Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 8

My life was changing right before our eyes. My two baby girls were still in cloth diapers which still needed to be taken to the Laundromat three or four times a week. I had the same garden that needed to be tended. I continued to live in a four-hundred-seventy square foot trailer in a rented mobile home space. My soul was still that of a leftover hippy. Neither I personally, nor my circumstances, had changed one bit. Two things had changed, however: my basic knowledge of housekeeping and my fundamental thinking concerning it.

I was not lazy. I had not been lazy since the Saturday morning Scooby-Doo days of my youth. I was not stupid, or blind, or uncaring about my home. Before reading that first organizational book, I simply lacked skill.

No one had ever taught me how to keep house before. Growing up I had been taught how to dress myself and to tie my own shoes, how to wash my hair, how to sew, and how to write a term paper. I had even learned how to pluck a chicken when the occasion arose. I had been given all the equipment, knowledge and resources needed to complete those and hundreds of other tasks. I had taken three years of Home Ec in high school. There I learned personal hygiene from an outdated textbook, how to wrap a Christmas package, and the importance of keeping my muffins from having “peaks and tunnels.” Somehow, the practical how-to’s of housework, time management and organization were never on the curriculum.

Knowledge by itself is not what made the difference. The biggest change came in my thinking. I was a housewife. Housewives do housework, so everyday that is what I had been doing. To me, housework had been a chore, a drudgery or, at best, an obligation. I vacuumed because that is what housewives were supposed to do. I dusted because that is what I saw the pretty flitty moms do on television. I did dishes when there were none left clean. My eyes were not attuned to the big picture, only to the tasks at hand. The biggest difference Holly’s book had made was how I perceived my job as homemaker. It changed my thinking from job-orientation to goal-orientation.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 7

I made a courageous decision: I took the dusty monogrammed towels off the rack and put them in the dirty clothes hamper, sorted through the excess towels, kept only the few that we could use, and gave away the rest. After they were washed, we actually used those fancy towels to dry our bodies. Shocking! I felt like a Bohemian. I had never actually seen beautiful towels in use before, and I was sure that it simply was not done in polite company. I also felt a little bit naughty: When I was a teenager, a psycho lady once screamed at me for drying my hands on her show towels. It felt good to break the rules a little, and in some small way, get my revenge. As it turned out, those beautiful fluffy white monogrammed towels felt as good as they had looked on the rack. They felt better, in fact, than my Pledge-commercial-house ideals.

Each decision that I made expanded my mind and opened my eyes a little more every day. Rethinking the way I had been living, and putting it all aright, was like doing a Chinese puzzle. You know the little plastic kind with a tray full of numbered square tiles in random order with one tile missing? I used to get them as favors at birthday parties when I was a kid. To put the numbers in order I had to slide one tile at a time into the empty space. In the process of solving the puzzle, the numbers would become jumbled and unjumbled multiple times before they were set in order. That is how my thoughts were as I worked my way through the clutter. Over and over I had to ask myself, “What should I keep? Where should I put it? What should I throw out? What should I store? What if I need it again? How much is enough?”

Sometimes, like with the monogrammed towel decision, I had to give up my dreams for a better reality. Many times, however, I was not ready yet to let go, so I boxed things up and put them out in the still-doorless shed. The inside of our home, the part over which I had jurisdiction, was looking better and better.

The next time Holly came over again, about five days after giving me the book, she was stunned. As she came through the front door, she had to catch herself from falling off the stairs. The house was clean; the girls were napping, dinner was simmering in the crockpot and I was relaxing on the sofa reading.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 6

I found it harder to make decisions about our clutter in the bathroom. Our bathroom was so tiny; it seemed like an afterthought in the design of our mobile home. It was so small; we practically had to pull down our pants in the hallway and back in to use the toilet. It had a small corner sink surrounded by a few of inches of counter space, just big enough to hold a couple of toothbrushes and a set of electric rollers to quaff my already out-of-date Farrah Fawcet hairdo. Underneath it was a little cupboard for storage, and beside it built into the wall was a small triangular closet which held a five gallon hot water heater on the bottom and two storage shelves above. Next to the toilet was a full sized bathtub with shower. It was ridiculous use of the limited space because, with only a five gallon hot water heater, we had to boil water in the three gallon spaghetti pot a couple of times if we ever wanted to take a bath. The toilet was squeezed in between the generous bathtub and the wall. I had often thought how lucky we were that we were both very thin when we were young. If we had been any bigger we would have needed to call the fire department with the Jaws of Life to get us off the toilet. How was our family of four supposed to function in such limited space?

