Tackling the Mountain of All The Things: when your best is only just good enough

In the first week of the summer holidays, I often get a burst of energy, of Let’s Do This, of tidying fever. I dare to dream impossible dreams, of empty washing baskets and Lego-less carpets. As the weeks pass, the fervour diminishes and the wading through treacle-ness of keeping a family home habitable overcome my enthusiasm, resulting in an enormous sigh of relief when the holidays end and our cleaner (yes, I admitted it) comes back and sorts us out.

This pattern repeated with Lockdown, as the busyness and purpose of the first few days slowly melted into a puddle of sameness and a gradually increasing collection of dust in the corners and Haribo wrappers under the cushions. Now, however, Lockdown is slowly easing, and, like a whale in a long, slow dive, we are coming back up for air and bringing those seeds of energy with us. Seeds of energy coupled with being trapped in a house overwhelmed with Stuff has resulted in plunging into the sorting of children’s toys, clothes, books, drawings, games, letters, shoes and random plastic bits that have been building up around us for as long as we’ve been saying that we’re just not here enough to sort them all out.

The dream result is newly painted walls, black furnishings for The Paleontologist, All The Games for The Cowgirl, and endless empty, hooverable space for me. The reality involves rather a lot more gritted teeth through conversations about the absolute necessity of keeping another half-lost Kinder Egg toy, whilst simultaneously demanding to give away every item of clothing in the wardrobe. My cunning plan to find things to get rid of has worked very well. The part about actually doing the decluttering? Not so much. Here is the pile currently waiting to be removed. If I said this was all of it, would you believe me? (Spoiler alert: you shouldn’t.)

A single bed heaped high with a variety of clothes, books and toys.
Take one spare bed. Cover with 9 years’ worth of outgrown everything. Mix well and abandon to see what grows.

Faced with this mountain to dismantle, now feels like a good time to look again at decluttering strategies. It’s time for a radical approach, preferably one that comes with its own bulldozer. Never mind simplicity, sheer practicality says we must find new homes for things literally tumbling out of every storage crevice in the house. But sustainability says skips and dumps should be a last resort. So I thought I’d round up earlier resorts, to remind myself of the options and stop me hiring that skip. Well, stop me hiring it this week, anyway…

  • Car Boot Sales are a no from me, I’ll warn you now. The idea of getting up that early, and Being Cheerful into the bargain, in order to convince people to buy stuff I still care about a little is something I just couldn’t do, even without the social distancing and non-essential shopping rules currently still in force. Plus, it would probably rain.
  • Giving things to friends has to be my favourite way to declutter. In our early parenthood adventure years, we were given All The Things, a vast amount of which were beautiful, and some of which were, well, not. Not at all. (That’s just Vicarage Life With A Baby, in my experience.) As time went by and those delightful pooing vomiting bundles grew out of their Beautiful Things, it was a genuine joy to pass them on to other pooing vomiting bundles who were just starting out in life (and, yes, we passed on some of the rubbish too, naturally. What’s a little rubbish between friends?) Ironically, though, once the pooing and vomiting diminished and the grass and ketchup stains increased, the clothes swapping machines seemed to dry up too, at least in our household. Not so many Beautiful Things came in. Almost no Beautiful Things went out. We haven’t been able to get rid of our crap share our children’s outgrown outfits in this way for some time now.
  • Freegle is probably the best known sharing-stuff-you-don’t-want-anymore site. It has loads of people, endless offers of hangers and jam jars, and occasional scrums when people offer things that are actually still useful. I don’t know if I’d be more worried that our offcasts would set off a scrum or be ignored along with the blue and red plastic magazine racks, truth be told. Also, the app is clunky and people who say they want things don’t always turn up for them. This makes me a lot more reluctant to put things up there again.
  • Olio is similar in many ways, but I prefer how it makes me feel when I use it. The app is more fun, you can give away food as well as stuff, and in general the people who use it are terribly polite. (Probably due to the fact that it is mostly populated by middle class liberal lefties, it has to be said. Maybe that’s why I feel so at home there?) It is much smaller, though, which means there’s a good chance that the things you put up won’t actually be wanted by anyone close enough to you to make it worth picking them up, in sustainability terms or time and money ones.
  • Giving to charity shops is pretty straightforward (particularly if you just load up a collection bag and leave it outside your front door). Unfortunately, though, plenty of us are willing to give things to charity, but not enough people are willing to buy from them. So the things in charity shops build up, and build up. Sometimes they are shipped out to other countries because they can’t be sold here. Sometimes they are shipped to other countries and shovelled into recycling or rubbish tips once there because they are such bad quality no one would ever want to wear them again. So yes, sparingly, I like decluttering this way; but my current clutter-mountain is not what I would call sparing.
  • Facebook marketplace. I’ve done this once. Never, never again. The familiar platform is great, but you get an insane number of messages and the pressure is awful. My phone never stopped beeping and I started dreading yet another person showing interest. This is not a viable option for a fairly-overwhelmed introvert.
  • eBay is my preferred way of selling on used things, despite paying commission. You can donate some money to charity from the sales if you want to. You can let eBay do all the hassle of sorting out who is going to win things and how they will pay. But, you have to display things in a way that makes people want to buy them. You still occasionally have to talk to the people buying things. And you have to be able to make it to the Post Office regularly, which even without lockdown is rather easier said than done.

