Here we are, the end of July and my annual month on Cape Cod is coming to an end. And though this winter will probably fly by, still, it’s a long wait to July 1, 2016.
As usual, it’s been a super fun month. Daily bike rides along the Canal, stand up paddle boarding on our pond, late afternoon strolls on the beach after the tourists have gone back to their motel rooms (Cape Codders know this is the best time to visit the beach), barbeques, evening ice cream cones, even a seal cruise in Orleans, and just an all around good time spent with friends and relatives who come for visits.
But no “Felice Vacation” is complete without projects accomplished. The garage freed of another year’s accumulation, the backyard shed cleaned out (and dead mice removed, thanks George!), closet clutter removed, etc. Yet despite the good feeling I get when I’ve returned from another trip to the dump or to Goodwill, I always am conscious of the money spent to acquire these expendables. I’m not the only one who thinks about this.
At one point everything we bought was for a good reason: to wear, to read or for “efficiency.” On very many occasions though, in time the item will become irrelevant. It breaks, shrinks, or is superseded by Version X. (The last Palm Pilot update was at least 10 years ago.)
So how do you keep your possession-bulk at a reasonable level? I’ve concluded that you simply have to be merciless when it comes to purchasing in the first place. Ask, “Do I really need this or am I buying it mostly because I can?” We can justify disposal by giving our “Buh-byes” to those in need, but if we keep buying stuff we don’t need, guess who’s going to become the needy one?
As I wrestled the Palm Pilot from my dad’s hands, he said, “But the kids might like to play with it.” I pointed out that the kids would take one look at it and when they realized it didn’t connect to Wi-Fi, it would be discarded faster than the dead mice from our shed.
Thus ended the lesson.
From the get-go we accumulate Baby Stuff. Diapers, bottles, onesies. Next comes Adolescent Stuff like Lincoln Logs, Barbies, board games, baseball gloves and elementary school artwork too “special” to toss that will fill space under the bed. By the time we head off to college, however, that stuff is left behind without so much as a backwards glance.
Then there’s College Stuff. Textbooks, sweatshirts and shot glasses. (Oh my!) Those four years of further accumulation fly by faster than you can say, “Yard Sale” and before you know it, that stuff is brought home and piled atop your Childhood Stuff.
But now you’re on the verge of adulthood and it’s time to say, “buh bye” to Past Stuff so you can make room for Future Stuff. Don’t promise your folks you’ll be back to get your stuff once you’re settled. Get rid of it now, especially if you’re meshing your stuff with your Partner’s Stuff, because I’ll tell you right now, adulthood is all about acquiring More Stuff.
Wedding gifts, baby clothes and weekly trips to Home Goods will quickly engulf your home. It’s only years later do you wake up overwhelmed thinking, “Where did all this stuff come from?!” That’s when you grab that Hefty Cinch sack and start tossing. But beware, you will suffer through the realization of how you could have used the money that went into buying all That Stuff towards your mortgage or that dream vacation.
It’s a fact most of the people in your home will eventually move out and soon that art studio you always wanted becomes possible, but not yet. Somehow there’s still Extra Stuff to purge. But then one day (one day!) you will reach your goal where you’re down to only the Right Stuff, the things you really love, and life is suddenly leisurely. At least for a while.
You see, with age comes Senior Stuff and that, my friends, is a whole ‘nother story. Soon your dream art studio may need to make room for a walker or a stand-up chair. And it’s in that chair where you might spend most of your time looking around at whatever stuff you still have and think, “If only I had spent more time collecting memories.”
Don’t let Things Stuff get in the way of the Right Stuff.
“What vacation?” I said.
“Weren’t you just down in Florida?”
In the last year or so, visits to my grandfather are no longer a holiday. His mind is still sharp, but these trips have become more to “papa-sit.” He’ll be 94 in August and life has become cruel to him once again. There are moments he forgets that his body aches, that he still misses Nana or that he can’t do anything for himself. But those moments are precious and few.
