Things I Miss

  1. Brunch. Lazy Sunday brunch with my husband where no one has to cut up anyone’s food or build things out of creamers and jam packets to distract bouncing children.
  2. October Saturday afternoons on the couch watching whatever schlocky horror movie is on the SciFi channel. Also, enjoying horror movies anytime without having an anxiety attack.
  3.  Fitting into size 10 jeans.  Size 10 anything, really.
  4. Garden of the Gods in my hometown of Colorado Springs. Especially on brilliant, 65 degree Christmas mornings.

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  5. Actors running lines and choreographing sword fights outside my office door.
  6. Choir practice five days a week and breathing deeply through imaginary holes in my back.
  7. Baby Paige sleeping on my chest in a little bundle, snoring like a 1940s coffee percolator.
  8. Going to an Opening Night midnight screening of a new blockbuster movie with all the other nerds.
  9. The Obama Administration.
  10. Running around my Grandparent’s little ranch house and acres of land in Goshen, Indiana with my cousins. We’d pick blackberries and play tag and swing on the giant swing Granddaddy had made out back and hang out in the cool basement with the marble rollers when it got too hot.

Mostly, I’m glad the world only spins forward.  I’m glad to be done with the diaper years.  I’m glad to be past the years of being alone.  I’m glad to be doing the work that feels exactly right and living on the banks of the Ohio.  But sometimes, I miss something. What do you miss?

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What I Learned Doing NaNoWriMo 2017

I’ve had an idea for a novel kicking around in my head for ten years.  But I’ve never thought of myself as a novelist.  I value brevity, though I rarely practice it.  And in the past fifteen years, I’ve written almost exclusively non-fiction both for work and for pleasure.  I could not imagine sticking with the process of writing a novel.

But in October I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC audiobook and something got unstuck.  Her gift of permission to be creative without the thought of making something good or of value but purely to enjoy the process arrived at a moment when I was drained and miserable.  And suddenly, in the kitchen as I did the dishes, I had a new idea for the old story that had been kicking around in my head.  A character I had never been able to get a bead on snapped into focus, and I realized what the necessary shape of the story had to be.  I sat down in late October and wrote a scene, and then another, until in a few days I had more than 5,000 words – the longest thing I’d ever written.

I looked at the calendar.  National Novel Writing Month was arriving at the exact moment that my weird little story had found its mojo.  I had tried NaNoWriMo a few years back and flamed out quickly, finding it hard to keep to a schedule.

Inspired by Big Magic, I decided to sign up.  I set a goal of 50,000 words and I dug in.

I wrote every single day during the month of November.  I churned up 40,014 words.  Some of them are even good and make me laugh.  Many of them are crappy cliches that will not survive an edit.  But I wrote them, and in writing for thirty days I learned several things.

  1. I can, in fact, write everyday.
    It’s easy to find excuses not to write.  I work full-time, I have two small children and other difficult family responsibilities.  But when I decided I had to write every day, I did.  I squeezed in words on my lunch breaks.  I took my laptop to Henry’s Taekwondo practice.  I sat in bed and wrote while waiting for Paige to finally, finally go to sleep.  Some days, I only managed a few hundred words.  Most days, I got over 1,000 words onto the page.  But I didn’t skip a day because I had to update my word count on the NaNoWriMo website.  I read fewer books, I watched less television, I stayed up late.  But I did my writing.
  2. Fiction is Fun.
    After years of writing seriously about work related topics, and personally about my own heart and thinking, it’s fun to come up with a ghost story/romance/backstage comedy.  I don’t have to rely on other creators to fill my brain up with joy.  I can make my own fun.
  3. Plotting is Hard
    I started with a few paragraphs of story summary.  Each day, I sat down to write whatever scene had my attention, regardless of when it happened in the book.  I titled different scenes and as the story grew, moved the chunks around to keep them in roughly chronological order.

    Once I understand what scene I’m writing, I can throw it down relatively quickly.    When I get stuck figuring out the next chunk of plot or the next scene, then I wind up writing 50 words at a time.  I considered several times taking a day to just work through some plotting and make a better outline, but my gut told me that if I stopped writing the actual novel for a moment — I’d quit.  So, I kept poking along.

    I also changed some key circumstances and plot points as I kept writing.  I resisted the temptation to go back and retcon earlier scenes.  I needed to be writing, not rewriting.  As a result, there’s some contradictory backstories for some key characters that I’ll have to resolve in my edit.

  4. I can be okay with a crappy first draft.
    In my work, I pride myself on the ability to write clean, interesting copy fast.  I teach writing skills in my classes.  So, it’s hard to accept that a lot of my first novel is so, so crappy.  But the NaNoWriMo community and my friend Meg Pressley were right – what matters in the first draft is that you wrote it, not that you wrote it well.  Meg told me she thinks of her first drafts as her outlines, and that relieved a lot of pressure.
  5. I’m writing what I like to read – romance
    Enjoying romance novels has always been my guilty secret.  I’m done feeling guilty about it and I’m done letting anyone put the genre down — or any genre, for that matter.  Genre fiction is keeping a lot of people from wailing into the void right now.  Reading romance novels this year has kept my anxiety from consuming me completely.  They are, as the great Linda Holmes would say, my potatoes. Writing a romance feels like an act of defiance for me — I’m refusing to give in to the sense of impending apocalypse.  I’m writing a Happily Ever After, damn it.

NaNoWriMo is over, but I’m not done with my novel.  I’ve made a commitment to keep at it over the next two months and try to get it to an appropriate length for its genre (70,000 to 90,000 words).  I don’t know if I will do anything with it when I’m done.  Maybe I will share it with some kind and generous friends.  Maybe I will throw it out to world as a Kindle self-publish book and sell it for a $1.00.  Or maybe I will recognize that this first effort is too self-indulgent and self-refrential to ever be inflicted on another person, and I will shelve it and start something else.  Whatever happens, I am back to writing and I know I am capable of writing more every day.  So… stay tuned and thanks for reading.

Half-Life

A few weeks ago, I turned 40.  Naturally, it’s got me thinking about the distance I’ve traveled since turning 30 and, especially, since turning 20.  My brain runs these strange little “half-life” calculations on events in my life.  Here are a few of them.

