Feeling at Home in Your Home, Part II: Sometimes the Gene Pool is a Cesspool (Am I Right?) or The Dark Side of Virtue

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If you’re just joining us, go back and read Part I first. 


I hope that you, dear readers, understand that whenever I give an exhortation to “you” I’m always talking about myself.  This is a judgement-free zone because I have no stones to throw.  I have a lovely friend who invited me to a party at her house and she went and bought fresh flowers to put out because a “realtor” was coming.  Lol!  If she only knew. 


Although I am (*cough* said modestly) very good at staging and I know exactly what needs to be done to sell a house, my own house feels like a disaster area to me. 


I grew up in a Victorian house overstuffed with books, art, and oddities.  My parents’ house is chalk full of curiosities such as animal skulls, petrified bats, preserved baby sharks and piranhas, robin eggs, wall hangings from China, Egyptian tiles, old spectacles, and books about Physics and Hare Krishna and Legal Normativity and Winston Churchill.  There is a LOT of very interesting furniture.  The place is reminiscent of a house from The Royal Tenenbaums, if you will. 


I love novelty and weird stuff and I don’t think our houses should ever look the same, but there comes a point where there’s just too much of it.  If my mother sees an interesting chair by the side of the road, she’ll bring it home—never mind that there’s no room for it and that she doesn’t need another chair!  Her latest endeavor really takes the cake: she found a fawn by the side of the road that had just been hit by a car and died.  She said a little prayer and put it in the back of her trunk.  She took it home, skinned it and tanned it (thanks, youtube!), and then proceeded to wrap a chair with it.  Now, you can’t SIT in the chair if you visit (you might “ruin the fur”), but it’s there, along with all the other superfluous furniture. 


Here’s what I’m getting at: my mother, the one who took charge and cultivated this house, possesses two fabulous virtues.  She’s both intrinsically curious and resourceful.  She doesn’t like to waste.  Her curiosity has led her to collect some interesting stuff.  (Heck, this is why I now am the owner of not one, but TWO alligator-claw back-scratchers that I can’t figure out what to do with!)  But she just keeps collecting…and collecting…without giving enough away.  Which means that the cool stuff can’t even be properly appreciated.  So here’s a lesson: curiosity is a virtue, but if this virtue drives your consumption, you’ll quickly find yourself in a place where the thrill of novelty is diluted and you’re swimming in so much kooky you can’t think straight.  And you might scare off your guests.


Sometimes our virtues have unintended negative consequences.  There’s a flip side to every coin, and it’s good to keep our eyes open.  Can you think of how a virtuous trait negatively impacts your consumption behaviors?




My mom is also resourceful.  If I had to hazard a guess, I bet that 90% of us with unkempt problems think of ourselves as thrifty.  We don’t like to waste (which is very good!), but there are unintended negative consequences.  The virtue of thrift can limit breathing space quickly. 


                Here are some scenarios you might find yourself in:


                It’s on SALE!  For some of us, the sale sticker might as well say “sold.”  We live for sales.  It gives us a chance to channel our life-saving caveperson-like aggression: when we’ve bagged a sale, it’s like we clumped a mastodon and have dragged it back to our hungry families.  Maybe that’s extreme, but you get the idea: it feels good.  It’s on sale, of course you’re buying it!  Never mind that you don’t need it (hey, you’ll FIND a need!) and didn’t want it before you saw the thing.   

                I’m going to use it.  We find something in our house and know a scenario will arise when this thing will be needed.  We’re not really sure how or when, but it will happen, we just know it.  Just like we’re also sure we’ll win the lottery.   

                I don’t want to throw it away; it will go to waste.  Maybe you can’t even decipher the proper utility for the thing, but you can’t bear to throw it away.  So we keep bits and scraps here and there until they rot or trip someone or get vacuumed up.  Or maybe we keep shuffling these things into different piles.

                I’m going to fix it.  How much broken stuff do you have in your house?  What do you do with it?  Does it get fixed right away or do you shuffle it around to different piles, waiting for that magical moment to finally happen when you have the time to fix the thing? 


Don’t get me wrong about thrift: in an ideal world, we’d all shop at thrift stores for everything and we’d never waste anything.  We ALL need to learn how to conserve before we shrivel up like peas under a lava sun.  Thrift is a virtue.  But if it’s not VERY thoughtfully applied, it might actually backfire on you.  Here’s a rough example: a lot of thrifty people “wishcycle.”  This means that they throw everything they possibly can into recycling.  They probably don’t know that if there are a lot of unrecyclable objects in their recycling, the sorting people deem it unusable and dump ALL of it (recyclables and trash) into the landfill.  Are you doing this, either metaphorically or literally?  Is your thrifty impulse REALLY thrifty?  Chances are, there are hidden costs to these behaviors.  What are they?


