Month: June 2014

Letting go of guilt: Letters from Tim

Confession time.

In my basement, I have five large Rubbermaid storage containers of invaluable paper items: old diary entries, colored pencil sketches of Pokemon, random essays from 10th grade English class, and faded movie stubs, among other things. I was fully prepared to take my own advice from my previous post about paper clutter. How hard could it be? I hadn’t looked at any of these things in over a year. Do I REALLY need fifty drawings of horses from my blue period (which is of course, the period in which I only used a blue marker for these sketches. I was an artist, after all)?

I gave myself a limit: I could only keep what would fit into one small filing box.

It was easy at first. Truly, one does not need a w-2 from their first job at the strip mall in 2003. Or utility bills from two apartments ago. These things were easy to toss. I struggled here and there with the odd paper stub or photograph that reminded me of a distant memory. If I never see this paper again, will I forget it ever happened? The photos usually made it to the “save for scanning” pile, but the random mementos from old school field trips were quickly tossed. I am not likely to forget what the Washington Monument looks like without a brochure from a museum. But then, I reached the Letters from Tim, and I was catapulted back to the fall of 8th grade.

Tim was a small, bespectacled fourteen-year-old boy who played the xylophone behind me during band practice. I had finally decided to grow out my bowl-cut bangs and experiment with shimmery eyeshadow. Tim had a crush on me, I had a crush on his best friend, and his best friend was dating my best friend. So it goes.Over the course of about a month, Tim sent me several letters detailing his feelings for me and asking me to go out with him. The first was written on a restaurant place-mat, and delivered via his best friend in a sealed plastic tape case. I almost expected it to self-destruct after I read it. But it didn’t.


I played it cool, and ignored him. Because that’s what you do when you’re 14. My friends weren’t any help; they egged him on, suggesting he write me a note with all of the qualities he thought I possessed, like it was somehow going to help him get a date with me. He did, it didn’t, but I was flattered anyway.


I finally crafted a short but fairly polite note explaining that the feelings he expressed were not mutual. I just wanted to be friends. We typed it on my friend’s new computer; I even kept a copy. I thought that would be the end of it.

But then, he gave me one more letter, right before Christmas break, 1999.


 Tim was hurt. He didn’t understand why I didn’t want to go out with him. He didn’t understand why girls always rejected him. I’ll stay single from now on, he wrote. If a girl does ask me out, I’m just gonna say “no” from now on. Then they might get the idea that they know how I feel when I get put down. He was sick of me and my hurtfulness, sick of his family for annoying him, and sick of our town. He alluded to plans of running away, or committing suicide by being hit by a car. But he ended the letter cheerfully, with a  Well I gotta go now! See ya! with friendly bubbles over the exclamation points.

I considered telling an adult. Was he actually threatening to run away? Jump in front of a car? But at the time, I didn’t think he was serious, just lonely. He didn’t have many friends.

So, I did nothing but vow to be a little nicer to him.

We returned for the spring term as though nothing had happened. We talked during band practice, but he kept his distance. His parents divorced, and he moved in with his mom two towns over, right before our 8th grade graduation. We never spoke again.

That summer, I saw an article in the paper with a big picture of Tim’s face. He had been riding his bicycle to Wal-Mart for a spare part, when he was struck and killed by a car at a red light.

My friends assured me that Tim’s accident, as tragic as it was, had nothing to do with the letter he had written me. But every time I stumble across Tim’s Letters, the guilt rises to the surface and I question it. What if I had just agreed to one date? What if I had just talked to him nicely from the beginning, instead of ignoring him and letting it go on for so long? What if I had been nicer to him? What if I had told someone about his vague threats? Would it have made a difference? Was his accident really an accident at all? Or something he had been planning for years?

Of course, I’ll never get the answers to these questions.

