Category: Personal

The Joy of Less: How to Declutter & Live Simply

The Joy of Less: How to Declutter & Live Simply

How to Declutter

So maybe you’ve made a resolution to downsize, declutter, and simplify your life. It seems as though everyone is talking about living simply these days. The desire for simple living is a natural response to the frightening economy, the daily stresses of life in a highly technological age, and the intense pressures that both kids and adults face to be better, smarter, faster, thinner, more excellent in every way.

If you’re like me, you’ve made this resolution every year for the past ten years. You keep planning to throw stuff away, but never get around to it. You keep planning to stop shopping, but then you see that stunning pair of shoes, and you forget.

Related post: Get help organizing your closet.

(At left, organize small items like jewelry, desk supplies, and small toys in colorful lacquered wood trays. Set of 4 at One Kings Lane).

This just might be the year I finally realize my long-set-aside goal of getting rid of the stuff I don’t need. To help me on my journey, I’m using Francine Jay’s wonderful book The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Living Guide. As for decluttering the mind, which is every bit as important as decluttering the house, I’m enjoying Get Some Headspace: How Mindfulness Can Change Your Life in 10 Minutes a Day, by meditation expert Andy Puddicombe.

To keep myself honest, I’ll be blogging about my progress. If I don’t post for a while, you’ll know I haven’t gotten rid of anything. Please send me a note to get me back on my toes.

See related post: 5 Simple Everyday Rituals for a Happier Life

Completed minimalist tasks:

  1. On Friday, I took a bag of toys and a bag of clothes to St. Vincent DePaul.
  2. On Saturday, I put two itmes up for sale on Ebay. If they don’t sell, they’re going straight to the donation center.
  3. Yesterday, my husband listed a few items on Craigslist for free or next to free:  a bathroom mirror we removed when we had the house painted in October, a fireplace mantel that was removed when we updated the ugly old 60s fireplace to a streamlined concrete one (okay, the new fireplace was a big expense, but I feel it was an expense that had value; just looking at the new fireplace makes us feel calm), and I took three boxes of towels and linens, a box of toys, and a bag of clothes to St. Vincent de Paul.
  4. Last week, I organized the storage shelves in the hallway so that everything looks tidy and pretty, and the things we use are easy to find. Now the towels and linens are in their proper places, and my son’s tiny toys–all those things that end up on the floor and in drawers and in other toys’ boxes, where they can never be found–are in glass jars for easy viewing and access.
  5. Another dilemma is books. Aside from the dozens of books I buy each year, and rarely cull, I keep a small store of my own books in reserve for readings that are not hosted by local bookstores. These copies are generally stacked willy-nilly around the house, and when I’m going to an event where I’m expected to bring my own books, I end up tearing apart the shelves at the last minute. Now, they’ve all found a their proper place in a tucked-away shelf of my home office, a room that I never actually use for writing, because it’s way too cold down there.
The art of simple indulgence: Dieting is almost impossible when you give up everything at once. So too with simplifying your life. The process works better if you allow yourself a simple pleasure or two: For me, this means that I won’t stop buying books. (That would be hypocritical, since I certainly hope that the good readers of the world will keep buying mine.) Think of one or two things you’re not willing to give up, and allow yourself that indulgence. It will make the other aspects of your simplicity regimen feel less like a sacrifice.

Toys, treasures, nostalgia, & minimalism:

I’m particularly happy about number 4, because minimalism, in my mind, isn’t just be about getting rid of anything and everything. It’s about editing: keeping the things your family really uses, the things that bring pleasure to you or your partner/spouse or your kids, and storing those things in plain sight. A home should be a story of who you are and how you live. Shoving everything into boxes in the closet might make for a more streamlined space, but it also denies you some of the simple joys of everyday living.

The plastic blocks, for example, are from my grandparents’ home in rural Mississippi. Seeing these reminds me of all the afternoons I spent on the floor with my cousins, putting little green men in the boxes. My son loves playing with them too, and he is excited when I sit on the floor with him, building shapes with the boxes, telling him stories of my own childhood. The Lincoln Logs in their see-through jar beg to be played with. The hot wheels never fail to come out when my son has a playdate. Yes, these are objects we could technically get rid of–a purist might say we need only one Hot Wheel, one set of building toys–but for me, toys that get me and my son down on the floor together, eye to eye, chatting and just being happy in the moment, are worth keeping.

The story so far: We’re off to a good start, better than most years, but there is much to be done. For inspiration, I’m turning to a wonderful book by Miss Minimalist, The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Living Guide. Buy it from Indiebound or Amazon. (Of course, one might argue that acquiring a book about minimalism flies in the face of minimalism, but  as a writer who believes in the joy of the printed book, someone who wants to see books continue to be published, I believe in a kinder, gentler form of de-cluttering the bookshelves: if you can afford it: buy it once, then pass it on.)