I’ve lived in Cincinnati 18 years and I’ve been married for almost 10 years.  I’ve been Rebecca Bromels here longer than I have been Rebecca Bowman.

I’ve lived 9 years – half my time in Cincinnati – in this same house.

I spent 12 years at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, and I’ve been gone for 6 years.  The radioactive isotopes should be halved by now, but the place still holds onto my heart.

My parents have been divorced for half my life.

At 40, I’ve been treating for depression and anxiety for half my life.  I’ve been diabetic for a little more than half my life.

Other half-life milestones are on the horizon.  In a few years, I’ll have lived half my life in Cincinnati, Ohio.  My mother will have had a permanent brain injury for more than half my life.  When my son turns 8 this year, he’ll have been a big brother for half of his young life.

I intend to live, God willing, many years into the future.  From this year forward, the first 20 years of my life is going to be a smaller and smaller fraction of my time here.  When people ask me how I’m feeling about turning 40, I don’t know how to answer them.  But I think this is some of it:  I am starting to feel the passage of time in decades and eras instead of seasons and years. And I am becoming more sensitive to fleeting moments of transition and marking them on my heart.

 

 

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Rough Magic

Tonight I snuck into the lobby around 9:15 p.m. and stood at the top of the stairs and watched Opening Night through the narrow window for the last time on Race Street.  I stopped working at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company nearly six years ago, but I’ve never really left it.

This production of The Tempest is ambitious and gorgeous and unabashedly theatrical.  It also bluntly reveals what we spent so many years trying to disguise: this is a tiny, crappy space in which to make art.

When I first stepped inside in 1999, I saw lighting instruments attached with x-clamps to a drop ceiling swaying gently in the breeze of the air conditioning.  The green faux leather chairs had springs poking out of the seats.  Stiff acoustic fabric on the walls was so sharp that it regularly drew blood from actors running down the aisles.  No restrooms were available backstage.  Actors walked down the alley outside in the rain to enter through a side door.  A concrete shoebox that was never intended to be used as a live theater, the space lacked everything necessary to put on a show.  It was a dump.

It takes a special kind of person to make art in a crappy space.  It takes guts, and foolishness, and vision, and humor, and patience.  Many people would simply not work under such conditions, and you could not blame them for their instinct of self-preservation.  But those who did, the ones who saw past all the crap and imagined doing something great in spite of it, they were special.  Just buying into the idea of performing Shakespeare in such a place took courage, and drew together many kindred spirits.  It’s not surprising that twenty of us met our spouses while working in that little hole-in-the-wall.

It took unusual Board members, too.  People who drank the kool-aid and agreed to do mad, fantastical things like rewire the backstage when we failed a fire inspection and sleep in the office overnight to finish a grant report.  More than once, it would have been reasonable to walk away.  Instead, they doubled-down and their gamble is finally paying off.

And in the audience were more oddballs.  People who loved Shakespeare and people who hated Shakespeare but liked the way we did it. Superfans who followed the actors’ lives over many years and became old friends.  Dear, kind souls who invested in improvements to that crappy room so we could keep going.  They put up with the lack of heat and power outages and cramped restrooms and undignified wheelchair access. They had fallen under the spell and became part of the community.

We made some amazing art in that crappy space.  I will never forget the heartbreaking end to that Love’s Labour’s Lost or the precision of that Waiting for Godot or the roar of the audience for that Much Ado About Nothing.  We got better at the technical pieces, but some of the best moments always came down to great acting and exacting direction, whether the lights were working or not.

We made some clunkers, too.  Sometimes we over-reached or just made bad choices.  The Tempest we did in 1999 was legendary in its awfulness. But we learned from every mistake until the product was so consistently good that no one could deny the need for a better space and a bigger room.  By then, our community of mad artists and oddballs was large enough to band together and build a new home.

It will be thrilling to see the company in its new theater at 12th and Elm.  But for all the shiny new glass and modern systems, the new theater will just be another concrete box. It’s not the space that makes a theater.  The rough magic is in the hearts and tongues and sinews and souls of the artists and their audience.  When my dear friends take the stage in their new home, they will bring the magic with them.

nick tempest 2017

 

 

Leap Year

I’ve been wanting to write my 2015 “year-in-review” reflection for about 3 weeks, but I needed to wait until the biggest thing in my year was public.  Today, finally, is that day.  I made it Facebook official this afternoon when the press release dropped: I have accepted an appointment as Assistant Professor of Arts Administration at the College Conservatory of Music at University of Cincinnati.  In August, I’ll start teaching in their acclaimed Masters program. Making the leap to academia is the biggest career change I’ve ever made and I am super excited (terrified).

I’ll write a bit more about how I came to apply for the job, but first I just want to reflect a bit on the year that was 2015.

2015 was the year I started saying “Yes” again.  Specifically, I started saying “yes” to my authentic self in ways I had not since I  had become a mother five years before.  And once I got started, everything began snowballing into a year of real personal growth.

Some things were small.  I remembered that, while I hate exercising, I love to walk. I started tracking how many steps I took each day, and that monitoring led me to make a more concerted effort to take walks at lunchtime, after dinner, and whenever I could find a moment. I started a new set of diabetes medications and changed my eating habits slowly.  All of those small changes mean I’m now 24 pounds lighter than I was at this moment last year.  I even got to buy new pants in December.

Gretchen Rubin’s book, Better than Before, inspired me to make other changes.  I cleared my house of years of clutter, started doing the dishes every night, and revived my practice of keeping a one-sentence every day gratitude journal.

But the thing that really kicked it off is when my husband asked me to direct the play he was writing for SERIALS: Thunderdome at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati.  He asked me at the last minute – he’d already written the show, found a cast, he just needed someone to look after the staging.  It was the middle of my busiest season at work and I had not done any directing since before Henry was born.  But I wanted to help my husband and so I said, “Yes.”  As it turned out, SERIALS introduced me to a whole new group of fantastic local artists who soon became friends.  It also made me remember how much I enjoy having an artistic project or pursuit of my own, and how much better it can be when that project is collaborative.

