A Kitchen Tale: Decluttering, Cleaning, Tidying

I discovered that the newest milk was sour and that mice had gotten into…


The Teaching Tale:
Several decades ago I was an insignificant in-law of a family gathered around its octogenarian matriarch. The old lady was refusing to eat, drink, or get out of bed. Drama, to say the least, was in progress. For hours.

It occurred to me that folks were going to need dinner sooner or later, especially her nonagenarian husband who did not, as a rule set foot in the kitchen. Nor did he tolerate well either drama or missing his dinner. I repaired to the pantry to consider our options.

I discovered that the newest milk was sour and that mice had gotten into the baby cereal purchased during her toddler years for their now college-student granddaughter.  Things went on from there. I tied on an apron, located trash bags, sponges, a can of cleanser and went to work …

Later, as folks continued to scream into telephones and rush about to pharmacies, the old gentleman wandered into the kitchen. Surprised to find any useful industry in progress, he asked what I was doing. VERY deferentially, deeply concerned not to appear in any way dramatic or disruptive of his home. I explained about the outdated food and the scrubbing.

A slow smile crept across his face. “Can you stay another week?” he asked….

That turned out not to be the only neglected kitchen I tackled in my lifetime. And maybe except for the mice, it wasn’t the worst, either.

The Lesson:
Decluttering, to my way of thinking, is the practice of discerning between the things you’ll never use and the things you will, or could – then discarding the first pile. Decluttering is a joyful time full of the sense of industry, purpose and reclaiming of one’s spaces for good use.

I find refrigerators and food cupboards to be the easiest places to practice decluttering. From there I, myself, move on to decluttering beauty products and bathroom paraphernalia as much of that stuff has similarly limited shelf life. It is easy for me to throw out five-year-old vitamins, stale cosmetics or solidified shoe polish. After that, the decisions of what to discard and what to keep can get trickier.

Cleaning is the scrubbing up of mouse droppings, spills, tarnish, cobwebs and so forth. Thorough cleaning is much easier to do after decluttering, because often not only the space but also the salvageable items need to be cleaned. I prefer not to dust something I’m planning to trash!

Tidying, in my lexicon, involves neatly stowing away tools, groceries, projects-in-progress, clothes, back stock paper products and so forth in some readily accessible place. Keeping things tidy: erasing the chalkboard, realigning the student desks, logging off the computer, and collecting one’s keys at the end of a lecture, say; is especially important when sharing space. Otherwise, if nobody is likely to sit on my banjo, I’ll probably leave it lying around.

The old lady improved once her meds were regulated.  She lived quite happily several more years.  Meanwhile the “featured images” is of a quite successful Yorkshire pudding I made that has nothing to do with this story.  Although I did make it in another kitchen I’ve (mostly) decluttered.

American Decluttering vs. Japanese Tidying

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo’s book on the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing, caught my eye on a Barnes and Noble table during the days when I was shutting down my office and dismantling my townhouse to retire and relocate.

I read a lot of it while I stood there in the store, so here’s look at how this American Declutterer views the Japanese art of tidying by reviewing the six basic steps of Kondo’s program:

Commit yourself to tidying up
Fine.  As long as I am tidying things which are unquestionably my own, and space over which I have sole jurisdiction.  Otherwise the commitment must come from the whole family.

Imagine my ideal lifestyle: the kind of house I want and how I want to live in it
Okay….  Actually, we did benefit from considering first, how to use our spaces.

Finish discarding first
This is within the context of understanding that tidying is first and foremost about deciding what to keep, getting rid of everything else, and only then deciding how to store the things you decide to keep.  Clearly this requires finesse.  One of my favorite complaints about Kondo’s book is captured in a review on Amazon:

“My wife read this book and threw away a bunch of my stuff. I had to hide things in my truck to keep them off the chopping block. I no longer have a charger for my old iPod, she threw it away. I hate this book.”

Tidy by category, not by location
In other words, go through all your clothes, then all your books, then all your paperwork and so forth rather than tidying a single closet or drawer or room at a time.

