The other day my husband and I were clearing out old books from a bookshelf in our basement. One of our most cherished family pastimes is reading, and the number of books under our roof testifies to that. Running my hands over the covers of books lining the shelves quietly connected me to the hours spent on the sofa with my children as we read together. I could hear them pleading, “One more chapter, Mommy!” I pulled several books from the shelf and paused. Do I really want to part with these? It was as if giving the books away meant I was giving away those priceless memories. I know that’s not true, but I felt a little wrench deep inside that made me stop momentarily before putting a selection of paperbacks into the box for donations.
Then I saw my husband, also pensively looking at a book in his hand. It was a Marine Corps Field Handbook. “I carried this book with me every day for a year. I just can’t get rid of it.”
“But you don’t have any need for it,” I responded, “and you won’t have any use for it in the future.” That was my one attempt to be the voice of reason. Yet I know that it’s not up to me to decide what books he keeps. And letting go of the things we’ve valued during our life is a process we need to respect.
It is so easy to look at someone else’s belongings and wonder why they hold onto things. Having an objective view, you can say with firm conviction that there’s no real value in a 40 year old toy car collecting dust on the shelf—providing it’s not your shelf and it’s not the vintage car your grandfather gave you as a child. You see, it’s easy to say “Things are just things”—and that’s true! But we give our possessions value when we connect them to people or experiences we want to remember.
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, also known as The Minimalists, often argue that our memories are not in the physical items, but in our minds. I agree with that statement, but only to a point. Often times, it takes a photograph or something tangible to provoke a vivid memory, or recall the feelings, sounds, even smells from a past experience. Many times our possessions serve as a bridge to cross back into a moment long forgotten, but worth taking the time to savor.
This is especially meaningful when we feel connected to someone no longer with us. Unexpectedly coming across an item which belonged to a deceased parent, for example, can be very powerful. Even the simplest token that belonged to a loved one has the ability to open a door to a wealth of memories and emotions, both warm and loving as well as painful feelings.
A year ago, I worked with Anne as she packed up her childhood photographs and mementos while preparing to move. Both of her parents had passed away and she had four large bins of family albums and framed pictures. We both knew the plastic tubs were a lot to move, but at the time, Anne simply didn’t have the energy to go through all those photographs. A year later, after settling into a whole new life, we revisited those four bins. To my surprise, she quickly reviewed the contents, consolidating and purging freely. It was time. Now invested in her new living situation, she felt a greater freedom and clarity to see what she could part with and what memories she wanted to hold onto.
Letting go of our sentimental possessions is a process. We need to give ourselves the space and freedom to pick up and hold that item which transports us into good and healthy memories—and then, once savored, ask yourself if you can let it go. Is it time? Our possessions are not the people we care about; they are not the experiences they bring to mind. But part of the process is allowing the things in our life to serve their purpose and, when that is finished, to let them go.
Each time I decide to thin out my bookcases, I find I’m ready to part with a little more. Books I intended to read but never did: gone. Books from my college and young adult days that were formative and I thought I’d return to: gone. Books I collected for my children but we never actually shared: gone. And what remains? Those which I want to share with my future grandchildren, cookbooks I still actively use, and a few inspirational books that I’m simply not ready to pass on just yet. The goal is not to get rid of as much stuff as possible, but rather, to keep only those things that give value and meaning to my life in the present.
You’re tired of your spouse’s clothes strewn all
over the floor. You wish your crafty daughter
would clean up the unfinished craft project from
the dining room table. You cringe at the increasing clutter in the basement—nobody knows what to
do with it, but now there’s nowhere to walk. This
is an extremely common but delicate issue.
Everyone’s situation is unique and must be
approached with sensitivity and patience.
The truth is: we all have a relationship with our
stuff. You don’t want another person, however
well-meaning, to make decisions about the things which are yours. So whether you’re at the end of your rope, or only on the fringe of annoyance, here are a few important guidelines to
1) Start with You
Do you have your own areas of clutter that you could remedy first? It’s easy to focus on
someone else’s messy spaces. We are tempted to compare and decide, “His piles are
worse than mine.” But if you determine to get your own things in order, your family
members could be gently influenced to take steps. After feeling the calming effects of a
tidy hallway or a well-ordered drawer, they might resolve to tackle their own looming
paper stack. While this is not a guaranteed result, you will at least have your own areas
No one wants to feel controlled, even by people they care about. If you are dealing with
teenagers, young adults, spouses, or parents, it is important that you do not make
decisions about things without the owner’s permission. You can respectfully ask if he would allow you to tidy a given area, but unless he asks, never discard or give anything of his
away. Making decisions about someone else’s things breaks down trust. You risk sending a message that you don’t care if it’s important to him.