We needed all the stuff we had in the bathroom, but how much was enough? We had two babies. We really needed only two hooded baby towels, not the six that I had crammed into the shelves above the water heater. For the two of us we had multiple mismatched towels packed tightly into the closet shelves. My favorite ones, however, were the ones I never used: a beautiful set of fluffy white towels with gold monograms that we had received as a gift from Dan’s brother for our wedding. They hung on the towel bar literally collecting dust.

When I was growing up I had visited homes that had pretty towels hanging in the bathroom just for show. I believed them to be an essential part of a proper Pledge commercial house. I had only one towel bar, and so it seemed only fitting to grace it with the best and most beautiful that I had to offer. I loved my monogrammed towels, but keeping them hanging on the only towel bar meant that I had nowhere to hang the ratty old towels with which we always dried ourselves. We needed our closet full of crummy towels because we used them all: Since we had nowhere to hang used towels, we threw them into the dirty clothes hamper after just one use. I had to rethink my priorities. How could I free up space in the towel cupboard without sacrificing my pretty towel dream?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 5

Throughout that first week my reality was changing. I felt as though I was walking out of a dense fog and into the sunshine. I was seeing things I had never seen before, and unfortunately smelling stinks that I had never smelled before! The good news was that I was thinking thoughts that had never crossed my mind before. As I continued to move from room to room, surface to surface, and drawer to drawer, I had to ask myself, “How much is enough?” The silverware organizer in the top kitchen drawer was so full that the teaspoons were overflowing into the forks. How many teaspoons did I really need? We had been given four different sets of drinking glasses for our wedding. Our kitchen was tiny, and shelf space was limited. How many drinking glasses could we really use, especially if I were actually to wash the dishes more than once a day? Under the kitchen sink I had stored a dozen bottles of cleaning products, each of which had promised me happiness and a sparkling clean home. Most of them were liars. How many could I use? What about the good money I had spent on those half-full bottles of empty promises? Sometimes answering those questions was really difficult. I had to force myself not to over think.

Sometimes the answers to my questions were so stunningly easy and clear; I was shocked at my own former dulled wit. In the hallway between the kitchen and bathroom was a little utility closet, just the right size for a mop, broom and dust pan. It was filled from the floor to about knee height with old newspapers. Back in high school, Holly’s mom had taught me that newspaper was excellent for cleaning glass surfaces, so I saved as many newspapers as I could. Crammed on top of them I kept my mop, which I had always put away wet. The pile had become soggy, smelly and moldy, but I had never noticed before. For the first time I asked myself why I had kept so many. If I had had the common sense that God gave a turnip, I would never have saved any of them because we had a daily subscription to the paper. I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. Could that have been me who had hung on to all this awful garbage? As I mucked the rotted mess out of the utility closet, I fought back my shame and forged on.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 4

Before I had even finished the first chapter, I set myself to doing everything in the book. I got three boxes which I marked “Give Away,” “Put Away,” and “Throw Away.” Starting at the first piece of furniture by the front door, which was the sofa, I picked up one item at a time and sorted it into its appropriate box. Some things were easy to classify: Popsicle wrappers were throw-aways; puppets from the church puppet ministry were put-aways.

Other things were harder: Like, what was to be done with two years worth of Reader’s Digest magazines on the coffee table? Don’t magazines belong on coffee tables? How many magazines? What if we needed some of the information they contained? Besides, the collection belonged to Dan, not me. My husband loved Reader’s Digest. I, on the other hand, found it to be a source of humiliation, as he beat me at “Word Power” month after month. I found another box and marked it, “Ask Dan.” I was on a crusade to save my house, and I could not let a few magazines slow me down. Besides, unlike Joan of Arc, I did not want to get burned at the stake.

