Spring/Fall Cleaning Series, Part 2

On Wednesday, I finished Elaine St. James’s third book about simplifying, Living the Simple Life. Around the time I picked this book up from the library, I also scheduled my first—and, I hope, annual—Fall Cleaning Day: Monday, October 10. My office was closed for Columbus Day, and Channing was out of the house at work all day, so it seemed like a great time to finally tackle the paper, office supply, workout gear, and crafting station insanity that was our office (note the past tense!).

And, then, inspired by some tips from Living the Simple Life, I started my fall cleaning a day early.

Fall Cleaning Day Eve, October 9

The first clutter nooks I tackled were my closet and dresser. I had actually cleaned out both of these clothing and accessory receptacles in January, in an initial, short-lived burst of purging mania. (And I mean mania. When I declutter, I am quick and brutal, but only occasionally methodical. Generally, I toss items into the donate pile with wild abandon, and I never look back. I highly recommend this approach.) Since it had been only nine months since my last purging spree, I assumed these would be easy jobs—and I was right. I cleared the closet of spring and summer wear I hadn’t touched that season and pulled a twin-size duvet off the top shelf for Freecycling (neither Channing nor I had any idea why we had this duvet in the first place). Channing gave a dress I had worn only once to his colleague; I’m donating the rest of the stuff. Tip 1: If you haven’t used it in a year, toss it.

Cleaning out the dresser was a slightly more delicate task. Channing and I share a relatively small, hand-me-down dresser with eight wide drawers—four for him, four for me. Keeping my drawers less than overstuffed is an extremely difficult task for me, so I knew I needed to make some hard and fast decisions. Taking some advice from Ms. St. James’s book, I thought about what I really needed in terms the two categories of clothes I store in the dresser, i.e., running/biking clothes and lounge wear. I decided to get rid of all but two or three of each clothing item (three running tees, two long sleeve tees, two pairs of running tights, etc.), and then I tossed some extra worn-out t-shirts in the discard pile for good measure. Oh, I also finally parted with a couple slips and some jewelry that I’ve worn maybe once in the last eight years. Tip 2: Be honest about how many items you actually need.

My next project was our linen closet, which was bursting with towels we never use. The biggest clutter culprit was our ridiculously extensive collection of dish towels. Channing and I each entered our relationship with a decent supply of dish towels, and since 2008, when we moved in together, we’ve received at least one set of kitchen towels as a gift every Christmas. These towels were taking up an entire shelf of the linen closet and were threatening to encroach on a second shelf. Number of towels we actually use? Maybe a quarter of our supply. On this go-round I cut the collection in half. I will revisit the issue in the spring. Tip 3: Don’t worry about purging every single unessential thing on the first try. You can go back for a second round.

The linen closet also houses bath towels, hand towels, washcloths, beach towels, sheets, and assorted blankets. I kept all of the sheets because we have only one extra set. I also kept most of the blankets—all but one or two of them are Channing’s, and he wasn’t present to approve discards. Per a suggestion in Living the Simple Life, I kept four bath towel sets—one each for me and Channing plus two extras for guests or for us when we can’t do the laundry right away. And I donated or Freecycled all but two of the beach towels. Tip 4, from Living the Simple Life: Keep enough for everyone in the household plus two. This isn’t just a towel rule; it can be applied to any shared household item, for example, dishes and flatware.

Last, I tackled our understair storage. Or rather, I tackled the excess of reusable shopping bags we store under the stairs. I figure I rarely use more than five shopping bags in one outing, so I Freecycled all but seven of the bags (you know, just in case). This effectively cut our supply in half. Oh, then on a whim I grabbed the old newspaper and back issues of Outside magazine from under the coffee table. The newspaper went in the recycle bin, and the magazines went to my friend Sarah. Tip 5: Give your old stuff new life by giving it to a friend or neighbor.

All of this decluttering took about an hour.

