Messy Hospitality and Gentle Decluttering: Challenge February

One of the things about living in a vicarage (or a rectory, as I keep being reminded we do now) is that your house is never completely your own. A very smart woman told me a very long time ago, when I was a new and naive clergy spouse, that it is beneficial to make sure that there is at least one room in the house that is tidy enough for visitors at any time, as you never know when someone will stop by.

The intervening years have demonstrated that she was absolutely right, and that the destitute and the Bishop are equally likely to drop by with no warning. These years have also demonstrated that, as a family, we are quite frankly useless at keeping any rooms in the house tidy. Instead, we have learned to practice Messy Hospitality. Anyone who stops by is welcomed in. We always have tea, and we sometimes have biscuits. We usually have gin and a listening ear. And we have piles of paperwork all over the surfaces, and toys all over the floor. This is our home, and it’s chaotic, and if you come in you need to accept that. To me, it’s an important way of saying that mess and chaos don’t need to be left at the door: we’re all pretty messy on the inside, and our houses (and our Facebook feeds) shouldn’t try to disguise that.

So messy hospitality is important to me. A perfectly tidy home does not feel like my home at all. Having said that, staying one step ahead of the mayhem does help me maintain calm in the midst of chaos. My downstairs usually reflects that (unless, of course, it’s a school holiday. Or Ofsted are in my college. Or one of the children is ill. Or, let’s face it, Netflix have just come out with another slightly addictive boxset.) My upstairs, however, is another matter. My bedroom, in particular, is the dumping ground for the rest of the house; all the other rooms become play dens or sleepover venues at some point, but that one is sacrosanct. It is therefore, inevitably, always the last to be tidied. It has piles of goodness knows what in every corner, some of which have been there since we moved in, and all of which are being added to daily, with clutter drifting on top of clutter. In fact, maybe that is where The Paleontologist gets her fascination with digging through layers of dross to find dinosaur treasures?

The problem, for me, with this level of clutter is that it stops my home feeling comfortable, and makes it an extension of the stresses and havoc of everyday life. When every surface has things that haven’t quite been put away, and you have to move 5 things before you can put down your morning cup of coffee, the time has come to take action. Which brings me on to the next part of my #Challenge2019: Challenge February. This month, I want to declutter 10 things every day from my bedroom. This is based on the idea that doing a little every day is more sustainable than big clear outs, and still sees solid results. It’s a principle I first came across on Facebook, created by Less Stuff. They are excellent at actually taking things out of the house and finding new purposes for old objects. In contrast, I’m afraid that when I talk about decluttering I mostly mean actually putting the recycling into the blue bin and putting away all my clothes. I’ve even doubled the amount to do each day in the hope that one month will be enough to see a real difference (yes, it is that bad). Still, the intention is there. Every day, I want to find homes for ten things that are out of place, so that by the end of the month, my bedroom is closer to an oasis of calm than the aftermath of a very localised tornado. You never know: if I get into the habit enough, I may be able to work the same magic on the study as well…


Not perfect; brilliant.

Winter sun shining through ice. Photo credit: Uki_71, Pixabay

I love the word brilliant. It sums up so many things: brilliant white teeth in a commercial smile; stars, diamonds, and all things precious; and I can’t hear it without being transported to long car journeys through France, with The Cowgirl shouting “Have a banana,” and The Paleontologist responding “What the Hell is going on?!”*

This morning, brilliant meant driving to work, straight into the most glorious, icy cold winter morning sky. I was going to stop and take a picture, but I was running late (of course), and my co-ordination is pretty bad at the best of times, so I decided not to take a picture through the windscreen after all.

This evening, brilliant meant driving home from work into an equally glorious, deep and mysterious winter night. It evolved from deep, deep blue, though a variety of colours too close to name, to pure black. I even arrived home early enough to be there before the children, and have two whole minutes to wolf down a Club and take one shoe off before they started ringing on the door bell like an axe murderer was after them, shrieking with joy because, for once, Mummy was home first…

This afternoon, brilliant meant sitting in a classroom with three Level 1 English students, taking a Speaking and Listening exam. They were all adults. None of them were born in this country. All of them have stories to tell – which they never tell, but keep bottled up inside – that would make me weep if I knew all the details. Yet there they were, talking about the lessons that can be learned from the Holocaust. They had been set the task of discussing whether it could happen again, and what did they say? “We can’t change others’ minds, but we can change our minds. Be happy with what we have.” “It all comes down to talking more in society. If we think they are wrong, we need to say so. We have a right to choose our government.” “We need to understand humanity.”

Today, brilliant meant looking at myself in the mirror, and realising that all these experiences, these moments of beauty and pride and absolute chaos, these moments are what life is made of. These are the good bits of life, the bits that should be enjoyed; but I for one race through them instead, looking always on to the next thing, the next job, the next item on the to do list. I looked at my children, The Paleontologist in particular, and realised that I am passing the same habits on to her. I looked at us all, and acknowledged that we are not perfect. For me, that is a pretty huge thing to be OK with. I’d never want other people to strive to be perfect – that would be crazy, and very very dull – but me, I should be perfect. Obviously. But today, I knew that we were not perfect, and we would never be perfect.