“How I feel? How my enemies should feel,” Papa says.
The irony of his life is palpable. During his five years in the camps he barely had enough to eat, so when he came to America, is it any surprise he owned a grocery store? And now, even though his fridge is stocked, his taste buds have turned on him.
“I have everything,” Papa says, shaking his head. “And I can’t eat.”
He has a daily homecare aide, but on my visits I do the overnights. I have the routine down. After dinner, mostly a protein shake, he watches TV in his special chair, me at his side ready to get him water, a warm compress for his eyes or to assist him to the bathroom. Every day is a struggle, every basic human need requires help.
At nine we check his sugar one last time before bed. These are the nice moments, quiet, another day done. One evening, the two of us were in the kitchen, him slowly eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream to raise his sugar before sleep, and me pointing out the window.
“Look Papa, there’s a full moon.”
Without turning around, Papa continues staring into his bowl of melting ice cream. “It’s looking down here, how the people are,” he says.
“And how are the people?” I ask.
We sit a little longer. Papa, squinting through eyes that are beginning to fade, scans the refrigerator of pictures of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, his “dividends,” he calls them. I watch his expression and a hint of a smile appears. I know that smile. He’s proud.
“Without education, without college, I did it,” he says. “I did it my way.”
Spring-cleaning may leave you feeling pretty good, but it’s the summertime version that results in real satisfaction. Remember how good it felt at the end of the school year when you returned textbooks, tossed homework and chucked those stubby pencils? It was the result of a job well done, another school year under your belt. Even now, years after my last school semester ended, I practice those same rituals, disposing past work from completed projects.
Last week my sister Jackie and I spent a morning at our parent’s Cape Cod home where we grew up. We had been waiting for summer to tackle her childhood bedroom closet and the day was at hand. Unlike me, Jackie hadn’t been blessed with the “the gift” of being organized, but she has gotten better.
That afternoon we went to my nephew’s elementary school. Jackie had volunteered to read to her son’s class. As the second-graders listened to the story, I looked around the room. It was obvious it was the end of the year as the walls usually covered with kid’s drawings and posters of maps had bare spots and the recycle bin was full.
When the bell rang the kids sprung into action. Schoolwork put away, lunchboxes stuffed into backpacks, and books returned to shelves. During the chaos I glimpsed inside many of the desks. Most were a mess, as you can imagine a seven-year-old’s desk to be, but there was one that stood out. It looked like it could have been mine. Papers piled neatly to one side, books to the other, with pencils gathered together.
Over the years I’ve been asked how one pursues becoming a professional organizer. Sure you can learn how to utilize containers, but the drive to being organized has to come from within.
As the students lined up by the door, my smiling nephew proudly held open the lid of his desk while I reached for my cell phone. The girl next to him, watching us, said, “Sometimes my desk is as neat as Andrew’s, but it doesn’t last. His desk is always neat.”
I winked at my nephew. He has the gift.
We all have memories. A photo, a trinket or maybe even a scar can trigger them. Some are good, some not. What is baffling is how some memories of an event remain clear years later; while others are forgotten soon after they’ve occurred.
What then, makes a memory stick? Joyous occasions, like weddings and graduations? Or a personal traumatic event? Or perhaps moments that change the course of history. Everyone remembers where he or she was on 9/11. But why aren’t those little moments in between the big ones remembered? Do they not count if we don’t remember them? Is that why we’re posting every mundane moment online instead of actually appreciating the moment in the moment?
If it takes lots of memories to build our life’s journey, what about those bumper stickers telling us, “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you’re still re-reading the last one” or “Don’t look back you’re not going that way”? Should we forget everything from our past? Or just weed out the bad chunks, like a divorce or when a loved one dies? And if we’re really cleaning house, what about those painful memories lingering from high school that still trigger raw emotions and awkward dreams?
