From Clutter to Clarity

clutter

Something pivotal happened this year in our journey to be ‘free to be family’.

I recognised a long time ago that a great source of daily stress as a single mother, home-maker and home educator was the amount of clutter I was surrounded by. My ideal home-life was locked away in a land of dreams, somewhere behind the mountain of washing, the sea of shiny plastic tat and the pyramids of paperwork. Yes, I tried to make it fun (Look at my abundance! The evidence of a lively family life! The gorgeous, glittery, sticky mess of my toddler exploring the overflowing craft supplies again!), and yet . . .

Disclaimer: this post includes associate links to relevant resources.

Much too often, the need to clean up got in the way of actually playing and connecting with my children. Before I could even clean, I had to tidy. Whole days could be spent just moving and organising our possessions – whole days of feeling guilty because instead of spending quality time with my children, I was grizzling over all the toys and paper and other miscellany that had accumulated everywhere.

I’ve never considered myself a big consumer, yet the evidence of a typical life in a consumerist society was on display in my home – as well as the evidence of a frugalista’s inability to say no to freebies and hand-me-downs.

Catching the travel bug instigated the desire for less, a realisation that both myself and my children could relax when on the move in a way we couldn’t at home. The simplicity of living out of a suitcase in sparse hotel rooms!

So, inspired by a vision to ultimately be free to pack it all up and fit my life inside a camper van if the whim occurred, I returned from my first trip to Morocco in 2010 with a desperate need to declutter. On subsequent trips to the developing nation I also noted the benefits of having non-materialistic children who were grateful for the simple things in life.

I’m not a hoarder by any stretch of the imagination, yet it still seemed like I was unduly hemmed in by material possessions. I recognised that personal freedom involved ensuring that these possessions lessen their grip on me.

Quite apart from whether we choose to travel or not, the root of it was that I wanted a family life that was as happy and harmonious as possible – and I had identified that a home full of the distraction of ‘stuff’ was not helping me to achieve this aim.

I had found my ‘why’ for decluttering but I had not found my method.

Having been making trip after trip to the charity shop with donations for nearly 5 years, yet still feeling overwhelmed by the amount of clutter I was surrounded by, early in 2016 I decided to implement the Konmari technique of decluttering and tidying. It showed me how half-hearted, sentimental and unmethodical my previous attempts to remove the clutter had been – I had been trying to fix my disorderliness in a very disorderly way.

The Konmari method was developed by Marie Kondo, an organising consultant whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying would suggest that she has an obsessive compulsive need to tidy and organise. Some of her suggestions seemed odd (I’d certainly never ascribed animism to the contents of my underwear drawer), yet I decided to trust the system and see where it took me. Nothing to lose after already spending 5 years of my life attempting to achieve a more minimalist lifestyle.

The basic method with the Konmari technique is to hold each item individually and decide whether or not it brings you joy. It’s an instinctive and intuitive process and, while it doesn’t float everyone’s boat, I love it. It is a clear indicator of what we really want to have in our homes – the place that should be our sanctuary.

It means that what we are left with are items that we truly value and enjoy.

The method is not without its critics. Using a term like ‘joy’ can seem a wishy-washy concept when the problem and solution appears very practical. One criticism might be “Well, my clothes pegs don’t bring me joy, but I’d be stuck without them – what a ridiculous premise to base your decluttering on!”

Let’s pick this apart. The word ‘joy’ is usually associated with a high energy sense of bliss and, indeed, most of us do not look at our clothes pegs and feel quite so strongly about them. But let’s turn it around. Imagine if you came to hang your washing out and there were no clothes pegs. What then? What if you can only hang your washing out just the way you like it with those pegs? I will admit, I am quite particular about the way I hang the clothes out on the washing line (given that my ironing board was decluttered many years ago), and the pegs are part of a routine that does lead to the simple pleasure of having crease-free, air-freshened clothes. It is a very tiny part of the jigsaw that makes up my experience of living joyfully – but it is still a part of it and the jigsaw would be incomplete without it (and how annoying is it when you realise there’s a jigsaw piece missing?!).

We have to consider everything’s place within and effect upon the bigger picture.

All of these little things – the mundane everyday items that make our lives more convenient – they add up to comprise our own, unique version of what constitutes a ‘joyful life’. Other people may well be glad to declutter those pegs straight out of the ‘random’ drawer (you know, that drawer in the kitchen full of bits and bobs that have no real home? Apparently, everyone has one – until you decide to declutter Konmari-style!).

