Organized is not picture-perfect

It has taken me a long lifetime to learn that a clean and organized house where real people live will never look like those wonderful houses on HGTV. Real people are messy, and the secret of an organized house is that neither messiness nor obsessive order are allowed to intrude on the joy and peace of mind of the people who live in it.

Overwhelmed by the amount of work that it will take to put my house in order, I turn on Hoarders to enjoy a moment of schadenfreude–a secret pleasure in someone else’s misfortune because, I say, “There, but for the fact that I am not a TOTAL nut case, go I. “Then I flip on Fixer-Upper to indulge another sinful pleasure–coveting one of Joanna Gaines’s beautifully staged fixed-up houses before the lucky owners move in and mess it up.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for getting organized. If it works for you, then it works. If, however, you have a feeling that “it” (whatever “it” is) could be working better, you may benefit from learning a few principles of organization and having a few rules of thumb to help you along. I’m not going to teach you those principles and rules of thumb because you can find them in abundance in books and blogs, but I am going to share a few tricks and tips that have worked for me and hope that maybe they will work for you to help you cut down on the time you spend searching for lost objects, re-organizing and cleaning, and spend more time doing things you really love to do.

  1. Ditch those pictures in your head. Look honestly at what you and your housemates do at home and maybe some things you would like to do if you had the right space for it. Then decide what you need so that you can happily do whatever those things are.
  2. Start small. If you’re the kind of person who can pull everything out at once and then put it in order without getting overwhelmed, you can ignore this suggestion. I like to make a huge mess and then clean it up, but the truth is that this method doesn’t work for me, so I’ve learned to work on one space at a time–whatever I think I can finish in the time that I have. It may be a bathroom, a drawer, or a corner. Finishing something, however small, gives me a sense of accomplishment.
  3. Acknowledge that you’ll never “get caught up.” For much of my life, I’ve lived in the fantasy that someday in some mythical future, I would finally “get caught up” and then life would be marvelous and I could get some rest. Life, it turns out, is always a work in progress. If you think you are caught up, you should start a project so you don’t get bored. However, if you work on getting organized, you can have more stress-free days no matter what you’re doing.
  4. Identify and deal with clutter before you start organizing. If you still have issues to deal with about letting go of material things and you have a reasonable amount of available space and a fair number of boxes, quickly clear away things you don’t use and pack them in boxes. A little proactive procrastination can help you get to the more urgent business of organizing things you use before you tackle harder issues involving sentimental clutter.
  5. Designate places for everything you need, use, or want. “A place for everything and everything in its place” is an old saying. If you have a place for everything, putting it away is much quicker and easier. Things that are used often should be within easy reach. Infrequently used objects, like Christmas decorations, can occupy less-convenient spaces. Before you buy anything at all, mentally give it a place in your house. If you don’t have a place for it, you probably shouldn’t buy it!
  6. Use containers and labels. The Container Store is one of my favorite business establishments, but I try to avoid the temptation of spending way too much money there (1) by minimizing the possessions to be contained and (2) by re-purposing used commercial containers like coffee cans, shoe boxes, and sturdy plastic containers. Labeling is a real time-saver and well worth the time it takes!
  7. Get professional advice (but take it with a grain of salt). I can’t afford to hire a professional organizer, but I do look for advice online and in books and magazines. However, advice should always be tailored to your needs and wishes. Marie Kondo, who has a lot of good advice to give, says thirty books are enough. I say, “You don’t know me, Marie!”
Here are some ingenious organizing hacks from Good Housekeeping. If you seriously declutter first, some of them will be unnecessary!
One hundred tips for organizing your house

The perils of going shopping

It is a novel idea and a liberating one. Stop shopping, or rather stop going shopping. Decide what you are going to buy, where you are going to buy it, how you are going to pay for it, and where you are going to keep it before you ever leave your house. It’s that simple, but it’s not always easy!

The goal of advertising is to make us unhappy. Ecstatic joy over a brand new iPhone or Lexus is interrupted by the announcement that the NEW iPhone with MORE features is available and that there is a car that is better than your brand new Lexus for showing the world how successful you are at being whatever it is that you want to be.

Coveting is big business in the United States of America. Far from being considered a sin, it is sanctified as The American Dream. It is woven tightly into every waking hour and creeps into our dreams.

I have never been what you would call well off. Daddy was a blue-collar wage earner, and Mama stayed home cleaning and cooking. We had a comfortable house in a safe neighborhood, but I knew that there were much grander houses with a lot of stuff that we didn’t have. I knew because my grandma lived in one of those houses, and so did the McCalls where my mother had baby sat when she was younger and whose daughters gave me their hand-me-downs with Neiman-Marcus labels.

Neither Daddy nor Mama had a clue about how to manage a family budget, so they could never seem to “get ahead,” as Daddy used to say. They passed their cluelessness on to me, and I followed their footsteps into my own adult life, always thinking that everyone else must be making more money than my family did because many of them did seem to “get ahead.”

