's more likely to make them roll their eyes and dismiss you as a fanatic.  (After all, who else walks around with obscure statistics at their fingertips?)

4.  Nag them into decluttering.

This is the most common method used by roommates and spouses.  Be the squeaky wheel that gets a response by complaining regularly about their stuff being in the way.  Make sure to use words like "junk" and "garbage" when referring to their belongings.  If you faithfully use this technique, not only will they stop paying attention to your ideas, they'll be openly antagonistic toward them.

5.  Adopt a superior attitude.

Making clutter or its lack a matter of virtue or morality rather than habit or mindset is a sure strategy for driving a wedge between you and another person.  If you truly believe that dealing with clutter can help your friend rise above stress, fatigue, depression, fear, and other issues, behaving as if they're some poor slob who just needs to get it together is sure to keep them from ever seeking your advice or assistance.

I've described techniques that won't help you win friends and influence people.  As much as I hate to say it, the most likely way you can help someone close to you who has a problem with clutter is not to give them a copy of my book Uncluttered (paid link).

Instead, the best thing you can do is to be the example of someone whose life is better because you've dealt with clutter in your own home, office, and schedule.  When you exhibit energy, resilience (paid link), and peace, friends and family may ask your secret.  That's your opening to share what the pursuit of minimalism has done for you.

I presume you're here at Maximum Gratitude Minimal Stuff because you're ready to find out if minimalism can benefit you.  You are why I write this blog and my books.  Thank you for reading.

Photo by Stephanie Harvey on Unsplash

Friday, October 16, 2020

Don't Let Your Diet Define You

One day we step on the scale and the number we see there shocks us.  It has crossed some threshold we may not even have known we had, and we're galvanized.  "That's it!  I'm going on a diet!"

In the early stages, we cut out everything: sugar, carbs, processed food, whatever we have to in order to lose weight fast.  We might even cut too much in order to achieve our goal as quickly as possible.  I've done the starvation liquid diet thing.  I've done the no-more-than-20-carbs-a-day thing.

However, at some point we start to feel deprived (and perhaps we really are).  We start eating all of those things again, and we end up right back where we started in the first place (or maybe we're even heavier).  I've done that too.

Maybe the problem is that when we try to cut out everything we think will make us fat, we start spending all of our time thinking about food!  What we can have, what we can't have, how soon we can have something, how we'll deal with the food at our cousin's wedding, our husband's birthday, or the holiday that's right around the corner. 

My mother was a serial dieter, and she talked about food all the time!  I've done it too.  It doesn't help that it's been primarily my responsibility to plan meals, do the grocery shopping, and do the cooking.  That's already a big chunk of time and effort to spend thinking about food, without adding any deprivation-fueled thoughts to the mix.

Is this how naturally thin people think about food?  I have a feeling it's not.  Naturally thin people surely have foods that they really enjoy, but they probably don't fixate on them.  When they're hungry, they eat, and when they're sated, they don't wonder how long it is until they can put some more calories into their mouths.

And we may choose to be vegetarian, or vegan, or Paleo, or whatever, but aren't we all fortunate to have those choices?  We aren't required to think about food during every waking minute just so we can be sure to have enough.  We aren't hunter-gatherers, and anyone who's reading this isn't on the edge of poverty.  We have plenty of opportunity to think and talk about something other than food.

One thing I've noticed about those of us who eat too much and too often is that we may not discriminate against foods.  I've been guilty of eating a pile of Oreo cookies, which I don't even much like, simply because I wanted a sugar fix.  What I really craved might have been one exceptional chocolate chip coconut cookie like my mom used to make.  But I ate the Oreos, and was still unsatisfied.

It would be good to banish all of the foods that I personally don't care for – Oreos, potato chips, most candy bars.  Just give up all of those things that don't really matter to me, and don't ever let them stand in for something I might really crave, like pumpkin pudding or pizza.

As for the things I miss, like a chai tea latte with a shot of espresso, perhaps I should joyfully and without guilt bring them back into my life.  Rather than feeling bad because a diet says I should never again have something I like, I should feel free to have it whenever I want, and feel a little bit of pride whenever I make the choice to skip that splurge.  That way I haven't made something I enjoy into a "never ever" thing.  I have no reason to rebel against my diet, and instead of feeling shame over sharing a piece of fresh blackberry cobbler with my husband, I can be proud that I chose to share it instead of getting a piece all for myself.