I moved from one piece of furniture to the next, sorting and tossing. By the end of the first day, I had decluttered my entire living room and most of the kitchen. Whenever the throw away box got filled, I walked it out to community dumpster at the end of my street. I filled garbage sacks with give-away stuff and put them in the trunk of my car to take to the thrift store. I did my best to find homes for all the items that needed to be put away, but sometimes, I didn’t know where things belonged. I still had to take care of a nursing baby, a toddler and all their cloth diapers, but I was making genuine progress. When Dan came home that evening, he was a little dubious about my new crusade. He was afraid that I would blithely toss out his stuff. I showed him the “Ask Dan” box, crossed my fingers behind my back, and promised to be respectful of his possessions.

He wanted to hang on to the Reader’s Digests because he thought it might be nice to have a complete collection, but he agreed that I only needed to keep the two most current issues on the coffee table. I boxed up the rest, labeled them and stuffed them in the shed with his box of ironing.

The next day, after a successful decluttering session, I loaded up the girls in their double stroller, propped the diaper pail on the back of it, and headed over to the Laundromat on the other side of the mobile home park with my fabulous new book in hand. It was a beautiful summer day, and my house looked cleaner than it ever had under my watch. I left both the front and back doors of the trailer open to air out. . It was the first time I had ever felt the freedom to fling my doors open wide for God and all of humanity to see.

When Dan drove into our street that afternoon, he was met with two unmarked police cars and FBI agents pointing guns at the trailer across the street from ours. They yelled at him to stay back, but he rushed past them, frantic to get into the house. The place looked stripped clean; his wife and children were missing, and FBI agents were holding some criminal at bay across the street. He could only assume the worst!

“Where are my wife and daughters?” he called out to the police.
“Stay back, sir,” they barked.

After the worst five minutes of Dan’s life, a strange man emerged from the mobile home across the street with his hands over his head. The excitement was over.

“Where’s my wife?” Dan yelled at the officers. They did not answer, but only escorted the suspect into their vehicle and drove away.

He ran across the street to find out what happened. The neighbors had let a casual friend from out of town flop on their couch for a few days, and it turned out that the guy had been robbing banks all over the state. Dan was relieved, but that still did not explain why his family, and what looked like most of his worldly goods, were missing from his home. Meanwhile, I was peacefully unaware of the hullabaloo, reading my great new organizational book and hanging diapers on the clothesline beside the Laundromat. By the time I returned home to cook his dinner, I was happy and relaxed, and he was totally freaked out.

I was not missing, and neither was any of our stuff. The house just looked clean, that was all! My small amount of effort was already accomplishing great things.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 3

God was speaking to me in small and significant ways. First it was through the ladies who cleaned my house. Next it was the frame-dusting lady. Finally, though, it was through a book. It just so happened that Holly went into a bookstore, and there right in front was a big display rack of the newest bestseller which just so happened to be a book that was about to change my life. I am a strong believer in the idea that nothing “just so happens.” God loves me too much, and is wildly too amused by me, to let anything good that He has planned for me randomly slip through His fingers. The book should have had my picture on the front: It was about one woman’s struggle with overcoming clutter and her journey to a life of peace and order. Holly bought two copies, one for her and one for me. It was one of the best gifts I have ever received in my life.

Until then, I believed that I was alone in my squalor. Sure, Holly’s apartment was less than ideal, but her problems were not as bad as mine. I thought nobody’s problems were as bad as mine! Have you ever seen those commercials on TV where a kid sits cross-legged on the floor, opens a book and a great beam of light shines forth, carrying on it great heroic figures of history and literature? That is exactly how I felt when I started to read this book. The author had been just like me. She had overflowing clutter just like me. Her utensil drawer was filled with toast crumbs; her bathroom had a dull yellow film in all the wrong places, and her shed was crammed piles of regrets, just like mine. Hallelujah! Her words were a beacon, and she was my Joan of Arc, charging forward to reclaim her homeland. Not only did everything the author said inspire me, but also her methods and techniques made total sense in my clutter-filled world.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 2

