The Book that Changed My Life

cheerful graphic

The year was 1994. My daughter was four and my son two. I had stepped away from my teaching job for a couple of years since my paycheck didn’t cover the cost of daycare. My husband took our only car to work every day, while the kids and I stayed home and had the time of our lives (without cable, video games, or the Internet).

It was not the plan for a college-educated woman who became an adult in the 80’s, a decade that brought us the movie Working Girl, yuppies, rampant consumerism, a bigger-is-better mentality, and over-the-top glitter and glam. Madonna’s hit song was a constant reminder we were living in a material world.

One Saturday I took the kids to the library, and a new book by Elaine St. James caught my eye – Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter. I checked out the book and re-checked it out as many times as the library allowed until I knew it by heart.

IMG_3186 (1)

St. James gave 100 practical tips for simplifying in eight categories of life and was a pioneer in doing so. This was long before words like decluttering, minimalism, professional organizers, and Marie Kondo were a common part of our vocabulary. The author helped me adopt a simplicity mindset at a time when it wasn’t that popular. It set me on a path that has influenced my personal and professional life to this day.

Not long ago I downloaded the book for $1.99, and it was like visiting with a wise old friend. It got me back in touch with the roots of simplicity the author planted in me so long ago. Here are my favorite tips from each section of the book. These days, I don’t believe they need an explanation. There are 90 more great tips in the book, but committing (or recommitting) to just these ten would simplify anyone’s life and spark a whole lot of joy.

  1. Your Household – #1 Reduce the clutter.
  2. Your Life-Style – #22 Build a simple wardrobe.
  3. Your Finances – #38 Get out of debt.
  4. Your Job – #52 Do what you really want to do.
  5. Your Health – #69 Learn yoga.
  6. Your Personal Life – #77 Spend one day a month in solitude.
  7. Special Issues for Women – #92 Take off your fake nails and throw out the nail polish.
  8. Hard-Core Simplicity – #99 Get rid of all the extras.

The last paragraph of the introduction to St. James’ book is interesting to read almost 30 years after she wrote it. “Wise men and women in every major culture throughout history have found that the secret to happiness is not in getting more but in wanting less. The nineties appear to be presenting one of those golden moments of change, the opportunity to freely give up the things that don’t make us happy and to incorporate the lessons of the eighties into a simple but elegant life-style for the nineties – and into the next century.”

I wonder how she thinks we’re doing. §

“The only thing we’d ever gotten from a power lunch was indigestion.”
~ Elaine St. James

The Elegance of (Finally!) Organizing Our Family Photos

Did you hear that deep sigh of relief? It was just me, basking in the satisfaction of finally organizing heaps and heaps of family photographs into labeled storage boxes that fit perfectly in a single living room cabinet. I’m feeling as light as a feather and breathing deeper than I have in a long time.

I like to keep a home that is fairly minimal and well-organized, but our messy stash of family photos became my dirty little secret, much like Monica Geller’s closet on Friends. I think what pushed me to finally deal with them was a book on Swedish death cleansing. Don’t worry, it’s not as morose as it sounds. The idea left me totally inspired to get all of my personal things in order. (Look for an upcoming post on the topic.)

I did make cute scrapbooks for my children as they went from birth through their high school graduation, but that barely made a dent in our photo collection, and another decade has now come and gone. I’ve tried to tackle the ever-growing heap, but I get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the photos and the emotions that inevitably come along with a trip down memory lane.

After our last move, all the photos ended up hidden away in six deep drawers of a large bedroom dresser. We’ve since randomly tossed in more and more photos, greeting cards, notes, and special memories.

But wait, it gets worse.  When my mother moved in with us, she brought along a big cedar chest filled to the brim with thousands of loose photographs spanning more than 100 years. Stick your hand in the chest and it might come out with a picture of my grandfather as a baby, my parents’ wedding, my first loose tooth, my sister’s prom date, a pet from 1972, my daughter’s college graduation, or someone nobody knows.

If you can relate and could use some inspiration, let me share my process. It’s certainly not the only way, but it got the job done.

Sort Photos:
This took me a full week. I dumped manageable-sized heaps of photos on the floor where I sat sorting into piles around me. Me…my daughter…my stepson…my husband…my mom… my sister…my grandmother…my niece…my son… my step-daughter…my dad…with a cadaver! (Seriously, he was in dental school.) Everybody’s family is different, so just start making piles and see how they start to shape up. Take a break when your head or back starts to hurt or you feel emotionally drained. It can be an exhausting process even without pictures of cadavers.

