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.
I recently watched the pilot of new television show called Younger. It’s about a woman in her forties who wants to go back to work after taking time off to raise her daughter, but is unable to land a job since now she’s “old.” When a man in his twenties mistakes her for being his age and tries to pick her up in a bar, her friend has an idea: give her a makeover. As part of the “makeover” sequence to turn her into a believable 20-something, they change her hair, her clothes and even her email address from AOL to GMAIL. That’s when I laughed out loud.
Many times my younger sister (12 years younger, thank you very much!) has given me grief for still using AOL. Now before you toss me into the same category as those who still use flip phones and Blackberries, let me explain. I do have a GMail account, but only use it occasionally because it’s cumbersome and time consuming. There’s too much text everywhere and it’s hard to quickly spot the “reply” and “forward” buttons, let alone search for a past email. The nature of email itself is already a “time suck,” I don’t have more time to waste figuring out how to use it. As a professional organizer whose goal is to always save time, Gmail simply doesn’t help me with that. But AOL does. It’s neat and it’s superior in the organization of its layout.
Now the brains behind Google are way above average, but they lack good old fashioned organizing skills. If anyone out there reading this happens to be in charge of the Gmail layout, drop me an email, I would be happy to offer my services. But please, make sure to use my AOL address so it doesn’t get lost.
“When are you coming back?” he asked. I laughed, the laundry from my trip still in the hamper.
Life is getting harder for Papa. Nearing 94, his body is wearing down while his daily pill count is going up, resembling a bag of Skittles. His mind is still sharp, though the edges have softened. Like many elderly, his days are the same, mirror images of the one before. One burden of growing older is feeling like there’s nothing to look forward to, so it’s no surprise many elderly take anti-depressants.
During this last visit, on a whim I placed a piece of white paper and black marker in front of Papa. Then I put a glass vase filled with roses on the table. “Draw this,” I told him.
“What do I know from drawing?” he said. The only thing my grandfather ever drew was a list of which customers at his grocery store owed him money.
“Just try,” I said. He lifted the marker; his arthritic knuckles gripping it gently. Then he rested his head in his left hand and drew. I wasn’t expecting Picasso. I wasn’t expecting anything more than what the exercise might give him. Papa finally put down the marker. It wasn’t Picasso. It was better. Because for those few minutes he forgot about the aches and pains, about his time coming to an end and the horrible memories still struggling for space inside his head.
“Excellent!” I told him, and stuck it to the fridge. The next day he drew a white porcelain figurine of a rooster. Before I left I told him to keep drawing. And he has. Daily pictures and videos are sent to me of the artist in residence. Although Papa draws with his head heavy in his hand, while he creates he forgets about everything else. He now has a new focus.
Having a project can often help us get through whatever struggles we may face, no matter if we’re 19 or 93.
My grandfather has been feeding me since I was a baby. There are pictures of him spoon-feeding me oatmeal, though most of the oatmeal is on my face.
At age eight, on visits to Papa in Brooklyn, I began working at his grocery store and lunch breaks were the highlight. Standing behind the enormous deli counter, Papa made me a (“Don’t tell Nana!”) ham sandwich. Delish.
As I grew older, during visits to Papa and Nana, meals were a major focus. At some point, when Nana wasn’t looking, Papa snuck food from his plate onto mine, claiming he was full. I, being the good granddaughter, ate it. In the last few years Papa’s appetite has diminished even more. At 93, every basic human function brings discomfort, swallowing among them.
During this week’s visit down in Florida, on my first morning, when the aid walked out of the kitchen, Papa’s hand darted out. Suddenly there was half a hard-boiled egg on my plate. First of all, who knew his reflexes could still move that fast? Second, as per my usual routine, I ate it. When the aid returned and saw his empty plate she said, “Good job Murray.” Papa and I shared a knowing smile.
But as the days passed, I learned it was dangerous for Papa’s health if he didn’t get enough protein. The aid and my uncle Mark (often sounding like they’re scolding a stubborn boy who won’t clear his plate) are forceful, because as a diabetic Papa needs the nutrition.
On my last morning, the same situation presented itself. The aid left the kitchen and out shot Papa’s arm. Yes, I want to make my grandfather’s life easier, but eating his food would only make things harder. I put the food back on his plate. “You need the protein,” I said. The look he gave me tore through my heart. After 40 years I had turned on him.
There’s something ironic when a Holocaust survivor refuses to eat. Often when an elderly person doesn’t want to eat, it means they don’t want to live. But as a survivor Papa doesn’t know how not to survive. Every day, through aches and pains, he’s still surviving. It’s all he knows. When I put the egg back on his plate, he sighed in defeat. He had no choice. He ate it.