Found at Green Apple

Found at Green Apple

Under the tree on Christmas morning, a swell stash of books that my personal Santa picked up from Green Apple

The Jokers, by Albert Cossery

I know nothing about this book, which is precisely why I love Green Apple: Santa will always find something he didn’t know he was looking for.

A House with No Roof, by Rebecca Wilson

A memoir by the daughter of labor leader Dow Wilson, who was murdered when the author was 3. Wilson writes about growing up with and later caring for a loving but mercurial mother, in the shadow of Rebecca’s violent and much older brother, Lee, in Bolinas, California. With an introduction by Anne Lamott. I’m not sure why, but I read this book in one day. It is a coming of age tale that focuses not on the murder itself but rather on the repercussions of the father’s death on the individual members of the author’s family.


The Ice Princess
, by Camilla Lackberg
.

A few years ago, my husband bought me The Man on the Balcony, a Martin Beck mystery from the crime writing husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I’d never read crime thrillers before, and my husband thought some easy reading might be relaxing. Well, I was hooked, and I quickly made my way through all of the Martin Beck mysteries. At the time, I thought of them as a guilty pleasure, but I’ve since dropped the “guilty” part and have come to consider a good thriller to be simply a great pleasure, guilt-free. Now, for every birthday, anniversary, and Christmas, along with a couple of novels in translation by writers I’ve never heard of , my husband gives me a crime thriller, and it’s usually the first in the stack to get read. Good writing is good writing, no matter the genre. The last great crime thriller I read, by the way, was The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis. Looking forward to diving in to The Ice Princess.

The Year of the Hare, by Arto Paasilinna

I haven’t started this one yet, but any book that the wonderful travel writer Pico Ayer wants to “live in” piques my curiosity.

If you go in for an element of surprise, join the Green Apple Book Club, whereby you receive a new book i in the mail each month, handpicked by the excellent Green Apple Guys, Pete & Kevin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to be happy: 5 Simple Everyday Rituals for a Happier Life

How to be happy: 5 Simple Everyday Rituals for a Happier Life

I’ve recently been inspired by Robert Arbor’s sweet guide to French living, Joie de Vivre. Arbor, a French restauranteur who sings the praises of peaceful breakfasts, family gardens, trips to le marche, leeks, love, and homemade jam. The book reminded me how much happiness we can derive from simple, everyday rituals. Read more about simplicity. Here are five I highly recommend, although, of course, you should choose the rituals that bring you and your family the most pleasure and, equally important, peace.

1. Make the beds every morning.
It’s difficult to maintain order in a house, especially if you have little ones. Even without children, the piles of papers, books, CDs, gadgetry, sports equipment, laundry–you name it–can be overwhelming. Which is why I make the beds every morning. It takes five minutes to make a bed, it gives you a small sense of accomplishment early in the day, and every time you walk into the bedroom, you are met with a small island of calm in the midst of the chaos. I prefer soft white bedding with pillowcases in a bright color or inviting pattern–all the more zen.

2. Read every evening.
I love reading alone, and I try to do it for a few minutes every evening while my husband and son are spending time together. But one of the great things about reading before bed is that it’s an easy ritual that can also be shared with children. After a long day, I love sitting in the bed with my son, the bed piled with books he has chosen. He snuggles up close and we read anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour, depending on how tired he is. By the time we turn the last page on the last book, he is ready to have a glass of milk and go to bed. There are so many things to distract from time spent with family, so many time constraints that can lead to stress and arguments; reading with my son is a way for us to be close to one another in an utterly contented, quiet way. It’s also when some of our best conversations happen, and when he asks some of his most endearing and surprising questions. As parents, most of us always feel that, in some way, we’re coming up short. But I feel happy knowing that my son loves reading, and that this is a pleasure he will likely carry with him through his life.

Recommended reading to help you feel calm, less stressed, and happier: Get Some Headspace: How Mindfulness Can Change Your Life in 10 Minutes a Day

3. Wear something that makes you feel good.
It can be a pair of shoes, a favorite scarf, a beloved jacket from college–it really doesn’t matter. Just choose something that makes you feel good–better yet if it has some sentimental value. Even if your clothes feel a bit tight today and the lines around your eyes came as something as a shock in the mirror this morning, wearing one beloved item that you know looks good on you can give you confidence. I love to wear a gold chain with an emerald that my husband gave me for our fifth wedding anniversary; every time my fingers absently find the emerald, I remember the choice my husband and I made more than a decade ago to spend our lives together, and it makes me feel calm and happy. What’s your emerald necklace?

