The Optimist, the Pessimist, and the Mess

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There’s nothing like being intimately tied to an incurable optimist. This is particularly true when you yourself are an incurable pessimist. I spend my days fighting off (or succumbing to) feelings of anxiety, doubt, inadequacy, failure, and overwhelm. The subject matter typically ebbs and flows, but lately I’ve discovered a common thread that has been spinning steadily for several months, ready to be woven into the fabric of my being unless I cut it short. Discontent over our current home, our apartment specifically, mounts. I feel acutely aware of the visual chaos, the piles. The tiny space between our dining room chairs and the wall next to it make me feel claustrophobic. I wonder how I managed to squeeze my enormous pregnant body through these same spaces just over a year ago. 

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Cody, the optimist, points out that things are significantly better than they were even a year ago. I’ve been on a mission to clear out and declutter and then reorganize the remnants for a solid 2 years, and just as the subject matter fueling my pessimism changes, my feelings of resilience in the face of combating declutter wax and wane. It’s such a first world problem, I know. Battling your stuff, when so many do not have enough. But these two years have been filled with more than simply frequent visits to a donation center, and I'm weary of the whole song and dance. These years have been marked by an examination of our habits, our expectations, and the problem of consumption that got us into this situation in the first place. There's nothing unusual or shocking about the amount of stuff we own, but if we feel owned by it, then somethings got to give. These years have been about choosing to buy our things from different places, and buy them far less frequently than we’re accustomed to. It’s been about addressing our impulses, and why they are so hell-bent on keeping things ‘just in case.’ It’s been about questioning our motives (do we want to buy ethical things because they’re prettier?) Are we trying to “identify” as minimalists, trying to wear it as a badge of honor that somehow elevates us above the riff raff? Spoiler alert, we answer a resounding 'no' to all of these questions, but I think that even though they might sound a bit absurd, they are necessary questions to ask and to answer, especially in light of the trend of minimalism. Are we just following the crowd because it’s comfortable, or are we intentionally moving with the crowd because it’s a smart bunch of people going in the right direction?

The direction we’re moving, the direction of owning just what we need, no more, the direction of assessing our desires, our insecurities, and sometimes even keeping stuff we don’t find to be beautiful because it does indeed serve us well, is all fueled by a desire to be good stewards. I think that what it means to be a good steward of your home and possessions looks different for each person.  For us, it looks a particular way because I am highly sensitive to my environment. This has forced us to go deeper into how we live, and manage our home in a different way. What might work for some families, doesn't work for us. I'm a stay at home mom, which means that the majority of my time is spent in the business of taking care of the people in my family and managing our home. If our home is a place of chaos instead of peace, a place of anxiety instead of rest, and a place of suffocation instead of creativity, then it's not a place I can live, let alone thrive.

A week ago I wouldn’t have been able to write these things. I was still drowning in our apartment. I was still frustrated by the piles Cody had acquired as a busy doctoral student. I was overwhelmed by starting each day with a clinging baby, making me unable to spend more than 5 minutes here and there addressing my piles, let alone doing the things necessary to keep a home running. In many ways, our decluttering had been on hold, and it was killing me. Anxiety and complete frustration, and irritibility reined, and then the resulting exhaustion would wreck me over and over again. Something had to give, but when? How?

Relief came unexpectedly. My parents and sister visited last week, and took all 3 boys out on Saturday. Cody worked several hours on his things, cleaning, clearing, and tossing. I tackled a few long-neglected jobs, and then did my own work setting things to right on Monday—the master closet and my dresser top.  Since then I’ve been attempting to channel some of Cody’s ruthless optimism. As I was writing this, Cody came into our room and said, you won't believe what so-and-so said to me today! She said that I am Chris Traeger! And you guys, he is LITERALLY Chris Traeger! And I’m okay with that if it makes me perfect, beautiful Ann Perkins. (If you missed that reference, drop everything in an untidy heap and go watch Parks and Rec)

And so, our weekend of cleaning and organizing has left me feeling, finally, free from the overwhelm of a space that doesn’t reflect our needs. It has too long been a space that controls me, not a space that serves our family well. It has too long been a space that doesn’t fit our family, not to mention other families we’d like to invite into our lives. It has too long been a space that stifles my creativity, and the creativity of our family. I’m through with it!

The pessimist tries to creep in and say, “It will never stay like this, you know. It will go right back to the way it was after a few weeks or even days.” It’s a legitimate fear, but I also think that somehow this last stride was different than the other strides.  Our apartment has been getting clearer and less cluttered these last two years, and although the progress is slow, and often excruciatingly so, I think we’re headed somewhere. We're in the business of shifting our habits, not just making things look nice, or owning less to own less. We are creating the home we want, the home we need.

Right now, this day, our apartment feels 95% great, and we’re committed to keeping it that way.

"This calls for some celebratory lunges!"

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Mary StreckerComment