Perhaps those maxims are actually telling us not to forget the bad times, but to let go of the resentments attached to them. Maybe that’s the key to moving on. In the last four years I have spoken to thousands of people about my grandfather’s experiences in the Holocaust and every talk ends with the words, “We can never forget.” I didn’t live through that horrendous ordeal, but my grandfather, who’s going to be 94 in August, did. After losing his entire family and surviving indescribable treatment, what kept him forging ahead and becoming successful and starting anew, was not forgetting. His goal was to create a new family to replace all those he lost and prove life was still worth living. The pain of the past pushed him to live a full life and to give all that he could.
Memories make us who we are. But it’s how we remember those memories that make us who we are to become.
It’s spring, both officially and in the air. The sun streaming through our windows brings comfort. But the shining sun also highlights the dust bunnies. All of them. And there are many.
While in a downward dog this morning, I glanced to my right. Big mistake. There, under the couch, a nightmare. Later, my hand swiped the counter and, whoa, what was that? More dust? Seriously? I cleaned it last night. I can’t even talk about the feet on my kitchen stools. It’s like dust bunnies go there to meet other dust bunnies.
As an organizer whose home has a place for everything, what I don’t have room for is dust. Yet there it is, everywhere, haunting me. No matter how many times I vacuum, Swiffer and mop, they remain, hiding in plain sight. The worse thing is that they keep me from focusing on work. I need to wipe them away before I can do anything.
In college, my roommate Stacey and I were easily distracted by our sweaters. Those lilting piles called out to us to be refolded. We ignored them, looked away, even turned our backs in our tiny Z-Room in Kennedy Hall, but at some point it became fruitless. Inevitably, we put down our pencils and Texas Instrument calculators, and refolded them, planning to get right back to our X’s and Y’s. But once the sweaters were refolded, the T-shirts now looked messy in comparison and so, well, we had no choice but to refold those as well.
Of course these chores didn’t take long, but it did take us away from our work. All these years later I find myself once again distracted. This time by dust. (Well, today anyway, I did the sweaters last week).
It’s easy to get sidetracked during the course of the day. It’s life. How then, do you keep your butt in the seat? There’s no one solution, the trick is finding what works for you. Today that solution is a big, fat bribe. If I get my blog done, plus a few other items crossed off my To Do list, then I can go for a bike ride later this afternoon and enjoy this beautiful spring day.
Until then, the dust bunnies can wait.
I remember many gifts I received as a child. The purple clad Donnie and Marie Osmond dolls, my first bike with the banana seat, and the pink cassette boom box. But the most memorable gifts were the ones that had my name on them. Like the pencils ordered off the back of a cereal box or the pair of barrettes I wore in middle school, even when the “e” at the end peeled off and my friends called me “Felic” with a hard c. (Some of them still call me that.)
But my favorite were the personalized business cards my dad got me when I turned ten. This was way before VistaPrint. In 1980, business cards were a big deal. Well, they were to me. They weren’t for networking or to give to clients (I was ten, remember?), but they did represent my likes. And at ten, those were Math Puzzles Tennis and Reading. What’s remarkable is aside from the fact all these years later I still enjoy those activities, I remain a multi like/occupation person – author, blogger, organizer, and artist.
As it happens I’m in the middle of a job change (the job that pays some bills and affords me benefits until my “likes” start paying). As I update my resume, I am trying something out of the box. I am ordering new business cards now. You see, most people get their business cards after they’ve landed a job, but what if we ordered them before? A kind of “If you print it, it will come” Zen wishing system.
If you are not currently working at your dream job, why not create a business card that lists that dream job. Business cards are inexpensive enough and can be at your door the next day. Many people believe that putting your dreams out into the Universe will help them come to fruition. What have you got to lose?
Four years. That’s 48 months. It also happens to be an anniversary. My blog’s. Not that I remembered. Linked In’s algorithm did. And it announced it to my entire “network” of connections. It wasn’t until I began receiving “Congrats!” messages was I even aware such a thing existed.