Similarly, Joshua Becker – a ‘rational minimalist’ and author of The More of Less – uses the concept of bringing joy to the decluttering process but covers his back from the criticisms aimed at Konmari by also including the concept of need – “If you love it or need it”. Unfortunately, I think the word ‘need’ can be even more vague in the decluttering process than the word ‘joy’. We can believe we need something, but do we really? Advertisers create needs where none before existed. ‘Needs’ have developed in consumerist societies that, in the grand scheme of things, are not needs at all.

A skewed concept of need also encourages the “But I might need it one day!” blockage that prevents us from decluttering effectively.

If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there are many things taking up space in our lives that do not come under the banners of safety, survival or social well-being. And, as many luxuries as we have available to us, how many really assist us on the path to self-actualisation? I would suggest that true self-actualisation is better achieved with minimal belongings – and minimal accrual of other unnecessary cultural clutter. There are so many options that we have in an individualist culture to layer up our self-image and ego with both material and intellectual resources as if self-realisation is taking place, yet there is a big difference between self-actualisation and self-indulgence.

The other side of this is that we can consider what we really want to be surrounded by, what genuinely resonates with us and expresses our individual styles – not out of a false need to “keep up with the Jones’” or show off, but in order to feel in harmony with our environment.

With home décor, it may be an easy task to know what we really like and what we really don’t like. For more functional items, it is a time to reassess. I definitely do not espouse the Konmari habit of just throwing things out (how wasteful and environmentally destructive), but I do encourage people to really think about the replacements they make when items do come to the end of their life or otherwise become redundant.

When my toaster stopped working earlier in the year, I decided it would be nice to have the worktop space back (having reduced items on the worktop to just the toaster and the kettle) and I would do toast under the oven grill instead. It does the job without taking up unnecessary room, hence we’re still just using the grill – a much more multi-functional product than the toaster ever was anyway!

Likewise, when my kettle stopped working, I decided to boil water on the stove. However, this really wasn’t the most efficient way to make frequent mugs of tea, so I recognised that I actually quite like owning a kettle. This doubled as an opportunity to choose something I liked aesthetically (read: brings me joy to glance upon) rather than just buying something based on its price – so, a funky glass kettle that lights up the water blue it was!

Decluttering doesn’t just involve getting rid of what you already have – it means making more conscious, considered decisions about what you let into your home in the first place.

One of the best things about minimalist living when you’re on a budget is that you can invest in the few quality items that you really love rather than living by the false economy of spending less per item in order to acquire more. It also means that your sense of abundance is not measured just by the level of your income.

Buying new items only when absolutely necessary and reassessing habitual purchases means that I can afford to do something that is truly important to our family – travel. As well as the practical day-to-day freedom that decluttering has brought us in our home, it has refined our entire lifestyle in numerous ways.

We live in a privileged society, but our material wealth has a way of distracting us from what is actually important – it can distract some of us from even considering what is actually important, so entrenched is the social conditioning in which some people even consider ‘shopping’ a valid pastime. Is this what anyone truly wants to recall of their lives when they are on their deathbed?

Living with less has also increased our gratitude for what we have – consciously choosing that which promotes a sense of love and joy allows us to genuinely count our blessings. Freed from the lure of the next consumerist fix we can be free to follow our hearts, which invariably releases us to focus on our inner values and our relationships with other human beings rather than the pressure to conform and our relationships with inanimate objects.

Remember:

“Clutter is not just physical stuff. It’s old ideas, toxic relationships and bad habits. Clutter is anything that does not support your better self.” – Eleanor Brownn

Have you successfully decluttered? Do you want to but don’t know where to start? Share your story with me below – I’d love to hear what inspired you or what’s stopping you.

For further inspiration:

A Story of Hope: Palestine in a Picture Book?

A poignant yet optimistic look at how conflict affects children comes in the shape of A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope, an Amnesty International-endorsed picture book by Michael Foreman.

A Child's Garden

Today seems an appropriate day to feature this book, as it marks the first anniversary of the commencement of Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Israeli offensive against Gaza – and the anniversary of my realisation of how ignorant I was to the history and politics of the Palestinian campaign.

Yes, I’d often observed the ‘Free Palestine’ posters over the years and the issues spoken of in the mainstream media were at the periphery of my awareness. Yet, really, I was uninformed and uninterested for a long time – it’s a sad fact that the amount of causes to campaign for and injustices out there mean we cannot lend our attention and time to everything that may deserve our recognition. And, in truth, certain issues tend to resonate with us more than others.

Yet last year, largely due to following independent press such as Scriptonite Daily via social media, I suddenly became aware of the slow genocide of the Palestinian people. Watching a live stream of a journalist reporting from within Gaza as air strikes took place and she conveyed the horror of hearing children screaming in the streets below, it became more than ‘just another news story’.