Here are some suggestions if you’re the thrifty type:


–                      If you’re going to buy stuff on sale, make sure that you need it and/or that you have enough space for it.  Think about those two things first.  And by “having space for it” I mean do you have “comfortable” space for it?  NOT “can you stuff the thing somewhere?”  Maybe being thrifty means NOT buying the thing in the first place.   (Side note: I’ve inherited countless shoes over the years from my mom, who loves to shop on Ebay.  She thinks she’s getting a deal and buys for herself, the shoes show up and don’t fit so she bequeaths them to me.  They fit me but they’re not my style.  I’m then burdened with shoes I feel I should keep if for no other reason than to allay her guilt for impulse buying.  It’s not a good cycle.  If you can’t say no to a sale that has a high potential of not benefitting you, stay away from where those sales occur!)


–                      If you want to keep some things that you think will become useful under mysterious circumstances, dedicate a small shelf to them but no more.  If you don’t have that kind of space anywhere, then out they go.


–                      Small bits saved = a miscalculation of desire.  Unless you’re actively in the business of making mosaics, you don’t need small bits.  The days of saving tiny pieces of string are over.  It’s often the same with bits of leftover food, which has the potential to sit ignored until it looks like a science project.  Be real about what’s going to actually happen with that stuff.            


–                      Broken stuff = a miscalculation of time.  Have you ever had something break so you put it in the corner thinking you’d fix it soon and then didn’t come back to it for a year or more?  Me too.  If it’s been broken that long, did you need it to begin with?  Maybe not.  If you really need the thing and can’t fix it that minute, mark a date on your calendar to fix it by and then block out the time needed for the project.  If you can’t get to it reasonably soon, then either a) you’re too busy to be in the fix-it business (so immediately give it to someone who will fix it) or b) again, you didn’t really need that thing, so get it out! 



Back to the cesspool.  For some crazy odd reason, my brother did not inherit those genes.  Despite the fact that he works very full time and has four children aged seven and under (one with special needs), he and his wife manage to keep their house looking amazing at all times all by themselves.  Really, you could go shoot a magazine there any day.  I’ve been watching them in fascination for a long time to try to figure out the secret.  I won’t tell you all the secrets right now, but one of them is the simple fact that they don’t have a lot of stuff.  Even though they have plenty of expendable income, they’re very careful not to buy much, and when they do, they buy nice things that they take care of.  In the evenings, dinner cleanup goes fast because everything has a place and the kitchen isn’t bulging with stuff.  Usually my brother makes me a fantastic cocktail and we sit down to enjoy each other’s company.  I look around and the place has a simple elegance to it that is so refreshing.  How in the world do my brother and sister-in-law have the energy to clean up the kitchen, make complex cocktails, and play games after a long day of work and changing diapers and cooking and cleaning up kid messes?  


What I’ve noticed is that when things are in their places, people can actually relax.  And it’s easier to have things in their places when you don’t have that many things.  It’s not rocket science!    When we have too much stuff, our brains are confused.  We don’t know where things should go and it takes too much energy to figure it out.  We suffer from decision fatigue and throw in the towel.  My brother, unlike myself, naturally understands that you shouldn’t buy stuff that’s on sale simply because it’s on sale, you shouldn’t keep stuff you don’t need, there’s often no utility to saving small bits, you have to fix broken stuff immediately if it’s actually useful OR you get it out.  These behaviors will help you maintain your sanity.


Think about your family and your relatives.  What are their behavioral tendencies?  What consumption behavior did you learn growing up?  What behavior are you comfortable with and why?  Do you have a good role model to look to?


You all have pelted me with stories about your families, and this is a topic that clearly needs more unpacking (pun not intended, actually).  The issue I hear about the most, can clearly relate to myself, and SEE in real estate is the trauma and stress of having to deal with mountains of someone else’s stuff.  Everyone seems to have a mother or grandfather or aunt or uncle who has so much stuff they could star on the show Hoarders, and the family spends a lot of time agonizing over how they’ll clear out the floor-to-ceiling rooms of magazines once Granny kicks the bucket.  The problem is always that Granny herself doesn’t think she has a problem.  But she won’t let anyone touch her stuff or do anything with it—that’s out of the question.  WHAT DO YOU DO?!  Well, that is a post for another time, but right now we can start by better understanding ourselves and making sure that we don’t turn into Granny.  