In the spirit of celebrating my “work anniversary” I want to reflect back on the last four years. In 2011, after a certain YouTube video “outed” my organizing skills to the world, I began the blog “Get Organized. It’s About Time.” as a way to share tips and answer my reader’s questions on clearing out their own clutter. But it has slowly evolved from the how to be organized into the why. That’s the reason I changed the name of the blog to “Living Large in Any Size,” because living with less stuff and less clutter allows you to get more out of life, and for me that’s more time to do the things I love.
Over these four years (or 208 weeks) I’ve written 218 blogs, this being the 218th! For someone who likes to downsize, that’s a lot of words. While this may mark a four-year milestone, I’ve been honing these skills for 25 years. From college dorm rooms to two-car garages to a college president’s office, I’ve brought order to many a disorganized situation. The one thing I’ve learned in all this time and through all the separating out of the wheat from the chaff is that it liberates us a bit to live the life we want. I may still occasionally write about the best way to tackle an untidy linen closet or an adventure through my grandfather’s Tupperware cabinet, but the message is perhaps really about creating space for new experiences. And one thing is for sure, you can never have too many of those.
Thank you for your feedback and support all these years.
Ah yes. Finally. It’s here. Spring. How good it feels to open windows and release stale air, toss worn out scarves and random items found in the backs of drawers. Spring brings with it a rejuvenation and every year there’s no better feeling.
Last week I was on Cape Cod. I woke early to birds singing and the sun streaming through the blinds in my old bedroom. Temps hovered around 50. Outside the air was crisp, but not too cold. In the backyard shed, I removed all eight deck chairs, still stacked as neatly as I’d left them last fall. Pounding off the stale air and dirt from a long winter’s hibernation felt good, the action filled with the promise of a new season ahead. Once the chairs were back around the glass porch table, I pictured family and friends, the aroma from the grill, and the sound of laughter. As much as I have become a New Yorker, the Cape Codder in me remains strong. My license plate may beg to differ, but my car knows where her home is.
That afternoon I headed to Orleans for the first of two talks, having been invited to speak about my grandparents’ experiences in the Holocaust on what was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The first was to 200 eighth graders at Nauset Middle School, the second that evening to another large crowd from the Nauset Interfaith Association. During each talk it occurred to me how fitting that the war had ended during springtime.
“Survivors were, yes, happy to be free,” I said to both audiences. “But happy may not be the right word. Maybe relieved is more accurate. Yet that relief was quickly replaced with the harsh reality that for many, they were the only one in their family to have survived. For them, the spring of 1945 was, quite literally, a rebirth, a time to start again.”
Why is it easier to focus on the negative rather than the positive? For New Yorkers, it’s par for the course, but plenty of others see the glass half-empty. Is it possible to switch our outlook? My vote is yes.
Take for example when you diet. Your first instinct is to focus on what you can’t eat. Ice Cream! Cookies! Pizza! The trick is to focus on foods you can eat. My sister Meredith and I are now trying the Whole30 Program where you cut out carbs, dairy and sugar for 30 days. It’s not a diet, but a “nutritional reset, designed to…end unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and balance your immune system.” For 30 days I can do anything. That’s not to say it isn’t going to be hard.
On Day One all I could think about was bread. It felt like everyone on the street was eating a gigantic bagel. So I changed my focus to what I could eat. Mangos! Salmon! Almond butter/banana/flax/raisin/coconut snacks! Oh boy.
It’s like when I moved into the 90 square foot apartment. At first I thought, “I can’t sit up in bed!” “I can’t make scrambled eggs!” Then I realized I could complain or look at what I could do, such as walk outside and be in Central Park or get delicious sushi across the street. There was a learning curve, but in no time I came to love that apartment which is why I stayed almost 5 years.
It takes effort to stick to any challenge, but already the benefits are showing. Aside from trying new foods, I can feel my willpower getting stronger, which will help with my next challenge, whatever that is. Plus, I am already beginning to see the glass half full, even if that glass is filled with water and not a hot chai latte with skim milk.