So when my dear friend Sara said, “We should just do it. We should start our book club where no one reads the same book,”  I said “YES”.  We did it and both the meetings and the Facebook group have become a real source of camaraderie and joy in my life.

When our irascible choir director at church asked me to sing a solo, I said “YES” and I managed to do it even though I discovered that my voice and how I produce it has changed dramatically with age.

And when I saw the call go out for singers to sign up for the Young Professionals’ Choral Collective for their Fall concert in collaboration with Cincinnati Shakespeare, I said “YES” and I signed up.  It was great to sing in a group again.  I loved seeing the energy and enthusiasm of the twenty-somethings around me (though they did make me feel ancient at times), and I developed even more respect and admiration for their fearless leader, KellyAnn Nelson.

And, then, after I finished cleaning my house in August, I saw that my dear friend Sydney Schnurr had posted the job listing for her position at CCM.  I thought, “Man, I wish I  had Sydney’s job.”  Then I thought, “Wait, maybe I could have Sydney’s job.”  It was a lightning bolt moment.  I realized that this was a golden opportunity – a chance to teach (a dream of my authentic self since I was ten years old); to teach what I actually know and practice (arts administration); and to teach it here where I already live and have personal and professional roots.

My brain provided all sorts of reasons why I shouldn’t apply — “you’re not qualified!  you don’t have any formal teaching experience! you probably won’t be any good at it! you won’t make enough money!”

But I decided to say “YES” and throw my hat in the ring anyway. Because I knew if I didn’t say yes to this opportunity to be my authentic self, it would haunt me for years.  I gave it my best shot, with no real expectation of success.

Now, here I am at the beginning of my Leap Year – the year I leap into something entirely new. At this moment, that leap still feels huge.  My imposter syndrome has kicked in big time. But I feel like momentum is on my side. All the little jumps I took in 2015 by saying “YES” have prepared me to make a leap.  I don’t know exactly how I’ll land on the other side.  Stay tuned.

Postscript: I want to say a special thanks to my husband, to Sydney Schnurr, and to several friends who patiently listened to me when I was thinking through this decision.  It meant a lot that in the early phases, none of you looked at me like I had lost my mind, and several of you nodded as though this was the most sensible idea I’d ever had.  Thanks.

Big Clean 2015: Day Three – Finding My Moment of Zen

Inspired by Gretchen Rubin and Marie Kondo, my husband and I embarked on a three-day “staycation” and did the KonMari method on our home.  Read here about our Planning,  Day One, and Day Two.

When Bookworms Marry

I told John we could spend ONE HOUR going through books.  John had absorbed Marie Kondo’s admonishment to release books that you’ve enjoyed back into the universe to bless others.  We have four large bookshelves in the living room, plus three shelves of cookbooks, plus two shelves of children’s books in Henry’s room.  We also found three boxes of books just hanging around in corners while we were cleaning. And there are more older children’s books in the basement, but the basement was not on the plan for this mission.

We each picked a shelf to sift, pulling out books that belonged to us that we were willing to give away.  We inevitably found duplicates of some plays, theater textbooks, and novels. Some books were clearly impulse purchases from Half Price Books that were the literary equivalent of six-month-old popcorn.  I also pulled some books that I thought John SHOULD give away and set them in separate stacks for his review.  This probably added significant time (and irritation) to the task, but we did get rid of more books that way.

The most fun was going through the more than two hundred children’s books, many from John’s childhood.  We kept far more of these that we needed.  It was also very satisfying to finally separate out all the board books and load up the shelf in Paige’s room.

books to libraryBy Noon (three hours later), we’d sorted out TEN BOXES of books to drive to the local library, plus THREE MORE BOXES of theater books to donate to a local college theater program.  In spite of this, every shelf we have is still full. We don’t have boxes of books hiding in corners, or books stacked on top of other books, but still… all the shelves are full.  I have no explanation for this phenomenon.

Zen and the Art of Tidying Up

Once we had piled all the books that we were giving away, John asked if he could spend an hour culling items from the kitchen while I worked on packing up books.

Rebecca (Out Loud): Okay, but just an hour, we still have to get all this stuff in the living room tidied up.

Rebecca (Internal Monologue): AARRGH!  WHY IS MY HUSBAND AVOIDING THE REAL WORK OF CLEANING UP HIS NEST OF PAPERS???  HOW ARE WE EVER GOING TO FINISH??

Around 11 AM, I broke into slightly hysterical giggles in the solarium as I was emptying a cardboard box of baby clothes into a plastic trash bag so that we could use the box to pack up more books.  Surrounded by a mountain of our things, I could feel the minutes left to reach my dream of a clean house slipping away.  That was the height of my panic.

However, while I was panicking, John was applying his slow, methodical process to the giant shelf in our kitchen that was overstuffed with various small appliances, bakeware, cookie cutters, holiday serving dishes, etc. kitchen shelf before As he covered the floor of the kitchen with more and more small items, I kept looking frantically for more boxes and space in the solarium. I know the KonMari method is all about putting everything on the floor so you can see how much you have, but that part of the process just wigged me out.  I hate walking around piles of stuff — it makes me feel like we are living in an episode of Hoarders.  I had to fight the urge to make comments while John painstakingly figured out what he wanted and what he didn’t.

When he was done though, something amazing happened. He had cleared one entire shelf and made space for all the cookbooks that had been in the Nest in the living room into the kitchen.  This freed up space in the Nest shelves for expand-a-files, which, in theory, could keep the Nest cleaner.  I’m not sure that an outsider would have seen the difference; the giant shelf is still completely full.  But the things on it are all items we actually use, they all can be seen and accessed easily, and look orderly instead of cramped.  Two months later, this is still a significant upgrade to life in the kitchen. kitchen shelf

I decided to try and adopt some of my husband’s Zen attitude as I worked on clearing toys from the living room. I gathered one large box of baby toys and puzzles no one was playing with anymore.  My goal was to shift enough of Henry’s “big kid” toys upstairs that no toys would have to live on the living room floor anymore.  Hauling the giant collection of wooden blocks up the stairs took several hot, exhausting trips.  But, I got a great deal of satisfaction in figuring out how to stack them in two shelves of the closet, tetris-style.