Unfortunately, "overweight" and "proud" don't seem to be words that go together in the minds of most people.  So be sure to remember all of the things you offer to the world, no matter what you weigh:

  • your humor
  • your compassion
  • your intelligence
  • your skills
  • your kindness
  • your honesty
  • your generosity
  • your talents
  • your creativity
  • your energy
  • your optimism
  • your courage
  • your open mind

Your diet may be important for your continued health and well-being, but it's far from the most notable thing about you.  I need to remember this too, and strive always to be a multi-dimensional person with much more to think and talk about than food!

P.S.  I'm offering the Kindle edition of my book Resilient: How Minimalism Helps You Cope With the Challenges of Life for only $1.99 until midnight this Sunday, October 18.  We're all dealing with the stresses of COVID-19, schooling at home, the acrid U.S. election season, busier schedules, and/or regular everyday difficulties.  Resilient can help you (or a loved one) find more freedom, ease, and clarity.

Photo by Jason Dent on Unsplash

Monday, October 12, 2020

Beware the Season of Excess

Halloween in America – October 31 – is the beginning of our Season of Excess.

Don't get me wrong.  Halloween is a fun evening.  It's fun to carve jack-o-lanterns.  Fun to make or thrift a creative costume.  Fun to go out after dark (even if it's cold) to trick-or-treat through your neighborhood.  No tricks, really, unless it's trying to scare your little brother by sneaking up behind him and yelling "Boo!"  Just treats from the neighbors.

Even teens and adults like to dress up and go to a party, which is also fun, as long as it's not excessive.

What do I mean, "excessive" and "season of excess?"

  • Pillowcases full of candy because you went door to door in six neighborhoods – EXCESSIVE.
  • $490 million spent on costumes for pets – EXCESSIVE.
  • Drinking too much at a party, especially if you drive – REALLY EXCESSIVE.

And that's just the beginning.  After Halloween comes Thanksgiving, the season of football and overeating.  Then Black Friday, Cyber Monday, "the holiday shopping season," tons of presents, cookies, eggnog lattes, and more overeating for Christmas.  Then binges on alcohol, snack food, and football over the New Year holiday, ending with another candy-fest on Valentine's Day.


Keep Halloween simple, for your kids' sake and for your own.

4 Steps to a Simpler Halloween

1.  Buy enough candy for your expected trick-or-treaters no earlier than the day before Halloween.

Too many people buy candy at the beginning of the month, and wind up needing to buy it again (and maybe again) because they've eaten it themselves.

Humans are not meant to eat so much sweet food all the time.  Our ancestors probably gorged on fresh fruit when it was in season, or on honey if they could procure it, but it wasn't a regular feature of their diet.  Our metabolisms are not designed for the constant onslaught of sugar.  Just keep it out of your house.

2.  Encourage and help your kids to be inventive with their costumes.

Don't run to the Halloween store unless you need something specific, like a cheap wig.  It's so much more fun and memorable to craft your outfit.  My grown kids still sometimes talk about pirate, fairy queen, fortune teller, and other costumes that they made with my help.  You can also check at thrift stores for items that can be adapted for a costume.

In my opinion, kids shouldn't dress in a way that glorifies murder, death, or evil.  There are enough more innocent alternatives to choose from, and I'd far rather see a princess, an astronaut, a cowgirl, a robot, a cat, a doctor, or even a branded character like a Jedi knight or Captain America than something more sinister.

3.  Keep Halloween décor minimalist and ghoul-free.

  • Hay bales, corn stalks, and pumpkins can grace your porch until Thanksgiving.  Carve a family of jack-o-lanterns to ascend the steps to your front door on Halloween night.
  • Use some twine to hang a leafless tree branch, drape it with cobwebs made from cotton batting, and add a few plastic spiders.
  • Scoop out mini pumpkins and nestle votive candles inside.  Add spiders' legs made of black pipe cleaners.

  • Decorate a table with a length of black lace fabric and a tall glass jar holding curly willow branches spray-painted black (use bone-white pebbles to anchor the branches).  Add three or four white pillar candles of varying heights and several knobby warted gourds.
  • Hang a stream of construction paper bats on the the wall.  You could also hot glue a few bats on a grapevine or twig wreath and hang it with some black ribbon.

4.  Celebrate All Saints' Day.

Halloween is properly called "All Hallows' Eve," that is, the Eve of All Saints' Day.  In Catholic tradition, All Saints' Day (November 1) honors all Christian martyrs, known and unknown.  Protestants celebrate all faithful Christians who have died, believing that the Bible calls all people who follow Jesus "saints."