Then I picked up A Child’s Garden during a browse of the children’s picture books in our local library. Although no specific conflict was explicitly mentioned in the blurb, it seemed to me that the inspiration was the issue of Israel-Palestine. The illustrations appeared to allude to Palestine for many reasons: one group of people clearly in a position of superiority over another; white-washed high-rise blocks looming beyond wire fencing; families living amidst rubble in a situation of oppression and segregation; people dreaming of their return to hills dotted with date palms.

It was very evident that the issue at stake was the repatriation of land.

I found this book both disturbing yet hopeful. For, indeed, what have the Palestinian people got at the moment without hope? The alternative is too sickening to contemplate, and especially at the hands of a group of people who were themselves persecuted by a regime bent on ethnic cleansing (whilst not all Israelis are Jews and not all Jews are Zionists, et cetera, let’s not forget that the State of Israel was officially created after millions of Jewish people were killed or displaced by the Nazis – and that the topic of this post renders me immune to Godwin’s Law!).

The book reminded me of the character and fortitude of El-Phil, a vibrant Palestinian villager in Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s documentary, 5 Broken Cameras. Amidst the chaos, uncertainty and tragedy, there was still something or someone who could raise the energy and raise a smile, a child-like need to play in spite of the pain. There is also more than a hint of defiance – and the awareness that the alternative to hope is utter despair.

Illustrated to drive these points home, the symbols of peace and hope sit vibrantly in colour against a background of grey; the green and seeking tendrils of creeping plants teasing the fences, the rainbow wings of birds knowing the freedom of the skies. Through children and nature, differences are diminished and our true birth-rights brought forth.

A Child’s Garden was a thought-provoking yet gentle means by which to continue a conversation with FreeToBeP about war and oppressive regimes. The book works on many levels without introducing issues or images that are too harsh to present to a child, allowing parent and child to set their own tone for discussion. There is no bloodshed and no death, yet there are walls, sadness and segregation. The hardships of families living in war-torn countries may be softened but the emotiveness is not lost  – personal loss is conveyed through the brutal removal of a lovingly-tended plant rather than the heart-breaking bereavement of beloved kin.

Call me naïve but the very fact that this issue can be so carefully and appropriately portrayed in a ‘mere’ picture book speaks volumes about the nature of war and peace.

The answer is simple if only we value other members of the human race. Is that really so hard to do?

Peace and freedom are natural states craved by the scarred yet innocent children in this book. There is a simplicity many of us would do well to emulate: the children do not wish to engage in complex politics about Zionism or Hamas or the IDF, they wish to engage with the land of their forebears.

Likewise, I won’t pretend to know all the politics but what I do know is that something which, technically, holds millions of people hostage whilst systematically stealing their land and slowly killing them off is not a situation a fellow human being should tolerate.

We know the big players are generally corrupt and do not necessarily stand for the wishes of the civilians. We know our own government pays lip service to peace-keeping as they simultaneously trade weapons or engage in wars that result in untold amounts of ‘collateral damage’ (talk about dehumanising – in layman’s terms, that’s the murder of innocent civilians).

Whatever Hamas or the IDF do, it is not a simple narrative of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Even as Israeli MPs demonise unborn Palestinian children, there are Israeli human rights activists fighting for the interests of people living in Gaza and the West Bank. As pro-Palestine campaigners are accused of anti-Semitism (in secular countries no less!), alongside them exist Jews against Zionism. For as many people who believe in the two-state solution there are probably just as many who don’t; those who will never recognise a Palestine and those who will never recognise an Israel.

Hence, we could go around in circles with the politics, just as the conflicts and ceasefires do. The crux of the matter is that there are thousands of innocent families being forced from their homes with nowhere to go, children forced to grow up in a blockaded war zone without even hope of escaping to the loftier status of asylum-seeker. Children like yours or mine who just happen to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some of those children will, with enough misery and pain to fuel their righteous anger, go on to be the vengeful extremists of the future.

Some of those children will, with enough empathy and passion to fuel their righteous anger, go on to be the peace-makers and peace-keepers of the future.

So, let’s at least stop feeding our own children stories about ‘us’ and ‘them’, about the ‘need’ for armaments and war. The world is already quick to tell them this.

Let’s instead teach them to see the humanity in everyone, irrespective of their nation, religion or culture.

Let’s teach them to seek information beyond what the BBC tells them.