Regret is a funny thing. Looking back, I know 14 year old me wouldn’t have done anything differently. I was under no obligation to go on a date with a boy I didn’t like. Could I have been nicer to him? Sure. I could be nicer to a lot of people. I didn’t tell an adult because it felt like he shared a secret with me, and it wasn’t my secret to tell. I didn’t want to tattle on something that was innocent, and make his life worse than it already was.

I’ve carted these letters around for more than a decade. I kept them because I did not want to forget a boy whose life ended too soon. I owed it to him to keep these letters, to keep some piece of him alive in that way.

Many of us have Letters from Tim in our closets. Painful reminders of past guilt. But the truth is, holding on to these things does nothing but prevent us from fully moving forward with our lives. They keep us stuck in the past. And that’s no way to honor someone’s memory.

I can’t change what happened. I can’t change the actions or choices of a teenage me. I will never know the truth, but that’s okay. I will never forget Tim, but I refuse to carry around this burden any longer. Today, I’m releasing my guilt. Are you going to release yours?




Inspiration Corner: Tiny Houses

If you have Netflix, I encourage you to check out a documentary called Tiny: A Story about Living Small.

“TINY is a documentary about home, and how we find it.

The film follows one couple’s attempt to build a “tiny house” from scratch, and profiles other families who have downsized their lives into homes smaller than the average parking space.

Through homes stripped down to their essentials, the film raises questions about good design, the nature of home, and the changing American Dream.”

In this documentary, Christopher Smith is a late 20-something on a journey to find himself by building a tiny house with his bare hands, and live in it on a 5 acre plot of land in Colorado. Tiny houses are just that: houses that are built to last as long as a traditional home, but are only 80-400 square feet. They are usually on wheels, in order to circumvent building codes. People who live in tiny houses are often environmentally conscious, as living in a tiny house cuts down significantly on the ecological waste that a traditional home produces. They are also simplifying their lives: you simply can’t have a ton of stuff in a tiny house. This frees up their time and resources for other pursuits, such as spending time with family, enjoying nature, or just enjoying life to the fullest without all the extra crap that we assume we need for every day life.

While you’re watching the documentary, entertain these questions:

  • What would my tiny house look like?
  • What would my essential items be?
  • Where would I live?
  • Who would be with me?
  • How else could I spend my money? Would I have a different job?
  • How would I spend my time, if I only had to clean and organize 100 square feet worth of stuff?

If you’re feeling demotivated, spend some time with the last one. What could you be doing if you got rid of 90% of your belongings, TODAY? What would life be like? How much fun could you be having RIGHT NOW if you didn’t have to squeeze xyz out of a few minutes of peace?

Maybe living in a tiny house isn’t your dream. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your stuff, I encourage you to take an hour or two to watch Tiny (On Netflix, iTunes, or DVD), or check out some of the blogs from other Tiny house creators here and here.


Tip of the Day: Eliminate the Paper Trail

Paper clutter is still a huge problem in my life. Here are some tips to avoid the pileup!

  • Place a small recycling bin/wastebasket where you drop your purse or keys. Sort mail immediately upon receipt. 
  • Go paperless! If you pay your bills online, check with the company to see if they can stop sending paper statements. 
  • Many magazine subscriptions offer discounts if you purchase them on e-readers such as Kindles or iPads. If you’re a magazine fiend, but hate the resulting piles, sign up for a digital subscription instead.
  • Invest in a shredder. There’s something inherently satisfying about sending a paid bill through the shredder. It also helps keep your personal information more secure. 

If you are unsure whether or not to toss an important-looking paper item, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this information easily found online?
  • Is the information old or outdated?
  • What will I NEED this document for? Why do I need to hold onto it?

When in doubt, a good scanner/printer combo might be all you need to save important documents without the paper trail to match. If you’re really concerned, you can always scan the document for backup, but toss the paper copy. Always remember, recycling is your friend! (This is a particularly helpful tip for children’s artwork, cards, or pretty wedding invitations that make you smile, but take up unnecessary space). 