While the American version of Halloween often emphasizes scariness, horror, and gore, and the original pagan traditions honored death and demons, All Saints' Day is a time to remember the promise of eternal life, the triumph of good over evil, and the love and example of those who have gone before us.

With your children, look at pictures of grandparents, friends, and others who have died, and share stories and memories about them.  Talk about the ways these people helped you.  Say a prayer of thanks for all of the people who have done good in the world and in your lives.  Write thank you notes to some relatives, pastors, or teachers who are currently having a positive influence on you or your children.

If you like, delve a bit deeper into the lives of some of the saints, such as Francis, Patrick, or Nicholas (the real Santa Claus), Mother Teresa, the Christian naturalist John Muir, or Harriet Tubman, whose faith and reliance on God helped her lead so many slaves to freedom.

P.S.  I'm offering the Kindle edition of my book Resilient: How Minimalism Helps You Cope With the Challenges of Life for only $1.99 from now until midnight on Sunday, October 18.  We're all dealing with the stresses of COVID-19, schooling at home, the acrid U.S. election season, job loss, and/or regular everyday difficulties.  Resilient can help you (or a loved one) find more freedom, ease, and clarity. 

Photo by Ralph Ravi Kayden on Unsplash

Friday, October 9, 2020

Turn Off HGTV

The first house I remember living in, where I have many happy memories that took place before I was in third grade, was in a large neighborhood of post-war houses, a little like Levittown.

They were smallish houses with boxy rooms.  Most had one bathroom and a low-slope roof called a flat top, covered with white rocks.  They were nothing fancy.  But the first owners, those returning soldiers and their brides, must have felt happy and fortunate to move their few belongings into those little rooms.  Home ownership was an honor, especially for those who had come of age during the Great Depression.  There was a severe housing shortage after World War II, and these unassuming houses were the response to that problem.  They were usually affordable on one income, and many of those young couples were content to grow old together in those homes, never moving again.

The real estate shows on HGTV portray the exact opposite of that mindset of gratitude and contentment.  (For those of you who don't live in the US, that's Home and Garden Television, an American pay channel.)  I'm especially annoyed by the shows that display the shocking entitlement that Americans feel when looking at homes and property in Europe or other parts of the world.  The reactions are always, "Oh, I wanted hardwood floors, an open concept, stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, at least two bathrooms, bigger bedrooms, a private backyard with a pool, a great view, close to where I work, and all for $600 a month!"

Of course, the shows exist to make you dissatisfied with your own home.  They're like infomercials, pretending to tell you a story or give you information while selling you something.  And some of them are addictive.  I'll admit, I can sit and watch reruns of Fixer Upper, even though I know that after all of the over-dramatized snags in the renovation, the final reveal will be another variation on Joanna Gaines' signature farmhouse style.

But these shows plant seeds of doubt about my own simple home and the way we live in it.  They're very good at doing exactly what they're designed to do, which is to get viewers to start making long mental lists of home improvements they "need."

Now I'm not saying we should never paint, or replace a floor, or buy a house that's been neglected and do the repairs and renovations that are necessary to make it a comfortable home.  I'm certainly not averse to beauty or craftsmanship or putting some of your own personality into your living space.

But HGTV intends to make you unhappy with what you have so you will go out and buy buy buy.  Home styles are like clothing styles, and change almost as quickly.  It's fast fashion all over again, only what we're constantly discarding and replacing in our homes entails far greater volume and expense than a few jeans and tee shirts.

So I'm turning off HGTV.  I don't need the temptation toward discontent or the invitation to take on debt.  When the young client on one show lamented that she and her husband wanted to move out of their 2500 square foot house because she was having a baby and they "needed more room," I wanted to shout at the television, "Have you ever seen a baby?  They don't take much space!"

Most of us don't need more room; we need less stuff.

We need to pay attention to what we already have.  We need to take care of it and be grateful for it so we can be happier and more contented every day.  And when we do make a repair or an upgrade, it needs to be for a reason greater than, "I saw it on HGTV," or "No one who's anyone has Formica anymore," or "Jonathan Scott on Property Brothers says it's the next big thing."

And remember:  Even an older, little, boxy, flat top house can be the scene of a happy life.

Photo part of the public record (40398 Condon Street)