One reason my family could never get ahead was that Mama’s favorite form of entertainment was “going shopping,” and I learned to love it almost as much as she did.

Shopping and trading have been human activities for milennia, but “going shopping” has been around for fewer than two hundred years. Even in the early twentieth century, people decided what they needed or wanted, and then went to specialized shops where those needs could be met.

“Going shopping” consists of going out to see what is for sale and buying for the joy of buying, being tempted as at a fair, by the many things for sale at department stores, supermarkets, malls, and one-stop big box stores like Wal-Mart. We are thoroughly prepared for the experience by a constant stream of advertising, encouraging us to covet not only our neighbors’ possessions but also the possessions of the rich and famous and the possessions and lifestyles of paid models who don’t even own the things or live the lifestyles that they so artfully tempt us to covet.

We meet our needs, of course, but we also acquire an enormous number of things that we don’t really need or even want. Then we spend inordinate amounts of time shuffling those things around, dusting them, storing them, maybe eventually selling them in garage sales or becoming hoarders.

Since I stopped going shopping, I not only save time, money, and storage space, but I really enjoy the things I buy because I have identified a need or desire, planned for it, and set aside the money to pay for it.

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to organize living and work spaces. The test is whether they work for the ones who use them. These are some characteristics of well-organized spaces.

  1. Things are easy and quick to find, retrieve, use, and put away.
  2. The space is conducive to the activity or activities that are carried out there.
  3. The surroundings remove stress from the activity rather than adding to it.

Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owners except to feast their eyes on them? The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep. I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners, or wealth lost through some misfortune, so that when they have children there is nothing left for them to inherit. Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands. Ecclesiastes 5:10-15

Do not wear yourself out to get rich; do not trust your own cleverness.Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle. Proverbs 23:4-5

Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed. 1 Timothy 6:17-19

Nana was a minimalist but didn’t know it

Nana was one of the most contented, generous, and positive people I have ever known. She didn’t have much, but if she wanted more, she didn’t talk about it. She didn’t talk about the past. She lived in the present and the near future, keeping her little house in order, buying groceries, visiting relatives, going to church, reading the paper, making quilts.

Bessie Griner Rice, whom we called Nana, was Mama’s mother. She lived on Bonham Street in Nocona, Texas, in a white clapboard house with a built-on bedroom that she had shared with my grandfather, William Marion Rice, until he died. It was an almost-tiny house, and it contained all her worldly goods, which would qualify as “minimal” by any standard.

An alcove off the living room had been turned into a bathroom with a second-hand commode and clawfoot bathtub. A couch facing the front door folded out to make a bed. In a narrow passage that led to the kitchen, a tiny closet held Nana’s wardrobe, three or four flower- or check-print dresses, a hat, a pair of Sunday shoes. A curtained sink in the kitchen doubled as the lavatory. A recessed cabinet on the wall held a few dishes and maybe a box of cereal, some rice, beans, salt, pepper, flour, and not much more. There was a small gas stove, a table and chairs, and a wooden ice-box. The added-on room with windows on all sides had just enough space for a double bed and matching dresser and a foot-pedal sewing machine where Nana worked on patchwork quilts made of our discarded clothes and scraps from Aunt Dorothy’s sewing projects.

Without pattern book or drawing, she arranged the random scraps into symmetrical patterns. For my babies she made beautiful little quilts from old party dresses, velvet, taffeta, satin, and lace. Nana’s quilts had something of herself in the careful arrangement of the patterns and the meticulous stitches, and they bound up memories of how we were and the things we had done when we wore the clothes that the patches had come from.

The house was cheerful and cozy, furnished mostly with used things that Nana’s grown-up children had given her. New things were birthday or Christmas presents: a light-colored cedar chest, bed and matching dresser, and whatnot shelves displaying porcelain dolls, perfume bottles, and pictures of her grandchildren.

In winter a little gas heater warmed the house up in a few minutes. Snuggled deep under the quilts and blankets in the cold room, I could hear Nana up and about early muttering about the cold. She would light the stove with a “Varrrroooom” as the gas, which she turned on long before she lit the match, sucked in the flame. “A wonder she hasn’t blown us all to kingdom come,” my mother would say. Then Nana would go back to bed, and we would all wait under the covers until the house was warm and we could get up and drink boiled coffee.

Behind the house, sunflowers and daisies grew wild; in the front, two big shade trees were just right for climbing. Nana tended her irises and canna lilies carefully, but she didn’t mind when I tried for several years to dig my way to China with a teaspoon in the soft dirt next to the flower beds. In summer, the adults would sit in metal chairs on the front porch to eat cantaloupe or watermelon and catch up on gossip, while the children sat on the steps, made mudpies, or worked on the China Project.

We went to visit Nana often. My mother, attuned to some inner calendar, would announce, “I’ve got to go see Mama.” Nana came to our house too. She would cook and embroider and watch TV with us for a few days. Then, one hand on an ample hip, she would say, “I’ve got to get back.” And we would take her back to her little house in Nocona, my mother wondering out loud what it was that she had to “get back” to.

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