Note: I am not a tax expert. If your tax professional suggests keeping important documents like receipts and pay stubs, listen to them, not me. I can honestly say though, I’ve never once needed a paper copy of a pay stub that wasn’t the absolutely most recent, so think about that when you’re deciding whether or not to keep it. Also, there are ways to get your address off of junk mailing lists, but I’m a fan of coupons, so I don’t mind it as much as most people. 


Overcoming Obstacles: Focusing on the Big Picture

My husband lost his grandmother last weekend.

Losing someone you love causes a great deal of complex emotions to surface, and confronting them is not easy. For those of us who have trouble letting go of things on a normal day, it’s downright impossible to throw anything away after a loss. I’m looking at boxes of random crap I don’t need, and staring back at me instead are bits and pieces of proof that I existed. That I was important. That I was somebody. All that will be left of me once I’m gone is the stuff I’ve left behind. That is the basis of anthropology, isn’t it? We are all reduced to our trash, in the end.

But then, I started thinking about Nannie. She was a wonderful, sassy lady who lived a rich life surrounded family and friends. She raised ten kids, often on a shoestring budget, and didn’t take crap from anybody. How dare I reduce somebody like that to her stuff.

Memories are not tied to mementos of things that happened in the past. They live inside the hearts and minds of our friends. Of our children. In the hearts and minds of their children. Death is a condition of life, but it doesn’t mean that we vanish from existence. In the end, your stuff is irrelevant. Your friends and family don’t miss your stuff. They don’t talk fondly about your stuff, or laugh about the memories you created with it. I don’t want to give my children the responsibility of dealing with the random stuff I leave behind. I’d rather they spend that time together, celebrating our memories.

And so, I took a brief hiatus from my downsizing journey. But I am back at it now with an even more determined resolve than ever before. I am not going to reduce myself to my stuff any more. I am important. I am somebody. I do love my stuff, but it will not celebrate my life when I’m gone. My friends and my family will.

If you find yourself in a situation that tests your resolve, as I did, focus on the bigger picture. When you see yourself standing at the end of your journey, free from your stuff, what do you see? Who is with you? What are you doing? How do you feel? Keep that in the back of your mind when you’re faced with an obstacle that halts your progress in its tracks.

But don’t forget to give yourself a break. Celebrate small victories, and move forward. You can do it!


TOTD: Vinegar!

Three words: Distilled. White. Vinegar.

Seriously, there are 1001 uses for a single jug of the smelly stuff. You can clean with it, cook with it, ward off bugs in your garden with it, seriously. The possibilities are endless. And best of all, it’s CHEAP, environmentally friendly, and non-toxic, unlike many commercial cleaners on the market today. I’ve already replaced much of my vast collection of specific cleaners for one big jug of store-brand distilled white vinegar.

We clean mostly everything in the house with a solution of vinegar and blue dawn (recipes here), but here are some specific tips that I’ve tried with success in my own home (these tips come directly from the Vinegar Tips website:

“To shine chrome sink fixtures that have a lime buildup, use a paste made of 2 tablespoons salt and 1 teaspoon white distilled vinegar.

Clean the shelves and walls of the refrigerator with a half-and-half solution of water and white distilled vinegar.

Kill germs all around the bathroom with a spray of full-strength white distilled vinegar. Wipe clean with a damp cloth.

To remove grime and scum from the tub, tile, shower curtain or door, wipe with undiluted white distilled vinegar. Rinse with water.

Get rid of stubborn bathtub film by wiping it with white distilled vinegar and then scouring with baking soda.

Clean up pet accidents by first blotting up the area and then adding a white distilled vinegar-and-water solution. Blot until it is almost dry. Then sprinkle baking soda over the area and let it dry. Vacuum up the residue the next day.

Clean and deodorize urine on a mattress with a white distilled vinegar and water solution. Then sprinkle the area with baking soda and let dry. Brush or vacuum the residue after it is dry to the touch.”

