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Archive for the ‘Homemaking’ Category

Learning to keep house

Keeping a tidy, welcoming house is something that comes naturally to some people.  My friend Robyn is one of those people.  Her house is usually very tidy and quite clean.  I think it’s safe to say that I’m a good enough friend that I would have caught her by now if it weren’t typically the case but I never have.  To the contrary, I still think with amazement about an incident a year or two ago.  She had planned an elaborate birthday party for one of her boys to be hosted at Coney Island near where she lives.  As we were headed into Brooklyn for the party she called us from the beach.  The wind was too cold for a party and she thought we better all meet at her apartment instead.  Now.  If it had been me hosting an elaborate birthday picnic at a location other than my house I would have had to completely let go of whatever minimal housekeeping routines I did have in order to prepare for the birthday party and there is  no way I could have changed the location at the last minute.  But when we all trouped into Robyn’s apartment the only thing amiss was a shipping box left out that might otherwise have been collapsed before our arrival.  It was inspiring.  Robyn is the kind of person to whom tidiness and order and house keeping come naturally (and, to be clear, Robyn’s home is lovely and warm and welcoming.  She is not one of those neurotic perfectionist types who makes everyone ill at ease in her home).

I’ve mostly let myself off the hook over the years figuring I’m just not one of “those kinds of people.”  I briefly toyed with the idea, several years ago, that I just needed to learn the skills required for keeping house.  And there is something to that.  But I’m actually fairly adept at running a vacuum cleaner and applying a cleaning rag to a dirty surface.  Cleaning is not the problem.  The problem is the daily tidying and decluttering necessary in a large, active family.  And that sort of thing is not so much a skill set as a mindset.

I remember a conversation in college with a friend.  We were talking, I think, about exercise and he mentioned that he liked to run in the mornings.  Oh, I said,  I’d love to be able to run, but I’m just not a morning person.  With perfect seriousness he replied, “That can change.  You can become a morning person.”  I was so surprised with his confidence in this prospect that I set out to do it and–lo and behold!–if you get up early enough times you start to become a morning person.  Before long I was getting up for a 4:00 am job that took thirty minutes and then doing all of my paper writing and studying as the sun rose over my dorm.  I drove into town for the 7:00 morning Mass.  I begged my flute teachers for early morning lessons.  I was a morning person.

Lately I’ve been wondering if I can become the kind of person who naturally keeps things tidy and neat.  The biggest mental hurdle for me was always looking at a huge mess and feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed by it.  And then, when I bothered to dive in I’d get mired down in minute and/or elaborate projects that would eat up all my time and make little obvious impact on the state of the house.  In answer to that, sometime in the last two or three years I have become firmly attached to The Power of Five Minutes.  I would often set a time for five minutes and clean as fast as I could in one room.  It never ceased to amaze me what a difference five minutes could make.  And with that time clicking away in the background (at least in my head–my timer doesn’t really click) I would focus my energy on the messes with the biggest visual impact.  That five minutes was NOT the time to empty the toy closet and reorganize it.  That five minutes was the time to put an empty basket in the middle of the room and chuck every toy in sight into it.

Over the course of doing this in a sort of scatter shot way over several months I gradually learned that if the whole house happened to be picked up, I could vacuum the entire thing in under five minutes (we have a small house).  I learned that I could fold half a large load of laundry in five minutes.  I learned that I could blast through an amazing amount of dishes in five minutes.  The problem was that I would typically only do these little five minute blitzes when I was feeling desperate and wanted a shot of encouragement so it was always just holding back the chaos.  And my biggest point of stress was that I was never, ever caught up with the dishes.  I would chip away at the pile in five minute chunks here and there and each night’s dinner prep would begin with my first clearing enough space to work.

Right after Christmas Eric and I revived an old practice that we’d given up without realizing it.  We tend to stay up late talking with each other and not doing anything in particular.  But I actually tend to listen better when I am mildly active with something that doesn’t require much thought.  We started doing the dishes (and generally cleaning the kitchen) together each evening as soon as the kids were in bed.  We don’t have a dishwasher so I wash and he dries and we wipe things down, get the trash out, set up breakfast.  We wake in the morning to a clean kitchen and it has brought so much peace to our lives.  Once I was free from the constant burden of feeling like I needed to be constantly chipping away at the dishes, I started putting my energy elsewhere.