None of us are perfect. And we are brilliant.

*For those of you who have absolutely no idea what I am talking about (which, I’m aware, will probably be everyone) there is a radio series called Cabin Pressure, which is both hilarious and, somehow, just about appropriate for family car journeys. One character, Arthur, is spectacularly incompetant, but has a heart of pure generosity. He responds to everything, particularly the things he does not understand (and there are many things that fall into that category), with “Brilliant!” If you are also trying to do the environmentally friendly thing of not flying, and then messing it up slightly by driving a diesel car half way across a pretty large country, I highly recommend this as something to keep you all entertained.

Second-hand gifts: the perfect solution, or social suicide?

Shh… Don’t let it get around, but I gave a second-hand toy as a gift. At a children’s party. If I had any social standing, it would never recover from this.

I almost didn’t put The Cowgirl’s name on the label. Then I was going to put in a note with an apology, or an explanation. But I realised that no present is even worse than a second hand present, and I ran out of time to write the note (or a card, for that matter), so off the second-hand present went, in a second-hand gift bag, to add insult to injury.

In this pause, having committed to the action but with no idea yet about the reaction, I’m trying to work out why it seems such a suspect thing to do. What is it about gifts that makes them so much more respectable if they are new? If I had regifted something that hadn’t been opened, that would be fine. But the idea of giving away something that has been played with – but still something age appropriate, in good condition, and that is genuinely fun – fills me with feelings of abject failure. No one does it. Ever. I haven’t been to that many parties, by many mums’ standards, but I’ve been to enough to say that with absolute certainty. I don’t want to be labelled the cheap one, or the one who doesn’t care about other people’s children. I don’t want to be the one they mutter about in the playground (“Did you hear what she did? I’m hardly surprised, though, she never irons her kids clothes either.” – That one is true, and something I’m quite happy to own.)

Let me explain why, given all of this, I still gave this particular gift. Maybe this could be that note of explanation I didn’t have time to write earlier.

  1. It was such a lovely idea. Even better, it wasn’t my idea. The Cowgirl came up with it herself, during tea last night. She went off and found the toy she was going to give away, too. And frankly, after such unusual and unsolicited generosity, I’d walk through fire to encourage her, never mind breaking a few social conventions here and there.
  2. It was easier. Yes, it’s true, part of this is because I hadn’t got a present earlier in the week. I did have a plan to buy something on my way home from work, before picking up The Cowgirl, getting her changed, and getting her out to the party – but trust me, it was a huuuge relief when she came up with an alternative.
  3. It let me stick to #ProjectJanuary – I didn’t have to buy anything. Though, full disclosure, I had bought some Spiderman wrapping paper earlier in the week, in an attempt to not leave things to the last moment. Oops.
  4. It was more sustainable. Nothing like practising what I preach, and I do keep saying it’s better not to buy new things if we can avoid it. We have a family list of ways to help the world on the fridge, and giving away things we don’t need any more is squarely on there. It’s nice to actually do something about it.
  5. It helped us clear out. As I’ve said before, we have had a lot of celebrations recently. It was fairly inevitable that at some point, a toy worth having would be duplicated. It was also inevitable, given The Cowgirl’s general bolshiness, she would insist on keeping the new one. Being willing to give away the old one (in the new box – I know, I’m a bad person, but at least it hasn’t been scribbled on) at least means one less thing to squeeze into our over-cluttered home.

So, for all these reasons, I’m taking a stand. I’m not adding to the pile of plastic duplicates killing the oceans one toy car at a time. I’m taking a risk, and seeing what happens. After all, we’ve got The Cowgirl’s own party in a couple of weeks. If they are upset, they can always do the same back to us. You know what – even if they’re not upset, I do actually hope they do the same back to us.

A delicious minefield

I have just completed the first big food shop since before Christmas, much to the relief of the entire family. This means that we should no longer be forced to eat pasta with a sauce spiced up with leftover salsa in an attempt to put the shopping off for as long as possible use up all our leftovers.

My shopping basket was about as stereotypical as it is possible to be in January, apart from the fact that it did not contain celery. It was filled with fresh vegetables, supplemented with whole-wheat pasta, and contained no alcohol or caffeine – though that’s mostly because we topped those up a lot more recently than Christmas.

As someone with a minor obsession with list-making, I plan the food shopping in our household, mapping out what we are going to eat through the week, and buying the ingredients accordingly. Like drinking black coffee, it’s a habit I’ve carried over from my student days, when £10 had to feed me for the week. Any number of websites will tell you that doing this will help you to cut down on your food waste and the amount you spend on shopping. I wish they could see our fridge at the end of a bad week, is all I can say.