Looking at that picture, I feel so guilty. Guilty for buying so many things, some of which have never been worn, bought because they were on sale, or in charity shops themselves, or because they made me hope that one day I would be slim enough to wear them, or because they reminded me of something I used to love that fell apart. I feel guilty that we have so many toys that these can be removed without making a dent in the messiness of the girls’ rooms. I feel guilty that it’s all Still Here, that none of it has been given away already. But the fact is, being sustainable, even in a haphazard, messy way, is hard. It takes time. It takes emotional energy. It takes learning from mistakes and experience and accepting that some of the things you tried made matters worse, not better. It means realising that it is possible to be both part of the problem and part of the solution. It means doing your best, even when that isn’t enough, because it’s all we’ve got. So I’ll keep going with selling things to people who might enjoy them more than we have, giving them to people who would appreciate them, and avoiding Facebook Marketplace like the plague. And when all of this is over, I’ll look smug and tell stories of great daring, about the time I took on a decluttering mountain, and my best, as it turns out, was exactly what was needed.

Image from Pixabay

Sorry Sorry (for making your life a living hell)*

The scene is exhaustingly familiar. Your chest is tight and it’s hard to take a breath, even though you have done nothing more physically taxing than running upstairs, downstairs, and in the children’s chambers, looking for far-flung reading records and misplaced swimming costumes, since the middle of last week. You realise you have two minutes spare so you look for a job to do, your hands flapping aimlessly, your mind unable to process the idea that two minutes without action will not cause it to blink out of existence after all. You are thinking about that meeting you just had that tripled your workload whilst questioning everything you thought you were told to do last week. Everywhere you look there is laundry, washing up, or unsorted children’s drawings, schoolwork, forms to be signed, and there is so much in front of you that you can only see a haze, your mind refusing to process the details or consider starting points for improvement. You nip upstairs to get something and forget what it was you came up for as you are confronted by unfinished decluttering projects, or wellbeing projects, or rubbish that never made it to the wheelie bin, lurking accusingly in the middle of the floor. And, when there is no more room for anything but a soundless explosion and a burgeoning mushroom cloud, the cry goes up from the sofa pushed way too close to the TV: “Mummmmaaay”. “Just a second” is gasped out through clenched teeth. But of course, no quarter is offered, no second’s recovery allowed. The cry goes up again, and again, and before you know it you are also standing too close to the TV, shouting in full dinosaur mode and demonstrating to your offspring how the grown ups do tantrums. Their eyes go round. The Cowgirl starts crying. The Paleontologist starts taking notes. You take a deep breath, and count to ten. Then count to ten again. Then you apologise for shouting. Because grown ups get it wrong as often as children do. We do bad things. We do things with the best of intentions, and as time goes by, it turns out they were bad things too. We tell our children that if they make mistakes and hurt people they must apologise, and then they watch us refusing to follow our own orders.

When did apologising for something become equated with weakness, failure, not trying hard enough? Why is it that, as a nation, we apologise when someone else bumps into us in a public place, but we cannot apologise when we have caused genuine harm?

