Walking the Sea

Walking the Sea: January 2013

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Clearing the Clutter: Now What?

I love decorating ― artistically designing a space ― making it beautiful for the person living there. However, I hadn’t redone it in my own home for years. In early adulthood, I chose the theme of lighthouses to remind me of what is real beyond where the ocean kisses the shore. As the title of this blog suggests, the beach is a powerful place for me. But as years went by, souvenirs from Africa started creeping into my living room, taking over, and I needed a change of scenery. 

Around this time, I developed a renewed interest in material simplicity and started taking trips to the library in pursuit of books about this topic. My favorite book on cleaning things out and most importantly, why we should and what affect all that stuff has on us is Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston. You can find it on Amazon or at your local library. I HIGHLY recommend it.

Though getting rid of even unwanted items can be hard, I love how I feel afterward. In years past, I have written several times about the process of reducing what I own but this never really changed what my space looked like. But last year, I conducted a major cleanout, going through everything in my apartment getting rid of piles and piles of unwanted items. This seriously reduced what I had around me and I learned some things from this process I want to share with you in hope you might find it helpful in your own life.

I believe the more stuff we have around us, the more stressed out we are. With cupboards and drawers filled, items piled up on the floor and tables, it can be difficult to find things. As we look, we are reminded of all the things we haven’t attended to that need to be done and these are each little weights laying on our subconscious. We put them off because we feel overwhelmed with everything needing to be done right away. For example, behind my favorite chair in a convenient hidden corner is a quilt I need to send to the quilter and my camera that needs its sensor cleaned. They are things needing to be done that I am reminded of every time I have cause to look back there. What I need to do is just deal with them and get that weight of “I should do these things” off my mind.

How many times have you looked for something and been unable to find it? Perhaps it is in that pile of papers you haven’t sorted in months or in the bottom of the closet and you don’t even remember the last time you cleaned that out. But what if all those papers were sorted and filed? What if you knew exactly what was on the bottom of your closet? Wouldn't that be less stressful? With those tantalizing rewards, I decided to sort through, get rid of, and basically redesign my space to fit who I am now, not who I was years ago. It’s hard to live in a space that no longer expresses who you are inside.

Cleaning Out
The first step was sorting through everything I had. Some areas were easier than others but I worked through the house asking myself if I really needed this item or if I had too many. If I did have too many of one thing, I gave the extra away. What I have found over the years is getting rid of things comes in layers. An object I was not okay discarding the last time I went through that drawer, I am now ready to release. It helped that a friend was moving into her own apartment after having a roommate and needed household items and some furniture. Another friend keeps a library for the international students of the seminary we both attended so I gave several seminary books to him. It was a fun adventure finding places where things were wanted and would be used. By the time I was done, I had discarded a lot of dishes, food I wasn’t going to use, four pieces of furniture, gads of books, a bunch of clothes, and numerous other items. Seeing all that stuff leave through the front door never to return felt wonderful.

One of the things Karen Kingston talks about in Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui is what kind of influences our items have on us. The dishes I had been using was a set I bought just after college at a garage sale for five dollars. They had been the couple’s wedding gift but years and years later, were cracked, chipped, discolored, and there were far too many for one person. Having so many, this also meant I didn’t have to wash dishes as often, a continual struggle when I have no dishwasher but my own two hands. Though there is nothing wrong with having such dishes, what I heard when I looked at them was that I deserved no better. I was trying to make do but as a person in my 30s, I could afford better and it was time to find a set that fit me, a design of my own choosing. I shopped around and found a white and light green set that could serve four. With so few, the load felt lightened and I felt better about having something I loved that I could use everyday not to mention I now wash dishes on a regular basis. I also tossed nearly all my plastic containers and bought a new set of four covered glass bowls. Some of the cooking utensils too, were put in the discard box and with gift cards from Christmas, I went to the stores and replaced them with ones of higher quality that will last. I didn’t replace everything I wanted to, that will come in bits and pieces as I can afford it but I did replace the most important items.