I also got to whittle down collections of plastic junk, gimcracks and other things that kids accumulate from birthday parties and Happy Meals.  Parents, can we all agree to stop giving the kids little pieces of plastic junk in birthday party guest bags? Let’s just hand them each a candy bar and call it a day.  Also, I sorted our 43 tubs of Play-Doh by color and selected 20 tubs to give away. How did we get 43 tubs of Play-Doh? I think they’ve been breeding.

Getting one layer of toys, art supplies and other kid stuff out of the living room made an enormous difference.  henry room afterI also got to put up some of Henry’s best art from the summer in his room, which really made it feel like his own special spot.

I got behind the couch and found all the things we’d dropped back their since 2012. I recycled stacks of Real Simple magazines that I was saving for reasons that seem utterly ridiculous in the face of the existence of the internet.  I emptied both medicine cabinets.  In the downstairs cabinet, I discovered that nearly every OTC medication in it was expired. Great! More room to contain the little things we use everyday that get all over the bathroom counter.

I could feel it working.  The house looked better and better.  But as we reached five o’clock and quitting time, I knew I was going to have to dig deep and find more hours over the weekend if we were to have house ready on Monday for the cleaning crew of former nurses that I’d hired.

Getting My Second, Third, and Fourth Wind

The weekend brought our delightful children home.  Henry loved his new room and spent an hour upstairs during quiet time drawing at his new desk. Paige loved getting her books off the shelf in her room and running the length of the living room with her toy stroller.  Seeing how happy the extra space made them helped me keep going. living room after

Saturday night I wandered into the kitchen and started working on the odd pie rack/plant shelf that sticks out into our solarium.  The front part of the shelf had become a dumping ground for art from Henry’s school and whatever else was in our hands that we needed to set down when we came in the door.  My goal was to get this to be a clean space that held nothing – an empty spot in a crowded room.  Getting rid of the trash and odd items took only 20 minutes or so.  Then I started paying attention to the vases and glassware that I was displaying on the other parts of the shelf.

Did I really need all those vases?  At most, I use a single vase at a time for flowers. I like having some different sizes and shapes for different kinds of arrangements, but some of these looked like duplicates.  I started pulling the pieces that didn’t spark joy and putting them aside.

extra vasesEleven superfluous vases. What the hell?  That didn’t include the eight I’d decided to keep.  How did this happen? I recognized some as leftovers from flower arrangements that I’d been sent over the years.  Without thinking, I’d added them to my “glass collection” without stopping for a moment to look at them and really asses their worth. It reminded me that as much as I give John grief for being a clutter bug, I am also guilty of hanging on to things mindlessly. Once I boxed them up, I spent another 20 minutes arranging the pieces I really love: the deep green vase from a cousin’s wedding; the bread baking bowl; the teapot from my grandmother’s German set from the 1940s.  I felt like a curator creating an exhibition. These objects might not mean anything to anyone else, but for me, they are beautiful and I love being able to really see them now. It was my moment of Zen.

Sunday morning I stayed home from church by myself and cleaned out the shelf under the sink in the downstairs bathroom while listening to the How Did This Get Made? podcast on the Howard the Duck movie.  The salty commentary about that weird, dirty movie was completely appropriate for all the junk I found down there.  I will spare everyone those details.

John and I worked in the Nest on Sunday evening, racing to be ready for the cleaning crew.  Here, I started to run out of patience.  John had been so good about letting things go: clothes, books, kitchen gadgets.  But we got stuck when we got to paper.  It wasn’t just the nostalgia items like programs and cards.  Somehow everything kept going into piles “to be filed” or “for the taxes” or “I want to look at that before  I get rid of it.” I got really frustrated.  This space has been a mess for as long as we’ve lived here.  It is a permanent collection of piles in which any number of important items are lurking among all the trash.  As I write this in the Nest, I’m still surrounded by piles.  Sure, they are tidier and, for a few weeks after the nurses came, they were even off the floor.  But now they are drifting and it makes me feel so defeated.  In the moment, that weekend, I had to let it go.  We were out of time and John had reached his limit for this project.  I had to make the effort to celebrate everything we’d accomplished and not let this one thing ruin my mood.

A New Habit

Sunday during naptime I knuckled down and did all the dishes.  Our kitchen was always full of dirty dishes, especially leftover pots and pans from John’s cooking.  I did my best to load and unload the dishwasher to keep plates and such clean, but I hate scrubbing pots and pans.  Secretly, I felt like John should have to do the pots and pans, because he made the mess while cooking. I also felt annoyed that it seemed like I ALWAYS had to do the dishes.  The only time John seemed to wash a pot was when he ran out of clean pots while cooking.  Once a week, I’d give in and do a bunch of hand dishes while seething about the state of the whole house.  If John had the misfortune to interupt me during this time, I would pick a fight with him. It sucked.

But – the dishes had to get done in order for the nurses to clean the kitchen on Monday. So, I did my best to get into Zen mode and just get it done.  And as I did, I realized several things:

  1. I don’t really hate doing the dishes. I don’t like dealing with old, disgusting food.  But I like being on my feet, the warm water and suds, the sense of doing something physical.
  2. It’s not fair of me to expect my husband to do all the cooking (which he does) and also do the dishes.
  3. The thing that really bothered me about the dishes was when they piled up.  We enter our house through the back kitchen door and being greeted by piles of dirty dishes every day always made me feel like a failure the moment I got home.  Plus, I had to summon a lot of energy and willpower to tackle the backlog, which I never seemed to have after wrestling Paige to bed for an hour every night.

That’s when I remembered Gretchen Rubin’s brilliant observation about habits: habits allow us to make a decision ONCE and save ourselves the time and energy it takes to decide.  It came to me in a flash: I would create a new habit of doing all the dishes every night before I went to bed.  It would be my job – just as cooking was John’s job.  If I did it every single day, they’d never pile up and the job would never be too arduous to manage within 30 minutes or so. Plus, I could listen to podcasts or music while I did it and enjoy a little time to myself.