Is it the fear of complaints, of an institution losing its reputation? Because let’s face it, that will happen whether we apologise or not. The only thing that will change is the grace our acceptance of fault might bestow, or the residual flavour of blame and cowardice that is left in the mouths of those we have let down. I think my hardest act as a teacher was to call a student I had already told had passed her exam. Standard internal checks demonstrated I’d got it wrong. Thankfully, this story had a happy ending, and the student was able to retake, and pass, her qualification. I felt awful: a disappointment who had seriously let a good woman down. But I got the chance, through owning up, through apologising, to make it right. What if I hadn’t done that? Had hidden behind the faceless MISandExams Department, or, even better, the geographically removed exam board? My avoidance would lead her to question the college more, to doubt herself, and cause her to delay her dreams for yet another year. Oh, and she would still have lost her respect for me. How could she not, when I had taught her, invigilated the exam, built a relationship through a long and tiring year, and not looked her in the eye when the time came for bad news?

Because nothing says sorry like cardboard figures dragging roses. Except possibly very cute cardboard figure dragging roses. Picture credit: https://pixabay.com/users/Alexas_Fotos-686414/

Politicians, it seems, never make mistakes. They never change their minds. And if they do, they never acknowledge they have done so. A lot of people would like Boris Johnson to apologise for promoting close physical contact with people with Covid-19, all those years ago when it was still March and lockdown hadn’t started yet. A lot more would like Donald Trump to apologise for the dangerously misguided comments he made about bleach and UV light. Will either of them do so? Of course not. But then again, how can they?

We have all contributed to this culture that considers apologies as a sign of weakness. An apology is made into a meme, which becomes a Nick Clegg-style video, which becomes the epitaph of any political position. Acknowledgement of personal error is lorded over the fallen opponent until the end of time, because an apology is a sign of weakness, and changing your mind is the act of a fool. If someone changes position they are greeted with a rousing chorus of “I told you so,” rather than “Absolutely. We agree. Let’s work together to fix it.” No wonder scientists are treated with such suspicion and confusion in the modern world. To accept that some things are not yet known, to breathe in uncertainty and enjoy finding out new questions, to change your opinion if others find evidence that those initial interpretations were wrong: these things are opposed to the very foundations of our self-belief.

We live in a time where the dark side of capitalism is raising its head with increasing regularity. The gap between the overfed and the starving grows all the time. Continuous global growth, if pursued with historically single-minded determination, will eventually come at the cost of the continuing existence of us all. But in this world of fear and frustration and the non-existence of the apology, people who believe that capitalism is the answer cannot change their minds, and people who oppose it would rather see the world burn than admit the innate worth of those they have classed as their opponents.

Of course, all of this is just my opinion. And there is every chance it’ll turn out that I’m wrong. If I am, I’m sorry. It’s my best opinion at this time. If you disagree, and it turns out you’re right and I’m wrong, I won’t hold it against you. I hope you won’t hold it against me either. Instead, let’s find a way to work together to make things better for us all.

*If you know this song, I expect you to now be dancing around singing to it. Doing just that has got me through more crises at work than I care to remember now. Though admittedly, it was a slightly unusual number to insist we had played at our wedding…

Angels with dirty faces

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the act of being observed changes the occasion under the microscope. By monitoring the food you eat, you change what you consume, and when, and why, and how. By sitting in a classroom surrounded by more paperwork than is present at an amateur writing convention, you change the lesson you are watching and constrain or inflame the relationships that make it come alive. And by considering a blog post of each day as it passed, you anchor yourself in the moment, to the passing of time, and to the repetitive, beautiful, mind-numbing moments that make up family life in isolation.*

A diary with the title
Oh, the irony…

Lockdown with children: an exhausting joy

Family lunch in the garden = lockdown summer holiday

Lockdown begins and ends with the consciousness that, every minute of every day, we are responsible for the care and stability of our offspring. In many ways, I am very lucky. My children are old enough, able-bodied enough and grounded enough to take care of most of their basic needs independently. In the course of lockdown, they have even improved dramatically, if reluctantly, in everything from unloading the dishwasher to getting themselves dressed. They like playing together more than they like being apart, and they both sleep well and wake up late. I’m winning at lockdown parenting. And yet, even with all these odds lined up in my favour, it’s really, really hard. As I write this, hiding under the duvet in the spare room, a part of my brain is listening out for the next crisis, the next drama, the next reason to leave what I need to do to maintain my own equilibrium and dig out my whistle once more. Every certainty they thought they had – that school will always be there for the hating, that only grown ups do the boring chores, that even if the world is ending you are not allowed on the trampoline in your pajamas – has crumbled around them, and however awesome they are, they cannot keep themselves stable alone for any length of time.