4. Say something kind to someone you love.
It’s easy to be polite to strangers. We all know to say please and thank you in public, to smile and open doors for others, to ask, “How are you?” Being nice is ingrained in American life; the balance of friendliness and formal politeness varies, of course, depending on region, upbringing, and personal style. But in the rush of daily activity, it’s easy to forget to extend the same courtesies to the people we love, the people we see each morning when we wake up and each night before we go to bed, the people with whom we share meals and bills and responsibility. My husband and I always take time for a kiss and a hug and a kind word in the morning before he leaves for work (it sounds very 1950s, I know, but as I work from home, and he wears a suit, I do send him off every morning, something like June Cleaver). I feel grateful to him for going to work week after week, year after year; and he feels grateful to me for packing lunches and getting our son dressed and getting him to school (and working); and we both like each other very much. If he looks good in that shirt, I tell him. If he made a particularly amazing batch of chocolate chip cookies (which he does pretty often), I let him know I appreciate it. He does the same for me, numerous times a day, in numerous different ways.

We both do the same for our son. Think of a typical day–how many times do you end up correcting your children, telling them to do this or don’t do that, explaining that if they don’t brush their teeth, the teeth will eventually fall out? It’s not bad parenting–it’s just the way of the world–there are a lot of things we have to tell our children. But how many times do you say, “That’s such a great idea,” or, “I love how imaginative you are,” or, “I had so much fun with you today,” or, my favorite, “You’re a great kid.” They need to hear it, and it’s easy to say. So, each day before you part with your family members in the morning, and again before you go to bed at night, be sure to say something kind. It will make them happy.

5. Go outside and breathe.
I need not wax lengthy or this one. Hot or cold, rain or shine, remember to look at a tree or a bird or some rocks or some wildflowers. The only time I found it hard to go outside and breathe was Beijing, circa 1998, because breathing the city air was like breathing soot. So I would take a cab to the Forbidden City, find a quiet spot, and do my sitting and breathing there. Now that it’s summer in Northern California, we have our meals outside as often as possible–on the deck, or down in the yard in a little tee-pee my sister made for my son. I love to step outside first thing it the morning, when the air is cool. There’s a sense of promise to the morning hours, a sense of the world waking up which we can easily forget if we run from house to car to work, without spending a moment in the outside world. My son likes to go down to the back yard (we live over a canyon, and getting to the back yard is something of a trek) and check to see if Rocky the Fast, his favorite chameleon, is scuttling around on the bottom step. It’s good to be reminded of a world that is bigger than we are, and creatures that are smaller than we are. Perspective breeds happiness.

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What are your rituals and secrets to happiness? Please share in the comments section.

postscript: The simple pleasure of a traditional French breakfast: The morning after reading the first chapter of Joie de Vivre, I went out and bought a fresh baguette, local butter (made just down the road in Petaluma), and strawberries for a traditional French breakfast: spread some fresh butter and homemade jam on a baguette and enjoy with freshly ground coffee. The coffee is a ritual I’ve had down for years (even more essential a part of my days ever since researching coffee culture for my novel, No One You Know). I buy the beans once or twice a week, grind just enough for a single use, and make just one cup either with a manual drip (a little ceramic cone that you fit over your coffee cup) or a French press.

and all the ships at sea

and all the ships at sea

I wanted to share an interesting email I received last week from a reader:

I’m a Marine stationed over at Camp Pendleton in California. While I was on deployment, I found The Year Of Fog in the small ship library…I was a part of an expeditionary unit sitting off the coast of Burma last year after their country was ravaged by a natural disaster. I mean this in the greatest sincerity when I say that reading and finishing your story was truly all I looked forward to the 2 months I spent sitting on a ship, counting the days until I could come home. I’m not sure what it was, but I found myself very sympathetic and attached to the main character. I almost wish the story hadn’t ended. Or at least had ended the way I was expecting. Again, thank you for your story.

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My Year of Questions

My Year of Questions

Please visit and bookmark my new blog, My Year of Questions

As the mother of a six-year-old boy, my days, more often than not, begin with questions. Our son has a habit of bounding into our bed around six each morning and awakening us with something like this: “Who would win in a fight–Batman or the Incredible Hulk? Which is beautifuler–a sunset or a rainbow?”

Many of his questions begin with why: “Why haven’t scientists figured out how to turn sand into time? Why do kids sometimes act like your friend and sometimes growl at you? Why do I go to school to learn, because teachers are grown-ups, and the grown-ups already forgot what they knew when they were little?”

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