I announced this decision at dinner that evening at our weekly Family Meeting. I didn’t tell John beforehand.  I think he was a little surprised, but pleased.  I also assigned Henry the job of helping to set and clear the table.  Paige’s job, eat like a small horse, is one she relishes every night.

Since I started doing the dishes every night, the kitchen is staying cleaner, but also, I don’t do the dishes in a stew of frustration anymore.  I don’t have to summon the willpower to decide to do it.  It’s my habit — I already made the decision.  I just do the dishes and then, because I’ve been up on my feet and thinking, I often go and do something else useful instead of just lying on the couch feeling drained. Bonus, my husband has actually volunteered several times to help just so we can hang out and because he is a nice guy.  Two months later, this one small change to my habits has had a ripple effect on my mood and my productivity.

Living Life in the After Photos

Nearly two months have elapsed since the Big Clean.  Our After photos still make me very happy. I am happy to report that, for the most part, spaces that we cleared have stayed cleared/  Here are a few things we’ve observed about living in a post-KonMari world:

  1. The house feels bigger. John kept saying this for several days after we cleaned. We’d forgotten just how much space we really had — it was buried under too much stuff.
  2. It’s easier to keep the house clean.  First, I can see more quickly when something’s out of place and needs to be put away.  Second, I know exactly where to put that thing away because I made a space for it.  Rubin notes that putting something away in its exact place  in your home gives one “the archer’s satisfaction of hitting the mark.”
  3. We didn’t need more storage; we just needed less stuff. No new storage containers were purchased for this project.  At Marie Kondo’s suggestion, I re-purposed a couple of Apple iPhone boxes and some clean plastic hummus containers.
  4. It’s wonderful not having to feel embarrassed about the state of my house anymore.  My mother-in-law is visiting this weekend and I don’t feel anxious about what she’ll think of the house.
  5. We still need another solution for dealing with incoming paper.  I’ll gladly take suggestions here.

Thanks to everyone who cheered us on through Facebook and read these posts.  I hope this makes my fellow clutter bugs of the world feel less alone and inspires them to try making a big change.  I also want to say thanks to my husband, who did a ton of work on this project and was kind to me in my moodiness during the Big Clean and throughout our marriage.  I’ll stop nagging you about those leftover t-shirts someday, I promise.

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Big Clean 2015: Day Two – Attack of the Killer Dust Bunnies

Inspired by Gretchen Rubin and Marie Kondo, my husband and I embarked on a three-day “staycation” and did the KonMari method on our home.  Read here about our Planning and Day One.

The Linen Closet

I was determined to complete the upstairs on Day Two. Marie Kondo and my husband wanted us to go through our books, but that sounded to me like a great way to waste time dealing with objects that felt mostly contained and off the floor, while ignoring the swamp of everything else.

We decided to start with the Linen Closet.

We don’t have a linen closet. Our narrow row house built in 1910 has barely any closets at all.  The “Linen Closet” was the end of our upstairs hallway where over six years we’d attempted to contain blankets, pillows, sheets, table linens, and other soft goods in a couple of large tubs and a white bathroom shelf that had come apart into two pieces.

Here’s the BEFORE picture.  Big Clean linen closet beforeYou can see there’s also a large box of children’s books in one corner and various bags all over the floor.  When I went to sift through the bags, I discovered one that was nothing but paper trash — literally, I had gathered up a bag of trash and then somehow gotten distracted and left it in the hall for months on end.

We gathered up everything and dumped it on our bed. polar bear bedStanding on opposite sides of the bed, we started going by category: comforters, baby blankets, sheet sets, etc.  This was one of the more fun moments of the whole process.  John and I readily agreed on what needed to stay and stuffing giant comforters into trash bags is fun.

Did we need two sets of dark red sheets? Nope.  Did either of us like the fru-fru brocade comforter with matching pillows? Nope. Were we likely to use burp cloths now that the baby was nearly two years old? Nope.

Once we narrowed it down, I found that I could fit nearly everything we used every day into the three built-in drawers in the bottom of Paige’s closet plus the one small plastic set of drawers next to her bed.linen closet drawers

That just left our heirloom items — quilts made by my grandmother and dear friends.  John had a flash of brilliance (one of many over the next two days) and hauled the very nice looking bench that had been storing paper towels in the solarium up into the hallway.  The quilts fit perfectly and we got an amazing AFTER picture: linen closet after

Of all the spaces we cleaned, this is the one that may still be making me happiest every day.  I don’t have to squeeze by a mountain of stuff to get into my sons room.  I’ve even discovered John and Paige sitting on the bench reading a book a few times.  It’s a peaceful spot.

Attack of the Killer Dust Bunnies

High on our sense of accomplishment, we dug into finishing our bedroom.  John worked on finishing sorting his many, many t-shirts and I started throwing away all the stuff that had accumulated around our nightstands: receipts, books, scraps of paper.

our bedroom before

I should have known better.  My dust allergy is pretty severe.  I avoid dusting for this reason, which of course, only makes the problem worse in the long run.  The dust bunnies I disturbed as I began cleaning around the night stand were not your average bunnies.  They’d had time to beef up to terrifying proportions.  Within twenty minutes, I had a severe headache.  I had been trying to avoid spending time “cleaning” to focus on “clearing”, but this was an emergency.  While I took advil, John came to the rescue with our Shark vacuum.

When he was done, he had a proposal: what if we got rid of our alarm clocks? Both were old and difficult to set, so we rarely used them. I woke up each morning to my iPhone alarm.  Plus, both were taking up valuable space on our nightstands.  “Yes!” I said enthusiastically, “Great idea!”  By lunchtime, we’d finished our room.our bedroom after

Making Space for Play

It was time to tackle Henry’s room.  Henry had moved into the spare room almost a year ago when Paige graduated to the crib in the nursery.  We had moved in his bed and some of his toys and books, but we hadn’t taken the time to move out all the things that had previously been stashed in this “spare room.”  My goal was to get everything out of this room that belonged to grown-ups so that the space could be entirely for Henry to play, draw, read, and do whatever a boy needs to do.