Food has to be one of the most complex minefields in today’s society, knocking me sideways every time I sit down to plan a meal. If it contains nutrients of any description, and any form of protein other than chicken nuggets, The Paleontologist is likely to gag over it and eat no more than three mouthfuls. On the other hand, if it has cheese or some form of carbohydrates, The Cowgirl will eat it until she makes herself sick (I really wish I was speaking metaphorically there…) Trying to be more conscious of food waste and the energy used in food production means I want to cook food that will be eaten, and give us all the energy we need for the day, but also that I don’t want too much instant food. On the other hand, after a day of teaching with lunch shovelled down at my desk, I need meals that can be cooked in half an hour or less. I would love to eat more plant-based proteins, but I’m married to someone who will only eat lentils if they are heavily disguised, preferably as a steak.

As if that wasn’t enough, you then get into the dilemmas of trying to raise body positive girls. Reducing our impact on the climate means eating more local, unprocessed food, and not wasting it by throwing half of it away at the end of the meal. So I find myself encouraging The Paleontologist to eat – and then remembering I promised myself to never tell my children that they have to clear their plates, or use pudding as bribery, as that can lead them to being unable to tell whether they are full for themselves or not. What happens if she is actually full, and I’m making her overeat? But what if she isn’t, she’s just being fussy, and I’m wasting food by throwing it away? Add into all of this the fact that I am, as one observer put it, of “Traditional Build”, and the dilemmas increase. I have spent my lifetime disappointed by my physical appearance; hang-ups I am struggling not to pass on to my children. I don’t want them feeling that dieting is something you have to do, as a woman, to fit in with society. But they’re already taking selfies better than I can (The Paleontologist has the pout down perfectly) and I didn’t teach her that – I don’t know how to do it myself. So how much control do I have over any of this anyway?

What is the solution to all of this? How can you balance the messages about the risk of obesity with wanting children who are body confident? How do you balance teaching them to listen to their own appetites and the needs of their bodies with reducing food waste – including that wasted by eating it when we don’t need to? And how do you do it all whilst knowing that at least once a week, the food plan will go out the window and you’ll be doing chicken nuggets and chips, as that is, despite all the careful planning, all you actually have the energy for?

So far, the best I’ve come up with is to muddle through with a mish-mash of every theory in moderation – which is, incidentally, my approach to every other parenting choice too. There are times I encourage them to eat, and times I encourage them to stop. We talk about food waste, and listening to our own bodies. We talk about eating because it’s habit (yes, even The Cowgirl is old enough to be doing that already) and knowing when to stop. We talk about the kinds of food you need to make you big and strong and fast and help your brain to work, and we pig out on chocolate in front of a film when that’s all any of us are up to. It’s not the best of any solution, but for now, we seem to be muddling through. If you have any better ideas, though, I would love to hear them!

art broken explosion glass
Photo by Stokpic on

#ChallengeJanuary: What not to buy

Never mind January; it’s the end of the year that is all about new things in my household. We have 3 birthdays and an anniversary, as well as Christmas, between Halloween and New Year’s Eve. Bad planning, I know, but there we go…

I love buying new things. I love getting new things. I even love trying new things (as long as they’re not too dramatic, and really not energetic at all). New clothes, new books, new recipes, new earrings, new shoes, new anything, really. I love planning for it in my head, finding it online (or, even better, in one of our lovely local independent shops), and I particularly love wearing it, or using it, or reading it, and revelling in that feeling of newness and hedonism all day long.

There’s nothing quite like Rocket Dog boots and dangly earrings…

So there I was, sitting in a Quaker meeting at the end of two months of fairly non-stop newness, thinking about what I might try to change in 2019, and I came across this:

We live in a part of the world where the dominant motivation is material self-interest, justified by the concept of personal freedom. In these circumstances, the rich get richer and the poor, for the most part, become comparatively poorer. […] What are we doing to proclaim our joyful acceptance that our living standards are going to have to drop; what are we doing to join with other Christians and concerned fellow-citizens to proclaim the vulgarity of our affluent style of living; what are we doing […] to recognise the need for change?

Quaker Faith and Practice, 25:12

What this means to me is that I need to get used to the idea that I should have less, so that other people can have more. I should appreciate the gifts that I have, rather than always looking to the next thing, the new thing, the shiny pretty things. My faith tells me that we must treat others as well as we would want to be treated, and always see the best in the world and those around us. This is a way of showing the world God, and what God wants us to do in the world.

In setting myself Challenge 2019, I said that my goal was to find things that have a positive impact, without needing a mammoth amount of energy to complete them. For Challenge January, I am taking that entirely literally. My challenge to myself is to buy nothing that is non-essential for the whole month.* Instead, I will focus on the things readily available to me – those already in my wardrobe, on my bookshelves, and in the world around me. The thing I am most worried about in meeting this challenge is that I will need to find a way to feed that desire for the new, the interesting, the flattering, without constantly feeding my consumerist side. In fact, that sounds like a good topic for #ChallengeFebruary…

*By essential, I mean food, fuel, cleaning products, and school jumpers to replace those that have mysteriously vanished into the black hole that is the lair of the Primary School Jumper Thief. I may also mean chocolate. I think it is very unlikely that I will get through the whole of January without chocolate being essential at least once.

A swan, a canal, a beautifully sunny day.