I still felt burdened by the feeling that there were so many tiny little pieces in my day.  So many short tasks to accomplish.  And so much flexibility was required.  I have tried–and repeatedly failed–to live by a rigid daily schedule.  I finally realized that I needed to use my Power of Five Minutes principle in a more ordered way.  I made myself a little chart–a checklist, I guess.  But it has room for forty days at a time on it.  And I gradually started adding tasks to it, one at a time.  Whenever I had a day or two of accomplishing everything, I’d add a new task.  I call it my “Habit Chart” because it is teaching me good habits.  It is turning me into the kind of person who is habitually tidy.  I have five minute pickups in each room of the house and also my daily prayer practices.  I also included school things, music practice, and read aloud time with the kids (a “big kid” time and a “little kid” time).  And for Lent I have upped the ante by trying to stay off the computer until every thing is checked off (I’ve had mixed success but what’s Lent without a good dose of failure, right?  At least I’m fasting a lot.)

Once I finally started to do a five-minute push (always with a timer!) in each room every day I found that five minutes was more time than I needed for basic pick up.  I can often fit in some dusting or vacuuming.  I can often chip away at one of our burgeoning junk drawers.  And I never have to worry about the kitchen because we clean it together in the evenings.  And, finally, my favorite part:  the floors.  I have been trying to figure out how to fit in a daily Rosary since I have nothing like thirty minutes to sit down and just pray.  On the principle that mindlessly washing dishes is a good time to talk to my husband I wondered if I had any other mindless chores that would give me a good opportunity to talk to the Lord.  And I finally hit on washing the floors.  I have nearly-impossible-to-clean tile floor in my kitchen and hallway.  And it gets dirty very, very quickly.  I have never found a mop that will touch it.  The only way to get it clean is by old-fashioned hands-and-knees scrubbing.  But with a good microfiber cloth I can do this simply and effectively with no fuss.  And it’s a great time to pray.  So when I have a few minutes I scrub through a decade of the Rosary which is double motivation for me:  clean floors and more prayer!

And all this adds up to a clean house.  Most of the time.  It’s not perfect but as Leila Lawler (one of my favorite bloggers) says (I think, I can’t find the exact post), “There is literally no end to the amount of housework one can do, once started.”  What I’m going for here is the Reasonably Clean, Fairly Neat, and Comfortably Tidy.  And, you know.  I think I’ve finally got it.

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Hospitality Milestone

Today I did something I’ve been trying to do for almost nine years:  I hosted dinner guests without spending an entire day in Witch Mommy mode.

My husband and I both share a love of hospitality.  We love to have friends–and even relative strangers–over for meals.  Breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, dessert.  One good friend or large parties.  Just to hang out or for a stated purpose.  We love it all.  And we feel a particular call to cultivate community where we live now and we have often longed for the freedom to be spontaneous with our invitations.

The problem is that my house, for most of my married life, has been in a state of perpetual disaster.  We invite someone over for dinner and I spend the entire day in a stress-induced tizzy screaming at everyone in sight, demanding that my husband come home from work early, saving complicated meal preparation steps until the last minute, and chucking all regular daily routines out the window.  And after all that the best I could usually do was to close all the doors to the bedrooms and pray that no guests would wander into the kitchen or look at the floors.  It’s pretty awful.  And sometime in the last few months I, at least, decided that the pattern was unsustainable.  We simply could not continue hosting friends if the result meant that I was almost unbearable to be around.

And, before I go on, let me assure you:  I am not a perfectionist.  Really.  My house was really, really messy all the time.

Today we had dinner guests due to arrive at 5:30.  I did my normal daily routine including all our school work and music practice.  I babysat for a friend’s little boy for a few hours.  At 2:30 when my husband texted me to ask what time he should be home I was watching a movie with the kids.  I told him to come home at 5:30 as usual.  The movie ended at 5:00.  I played my flute for a bit, puttered in the kitchen for a few minutes, did one last pick up, powdered my nose and my husband arrived home (at the same time as our dinner guests) to a clean house, a calm wife, dinner ready, and the children playing quietly in their room.

I’m still in shock.  But I think I could get used to this.  For the first time in my married life I have a housekeeping routine that is working.  It’s short and doable and flexible and stands up to the Dinner Guest Test.  I’m not sure that nine years is a typical learning curve in the housekeeping department but I’m here to tell you that if you are an utter housekeeping failure, as I was, there is hope!