We decided to use Paige’s room as a staging area.  Hauling everything out of the closet took an hour: wrapping paper, boxes and boxes of stationary, posters and framed prints that never seem to go up on the walls, young adult books that are not right for Henry yet, John’s sewing machine and various abandoned sewing projects, markers and other adult craft supplies.

I attempted to sift and sort all this stuff while John cleaned up some of the toys and rearranged things. This might have been the most depressing stack of stuff.  So much of it was “aspirational clutter” – supplies for all sorts of projects that John and I imagined we might do before we had children.  Gretchen Rubin talks a lot about the importance of knowing oneself when it comes to building good habits and a happy life. Her secrets of adulthood “Be Gretchen” and “Just because something’s fun for everyone else, doesn’t mean it’s fun for you” really resonate with me.  I often wish that I was a crafty person who made things.  But the truth is, I just don’t get that much enjoyment out of crafting. I gladly gave away the yarn and knitting needles, but I couldn’t bear to part with all the scrapbooking supplies for our honeymoon album.  At least I got them neatly stored in a storage tub and tucked under our bed.

Once we got everything out of the closet, we were able to fit two sets of plastic drawers in side-by-side.  We didn’t buy these new — one had previously held off-season clothes of John’s, the other held sewing projects.  We had gotten rid of so many things that both were now empty and available to keep all of Henry’s clothes, which had been crammed in with Paige’s in the large chest of drawers in her room.  Plus, we now had three deep shelves in the side of the closet and a wide shelf running above the hanging rack to store toys and games.

It was time to pick up the kids from school.  We’d made enormous progress, but my anxiety was still running high.  Had we just moved everything around? Would we get through all the junk we’d just moved into Paige’s room? How in the world would we get through the entire downstairs tomorrow?  I had a minor freak-out.

John was feeling a lot more optimistic.  He also was making a push again to deal with books.  “I think we need to go back to the KonMari Method,” he insisted.  “If we get rid of books, we’ll open up space for more stuff.”  We argued about it for a bit, and reached a compromise.  John could have one hour tomorrow to do a quick sweep of books. But we had to get faster if we were going to finish everything in just one day.

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The Big Clean 2015: Day One Inspires a KonMari Disciple, But I Have Doubts

Inspired by Gretchen Rubin and Marie Kondo, my husband and I took a three-day staycation to get our house in order. You can read about our preparations and planning here.

Wednesday, August 12

We got a late start. Tuesday night, the moment I opened a bottle of cider and settled into the crook of my husband’s arm on the couch, my phone rang. It was my mother. She didn’t feel right and she had convinced herself and the nurse at her specialist’s office that she needed to go the emergency room.

I’m an only child.  We moved my mother here from Colorado four years ago so that I could keep a better eye on her various health problems and help her manage her bills. She has a permanent brain injury from a fall she took roller-skating at age 48. She has a long list of other health problems. We’re up to 12 specialists in 4 years. The problems are real. She’s not a hypochondriac. But sometimes her brain injury makes it hard to discern what to do.  Part of my job is to be her higher reasoning functions when her brain is too tired or too anxious. It’s also my job to take her to the emergency room.

We got to the ER at 9 pm and left four hours later.  They ran a ton of tests, because that’s what you do when a woman in her sixties presents with general weakness and pallor. Nothing.  Nothing but the mysterious anemia she’d already been diagnosed with and was scheduled to have a special transfusion for on Friday.  She probably just overdid it earlier in the evening helping out at our church’s community meal. They sent her home with instructions to lay low.  It was both a relief and an incredibly frustrating  and familiar experience.

So… we all overslept the next morning.  John got the kids to school and by the time we both had caffeine, it was after 10 am.  I am a morning person, so I felt like we’d lost half the day. John’s a night owl, so it was about the right time for him to get going on a project.

We were determined to follow the KonMari method and purge by category, starting with clothes.  But I also had a list of spaces that I knew I wanted to clear by the end of the week:

Our bedroom – closets, nightstands, tops of dressers, floors.
Paige’s room – closets
Henry’s room – floor, closets, get everything out that doesn’t belong to him
the “linen” closet in the upstairs hallway
bathrooms – closets and medicine cabinets
kitchen – the pantry, shelves, and the “window box”
living room – toy shelves, the chair stacked with art supplies, the “Nest”

I started emptying my dresser drawers onto my bed.  John, however, took KonMari more seriously.  “She says to dump everything out onto the floor,” he reminded me.  By the time John had emptied his two closets, eight drawers, and various boxes and laundry baskets, his clothes covered every square inch of floor in our daughter’s nursery.  It was a truly astonished assortment of clothes. I retreated to the bedroom and my clothes, which I dumped onto our bed.

Ruminations on KonMari Method and Clothes

  1. I will never fit into those pants again.  I have lost more than 10 lbs. recently, but it’s not enough to squish into my pre-Paige clothes. That baby permanently rearranged my flesh. I decided to release the pants and enjoy getting some new pants when I need them.  On the upside, I may finally need some smaller, more fitted shirts.
  2. Security is a drawer full of clean underwear.
  3. Marie’s system of folding and storing clothes is revelatory.  By storing shirts and other garments on end, side by side across the drawer, instead of in stacks,  I can see everything immediately.  Organizing by color from dark to light makes me feel like I’ve curated a little art project in my sock drawer.
  4. I need more color in my main wardrobe.  I’ve got a lot of black, brown and gray.  I need more supporting pops of color.

After stuffing five trash bags of clothes, I found that all my drawers had a sudden airiness to them. Everything had room to breathe. I started making a mental list of gaps in my wardrobe that I could try to fill with Christmas gift cards.

Finishing the Hat
While emptying my closets, I found several vintage hats that I’d acquired over the years, plus a bag of hats that I’d purchased when I was in my early twenties. I love hats though I don’t often have the occasion (or the panache) to wear them.

Suddenly, I had a flash of inspiration.  Kondo suggested using private spaces, like the back of one’s closet, as a place to display a few favorite personal items out of public view.  The idea reminded me of Rubin’s happiness tip of creating “shrines” – small curated displays of collections or thematically linked items that boost your happiness.  I could use the top shelf of my closet as a shrine for my vintage hats, accompanied by my best handbags.  Delighted with myself, I spent several minutes fussing with these few items in the narrow space until I had arranged them to my satisfaction.