Fall Cleaning Day, October 10

The big day arrived, and I started early, with what I knew would be the most difficult and time-consuming job of the day: the office storage closet. First, I pulled my magazine file off the shelf. This file holds copies of magazines my writing has been published in. Taking some advice from Channing, who has eliminated nearly all of his paper records in favor of digital record storage, I decided to scan my clippings from each issue and recycle the actual magazines.  Bye-bye, magazine file.  Tip 5: Making digital copies of paper files reduces physical clutter.

Next I started going through our junk drawer and office supplies. I donated our rubber-band ball to Channing’s office, I gave some craft paper to Sarah to use in her classroom, and I Freecycled some (empty) notebooks. I chucked a couple pens that were past their prime and generally reorganized our supply of printer paper, card stock, and envelopes. I discovered a new yellow ink cartridge and loaded it in the printer, so we can now print stuff again, and I gathered all of my empty old ink cartridges so that I can mail them to the recycler. Tip 6: You probably don’t need all the pens, rubber bands, and paperclips scattered around your house. Collect them and donate them to the supply closet at your work.

I found a huge box of cassette tapes that I had forgotten about in the closet. I’ve set it aside for PC Recycler’s next recycling event. I also found that exercise equipment I mentioned a couple weeks ago—and promptly Freecycled it. Tip 7: Looking for a place to recycle something unusual? Try Earth911.com.

I needed a break from the closet so I moved on to our bookshelves—not just those in the office, but those in our living room and kitchen too. (While I was in the kitchen, I pulled out my bamboo steam basket and posted it on Freecycle—wild abandon, I tell you.) I cleared three shopping bags worth of books off our various shelves, including a collection of Shakespeare paperbacks from my school days (I have a Shakespeare app on my iPad) and my three hardcover Harry Potters (5, 6, and 7).*  The three Harrys will go to the elementary school where Mom works. Sarah went through the other books and pulled out some for herself, plus The Outsiders for her middle school students. I donated the remainder to the library on Thursday. Tip 8: Parting with books is surprisingly easy. Ask yourself, when am I ever going to read this again? And then send those you opt to purge to a good home—this will make you feel better.

The living room bookshelves also hold Channing’s vinyl—which I didn’t touch—and our DVDs. I’m planning to take DVDs of Gilmore Girls, season 2, and the Dick Cavett Show to the Record and Tape Exchange in hopes of making a good trade. Channing is going to offer his Rolling Stones DVD to my dad. Tip 9: If there is an independent record store near you that makes trades, take advantage!

Finally, I tackled my paper files, which I had stored in a green crate the size of one standard file drawer. Most of the stuff in my files was so old I could just shred and recycle it. (I took out the paper recycling three times on Fall Cleaning Day.) Other items needed to be scanned for digital archiving. I did end up keeping a handful of paper records, like printouts of my tax forms from the last three years, but I am able to store what’s left in the magazine file, which is about a quarter of the size of the green crate. I not only had financial records, old leases, and car insurance invoices; I also found high school and college papers and a notebook from the Romanticism class I took in 1999—twelve years ago! I tossed it all. Good riddance. Tip 10: Whether you keep your personal files on paper or digitally, I’d recommend a clean sweep now to ensure everything’s up to date and to remove obsolete records; then do quick, regular maintenance sweeps every three to six months to keep the time you spend on your files to a minimum.

The work isn’t done—we still have all of Channing’s office crap to go through—but I’ve felt a lot lighter this week. Every small step toward eliminating clutter counts.

*Full disclosure: I will probably buy the complete set of Harry Potter ebooks when they are released next year. Is anyone else excited about Pottermore?


Fear and Decluttering

June 9, 2011

Spring Cleaning Series, Part 1 1/2

Leigh Glenn was one of the “Not Buying It” participants in early 2009. This is a guest post about her efforts to pare down paper and other things.