Karen wanted to clean out her son’s room after he left for college. She lovingly straightened his closet and proceeded in clearing out the old Lego sets which were tucked under his
bed. To her, they were a childhood pastime that could make other children happy, so she
donated them to a local thrift shop. When her son Jason discovered they were gone, he
was angry she had not consulted him.
Even when we have the best intentions, if we don’t give our family member the freedom to make decisions about their belongings, our loved one may very well respond with
Let’s be honest—it’s can be challenge for any two people with individual habits, likes, and
perspectives to share a common living space. That’s why it’s vital to communicate when
something like cluttered corners are causing tension and strife. It’s important to listen to
each other and to feel heard.
Seek to understand why your family member lives with areas of clutter. Simple questions to ask are:
Really listen to their answers. Perhaps the intention to be organized is there, but the clutter is overwhelming or they feel powerless to solve the problem. It’s possible that they don’t
feel disorganized and their standard is lower than yours. If you’ve taken the time to
sincerely listen and understand, the communication lines will be open enough for you to
express your own desire for order.
Alex liked to keep his living spaces tidy. He couldn’t figure out why his wife’s areas were
always disorganized and overflowing. His frustration was growing because to him, the
solution seemed easy: she just needed to get rid of things or put them away. When he
took the time to listen to her, he realized she desperately wanted to be more organized, but keeping up with the kids, their home, and her part-time job meant things often piled up.
Frankly, she herself felt stressed and helpless over not being able to keep up. With more
understanding, they were able to tackle some areas together and eventually hired a
4) Peaceful is Better than Perfect
Having an orderly home is a process. With a greater understanding of each other, your
ultimate goal is to develop a strategy to work together. It’s important to build unity, to learn to compromise and think of this as a team effort. Invite your family members onto your
team and encourage them to take ownership to make your home a more organized and
inviting place to live. Keep in mind that habits and behaviors won’t change overnight.
Sometimes it may feel as though you’re the only one working towards the goal of an
organized living space. And sometimes you might be.
However, keeping healthy lines of communication open and striving to work together with patience, respect, and understanding will make a home more peaceful, even if it is not in
Life in the 21st century is anything but simple. Do I really need to tell you that? Our world feeds us countless messages defining what we need in order to be happy, successful, and fulfilled. Messages like: Live the dream! You can be anything you want to be! Buy [this product] to be more [attractive/productive/happy]. We’ve all heard these messages, either directly or indirectly, and we’ve all bought into at least some of the hopeful promises that our lives can improve…if only we [fill in the blank]. I’ll resist the urge to enumerate the unsatisfying results when we get caught up in wanting to do it all and have it all.
But the true result of our modern life, trying to keep up with our packed schedules, overflowing To-Do lists, and material abundance is sadly, not satisfaction and peace. Rather, we have stress, anxiety, broken relationships, and a LOT of stuff.
So, in the complexity of our technological age, what does it mean to simplify? What does a simpler life look like for an ordinary family keeping up with work, school, and countless demands? Regardless of the season of life—a young couple, family with children, or empty nesters—how can any of us find a greater level of simplicity in our noisy, chaotic, energetic world?
The beautiful truth is that the concept of “living simply” looks different for each person and every family. What I deem a simpler, less complicated life for my family will undoubtedly look different from your ideal. The challenge is that it takes effort to figure out how to step out of a cluttered and demanding lifestyle to pursue a more balanced and satisfying experience of daily life.
I want to highlight the two qualities that define a simpler life, according to Deborah DeFord in her book, The Simpler Life (The Readers Digest Association, Inc, 1998). These are integrity and intentionality.
Integrity is defined as a state of being whole and undivided. This ideal means I need to look at what is important to me, and then live according to those goals and values. If I believe physical fitness is important but never make time in my week to get up and move, then I am not living an integrated life. Rather, to live according to what I value, I will commit to walking 3 times each week and schedule it on my calendar. It’s as simple as that: Live in accordance with what is important to you.