Again with the Guilt                       


When I was trying to determine which clothes sparked joy, I realized that I kept a LOT of things out of guilt and obligation.  I bet we all do this.  It speaks some to our love for others that we keep things around that they gave us just to please them.  It’s important to acknowledge the loving intention behind the gift and our love for the giver but also to understand what holding onto those things is doing to ourselves and to the people we love in our immediate houses.  Sometimes by hanging on, we inadvertently choose to not upset a relative or friend OVER the peace and wellbeing of ourselves and the people and pets we live with.  We essentially constrain our daily existence for the sake of (possibly imagined!) hurt feelings.  To me this doesn’t sound like the scales are tipped in the right direction.        


But it’s really hard sometimes.  What if you’re given a very expensive gift from someone who is extremely excited about it but you think it’s awful?  There’s no easy answer.  If chances are high that they’ll go looking for it next time they visit, must you hang on to it?  Can you say, “thanks so much!  I found someone who really deserved it”? Or, “I really appreciate it, I just couldn’t find the right place for it.”  What do you think?  Leave a comment if you have a possible solution.  I think it’s ok to keep one or two things like that, but any more than that and you’re on the slippery slope to an infelicitous home environment, rife with guilt and resentment.        

      Second Assignment: Tackling Books and Magazines

First, bless your house.  Did you do it last time?  I bet some of you didn’t.  I bet you were eager to jump in and grind it out, get something done.  Yaaasssss, but…let’s not forget that we’re in this predicament partly because of our robust American appetites.  THIS TIME kneel down, close your eyes, fold your hands and be silent for a minute or two.  Harvest goodwill from deep down towards your house.  Talk to it like it’s an old friend.  Slow down.  Unless you want to be back in this frenzied cycle of cleaning up mistakes again and again, you’ve got to learn to be silent and mindful around stuff.               

Well, you know the drill.  You’re supposed to make a pile and see which books spark joy and get rid of those that don’t.

I may not be the best one to write about this because getting rid of books is like cutting off a pinky.  When I move to a place, I unpack my books up first because they’re like my friends.  But like the exercise with the clothes, I found that books can also harbor guilt.  I had been keeping all sorts of books that I didn’t really care about: books given to me by family as presents or hand-me-downs.  Some books had a lot of negativity connected to them because they were given to me to convince me of a certain ideology or philosophy.  Some books reminded me of stressful times in grad school.  I’m not sure why I was keeping these, but when I got them out it was as if a refreshing breeze swept through my house.

Sometimes we keep books out of sentimentality.  Because my past life was spent as an academic, I have a LOT of scholarly books.  While I like having them around, I also felt like they weren’t being used.  So I took a big step: I put out a call to my fellow nerds and asked them to come get books that they might want.  It did hurt a little to part with some of these because I spent a lot of time with them, but again, I wanted them to be used.  I don’t think it’s bad to keep books out of sentimentality.  If you look at a book and it makes you happy, maybe you should keep it.  But I think it’s good to also have the end in mind.  If you really love books (like me), you’re going to accumulate a LOT.  You’re probably going to move a massive amount from house to house over the years, possibly without ever cracking them again.  And in the end, what will happen?  They’ll probably all be donated to a thrift shop.  I liked the idea of giving them to someone who will actively use them instead.

I found that some books didn’t have negativity or sentimentality attached, but also, no utility.  I just knew I wasn’t going to sit around reading the Talmud or my Greek Concordance again, so out they went!

                Books as Projects

Some books and magazines fall into a category I’ll call projects, and it’s very important to identify these.  Projects can be helpful or not helpful, but they always represent time and energy. 

I have some books that represent helpful projects.  These are books that I genuinely want to read and they don’t scream at me.  When I look at them, I have a fuzzy feeling thinking about sitting down with them.  You should keep these. 

But sometimes we keep books because we think we should read them, but we don’t want to.  Maybe the book is a “classic,” or someone gave us a book that meant a lot to them but nothing to you.  These books represent projects: they stare us in the face saying, “when are you going to get cultured, you dolt?”  You don’t need that kind of demeaning book around—say thanks and get it out! 

There are other books that perhaps don’t have a strong sense of obligation attached to them, but that also represent a project because they demand our future time.  For example, I had an old book that would allow me to finally learn hieroglyphics.  When I really thought about it, I guess I had envisioned sitting down and learning how to decipher hieroglyphics so I’d be ready for all those Indiana-Jones-like escapades I’d no doubt be having in my old age.  Looking at it with clear eyes, when was I going to do that?  Really?  Every time I looked at that book, I’d feel happy (because…hieroglyphics!) but I’d also feel the pull of its demand on my time.  Well, I got rid of it and released myself from the expectation that I’d learn hieroglyphics.  That pull felt heavy, and I felt good getting the book out.