Follow the right order of categories
Kondo is very prescriptive here.  But nowhere on her list is kitchen equipment, say; any tools pertaining to one’s vocation or hobbies; or even food, an essential consideration when one is clearing out a house in order to move!

It’s a good thing too, that as I was clearing out my office I remembered to transfer all the files from my office computer to a jump drive.  Kondo doesn’t include any discussion virtual tidying.

Ask yourself if it sparks joy
My great question as I shed personal belongings right and left was not, “Does this item spark joy?”
Rather it was (repeat after me), “Do I want to pay a moving company to haul this item across the Great Plains, a desert and two mountain ranges?”

I left Barnes and Noble without buying her book.  It hadn’t passed my test.


Saying Goodbye to my First Doll — Mother Got it Right

Snooky, my first and dearest doll, my companion from before I could remember, was made in the days before plastic evolved.  Her head was molded of hard rubber while her body and limbs were a thin rubber skin stuffed with cotton kapok.

By the time I was seven, my mother had bandaged, numerous worn places on her arms and body to contain the leaking stuffing. I understood that she had become fragile so by the time I started school I’d taken to leaving her in her doll bed most of the time.

Then one day the stuffing began to leak out where it couldn’t be patched, at the join of her soft body and her firmer head.

It was kind of that Santa Claus thing. My head had just begun to accept that Snooky was an inanimate toy. But my heart knew that she was my best and constant companion.

Mother and I had a gentle conversation during which I allowed that I understood that Snooky was beyond repair; I even understood that it was time for her to go. Mother offered me the option of participating in her disposal or of taking care of it herself while I was at school. She really let me choose.

My head and my heart conferred and agreed that she had to go but that it would be too awful to incinerate her myself. I asked mother to do it. And the next day I came home to find a brand new modern and very desirable Betsy-Wetsy wearing Snooky’s nightgown and resting there in Snooky’s bed.

I remember being sad, but also completely satisfied that mother’s and my contract had been honored. The new doll was one I had wanted. But although I played with it I never gave it a special name.

My mother got it right that time.

Releasing What Once Was Treasure

I think a lot about what turns stuff into treasure.

It seems rarely to be the thing itself that is valuable.

Rather it is the dreams we tie on to our stuff.

Through our stuff we hope to find fun, community, identity, position and power, self-reliance, and respect. We dream of using it to save the day for someone who will love us, solve the world’s problems, and make our own work easier. Through these beautiful dreams, value rubs into our things.

In our home in California, stored away in wardrobe boxes, stuffed into closets, crammed onto auxiliary racks, and packed into plastic bags were four decades worth of my husband’s first wife’s clothes. They spanned a continuum of sizes and some of the newest pieces still had their tags..

She was a tasteful dresser: a little formal with an eye for conservative professionalism appropriate to her vision of herself as a teacher. From the sizes and colors I immediately could tell she had been darker complected, and taller than I.

No woman can fail to understand how that collection had been amassed or the forces that led her to keep all of it. For one thing the initial investment had been substantial.

My husband kept it all intact partly because the sheer volume overwhelmed him. But more than that, he sensed the value the collection had held for his departed wife. He had an idea that his next wife, (and he knew he wanted to marry again), might benefit from, or even delight in this treasure trove.

Well. Here I was.

With one eye I saw an overwhelming jumble of another woman’s stuff. But through a more important eye I saw my husband’s openhearted desire to share with me a glittering horde.

He easily came to understand that I couldn’t use any of it. So together we released all of it to go and become a blessing to people who need it.

Space and Treasures

Last time I wrote about working with my husband to decide what to do with the spaces in our home. We have the luxury of enough space to suit our projects. Not all do…

Recently, a friend with pre-teen children told how she had cleared her living room to make way for a time-sensitive project. No sooner had she finished than her son gleefully dragged out his bin full of Legos. Within minutes this wealth of open workspace was filled with his projects-in-progress. You may imagine what ensued! (The Legos were impounded.)