Binders and stacks of periodicals—Handwoven, ALBC (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy) News, and Ecologist—dot the floor of a room that I’ve converted into an office/craft room. As I Freecycle the back issues, I’ve come to realize that I’m a “ninfomaniac”: Acquiring information turns me on, makes me feel warm and safe. I’ve spent more than 20 years denying that my paper tiger ever needing taming—or ever could be tamed. Only recently have I recognized that my home environment influences how I feel and how I view the world. This and a desire to live free of clutter have prompted me to take stock—of all the paper and, more importantly, of how I’ve gotten here.

More than a decade ago, when I used to subscribe to the Post, I didn’t have time to read much during the week, so I let the newspapers stack up. I’d spend Sundays reading through the previous week’s, or even the previous month’s, trying to “get caught up.” I remember ending Sundays and looking to the workweek ahead feeling drained. Still, I never suspected that feeling compelled to acquire information had anything to do with the energy loss. Nor did I suspect that I had a problem.

I may not be a hoarder like those on TV, but the underlying tendencies are the same. Acquiring and letting go are simply two sides of the same coin—one seems to help allay fears around lacking something or depriving oneself, the other seems to trigger such fears. Info acquisition has made me feel smart, and where I haven’t felt smart, I’ve rested on the fact that at least I had the information I needed—somewhere, if only I could find it!

What else? Take the Handwovens or the ALBC News. In the past, I’d dream of weaving something great as well as having enough land to help conserve some particular domestic breed of animal—Dexter cattle or Karakul sheep. But my loom gathers dust and I don’t have the money for land. Still, parting with these makes me feel a sort of loss, a giving up of dreams. As with fears around feeling stupid, I can linger in that space if I choose, but I choose not to. I’ve begun to cultivate a faith that, as I give these up, I’m making more room to activate new dreams, new knowledge, or old dreams I’ve yet to realize. And therein lies the major fear: that I’m somehow so inept, so lacking in tenacity, that I cannot develop a goal, make a plan to work it, and make a dream come true. Clutter-free space and the ability to develop a goal go hand in hand. The clutter makes me feel as though I never get anywhere on anything because of the “unfinished business” reminders scattered everywhere. It’s time to cut losses and welcome gains.

That may be the deeper spiritual significance of endeavors like “Not Buying It” or the “No Stuff Experiment.” If clutter is just another word for “unused stuff,” the very process of decluttering helps me by getting rid of the useless. And once I’ve done that, I can focus on those activities I truly enjoy and want in my life.

I have a long way to go. But the feeling of being swamped with stuff—coupled with an unsteady income—has spurred me to stop buying all but necessities, such as food, food-related items, or those things that will deepen my knowledge of human health and ecology. The process of trying to pare down has proven to me, time and again, that it’s far too easy to bring things in and often very difficult to push them out. Better not to buy in the first place—or at least to have multiple “stops” built into the process.


Cleaning Up

May 20, 2011

Spring Cleaning Series, Part 1

Channing, who is apparently sick of vacuuming, recently hired our friend Brian to clean our tiny abode once every two weeks. Brian started on Wednesday (and did an excellent job). His one-man cleaning operation isn’t necessarily “green,” but he does ask that his clients supply their own cleaning products. So, I, of course, supplied him with some earth-friendly alternatives to the usual industrial stuff.

Commercial soaps and chemical cleaners are loaded with harsh chemicals, some of which are endocrine disruptors that cause reproductive problems and breast and prostate cancer, some of which irritate the lungs, liver, and kidneys and can cause lasting damage, and some of which cause headaches, depression, and weakness. Many commercial household cleaners and detergents contain petroleum-based solvents. During the process of refining crude oil to create these petroleum products, a ton of toxins are released into the environment. And, as we all know, continued reliance on oil—a finite resource—as fuel for cars and in its numerous uses in manufacturing is causing not only significant environmental degradation but a whole lot of political grief. Finally, one of the primary ingredients in commercial cleaners is phosphate, which does not break down as it runs from our drains into the sewers. Phosphate from wastewater has found its way in quantity into our streams, rivers, and lakes, where it causes rampant algal growth that is devastating to the freshwater ecosystem (not to mention smelly and ugly).