My closet with its shrine to hats on the top shelf.

My closet with its shrine to hats on the top shelf.

Then, I turned around and looked at the rest of the room. Frankly, it was still a disaster zone with piles of junk everywhere.  It had taken me about two hours to go through all of my clothes, but John was still completely surrounded. Rubin often notes that things get messier before they get better when clearing clutter.  Still, I started to feel very anxious.

My nightmare scenario for this project? That we’d get it only half-done. Experience had taught me that if we didn’t finish a clean-up job 100%, we were doomed.  Often, we’d get to 85% clean: everything but the last few pots and pans.  Everything except for that one pile over there.  Everything except that last leftover box.  When we ran out of time and momentum, that last 15% would become a part of the landscape. We would literally walk around it like furniture for months on end. Halfway through the first day with just one closet and some drawers organized and a giant new mess blocking access to our daughter’s crib, I suddenly felt like we were doomed to failure. What if we wound up worse than before?

Time for lunch.

Lunch and a little break with my husband calmed me down. We resolved to keep working – John would stay focused on his clothes, and I would tackle all the little piles of stuff in our bedroom.

Things Found While Cleaning Up

Most of what I picked up off the floor was junk. What kind of junk?
– Plastic collar stays for husband’s shirts
– Receipts (John has a habit of tucking receipts automatically into shirt pockets, then fishing them out when getting shirts ready to wash and leaving them in heaps near his dresser and nightstand)
– Nursing supplies (Paige has been weaned for a year)
– Playbills, flyers, ticket stubs, loyalty stamp cards, notes scrawled on the backs of envelopes
– stray buttons
– Weekend lists of things to do (on every list – “Tidy Up”)

I also found a few little treasures, like this art project from Henry’s last year of pre-school. guitar art And the box with all my Shakespeare t-shirts from my days at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and a few other places that I intend to have made into a quilt. Items like these are what Marie Kondo refers to as “nostalgia”. Of all the categories of items in your home, she recommends purging nostalgia items at the very end.  It’s too easy to get caught up reminiscing over items and avoid the real work of purging. Knowing this, I commandeered one of the newly-empty storage tubs for “nostalgia”.  Anything I found that wanted to be lingered over went in the tub and I kept moving.

End of Day One
By late afternoon, we’d filled 19 trash bags with clothes to give away. (My original estimate for St. Vincent de Paul on the total number of bags for the entire project? 15.  I vastly underestimated.) At this point, I had to pick up the kids from school and find something for us to eat for dinner.  Our bedroom was significantly cleaner, but our nightstands still overflowed with books.  And nothing else in the house had been touched.

“So, tomorrow, we do books, right? That’s the next category to clear,” said John.  He was in a much better mood than I had anticipated. Something about Kondo’s attitude had helped him get over his reluctance to part with things that he wasn’t wearing.

“Books wasn’t really on my list,” I said, uneasily.  “We have a ton of books, but they all fit on the shelves. I feel like we could spend hours sifting our library and not get to the spaces that urgently need attention — like Henry’s room.  I want us to focus on finishing the second floor tomorrow and then we’ll have to do the whole first floor Friday. We are so behind.”

John was not convinced.  He argued that getting rid of books would free up space to put other things away.  We argued for several minutes, but I put my foot down.  This was MY big crazy project and I was in charge, not the mystical Japanese clutter guru. Tomorrow, we would finish John’s clothes and the entire second floor, method be damned.

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The Big Clean Part One: How Gretchen Rubin and Marie Kondo Inspired My Clean-Up Staycation

This summer, I made a decision to get my house in order inspired by Gretchen Rubin’s great book “Better Than Before” and Marie Kondo’s mini-manifesto “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”.  Reading these books sent me (and my husband) on a journey to the heart of our clutter-madness and has resulted in a major life upgrade.  In these next few posts, I’m going to document how I planned for and executed our Clean-Up Staycation, what we learned, and how we’re living one month later.

Conditions on the Ground

In the year and a half since the birth of our second child, conditions in our house had gotten steadily worse. Toys littered the floor of the living room. Papers swamped my husband’s home office nook, “The Nest”, to the point that you could not walk in it.  Henry had moved into his own room when baby sister Paige needed the nursery, but he still slept surrounded by random projects and memorabilia of his parents that had previously occupied this “spare” room.  In our bedroom, closets and dressers were stuffed  with clothes while perpetually full laundry baskets overflowed onto the floor.  Dishes in the kitchen — especially pots and pans — piled up for days at a time. We couldn’t find anything when we needed it.  Worse, as my daughter turned into an expert climber and experimented with putting everything in her mouth, I lived with a low-grade fever of anxiety about what she might slip on or swallow in a second while my back was turned.

We’d made attempts to clean up before, usually in frantic bursts before the arrival of guests.  Often, these efforts simply moved junk from one area to another.  A batch of boxes of crap from The Nest moved upstairs to the foot of our bed before a dinner party and stayed there for the next six months.

All of this made me feel terrible: embarrassed, irritated, drained, anxious, frustrated.  The condition of the house was becoming an increasingly sore subject in our marriage as I tried to coax and cajole my husband into doing more chores. He was exasperated that no small amount of cleaning ever seemed to satisfy me. I couldn’t figure out a way to explain that clearing one small space only made me feel more keenly how desperate our situation was.  I needed to figure out how to make a great, big change in the way we were living.

Gretchen and Marie to the Rescue
As the summer began, I dived into two books I’d been meaning to read.  I love Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and had been enjoying her new podcast, Happier.  Both the book and the podcast offered practical advice, backed by detailed social science, and shaped by Rubin’s thoughtful and often wry observations of human nature. When I learned that her next book was a deep dive into the study of habits and habit-formation, I gladly downloaded the audiobook.  It was a deeply satisfying read for me. I love a good taxonomy and Rubin’s breakdown of ideas like The Four Tendancies set off a series of “Ah ha!” moments.  “Ah ha! — I’m an Obliger: good at meeting outer expectations, but not so much at meeting inner expectations.”  “Ah ha! — I love simplicity, but John loves abundance.”