It doesn’t hurt, either, that I’ve learned a thing or two about what to serve and what not to serve to dinner guests.  And I will post about the practical details of both of those things in the next few days in case a reader as inept as I am wanders by here.  But right now I’m going to go bask in the afterglow of an evening well spent in my tidy living room.

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This is our house

My house is an unqualified disaster right now.  Incidentally, I’m blogging instead of cleaning because the after-nap time (that is, after my nap but while the kids are still snoozing) is my coffee-and-journal time which is completely necessary for my mental well-being.  I’ve been trying to figure out how to fit blogging into my day without further neglecting my kids and I just decided that blogging counts as journaling.  So there.

Unqualified disaster.  We’ve lived here for about six weeks, maybe seven.  I can say that the unpacking is done only because writing “unpack” on a to-do list no longer seems to describe a task.  But there are a few boxes here and there.  Like two in the middle of my kitchen that contain things I probably need on a daily basis.  And a few in the front room/play room that contain things I’d rather the kids didn’t play with but which do not have a home here.  And then there are the three large boxes delivered by UPS for various reasons in the last few days.  Those sorts of boxes collect upstairs and are then used to “sort” the detritus littering the surfaces of our home.  There is just stuff lying around everywhere.  I look at it, wanting to pick up, and I realize that it doesn’t go anywhere.  Some of it went in a closet at our last house but we don’t really  have any closets here.  Some of it didn’t go anywhere in the last house either.

There are some organizational issues contributing to the clutter.  We don’t have useful towel bars in our bathroom so the bathroom always looks messy.  And mess begets mess.  The kitchen is nice but very crowded.  I think once it is actually clean and free of boxes I’ll be able to deal with it and I’ll love it.  But right now a lot of real estate is being consumed by a high chair that my son doesn’t even like.  Not sure if we should keep it kicking around–or keep kicking it around.  That’s a decision I just don’t feel equipped to make right now.

We haven’t hung all our pictures so we have, on the one hand, a few expanses of white wall and, on the other hand, several fragile frames lying around the house adding to the clutter.  We might want to frame a few languishing prints we love or finally invest in a nice print of an artist we love but we haven’t really decided.  We haven’t even talked about deciding.  So nothing gets hung.

As I climbed the stairs last night to put my baby to bed I took in the view half way up:  a promising play room for the kids buried in disorganization that stresses them out.  A potentially cozy living room strewn with debris.  I knew that the kitchen behind me was piled with dirty dishes from our day and that the floor was littered with the zillion little toys we’d use to try to keep William happy in his high chair during dinner.  And I suddenly realized that I was looking at my house.

It’s not mine in the sense that we own it.  We’re still renting.  But we’re not on vacation somewhere.  We’re not crashing somewhere until we find a new place to live.  We’re not living with the knowledge that we’re moving for a new job in just a few months.   This is where we live and I need to deal with it.  We plan to rent here until we buy which will not be for a few years and, even then, we may well buy this house.  We may never move again.

I really can’t wrap my  head around that and the accumulated stress of living in a constant state of transition for years is gradually falling away and I honestly feel a little lost without it.

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My dishwasher is working again. Just after Christmas it tanked: the fill cycle kept repeating itself without ever doing any washing or draining in between. It wouldn’t shut off, either. I finally just gave it up for lost and Eric and I each spent some time sucking water out of it and then I irresponsibly forgot all about it. I bought myself a drying rack and a drip pan and in the intervening months I think I’ve actually gotten a lot better at keeping up with the dishes.

Around the same time the dishwasher broke an awful odor overtook our kitchen. It was a distinctive rotten-lettuce smell and it seemed to be coming from the refrigerator though I always had a nagging suspicion that it was dishwasher related. After a few weeks of horrible stinkiness Eric and I took an evening and emptied the refrigerator. All the food was inspected and wiped down. The shelves and drawers were removed and washed. Everything was neatly replaced. The smell persisted. Our ice took on the smell and was too gross to use. Our cheese and butter took on the smell. And I kept thinking, I hope that the smell isn’t really, somehow, the dishwasher. Every once in awhile I’d open the unused dishwasher and see a roach scurrying away. We didn’t bother complaining to our landlord about the dishwasher because Eric is convinced that we are going to lose our entire security deposit because so many things in our apartment are broken. Our apartment is beautiful but it was renovated on-the-cheap. The cabinets are falling apart, the plaster crumbles if you stare at it for too long, and mold grows on our walls because the original brick walls can no longer breathe properly. The dishwasher really seemed to be the least of anyone’s worries.