Most of my furniture is second-hand, either bought used or given to me by old roommates when they moved out. I have bought a few smaller items new but these are few and far between. This has actually been a great way to furnish my home at little to no cost but as we get older, we can afford to replace items that don’t fit who we are or the look we’re going for. The desk I was using fit smack in the middle of this category. My mom’s friend had bought this small, particle board desk for her son when we were kids and when they were done with it, I inherited the desk. It was only moderately functional but that was about it. Over the years, it was also getting worn down and I didn’t like it. I wanted something I loved that fit me, that made me feel good when I looked at it. On top of all that, I am a writer and a writer without a desk he or she loves to be at is just plain sad. So I took the advice of the Karen Kingston and gave the desk away to someone who could use it and left the space open for a new desk to come into my life. I shopped around online but my new desk came to me in an unexpected way. I was visiting a friend’s new place of work on Easter Sunday, a store of old furniture and household items right before their grand opening. While exploring, I saw it. The desk intrigued me. It was a secretary’s desk made of rich mahogany, a type of desk I hadn’t even considered. It had three large drawers and the top fliped down to expose the desk with all its little shelves inside. It only took me a day to think it over and call Gil to tell him I wanted it. It is a place where I love to sit and work on various projects and though I keep it very neat, being able to close up the desk and not have all that stuff exposed to the room gives the space a much cleaner feel. I am sure that will be a beloved piece of furniture for years to come.

Once I gave away the furniture I didn’t want, I rearranged the rooms. Without the extra stuff, my space now has room to breath, to let the energy flow around the area. Having taken out two bookshelves in the living room (along with all the stuff on them that wasn’t placed in the desk drawers), I moved the couch down and put the keyboard near the desk so I can store the chair under the keyboard when the desk is not in use. The wooden two drawer file went into the corner along with a small lamp. My problem now was there was nowhere to set a hot drink while sitting in my favorite chair. That was solved when I took a look at some things a friend was selling which included a small, dark wood table with a little shelf and drawer. I love places I can store things so they’re out of sight. The drawer holds some little booklets and pencils and pens. I placed a basket from Kenya on the shelf for library books and on top is another basket with a lid where I stored my manuscripts for the latest book while I worked on them. At a bazaar this last fall, I found a stone coaster on which to place a cup. On top of the desk is another small basket where I store important papers I’m working with and my keys and cell phone so I can always find them.  

A New Theme
As I said before, bits of Kenya had started taking over my lighthouse-themed living room so I decided to make the transformation complete by finishing the job. I rounded up all the lighthouse themed paraphernalia and got rid of it or stored it away. I then dug into a large basket in my room (do you see a theme of baskets here?) and pulled out other items I had bought in Kenya. A little wooden lion and elephant went on top of the fireplace with a small rattle made of a gourd in between. A carving of a giraffe along with an Africa-shaped soap stone box made friends with the basket on my desk. Over those, I hung a hand-woven disk made of basketry material about eight inches in circumference. I found an African print skirt my friend brought back from Mali to lay over the back of my couch. My mom offered me a cream and tan colored couch cover to replace my dusty blue one (which I also gave away.) In July, while walking around the World Beat Festival in my hometown, I met a vendor selling pillows with African covers. I selected three: two matching ones for the couch colored green, blue, and brown, with bits of orange, and a green and brown one for my chair. Kenya means a lot to me and I love being reminded of it every day. A few souvenirs from my trip to Europe did slip in including a small Eiffel Tower and a rosary from St. Paul’s Cathedral. I love the reminder of different cultures and the friends who live in them.

Having taken down nearly all the old art, I started taking advantage of my local library’s art lending program until I decided what I wanted to put up. I didn’t have much money to spend on this part of the project so I used what I already had. Taking an old framed picture I had ― bland frame, uninteresting mat and a print that no longer fit with what I wanted ―I went to a friend who runs a frame shop. Taking the whole thing apart, she added texture to the frame, painted it a dark brown espresso color, and added a deep green mat to go with a picture of two giraffes I took myself while on safari. The result looks incredible, nothing like what she started with, and all it cost me was some supplies and a little labor. (The coloring on the pillows was my inspiration for my color choices.) At the same time, she also painted two other frames that same espresso color which I filled with more of my own photography, an elephant in the smaller frame and the one with nine openings, I put in some of my favorite photos from my trip to Kenya. One of the cons of living in a rented apartment is that one does not typically get to paint the walls. Thus I chose bold, darker colors to stand out. I also rooted around my belongings and found a black, wooden carved frame a friend gave me years ago and put in my photograph of a lion at rest.