Before Brian’s visit, I stocked up on baking soda and lemon juice (both on the OK-to-buy list because I can also use them in cooking). We already had a large bottle of distilled white vinegar, a box of Borax, castile soap, and rubbing alcohol. These are the building blocks of do-it-yourself eco-cleaners—and they are all available at the grocery store for cheap.

With supplies gathered, I wrote a little cheat sheet for Brian, telling him which stuff to use where:


  • Most surfaces in the kitchen can be cleaned with castile soap and water and a towel or rag.1
  • Use vinegar on the cooktop. Straight vinegar applied with a rag works well.
  • A half cup of vinegar mixed with a gallon of water can be used to clean the kitchen floor and all of the other tile floors in the condo.

Dining Room

  • Use equal parts olive oil and lemon juice to clean/shine the hutch (which is unvarnished wood). Apply with a rag.
  • We have Windex for the dining room table and all other glass surfaces in the house. We don’t have paper towels, but old newspaper or a rag should work fine.2


  • To clean the toilets, mix two parts Borax with one part lemon juice. This mixture should also work to clean the stains on the shower floor. For the shower, scrub the mixture on the tile, let it sit for 30 minutes, then scrub clean with water.3
  • A vinegar and water mix in a spray bottle can be used to clean the sinks, tub, toilets, shower, and any other place where mold might grow.4
  • Wipe/shine faucets and toilet seats with rubbing alcohol (on a rag) after cleaning.

1. I had already mixed a little bit of castile soap with water in an old spray bottle (which previously contained a commercial, eco-friendly cleaner). Channing and I use this simple all-purpose cleaner on a regular basis, primarily in the kitchen but also to dust most surfaces around the house. Castile soap, made with vegetable oil, is a surfactant, and I find it extremely effective at removing dirt and stains from countertops. We’ve also used undiluted castile soap to wash pots and pans by hand, and I think Channing is using it as body wash these days. The stuff is good for everything.

2. Windex is awful. It’s full of ammonia, which in concentrated doses can burn the skin, irritate the eyes, and damage the lungs. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life bought a bottle of Windex, and yet, for the last eight years, I’ve had at least one in my house at all times. Once we finish this bottle, we will start making our own glass cleaner. Here is the recipe: ¼ cup vinegar + ½ teaspoon castile soap + 2 cups water. In the meantime, if you know how we can responsibly dispose of the Windex we have (less than half a bottle—yippee!), I’m all ears.

Regarding the newspaper, Channing told me a few years ago (when he was watching How Clean Is Your House? every Saturday at 11:00 a.m.) that we should use only newspaper that is at least three days old to clean glass. Otherwise, you’ll end up with black streaks on everything.

3. I only recently discovered the wonders of using Borax in cleaning. It is excellent at removing stains from surfaces. My box of Borax says that if you sprinkle a quarter cup in your toilet, brush it around, and let it sit for a half hour, you’ll have the cleanest bowl of your life. Borax can also be used in the laundry as a bleach or on carpet to remove tough stains. You should be able to find it at the grocery store.

If you don’t have Borax on hand, a mix of 4 parts vinegar and 1 part baking soda can be used to clean the toilet. It bubbles quite a bit, so I usually mix it in the toilet. Then, I let it sit for 15 minutes or so before I start to scrub. Baking soda, a gentle abrasive, is almost as amazing as Borax. I’ve started using it to remove stuck-on food from our stainless steel pots and pans—works like a charm.

4. Vinegar is a natural mold killer and our go-to bathroom cleaner. The mix in our spray bottle is equal parts vinegar and water.

For more information about making your own cleaning products, I’d recommend the following books:

Reneé Loux, The Balanced Plate: More than 150 Flavorful Recipes That Nourish Body, Mind, and Soul (Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2006), pp. 145–152

Diane Gow McDilda, The Everything Green Living Book: Easy Ways to Conserve Energy, Protect Your Family’s Health, and Help Save the Environment (Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2007), pp. 66–67