I’m embarrassed to admit that we put up with the fridge smell for a couple of months until a couple of weeks ago we got the brilliant idea that maybe the smell was emanating from our jar of homemade fermented garlic. That might seem like a no-brainer to an outside observer but we had smelled the garlic lots of times and it didn’t smell a bit like the rotten-lettuce odor that had overtaken our apartment. We pitched the garlic and sanitized our garbage disposal and the smell disappeared. My mom was due to arrive the next day so it was with intense relief that I found myself living in an odor-free apartment again.

We started in on several days of torrential rains that day and by the next afternoon a new odor had arisen. This one was much, much worse than the rotten lettuce smell. What could it be? My mother is as sensitive to smells as I am and confirmed that the smell was quite foul, indeed. Oh, no, I thought. It is the dishwasher. I’d meant for weeks and weeks to scrub it out with baking soda and vinegar and dry it thoroughly and I’d been putting it off because I’m afraid of meeting roaches and now it was going to be awful. I was trying to come up with a creative and not overly-manipulative way to talk Eric into doing it for me when he casually suggested that I run the dishwasher just to see . . .

It worked like a charm and, oh, did it stink. I ran two consecutive sanitizing cycles and had a sparkling clean appliance again. And the smell persisted.
We decided by the end of the weekend that an animal had sought refuge from the days of steady rain by crawling into our wall and had then died in our wall. That’s what it smells like. It’s been a little over a week and the odor is finally gone and I can finally write this without convulsing in disgust.

As for my new dishwasher, well, I have mixed feelings. I’m not really sure if my improved dishwashing habits are the result of a method that works better for me or just a more improved character. I used the dishwasher for the first time last night and it saved me a lot of time and stress. I’m such an all-or-nothing person. Maybe this will be good for me.

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Our Lord’s Day dinners are going really well. We love the simple liturgy that we devised the first week and we’ve really stuck to it. We’ve often tried to include friends in our Saturday evening meals and we’ve been happy to show them our new tradition. I haven’t always come up with an extra-special meal to serve. Last night was refried beans with fixin’s. I make this sort of meal all the time but something about all those bowls on the table makes things feel festive.

I also recently put my domed cake plate to daily use. We almost always have some baked goods around and I’ve always put them in a ziploc bag on the counter. It doesn’t look very nice and things get crumbled when stored that way. And the mice are happy to chew through the plastic bag if there is anything sweet inside. I brought down the cake plate and I now have a beautiful, mouse-proof way to store our food and preserve its structural integrity all at once.

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Tackling the Toys

The next victims in my decluttering rampage were the kids’ toys. I don’t really have a sense for how our toy collection compares to that of similar families but I felt like things were getting out of control. I last organized and purged toys before Christmas and there are things that have been sitting on a shelf out of the kids’ reach ever since. They haven’t been missed.

It’s hard to purge toys. I always wonder if I’m unfairly inflicting my own sense of aesthetic on my poor, deprived children. Certainly I want my children to have occupation and plenty of fodder for the imagination. I also want to beware of getting rid of something useful or valuable just because it isn’t a hit with my current children. A few years ago I almost got rid of a set of four, large squishy blocks. They are different colors and covered with baby-stimulating decorations. Joseph was never interested in them. But along came Margaret who could actually sit up on her own at about the age you would like blocks such as these. She did love them. I’m glad I kept those. I’m debating now about our Brio trains. Margaret is a typical girl and isn’t all that interested in “things that go.” Joseph loves trains but can’t work with tracks because he can’t maneuver around them without knocking them over. These are nice trains but should I really hang on to them for a possible future boy? I’m having the same issue with our lovely wooden blocks. The kids like things that stick together.

I began the process by making a list of all the toys we own. It’s not a very scientific list. Some toys were lumped into one category, “stuffed animals,” while other items were listed singly, “plastic shovel.” The list contained 58 items. Yikes. That’s way more than necessary for two small children in a tiny apartment who mostly spend their time looking at books, squishing playdough, and banging mixing bowls. I marked things for elimination giving priority to well-made, wooden toys that maximized creativity and then consulted with Eric. I was able to empty Joseph’s room just before naptime and sort things with Margaret’s help. So far, no one has noticed any difference other than different organization.