As words are also important to me, I framed the poem my editor later told me is the center of my latest book in a green mat and hung it by the door. I also went through the smaller picture frames around my house and replaced the outdated photos inside to pictures of friends who give me great joy. Whenever I look at their faces now, it lifts my heart. I believe the art around one’s home should reflect who you are now, not who you were five or ten years ago. Having my house fit who I am now feels wonderful. It helps remind me of who that person is and keeps me living in the moment, not in the past.

A Ways to Go
Besides going through all my belongings and changing some of the furniture around, I have not redecorated my bedroom or bathroom. On the floor in my bedroom are two high quality rugs I am not yet ready to replace and I have a bunch of fabric I bought in Kenya with which I want to make a large quilt for my bed. Once that is finished, I will use the quilt as the basis to redecorate those rooms. They may not quite fit who I am now, but they are peaceful spaces and that is highly valuable to me as well.

I also have some items in storage in a friend’s unfinished room across town. I started the process of going through all that at the same time I went through my apartment but stopped when writing and publishing my recent book took over my life. Once the weather warms back up (the room is unheated), I will go back and finish the job — throwing things away, recycling unwanted papers, selling what people may want to buy, and giving away others. Since much of this is from younger years, this part of the project also includes working through letting go of who I was, of the need to hold onto that person, that child, and embracing who I am now. Who we have been is important and valuable but if I put that person higher in value than who I am now, then my value is misplaced. We cannot live in the past, we have to live in the present. We may not think we do this, but if we look around ourselves and think about what items we hold onto, even in storage, we can tell where our values lie and what lives we are living. So I am keeping only the important things: some of my favorite toys (though I have let others go), the canopy that goes with my four poster bed, Christmas decorations, graded papers from seminary I want to read later, and a few of the best pieces of clay sculpting from a class I took in high school. The rest I feel is weighing me down and I am ready to let it go.

The hard part of going through everything, is doing it again. As I said before, going through things comes in layers. Once you’ve peeled back one layer, you have to do it again to peel back the next. For example, friends have been giving me clothes they no longer want (which I love!) but that means I need to go through my own closet and do the same to make room for the new items. Books also seem to come in a lot faster than they leave — my library is the hardest thing for me to go through. I am sure I could go through my whole apartment again and take out a couple more boxes of things I don’t use.

Having so many drawers and baskets around, one of the easiest things to do is to shove things into them and forget what is inside. So every now and then, I pull open a drawer or pull down a basket and go through what is inside. Each one typically only takes a few minutes but it keeps me asking “Do I need this?” It also reminds me of what is inside, helps me keep things organized and I don’t forget where things are. It’s a habit I’m working on forming as things I thought I would use when I did the major cleanout, I really don’t need and it’s my chance to go through that next layer of items I’m ready to let go.

The trickiest part of upkeep, though, is keeping things picked up. For me, this includes not leaving things out on counters and tables but putting them away. I also have to keep shoes and clothes organized in my closet or they fall out and start infringing on the floor in the hallway. I can’t use the living room floor or the couch as a dumping ground but put things away when I come home at the end of the day. Regularly, I now go around and make sure things are picked up, put away, and I even run the vacuum cleaner every now and then. My biggest growth area I am working on this year is the deeper cleaning: cleaning the bathroom, washing the kitchen floor, and dusting. Some of you may have a system down but I live by myself and tend to focus on projects instead of keeping the house deeply cleaned. I’m not saying this is entirely wrong, but it is my goal this year to develop better habits on keeping things truly clean and organized.

End Result
Last night while I was picking the things up I had left on the floor, my keyboard was playing my favorite song, and between the putting away, I continued to practice my violin. It felt so cozy, so warm and inviting, so comfortable. I like the cleaned up yet lived in look. Things are definitely in their place but there are also books stacked up next to my chair, the laptop is set up on the dining room table, my coat hangs on the back of the desk chair, and my work bag is waiting by the door. It’s home and I love it. It’s so much easier to enjoy my time there when I’m organized, when there is space, and I’m surrounded by things I truly love. Sorting everything out and redesigning the space took a lot of effort and time but it was completely worth it. I am now truly home in my home.