A day or two after Glynis and her Kamikaze Cleaning Crew had stripped the scales from my eyes Holly came to see my house. She was as astonished as I was at the difference. While Holly never suffered from the same Pledge-commercial-Brady-Bunch-Barbie-plastic-turkey delusions that I did, she struggled with a messy apartment. Holly had been raised in a clean home, but she had not learned how to do housework when she was a kid. As a full time working single mother, Holly found herself battling messes and clutter just like I did. She marveled with me at the deep-down-cleanness of everything. Who knew that a drain board could be scrubbed with Ajax? We both thought that brown gooey stains on the dish drainer were inevitable. Like me, she never thought about whether or not toaster crumbs could actually be cleaned out of a utensil drawer. Both of us were smart enough to know that our homes did not look like others we had seen, but neither of us understood what needed to be done to gap the difference.

Somehow, in my mind, things looked good when they were new, and then, over time, they got dirty. I possessed some very rudimentary cleaning skills: I knew that a vacuum cleaner should be plugged into a wall, turned on and moved back and forth across a carpet. I knew that I was supposed to spray Pledge on furniture and wipe off the dust. I understood that, when all the drinking glasses were dirty, and I found myself getting a drink of water out of a wide mouth Mason jar, it was time to do the dishes. I did not understand, however, how to have a clean house.

My eyes were gradually opening to the possibility of a different way of life. When my girls were babies, I taught needlecraft classes and sold needlecraft kits and accessories at in-home parties. Once as I was passing around a beautifully framed needlepoint picture, a customer casually commented that she preferred to make her stitcheries into pillows because then she would not need to dust the frame on her wall. Dust the frame? Dust the frame? People dust frames on their walls? What a fascinating concept! I told Holly about it, and she said that she had never gotten the frame-dusting memo, either.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 1

Chapter Three

Throughout those years I had two friends, Sue and Holly, who were allowed into my messy, confusing world. Both of them were busy single women who worked full time, hence my secret rendezvous with the Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer guy. I am not really sure what either of them thought of my poor housekeeping because neither of them seemed bothered any time I shoved a pile of laundry off the couch, so we could sit down for a visit.

Sue had been my college roommate. Along with another friend, Mary Jo, we shared a two bedroom, two story townhouse, which was located just a short hike across an abandoned graveyard from the university. Sue and I could not have been more different from one another. She was level-headed, studious, quiet and neat. I was none of the above. We ate a lot of Baskin Robbins, drank a lot of coffee, stayed up all night way too many times, sledded down the staircase on flattened cardboard boxes and forged a lifelong bond that still holds true to this very day. The fact that Sue loved me, and still loves me, is a testament to her longsuffering spirit. We shared the same bedroom: Her bed was neatly made with hospital corners on the sheets and topped with a color coordinated quilt and afghan. Mine was not. The clothes in her closet were hung neatly on hangers in separate sections. Mine were not. Her desk was neat, organized and equipped for actual use. Need I say this? Mine was crammed so full, and piled so high, that I usually pushed aside a pile of clothes and sat cross legged on my unmade bed to study. My messes, both organizationally and emotionally, did not bother her. She seemed not to notice the chaos that surrounded my existence when we were living together, nor did she give it a second look after I got married.

Holly is my oldest friend. I think we met for the first time when we were five. I do not know for sure when we first became friends, but I know we flew up in Brownies together because I have the Polaroid to prove it. In fourth grade we suffered through the same reading class, the intermediate reading group, with a crabby old teacher who spent her days rolling her dentures around with her tongue and pleading with God for retirement. We were too smart for the remedial group, but too busy daydreaming and talking in class to be placed in the top group. Holly and I always had that in common. We became best friends in junior high where we were seated in alphabetical order. Her name started with Mi and mine with Mo. Depending on whether we were seated A to Z or Z to A, the teacher was always looking at the back of one of our heads while we whispered and passed notes in class. We were Chemistry lab partners in high school, and worked together on the student creative writing magazine our senior year. Twiddlers and silly-hearts to the end, neither of us ever made first chair clarinet in band, or topped the honor roll, or got elected Homecoming Queen.