Magazines can do the same exact thing.  Do you subscribe to a lot of magazines?  Do they pile up?  Do you sometimes keep old issues because you’re bound and determined to be caught up on uterus transplants and genetic coding?  Do you feel like you’ll die if you can’t converse fluently about Bitcoin?  Well, what are you doing to yourself?  You’re turning your home into a house of judgement.  I’d suggest keeping the magazine around that is current and recycling the rest.  As soon as you get a new one, the old one goes into recycling regardless of whether or not you’ve touched it.  If you MUST read something from an old one, read it RIGHT THEN or schedule time on your calendar immediately to read it.  If you can’t do that, you’re too busy to read it.  Don’t feel bad about that.  Other people don’t understand Bitcoin either.

Magazines can be like little guilt trips scattered throughout your house.  Maybe you’re like me and you read a lot of house and cooking magazines.  These too have a high potential to represent projects and pull on your time.  When I read these, I tear out recipes that I want to try and home ideas that I want to implement (then I recycle the magazine).  I’ll see a drawer set that a happy, very put together woman constructed out of bark and homemade nails and think, “I want to do that!  Yes, I’ll harvest bark THIS weekend and be on my way to being the next big DIY wonder!”  Then inevitably I do NOT harvest the bark and I realize I didn’t need drawers like that anyway.  Do projects like that stare you in the face and make you feel defeated?  Do you need that?  Make sure you see them for what they are and be nice to yourself. 

When I’m tearing out recipes sometimes I realize later that I must have been on crack when I was initially making my selections: the recipes are too complex, require too much time, have ingredients found only in the Andes, etc.  I recycle those immediately.  Remember that what these magazines are selling more than anything else is a vision of calm and stability in your house.  Ironically, you can achieve calm and stability by not letting those magazines pull on your time or your self-conception too much.  Be inspired by them, but don’t let them boss you around.  You don’t need that. 

                The Kid Books

When going through books with the kids, you might find some that they’ve outgrown but that gave you so many sweet moments.  Save these and put them in storage, as long as there aren’t way too many.  Unlike baby clothes, you can read them to your grandkids and build more sweetness.

My kids have a lot of books in their room that I inherited from a grandmother who was a 4th grade teacher.  Most of those books are special to me because I read them.  I’ve been staring at them for a few years now, wondering when my daughter will finally have enough class to be interested in Island of the Blue Dolphins.  I realized that I was making the exact same mistake that some people have made with me: I mistakenly thought that what is important to me should be important to her.  But she’s more into Harry Potter.  She’ll probably never get into Caddie Woodlawn or Ramona Quimby, and that’s just how it is.  Not wanting to perpetuate the cycle of judgement and resentment, I took all those books and donated them.  She can breathe in the house and be who she is.     

The kids might have a lot of books that are either too damaged to do anything with, or that they’ve outgrown and don’t care about.  Time to get these out! 


Parting Words

Hopefully your house has been shedding a lot of weight throughout this process.  Just don’t forget that, as with any diet, nothing will really change if you don’t recalibrate your consumption behaviors.  There is a pervasive underlying assumption in American experience that suggests that not buying or consuming is constricting and suffocating; it’s a limit on our precious freedoms.  The only reason why you’d restrict your consumption is out of the necessity of having a strict budget.  This is harmful thinking.  I know plenty of people with means who aren’t living comfortably because they buy because they can (or because they have a lot of space in their house!).  No matter what your financial situation, we have to shift paradigms.   

Americans don’t do themselves justice by not seeing stuff as animate.  This is where Kondo’s approach can be really helpful to us: we must acknowledge that stuff doesn’t just sit there.  It demands our precious, non-renewable resources—our time and energy.  When you buy things (whether impulsively or mindfully), you invite things to take up bandwidth in your house.  You invite them to take your personal time and energy—and they will.  I think a lot of us have fallen prey to the subtle or not-so-subtle messages in our culture, the ones that suggest that we “deserve” things.  Instead, we should be asking, “do they deserve us?  Do they deserve to take up precious time and energy in our homes?”  Time is a zero-sum game.  If things are taking up your time, they’re taking it away from something else. 

When I was done with cleaning out my clothes, I noticed that there were spaces and gaps in my drawers and closet.  For some reason, my knee-jerk reaction was, “oh, I need to fill that space up.”  No, no, no!  I’ve become so used to the overstuffed life that I can’t recognize a breath of fresh air when I see it.  I need to start seeing those gaps as time put back into my precious time bank, rather than lack. 

Until next time!

Surround yourself with joy,


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One Response

  1. Fabulous!!! Thank you for this post. I have been avoiding the books, but this has been helpful in how to approach going through them!

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