Lessons Learned
The things I learned through my own experience of cleaning out and reorganizing, you can apply to your own home. It may seem daunting but let me tell you, it is worth it. Here are some tips I learned to get you started. Check your local library for books on cleaning out your home. They will inspire you! They certainly inspired me.
  • Start with one area at a time. Don’t feel overwhelmed, just start with one drawer or one closet. The satisfaction you feel in cleaning out and organizing that space will inspire you to go onto the next.
  • When choosing furniture, choose the pieces that can serve more than one purpose. One piece of furniture serving two functions means one less thing cluttering your home.
  • Choose furniture with drawers or out of sight storage spaces such as a television stand with shelves on the side. The more things you can store out of sight but keep easily accessible, the cleaner your space will feel. My desk has three large drawers and I can close the top so everything is out of sight where previously, all my supplies were on display on a bookshelf.
  • Baskets! I love baskets. I have one for books by my chair, one for music and remote controls by the television, one for papers on top of my desk, another in my kitchen for food storage, and a giant one in my bedroom for blankets and other various items. Again, out of sight gives a much cleaner look and baskets, when not overdone, are a beautiful decoration as well as being functional.
  • Keep knick-knacks to a minimum, The more of these you have, the more cluttered your space will feel and the more difficult dusting will be. I keep a few favorites out, especially if they go with my theme, and have several more in storage to rotate in at a later time.
  • What you are not okay letting go today, you may be okay letting go of tomorrow. Be honest with yourself, but be tender too. Things can come off in layers and once you know how good it feels to have less, you will be ready to go deeper.
Happy sorting!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Golden Helmet of Mambrino

This last Sunday I visited a church for the first time and unbeknownst to me beforehand, they used one of my poems for the call to worship. The poem the pastor selected was one that was originally written about a friend but as I sat there and listened to it being read aloud in the service, I realized they were probably thinking about God. Later, I reread the poem for myself and was surprised to see it made beautiful sense to be about the Divine, or Jesus, or God, or however you want to read it.

Hearing my own words used in such a way, I felt very much like the barber in The Man of La Mancha. A barber is going along, conducting his business of shaving men’s faces, thanking God for making the stubble grow, and with him, he carries his implements of trade: a razor and a shaving basin. Don Quixote then comes along claiming his shaving basin is really the Golden Helmet of Mambrino asking the barber, “Dost thou not know what this really is?” and proudly puts it on his own head. The barber, of course, is in disbelief that his run-of-the-mill shaving basin could possibly be what Don Quixote claims is this glorious relic of an incredible past. But he learns to go along with it and so must I.

As an author and speaker, I never get to decide what someone reads or hears. I may be able to choose the words said or written, but the funny thing about language is that it can be interpreted in so many ways. Throughout my writing career, this has amazed me time and time again. After reading my books, people sometimes come back and tell me about their favorite parts. My editor, too, will tell me of his favorite poems. In his case, they are always the ones I tell him I am thinking of taking out of the manuscript before he passionately protests that I leave them in. Without fail. To me, some of the poems people tell me they love, the ones that really speak to them, come across to me as somewhat trite, simple, not the ones I expected to make the most impact — and they are never my own favorites. They are the ones that were extraordinarily personal, when I was really talking to myself, or expressing an emotion or thoughts even I didn’t truly understand, the ones that teach me more later on than they did at the time they were written.

I would brush this off simply as different tastes but it happens time and time again. Someone will tell me a title and I’ll go look it up and think, “Really?” I begin to doubt my own skill if the poems I love and want to publish are not the ones that speak into other people’s lives. It’s the ones I’m hesitant to publish, that just come out, that aren’t technically well done that people keep coming back to mention. Bless my editor for making me keep them in. Bless some of my friends for telling me as one once did when I was thinking of keeping a poem private, “You speak for us all. Publish it.” It seems the deeper I go, the more honest I am with my own struggles, the more God can use the words spoken to reach the struggles of others. There are some writings that simply do need to stay private, some poems are simply badly written and never see the light of day except for my own joy in writing them. But there are those in between that make it onto the printed page and it is these that seem to speak the loudest into the lives of readers.