I don’t want my children to grow up in fear and suspicion of the world, but I do pray that they see the people rather than the propaganda, that they think about making the world better rather than making do, that they recognise small ways to help make big differences, and – as per A Child’s Garden – that they give thanks when hope and simple pleasures sustain the dream of freedom.

And, in time, may that dream of freedom come true.

Learn more? Links below:

Palestine Solidarity Campaign

5 Broken Cameras

The Parkour Guide to Gaza

The Congruent Blogger

Integrity

Congruence: in counselling terms, this refers to the outer self being in harmony with the inner self – that what you display to others reflects what is occurring in your inner world. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you disclose your every thought or feeling, but that you find a way to present yourself authentically.

I have been reflecting on whether this blog is in accordance with the above.

Free To Be was inspired by my travels to Morocco and launched at a time when I was seriously considering emigration; I was expecting baby number 3 and investing in work that I could ultimately do from anywhere in the world. It felt like an exciting time and I knew I had to write about my travels and what it means to be part of the human family.

The themes of peace and freedom and adventure ran through those first posts.

Peace.

Freedom.

Adventure.

The biggest questions I had when I began blogging were:

“Do I really want to share these personal stories with the whole world?”

and

“If I present myself as this person, don’t I have to continue to be her?”

How can I be honest and real without compromising my privacy or my Geminian tendency to, well, just change my mind about anything and everything? And not just change my mind, but my entire lifestyle on occasion (for I continue to shake off labels that I once upon a time made use of to shape my identity).

In the past I posted a personal social media status at least once per week, but this gradually diminished to big life events only (at least the birth of a child is a fact that can’t be altered!). My personal opinions can be garnered through calls to petitions and choice news stories – in someone else’s words of course.

It was from a sense of feeling more private that I decided to go public. I finally felt safe in my own skin and no longer needed my friends to comment on day-to-day trivialities for my sense of self-esteem. Hence, I gained the courage to invite strangers to comment on my writing; writing that is generally sourced from experience, sometimes garnished with facts yet often doused in personal philosophies and opinion – always an expression of one’s sense of self.

I just hoped to offer something that could inspire others or be a call to action, with a life of inspiration and action to provide such material – to walk the walk as I talk the talk.

Yet I occasionally feel, for as balanced and open as my accounts of our travels have been, our family circumstances have been less exotic and more excruciating than might be assumed. I have many articles drafted regarding travel advice for Morocco, being part of a mixed race family, language learning and other topics, all liberally seasoned with personal anecdotes which include many casual mentions of FreeToBeB as if our cross-border relationship is normal and sustainable – for it is neither. Between issues of finance, language, immigration law, culture and religion to downright personality clashes, it is – frankly – incredible that it survived its first year, let alone four years and two babies.

The question on everyone’s lips: When is the next trip to Morocco?

The answer: Sadly, less of a when and more of an if.

So, as I found myself at the mercy of a 6 year old’s distress at a 2 year old’s temper with a baby wailing in my arms at 8pm on a rainy winter’s night in Britain, seven months beyond any adventures abroad, feeling somewhat alone and isolated, and wondering why the universe was testing me in such a way (and breathe!), I pondered those themes.

Peace?

Freedom?

Adventure?

Thus, from this low point, I questioned my congruence this week with regards to this blog, wondering how the person reading these posts perceives the person writing them; wondering if my current lifestyle lives up to what the blurb promises.

Where is the peace?

Where is the freedom?

Where is the adventure?

Well, the answer to these is right here.

Even as I castigated myself for yearning for the icing on the cake in the modern mother’s repertoire (i.e. time to myself), I also knew that was not the solution.

We don’t fight the monsters by running away; we don’t escape the inner demons by changing our outer environment.

For anyone who’s ever read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now or even has a basic understanding of living mindfully, you will know that the power always resides in the very moment that you feel powerless.

And so I realised:

Where there is love, there is peace.

Where there is thought, there is freedom.

Where there are children, there is adventure.

Winter as a home educating single mum with a new baby has been challenging. But I like a challenge. And within that adventure, we are free to be family – for there is many a country where home educators or single mothers would fare a lot worse than I do in the UK.

And there is always, always peace when staring upon a sleeping baby’s face.

It all begins at home.

A part of me feels like I’m grasping at straws, that I have lost the person who wrote the inaugural How I Caught the Travel Bug.

Yet as I centred myself and dealt with the siblings’ squabbles, I found that person.

FreeToBeP screamed (real tears and all) as his little sister angrily disagreed with something he said. He chose the misery of wanting everyone to agree with his stance – isn’t that how wars are started?