When I was young, we kids received a gift craft set. It had wooden beads painted to be faces, bodies, arms and legs and instructions for assembling them into little figures using adroitly twisted pipe cleaners. I loved those little painted beads; in my imagination they became living characters and I couldn’t wait to bring them to life.

The detail was too picky for our child-sized fingers and although my father helped us finish making a few of the figures, my exuberant, bored, younger siblings soon littered the room with the colorful bits and pieces.

My mother, who could be impatient about gifts of children’s projects that required adult participation, regarded the mess and announced that if, on the morrow, she found ANY of this mess it would all be discarded.

She must have stepped on a bead because the next day I came home from school to find the set, even the finished figures, gone.

Although I knew that she’d warned us, I wailed so bitterly over the deaths of my inanimate friends that my mother softened. But it was too late. She did find one little figure she had missed in the sweep. For years that figure was a fixture on our Christmas trees.

But what took root in my heart was not the intended lesson of “Don’t Leave Your Stuff Lying Around Cluttering Up The Place.” Rather it reinforced my already skeptical views about sharing precious things. I learned to hide my treasures and became reluctant even to admit aloud that I had any.

Building Peaceable Habitation

When I visited my new husband’s three-bedroom home for the first time I brought a weekender and a banjo. There was not an inch of closet space, not a single drawer, not a spare corner, not even an empty armchair in the whole house in which I could safely stash the suitcase.

I did find a safe place for the banjo beneath the baby grand but there was no room to unpack and play it. So for us, there was never a question that we needed to empty out a lot of stuff.

But what should go? A lot of the stuff belonged to his deceased first wife and he’d not yet been able to face it.  As I came up with respectful suggestions about what to do with it, he could let it go.

But there was, and is, All Sorts of Other Stuff …

Often, what one family member views as unnecessary junk, another sees as treasure: infrequently used exercise equipment, historic baby furniture, an old bicycle, piles of holiday tins… If the stuff is clogging space that another wants to use, well, that’s when things get dicey.

Folks can agree to a stalemate with truce.  Sometimes there is a knock-down drag-out, sometimes there is agreement about a new shed out back, sometimes there is a failed marriage.

Here’s part of our happy solution.

We mutually arrived at a vision of what we want to do in each room of our house.  It was just plain fun to hear about where and how we wanted to work, to relax, to entertain, to…

With a clear vision in hand we could decide what stuff should be in each room. By focussing on what we wanted to keep we could usually agree about what we didn’t want and we walked most of that stuff out of the house with our blessing.

The very best part was that we began to enjoy reclaiming our spaces and living in our house together.

Do you really have too much stuff?

Is there space in your house you want to use for something that you simply can’t use because it is piled with stuff?
Do you have anywhere else to put your stuff?


Just Get Rid Of It

In one year’s time I remarried, retired, and relocated across the country to my widower husband’s home.

“What will you do now?” they all would ask.

“I’m going to write a book about the eighteen weeks we spent paring my possessions to the bone, then clearing enough stuff from my husband’s home so my stuff could fit in it,” I would answer.

One time, one of our friends replied, “But. If you need to get rid of stuff, you just get rid of it! What is there to write about?”

I thought for a moment. We’d already learned about his retirement and about their two daughters preparing to marry and to leave home.

“Don’t you and your wife want to cut back?” I asked.


“Well then. What stops you?”

After a pause, slowly,

“She says if I get rid of five pounds of my stuff, then she’ll get rid of five pounds of hers….” and his voice trailed off.

I know very well what might be in those unspoken volumes. His eyes caught mine as he began to have an idea what might be in such a book.

Nevertheless, our friend is right.  When we need to get rid of stuff we just get rid of it.

But there’s a catch. It’s that word “need.” And that other word, “just.”

For consideration:
If you are successfully decluttering your home, what motivated you to get started?

If you haven’t started yet but you would like to, think of a few reasons that hold you back. Whatever they may be, you aren’t alone.