Intentionality means we act with purpose. We consciously decide the choices we make throughout our day. Thus, to be intentional requires a certain mindfulness. If we are always “going with the flow,” we may feel spontaneous, but we are not in control of our day. We are reacting rather than being proactive. I must admit that I sometimes fell prey to impulse purchases, buying things because they were on sale, even though they were not items on my list. The result was I spent money I hadn’t planned to spend, brought home things I might not actually use, and then had to find a place to store my latest bargains. Learning to live with intention means pausing to evaluate my true needs.
How will pursuing integrity and intentionality help you lead a simpler life?
Only you can decide what is most important to you. Only you can be in control of: the way you spend your time, the things you buy, and the relationships you pursue. When you proactively make decisions on what you need in your life and shut out the noise of what others are proclaiming, you will have the ability to pursue only those people, activities and things that give meaning to your life. Saying “no” to the unnecessary is saying “yes” to what is most valuable—which leads to true satisfaction, contentment, and peace.
I grew up in an immaculate home. Really. My father was a carpenter who built our stone front colonial split level home on a hill with a pastoral view. My mom, a dedicated, full-time homemaker, kept our home well-ordered and immaculately clean. Have you heard the saying, “You could eat off the floors?” Yup, that was our home.
As for me, I’ve always been creative and busy. I loved being involved in as many school activities and/or art projects as possible. I always had something going on. This meant two things. First, that I was always taking things out faster than I was putting them away, and second, I wasn’t paying much attention to the mess in my bedroom because I was habitually out and about.
My mother wanted a neat, clean, organized home, and my crazy schedule, coupled with my belongings scattered around, certainly must have been a source of frustration for her. But rather than scold me or demand I clean up my trail, she would just tidy up my art projects while I was at school.
However, when I would stop long enough to look over my room and see the clutter, I would take the time to pull things apart, empty drawers and closets, and begin sorting and organizing until order was restored. Yet, in light of the high standard of order that surrounded me, I never actually thought of myself as being organized—or as an organizer.
In recent years, when friends marveled at how orderly I am, it didn’t strike me as anything special. They were just acknowledging a task that I figured anyone could do. That’s the thing about being organized. If it comes naturally to you, it’s hard to see that it’s not natural to others.
But to me it was a game. A puzzle. And everything had to fit.
I look back and see how much I learned from my mom. Everything had a place in our home. If it didn’t, she would make a place or it had to go. Is the kitchen counter really the designated place I want to keep those papers? Is the floor the best place for that pile of clothes?
After I grew up and had my own family, I continued to be creative and busy. Our home would suffer from toys strewn about, projects lining tables and paperwork in various piles. I would sigh and think, “Certainly a far cry from my childhood home!” Four growing children in a townhome meant a lot of stuff, a lot of activity, and not necessarily a lot of room.
And do I dare tell you that we home schooled? Yes! I wouldn’t trade it for a minute!! But of course, the kids were never out of the house and off to school for me to keep things as neat and tidy as my heart desired. I knew I was choosing a lifestyle that would not provide much downtime, so I sacrificed the orderly home for countless rewarding moments with my children.
And yet, although I had a home that I perceived as forever messy and disordered, friends would complement me on how organized I am! What did they see that I didn’t see?
It took years, until all four kids were in college and beyond that I began to realize how much I enjoyed organizing! Looking back, I realized that I took on organizing projects in every workplace since high school. When I had time at home, organizing a drawer or a room actually served as an outlet! Strange? Or can you identify?
It was during a conversation with a trusted friend a year ago that the idea took over. I was driving home during my dreaded hour commute from my office. My dear friend was planning her summer goals, wanting to get her home back in order after a long school year. Suddenly I blurted out, “I’d rather be organizing your home this summer too!” Crazy! But I felt like a lightbulb went on in my soul! “Yes!” I thought, “I really would love to organize your house!”
Over the course of the next week, the idea grew stronger, clearer. I loved organizing! And I loved helping others. I’m great with people one-on-one, when I can really focus on the story of another person. Oh, I knew what it feels like to have a house full and feel out of control. I also know how much better it is when everything is in order. Then I can focus on the things that really matter in my life—my family, friends, church community, etc. I have a passion to help other women regain a sense of freedom and peace.
On July 11th, 2016, I launched Peace Restored Organizing as a way to help others find order in their homes—and through order, a greater level of peace.
For more information on Peace Restored Organizing, visit www.peacerestoredorganizing.com .
About Denise ...
The core of who I am comes from my faith in God and my relationships with my husband Sandy and our four amazing children. That's where I want to spend my time! Having a well ordered home enables me to focus less time on things and more time on what makes life worth living. Join me as we journey together to make our homes a haven.