I am as puzzled as the barber. I hear people’s words and I look at God with disbelief and bewilderment. Could this shaving basin, this basic tool of my trade, really be the Golden Helmet of Mambrino? Could these words I write really mean more than I could ever imagine when writing them? Even when I meant to write about something else? Does God take whatever I’m writing about and use it with gleeful abandon, changing the meaning like a kaleidoscope of color for whoever is looking through the viewfinder at the time? Can God do that?

The conclusion that I’ve had to come to is that is exactly what God does. He takes whatever we are, whatever we do, and calls them golden helmets. What we call ordinary, he calls extraordinary. What we meant for one thing, he uses for another, beyond the purpose we had for it, God uses it for a larger one.

So I am a writer and I am a speaker and I love what I do. But it is times like this when I remember that it is not my skill that counts. It is not even my intention. Though I don’t understand how my razor and shaving basin can truly be a golden helmet, that is what God calls it and since I also recognize God knows a bit more that I do, I have to agree. So I will keep plying my trade, being the best barber I can be, knowing that God is using this most basic of shaving basins for a glory and purpose that I could have never foreseen. He says it matters and in trust and faith, I agree.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mending Hearts

This afternoon I was teaching a second grade class who had earned their game day. While sitting at my desk, I overheard a scrap of conversation between two girls that included the phrase, “said you’re not her friend anymore.” So I called both girls over, started to hear what was going on, called the third one over, more she said/she said, and I had an idea.

I took a post-it pad and gave them each a piece of paper, telling them to tear theirs up which, along with giving me puzzled looks and exclaiming to each other, “I don’t know why we’re doing this,” they did. I then gave them the tape dispenser and told them to tape the papers back together. One girl had torn hers several times, so this took a while. They asked why they were doing it but I had us wait until the third girl was done. But even before she finished, one of the girls started getting it, telling us all how the papers were our hearts and taping them back together was putting each other’s hearts back together and that this was a good thing. Taking a new paper from the pad, I had them compare their repaired papers with the one I was holding and we talked about how when we tear each other up, it is good to help repair the damage but that it is even better to never tear each other up in the first place. I told them I wanted each of their hearts to be whole like the piece of paper never torn. With that, they went off to play.

Several minutes later, I was putting books away near where two of the girls were looking at the encyclopedias, wrapped up in noticing how each book had some of the lettering running across the spines: “World Book.” They were talking about the metaphor of each of us being a part of the whole and I added we each have gifts and when we stick together in community, we can read the whole sentence. But when we harp on someone, tear someone up, we loose a part of ourselves and what we can be. I showed this by taking a book out to let them see you couldn’t read the phrase anymore. They got into this and took more books out symbolizing people who are hurt. Both girls got so excited about this new idea of each of us being a part of the larger whole, they ran off to get the third girl so she could see it too. I was so proud of them for coming up with that connection in other things around them by themselves, I didn’t even tell them to walk.

I wish I could tell all my kids we grow out of hurting one another. I wish I could tell them that all grown ups treat each other with kindness, patience, and love. But I can’t. I see too much, I hear too much, and I read too much, to know this is not the case. We talk badly about one another, we grow afraid of one another and put each other down. We are not loving. We are not kind nor are we patient. Do you know how hard it is to teach kids to love each other when the grown ups around them are so often doing just the opposite? I hear it on the radio in the news reports and sometimes I feel like I’m standing in front of a twelve foot wave trying to protect a sand castle growing in the sand.

For myself, I am trying hard to remember to be positive first. Be encouraging, celebrate the accomplishments, help them see, help them understand. Be loving. I am trying to help them understand the power of their actions. I wish adults understood the power of their words and actions. I wish more people understood how we are all connected. And I know some people do but there feels like there are so many who don’t.

I hope some of what we talked about stuck to those girls. I hope it helps them understand better who they are and how to be better friends. But even if it didn’t, I will continue to say it, hopefully do it, and pray people are listening for as one girl commented, “It’s hard to tape the paper back together.” Indeed it is my friend. Indeed it is.