The best part of the book is her examination of 21 different strategies for habit formation.  Some of these are obvious (scheduling, monitoring), while others are surprising (pairing).  Most importantly, she talked about the need to tend first to Foundations — the areas of your life where maintaining good habits gives you the energy you need to make other kinds of personal change.  One of these foundations?  Clearing clutter — “Outer order contributes to inner calm.”

“That’s it,” I thought to myself, “I have to figure out how to get the house cleaned up.”

Enter Marie Kondo.

I’d been naturally drawn to the title of Kondo’s book. Surprisingly, so was my husband.  We discovered we both had been on waiting lists at the library for the same book for several weeks.

Kondo’s ideas about our relationships to our stuff can be quirky, but always rooted in a deep truth.  Her methodology for clutter-clearing, for me, was a revelation.  The three basic principles:

1. Get rid of everything in your house that does not “spark joy”.
2. Clear clutter by category, not by location. (i.e. all clothes, then all books, etc.)
3.  Do it all in one fell swoop.

On the one hand, it sounded terrifying – Kondo claimed most of her clients got rid of 50% or more of their possessions.  On the other hand, I’d been trying for years to clean up one small space at a time and gotten nowhere. Kondo’s “nuclear option” sounded more appealing by the minute.

I was starting to hatch a crazy idea.  When I floated it by my husband, he seemed to have caught the spirit of Kondo’s book. With August looming, I made a plan.

The Big Clean 2015

I would take three days of vacation during the last week of Henry’s summer day camp for John and I to do the full KonMari method on the house.  We weren’t planning on going away for vacation this year anyway; traveling with an 18 month-old stinks.  Instead, we’d invest that time and some money into making our house a more comfortable and calm place to live.

In planning the Big Clean 2015, I invoked a few of Rubin’s strategies for success in starting a habit:

  1. Accountability: I knew that, as an Obliger, I needed others to note my progress (and cheer me on.) On the morning we started, I took pictures of every room in the house in its current, crummy state and posted them to Facebook in an album marked “Before”. It was embarrassing to show all my friends and family my dirty laundry and disastrous kitchen, but also motivating – Now I HAD to deliver “After” pictures or look like a complete idiot.  John, who loves social media, got in on the act and started posting to his account, too.
  2. Convenience: We decided to use the solarium off our kitchen as the staging area where we’d move everything we intended to donate. But I knew from experience that getting boxes of stuff from the solarium to Goodwill rarely happened in a timely fashion. In fact, there were already several boxes of clothes, books, and junk from previous half-hearted purges in the solarium waiting to leave. I needed to make this last step of the process more convenient.  Remembering their ads on my favorite public radio station, I called St. Vincent de Paul and arranged for pick-up the week after we cleaned. Problem solved.
  3. Treat: I still wanted this experience to have the feeling of a vacation, so I made two plans for treats. At the end of the three days, we’d have Dad babysit, and John and I would go out for dinner and a movie.  Then, on the Monday following our big clean, I’d hire a professional cleaning service to come in.  This also made the mammoth task more manageable.  John and I would be responsible for ruthless purging and re-organizing, but we wouldn’t also have to scrub, sweep, and dust.  At the end, I’d have the kind of deeply clean environment that I love in hotels when we go on actual vacations.

With plans in place, we set the dates: August 12 -14.

Next Post: A day-by-day account of The Big Clean 2015 and what we found.

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The Baby Bubble

I realized today that I’m becoming one of those people who only posts about her children on Facebook.  I’m in the Baby Bubble.

Many people commented that they love seeing pictures of my children on Facebook– especially my new baby girl:

Paige Headband And, yes, she’s adorable.

She’s also NOT SLEEPING.

It’s after midnight right now.  She’s in her bouncer, giving the stink eye to the Yellow Raccoon and the Orange Hedgehog that taunt her by being constantly out of reach and making her signature squeaky toy noise.  She’s nursed every two hours since 6:30 this evening and I’m waiting for her to get hungry again in the desperate hope that this will be the last feed of the evening and I will finally be able to go to sleep.

You see, Paige has colic.  No one really has any explanation for colic or even a good definition.  Her colic includes fussiness, gas pain, acid reflux, general grumpiness and the ability to wake herself up from a restful sleep the instant I try to put her down in her bed.

We’re using gas drops and Zantac.  I’m feeding on demand.  I’m considering ProBiotics.  I’ve stopped eating dairy.  We’ve been to the pediatrician twice. Everyone says this will go away sometime between three months and four months.

In the meantime, she is not sleeping and I am not sleeping and I am losing my mind.

I can’t afford to lose my mind.  I’m the Mommy.  I’ve got things to do.  And I can’t do any of them on five hours of sleep — five non-consecutive hours of sleep.

But right now it’s all I can do to keep up with her appetite and try to keep her from screaming when she’s in pain.  I also try to make sure she gets tummy time and belly rubs and clean clothes and social interaction, but dammit, it’s really hard to keep smiling at someone who has never smiled at you when you are this tired.

And the Baby Bubble is a lonely place.  Some days are 13 straight hours of no interaction with anyone other than her. And yes, I’ve got podcasts and radio and lots of episodes of CASTLE to keep me company, but it is still damn lonely in here.

And the fact that I don’t enjoy being in my pajamas all day with my baby watching TV makes me feel pretty terrible about myself.  What is wrong with me?  I am living a life of absurd privilege at the moment with virtually no responsibilities other than childcare.  And yet I really want to hand her off when my husband gets home because by that point I’m just tired of holding her.

I love my baby.  She has soft fuzzy red hair.  She can hold her head up like a champ.  She makes cute squealing noises and hooting noises and holding her while she’s napping is delightfully peaceful.

But I’m just so tired.

Then, of course, I read an article in Real Simple about a network of mothers who are all blind and share stories about how they care for their young children, and I hear on NPR that one of the causes of Afghanistan’s infant mortality problem is children dying of hypothermia, and I look around at the stacks of quilts and baby blankets and pacifiers and think: “I am ridiculously lucky.”  And I go pick up my baby just because I can.

Paige is hungry.  Gotta go.

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