Photo taken just before the umbrellas at dawn fencing competition started…

There have been some magnificent moments too. Being an entirely 21st century parent, these are, of course, the ones I have caught on camera. Being in the house, no excuses, no distractions, has given us the opportunity to make good memories, as well as more grey hairs. We have built a den. In fact, we’ve built several. We’ve done baking. They have gone jumping in puddles; I have not. We have experimented with more-dramatic-than-planned new looks and had make up and nail painting and flossing lessons (the dental kind, not the dancing kind, at The Paleontologist’s repeated request). We have spent endless afternoons in the garden and the girls have mastered flips on the trampoline, as every neighbour within a mile’s radius can probably attest. We have laughed hard and been terribly silly, and we have all eaten an utterly absurd amount of sugar.

…and outside. Not quite sure why it’s Halloween and Christmas already in this den. I couldn’t quite bear to ask!

Working from home, or surfing through survival?

The second inescapable fact of lockdown in this house is that both of us have jobs, vocations, and obsessions with people-focused work. Church services with no congregations; lessons with no students; Quaker worship over Zoom (who knew a video of thirty people sitting silently waiting could be so moving, and so noisy?). All these things can be done, and they are done, and done as well as we possibly can. But they take so much energy. There is so much scope for one little thing – preparing a workpack late, or accidentally muting a service on YouTube – to adversely affect so many people. Hardest of all is that when you are there, in person, worshiping, preaching, teaching, you get energy back from those around you. It goes round and round and breathes sustenance into everyone it touches. Alone with a computer screen, none of that is possible. This is a finite solution, and the cracks are deepening, as broken as our back lawn was before the rains finally came.

My view during Quaker Meeting this morning #nofilter #filthycarpet

Trying to take photos of my working life as a teacher during lockdown has lead me to acknowledge the good, the bad, and the actually quite dangerous. The thing that comes through clearer than anything else will always be that this is a juggling act. Most of the time, it’s my work that gets dropped. Sometimes, it’s not. Most of the time, it’s just another thing to try and keep in the air.

A messy desk with a laptop in the foreground.
Team meetings and monitoring assignments happening simultaneously. Me, jealous of everyone outside under that amazing blue sky? Why would I be jealous?!
A child's hand, caked in wax, in the foreground. In the background is a work computer.
This is what happens when you have children who are helping out in church services in the same house as parents who are working. Disclaimer: no Paleontologists were harmed in the taking of this photo. In fact, she was rather proud of herself…
In the foreground are workbooks and a purple pen. In the background is a trampoline. It is a beautiful sunny day.
Marking whilst “supervising” trampoline time. It’s not all hard work.

Lockdown and simplicity: focusing on the wins

Plastic free shampoo. Finally. I’ve been toying with the idea of using this for years, and have finally mixed it up…

It will be easy, my brain said. Let’s make a list of all the projects we can do, I said. We’ll be stuck in the house and can finally make a start on living a more ethical lifestyle, I genuinely believed. And, in some ways, we have. For example, we have managed to do much of our shopping from local suppliers – helped by the fact that they did not run out of flour or eggs, even when everyone else did, as well as that they bake the most astonishing chocolate brownies this side of heaven.

Delivery from The Good Loaf. Practically perfect.

Books. Oh, I do love books. As you will probably have guessed already, in fact. And one of the things that has made me most stressed since moving to this vicarage (yes, genuinely) has been that when we unpacked, we just dumped all the books on the nearest bookshelf to clear away the boxes, figuring we’d sort them out later. Turns out that by later, we meant in four years time when the whole country was in lockdown. Also turns out that as jobs go, this may be one I regret starting. Still, at least it’s given me the prod to set aside a fair few books for decluttering once the charity shops open again. Job done. Or at least, job will be done fairly soon when I finish clearing away the final pile to be sorted…

A few of our non-fiction books, roughly sorted and waiting to go back on the shelves.

Ultimately, lockdown has been harder than it has been easy; infuriating more than it has been fun. At no point have I questioned that it’s the right thing to be doing. At many points along the way we’ve all had an absolute ball. But anyone who thinks it’s not going to leave us all wiser, weaker women is, I think, missing something crucial in all of this.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, quite so amazing to me right now as grown up food, eaten alone and uninterrupted in the sun.

*Full disclosure: this is not, actually, a day by day account. It was intended to be, but then life got messy, as it so often does, and I ended up losing a week by blinking and sneezing at the same time (or maybe just by finally becoming accustomed to the not-so-new-anymore normal) and my plans changed. Oops.