Purge Photos:
While you go through each and every picture, have a criteria for what to keep. I decided to immediately toss photos that are:
*duplicates of the same event/people
* blurry, dark, or unclear
* unflattering of the person in the photo
* shots of nature or tourist sights
* of people you barely know
*of cadavers

Give Photos Away:
I don’t think we are obliged to run around giving people photographs we come across during our sorting. However, since I was doing this project on behalf of my family, I was more than happy to box up and ship hundreds of photos to my two sisters who live in other states. I told them the photos were coming and to feel free to do with them whatever they wished.

Organize Photos: 
There are lots of ways to organize photos. After careful consideration, I think I did the simplest thing. I went to Hobby Lobby and bought all of the large-size photo storage boxes they had. It turned out fourteen boxes worked perfectly for us. In case it might help, here’s how they’re labeled:
*Alicia – childhood photos & personal pursuits
*Mike – childhood photos & personal pursuits
*Woodward – family photos
*Fry – family photos
*Alicia & Mike – our photos together
*One box for each of our children and grandchild
*One box for each of our daughter’s weddings
*Alicia’s Keep – special cards, notes, and letters
*Mike’s Keep – special cards, notes, and letters

IMG_2931

My Thoughts On Digitizing Old Photos:
I know a lot of people recommend scanning and digitizing old photos to get rid of the physical clutter. In fact, that’s what I was going to do, but I decided against it for several reasons.
*Services like Legacy Box are expensive.
*We have photos from 1900 that still look fine, so I’m not particularly worried about our photos aging.
*I love the idea of pulling out a box and looking through the photos.
*I suspect any digital format available will eventually become obsolete.
*I like the ease of having the physical photos and not having to log on to a computer to find the photo I’m looking for.
*We can easily add to the boxes or add more boxes, if needed.
*Finally, I like knowing that upon my passing from this realm, our children can easily take the boxes they are interested in.

If your family photos are in order, I applaud you. I know it’s a huge job. If it’s something you’ve yet to do, I hope this encourages you. It really does feel great to have it done, and I was surprised by something unexpected. I truly feel I’ve honored the people in those photographs, especially the ones who are no longer with us, by making it easy to open a box and see their smiling faces again. §

“Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you”

~Jim Croce

Everything In Its Place ~ moving in with Mom

Thomas Kinkade oil painting of a 19th century English cottage

In what seems like a quaint Jane Austen novel or a zany nineties sit-com, depending on the moment, my husband and I now live in the same house as my 82-year-old mother in the small town where we grew up. The decision to move back to our hometown to care for Mom was an easy one. More difficult was the logistical issue of combining two very different households into one.

Imagine moving the contents of an average home and times that by two. For someone who values simplicity and order as I do, it was almost too much. For a month before the move, my fitful dreams were filled with visions of multiple toasters, sofas, blenders, ironing boards, pianos, and hangers…so many unmatched hangers!

I made the executive decision to pack up everything from both homes and, in one fell swoop, move it all to the new house on closing day. From there, we would choose what to keep and what to donate. Since Mike and I lean toward minimalism, our mostly functional possessions took up substantially less space than my mother’s.

As box after box was unpacked, each item met its fate. What Mom lacks in simplicity, she makes up for in good taste. In nearly every case, her things trumped ours. Our bed, books, photographs, and collection of heart-shaped rocks were just about the only things that made the cut.

Once we pared down, it was time to put things away. My mantra has always been “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Houses have a way of telling their owners where things naturally belong. Pots and pans go near the stove. Hats and gloves go near the front door. Once you find a perfect home for something, that’s where it should stay.

Within a couple of days after moving, I took Mike and Mom on a walking tour of our house. As I opened every cabinet, closet, and drawer, I proudly waved my hand and said, “Dish towels go here, wine glasses go here, cleaning supplies go here, snacks go here, office supplies go here …” Their eyes glazed over after the wine glasses, but they graciously humored me.

Much like my mom, the new house is more elegant than the contemporary lake house where we used to reside. Her Royal Doulton and Hummel figurines look beautiful on the living room book case. My grandmother’s china cabinet and sparkling crystal are perfect in the traditional dining room. More importantly, I know it all makes Mom feel happy and at home.

A week after moving into our new house, the three of us prepared for dinner as if we’d lived there for years. Mike cooked in the kitchen with ease. Mom gathered placemats and silverware to set the table. I pulled plates and glasses from their rightful spots.

We sat at the dining room table in our usual places. Mike was on one side of me, and Mom was on the other. We clinked our glasses in a toast. I looked around our cozy home and had no doubt everything and everyone was in exactly the right place. §