And so I thought of a quote that I’d spotted on my social media news feed earlier that day:

“It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them. So throw away your baggage and go forward. There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk so lightly. Lightly my darling…” (Aldous Huxley, Island)

“Choose the happy path, P.” I advised, before doling out suggestions on how to cope better (note to readers: I was taking my own advice as I said it – for I do not always handle such bickering with such grace!).

And as part of the happy path I tried to lead him upon, I thought of all the memories I hope to make with my children this year, all the opportunities we have to make life one big adventure . . .

Aha! Here comes that train of thought which includes getting the camping gear out, attending festivals, booking flights, travelling to new places, trying new things, meeting new people and, yes, perhaps even emigrating. Yes, here comes the fever of the travel bug.

If having children has taught me anything, it’s that I still have a lot to learn. And as we learn, we grow. And as we grow, we change.

As such, I can always give my promise that at any moment my writing comes from the heart and that congruence exists despite a change of heart. If anything, it is all the more congruent in that I invite you along for the journey, as witness!

And I can always give my promise that for as long as this blog exists, I shall be striving towards those themes even as they seem to elude me:

Peace.

Freedom.

Adventure.

Raif Badawi: A Lesson in Human Rights

free raif

Yesterday evening we attended a touching tribute to Raif Badawi, the liberal Saudi blogger who is in the midst of a sentence of floggings and imprisonment for daring to speak his mind.

Having found out about the candlelit vigil late in the afternoon, the children were given little warning of our unusual evening outing to Weymouth Pavilion. Yet they approached the small crowd beside the theatre in good spirits and were cautiously intrigued by the flickering flames. One attentive lady soon assigned FreeToBeP the task of keeping the candles alight as a gentle sea breeze ensured the steady snuffing out of the many tealights.

My children may not have understood why we were there, but their presence seemed poignant. It was one of those moments where I can understand (if not agree with) people who don’t wish to have children due to the sort of world that they would be being brought into.

FreeToBeP and FreeToBeZ both adopted a natural reverence – whilst they may not have fully appreciated the occasion intellectually, they certainly seemed to intuitively.

Initially, it appeared difficult to know how much to disclose about such a case as Badawi’s to a child – I don’t want to wrap my kids in cotton wool, yet equally don’t want them fearing that the world is a cruel place. But, really, the explanations came naturally and in a language that FreeToBeP would understand.

I gently explained that in some countries, people can be punished for doing exactly what I do: expressing opinions publicly by way of an online blog and encouraging people to share information, think outside the box and question life, the universe and everything.

I gently explained that this man has children who know their daddy is being hurt, and that it’s important to try to free him so that he can be reunited with his family.

I gently explained that we were attending to show that we care about other human beings and don’t agree with people being treated cruelly, that when we know someone is being mistreated we must speak out against it.

Somewhat black and white explanations maybe, but more than sufficient for a six year old who is at liberty to ask further questions if my initial words don’t suffice.

I hope that by attending such events, I’m not merely focusing on the negative happenings of the world but showing my children how much compassion and hope there is between people despite the brutality of others; that through solidarity with our fellow humans – even a stranger in another country – we can affect change and our children will grow up to live that change.

The simple message was Yes, bad things happen, but good people rally together to make things better.

The children were a huge credit to me, FreeToBeP conscientiously being the flame-keeper and FreeToBeZ the observant bystander: both of them calm and contained and careful in both speech and action. I have no doubt that they, on some level, perceived the energy of the event and responded accordingly.

The general atmosphere was one of quiet respect – it was sociable, hopeful and yet suitably solemn. We were a fairly small gathering yet not insignificant – for if no one stood up in protest, the world would be a free for all in quite a different way to the one Raif Badawi calls for.

Yes, there are many atrocities taking place the world over – each and every day witnesses the suffering of numerous warzones and injustices against innocent people. But some stories captivate the collective consciousness more than others (or someone tell me this is due to media spin!) and call on us to respond, to take action, to say “enough is enough”.

burning candles

As our candles stood as symbols of hope, so has Raif Badawi’s case become a symbol of the right to free speech.

He is just one of countless scapegoated people, yet in speaking out against the inhumanity shown towards one, we speak out against inhumanity in general.

As my children tended to the tiny flames, so I saw the tiny flames that they are – the next generation who will light the way forward.

In allowing our children to take part in peaceful activism and empowering them to believe that they can change the world, may they be the lights of hope that pave the way to a future where freedom of expression is a birthright the world over.

 

To sign the petition against the punishment of Raif Badawi, please visit Amnesty International here.

To read extracts from the blog that got Raif Badawi into trouble, visit The Guardian’s article here.

A local account of the evening’s vigil can be found at the Dorset Echo website here.