In the end we eliminated twenty items from our list including many things that were made up of lots of small parts (big contributors to clutter!). The Brio trains stayed but the blocks are on probation. Purging toys also allowed me–no surprise here–to make some nice organizational changes. The pictures in this post show all of our toys with the exception of two puzzles, a magna-doodle, and some bath toys. Those items are stored in different places for particular reasons. Also not pictured is a wooden xylophone. The xylophone is pretty nice instrument that we would love for Joseph to use but we want it out of reach for Margaret. We can now put the xylophone on a shelf in Joseph’s room where he can see it and ask for it but Margaret can’t reach it. We still have a lot of stuffed animals but they no longer overflow the doll cradle. This cradle is something I want to keep for our girls and holding stuffed animals is actually a good way to hang on to it for now. Otherwise the toys all fit in or on these lovely IKEA end tables (which are quite popular, apparently, as their price recently doubled). Eric had been using one of these for dissertation purposes and now that the dissertation is done (!!!!!!!) I snatched it back for toy storage. We are finally going to get rid of the ugly end table that was in our living room. The IKEA table is probably not as high-quality but it looks nice, it’s more functional, and it opens up the living room by a few inches. And this gained us an extra bookshelf. No complaints there!

I may have finally run out of things to declutter but we’ll see. I feel a lot lighter but my possessions may begin to drive me crazy again in a few months.

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Visual Peace


One big storage hurdle I have yet to overcome is where to put my craft stuff. I dream of a craft room. It doesn’t even have to be a whole room. I’d settle for a walk-in closet, or any closet. All it needs is just enough space to leave an in-progress project and some way of closing it off to small children. There is no craft room in our current apartment, obviously. If our neighborhood were just a little nicer we would put our chest freezer on our back patio and turn the back room into a craft area for me, but, anyway . . .

Most of my craft stuff is packed into boxes and tightly crammed into the closet in Joseph’s room. But since I actually do crafty stuff from time to time things have migrated out into the main room. The sewing machine had a permanent spot on a visually prominent surface. When I first put it there we thought is was sort of charming and domestic. But, you know, it’s not like I have a vintage treadle machine. It’s just a pink and white Brother and once I stuffed a pedal wrapped in a cord under the arm and piled other sewing and cross-stitch paraphernalia around it the charm appeal wore off fast.

After paring down the kids’ clothes I had a bit more closet space and an extra storage bin. We have a beautiful hinged wooden box from Eric’s grandfather and it had been crammed full of fabric. I emptied all that fabric into the plastic bin and tucked it away. The box was just the right size for my sewing machine, my craft books, and my cross-stitch projects. There’s even plenty of wiggle room to tuck in fabric for an upcoming project. The box is beautiful and was already taking up space in the main room. I put our wooden chess set and magazine basket on top of it and turned the lid opening against the wall to discourage Margaret from getting into it.

After a bit of tidying up I was left with chest of drawers with nothing on it but a potted plant and a small statue that I love (and, previously couldn’t see!). I immediately wondered what I should put in that space. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that I loved having that “stuff-free” surface in the main room. That chest of drawers is centered in the room and is one of the first things you notice upon entering the room. And now it’s a point of visual peace in a room otherwise filled with bookshelves. We have a lovely book stand from when Eric was reading for his comprehensive exams and I asked Eric to bring that out so we would have a place for sheet music. He added an open dictionary which I initially protested, but now I think it’s really fun. We both are apt to wander over and teach ourselves a new word or look up something we’re not sure about. Anything to build vocabulary is fine by me! And we are both musicians who now have a place for music. Setting up a collapsible music stand is enough of a hurdle for me to keep my flute locked up most of the time. Plus I don’t think kids do well around anything that can be described as “collapsible.”

All in all, a fantastic improvement. This decluttering thing is really addictive. Every time I achieve a new victory I think I’ve gone as far as I can. But once I’m used to the new standard I think, “More! I want more!” (or is that Less!). In the last week I’ve also given away a garbage bag of adult clothes and cleared out a large stack of books. The book purge gave me enough space to house all our CDs on the same shelf. I also got $25 in credit at our favorite used book store. Nice.

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