There are endless combinations of vinegar, baking soda, water and in some cases, ammonia or other basic cleanser. You can experiment with different strengths and recipes in your own home, but remember to never use vinegar on your fancy marble countertops, since the acid could ruin them. Also, I’m jealous of your fancy marble countertops. Happy cleaning!

Parenting and Minimizing: Do’s and Don’ts

When I was nearing the very end of my pregnancy with Mac, I went through a pretty intense nesting phase in which I wanted to GET RID OF ALL OF THE THINGS. I didn’t, however, since it’s kind of difficult to climb out of the attic at 9+ months pregnant. I do miss the large chunks of time in which I was intensely focused on cleaning and organizing. Time is hard to squeeze out of the day with a 7 month old. And, as Mac grows and becomes more active, these chunks of time will become even shorter. So, here are my do’s and don’ts of trying to tackle your clutter with kids:

  • DON’T make excuses.
    • Being a parent is a hard, 24/7 job. It’s even harder if you have crap everywhere. But there will always be a million excuses as to why you can’t possibly tackle the problem, and having kids is not one of them (Okay, it totally is, but it doesn’t HAVE to be). “I’m too busy! I have too many activities to drive my kids to! I have to spend all my time cleaning!” etc etc. Stop it. We’ll figure it out together.
  • DO give yourself a break!
    • Being a parent is hard! It’s amazing how quickly a day goes by before you realize you accomplished nothing but get out of bed and have a cup of coffee. (Go you! Small victories!)
    • There are no “minimalism awards.” If your ultimate goal is to be able to spend more time with your kids and less time organizing your crap, remember that. Every hour that you spend downsizing will reward you with hours of free time in the future. Stay focused on your goals.
  • DON’T bite off more than you can chew.
    • A 30 minute baby power nap is not enough time to go through your bursting catch-all crap closet. TRUST ME. You know your kids. If they can sit through a 30-minute episode of Spongegbob, you have 30 minutes to tackle something. If they can only handle 10? Plan accordingly. No point pulling all your crap out, only to have to shove it all back in again.
  • DO break big projects into small chunks.
    •  Use the 20/10 cleaning tip. You’d be surprised what you can accomplish in 20 minutes.
    • Take a closet one section or shelf at a time. Only pull out the contents of one shelf, make decisions about each item (toss, donate, sell).
    • Make sure that anything that leaves the closet ends up in its permanent most useful location! If you cannot find a home for it, does it belong in your house at all?
  • DON’T give up.
    • If you want more for your life and freedom from your stuff, you have to put the work into getting rid of it. You got yourself into this mess, but you can get yourself out. Nobody is hopeless.
  • DO make a plan.
    • Having kids means you might have to take things at a slower pace. Even if you only get through one box a day, that’s one less box you have to move. One less box weighing you down. One less box you’re spending time stressing out about.
    • Schedule time for minimizing each day. Even if it’s only 30 minutes, make time. Even 5-10 minutes here and there will help. (Examples, clean out the medicine cabinet while the kids are in the bath. Tackle a kitchen drawer while you’re making coffee. Toss clothing while you’re doing laundry. etc)
    • Enlist help. Can your spouse hang out with the kids while you finish a 45/15? Can your kids spend the day at grandma’s so you can finally tackle the garage? Can your kids spend the day at grandma’s while your spouse helps you tackle the garage?
    • Write your de-cluttering goals in big, bold letters on a piece of paper and hang it up somewhere you’re likely to see it (the fridge, the bathroom, your bedroom mirror, etc). “I will spend more time enjoying my kids” “I will be free from clutter” “I will not give up” “I am not my stuff”.


I realize that every situation is different. Despite my strong desire to throw out all of my things and start over, becoming a mom has made me more sentimental about my things, which I didn’t think was even possible. The most important thing is to focus on your goals, and make a plan that’s unique to your life. And remember, you own your stuff, it doesn’t own you!