Garage

“Mom, I’m okay, I wasn’t involved, but the police want you to come pick me up.”

My heart races at this rush of words through the telephone.

Teen and two other boys had permission to spend a summer night at another friend’s house. He has a game room and they wanted to play late into the night.

Teen neglected to tell us parents would not be home; we goofed and didn’t check.

Someone invited someone who invited someone else who did something stupid to attract police attention before arriving at the now-party. Police ran a license plate, called parents, and eventually discovered unsupervised minors, some of whom were still obliviously playing games.

Guy went to get him while I stayed home and prayed. Obviously the car ride home involved a conversation about trust and a now-depleted, in fact negatively balanced, Trust Account.

Teen has never been a big gamer. He is a health-conscious athlete and mostly a likable, good kid. He gets in trouble because he acts impulsively, the tell-tale symptom of his ADHD which inclines him to risk-taking. Honest to God, I’m grateful his risk in this situation was relatively low.

Teen barely knew the kid for whom the cops arrived and he easily recognized the stupidity of the kid’s actions. He never argued about being grounded. He understood that the situation could quickly have become So Much Worse. He learned something.

A summer week without friends might be a rough kid-consequence, but his parents enjoyed hanging out with our Teen. He won’t say it, but he might have had some fun with his family, too.

This is the reason we spent our not-truly-a-staycation cleaning out and reorganizing our garage (aka storage-unit) into a hang-out space. Not in response, as we’d already begun the process before the incident, but because we want our house to be a place Teen wants to bring friends.

Teen’s tendency has been to go out rather than invite friends in. Understandably, as our smallish house lacked a space with sufficient separation from Family Life. Almost simultaneously, Teen bought a PS3 + games from a friend who had moved on to a newer system, and friends offered us their sectional couch and rug. We saw an opportunity.

garage

Purging in process

garage 2

Prepping for sanding/painting

Parents did most of the purging; Teen put on his work clothes to move furniture, to sand and paint. He offered input on where things should go (he pushed us to purge even more) and what else might be needed (mini fridge, space warmer for cold nights). He even reorganized games into attractive storage boxes.

It’s still a garage – bikes and sports equipment, tools and laundry, no cars (we live in California) – but thankfully, the renovation worked. Over the last three months, Teen has stayed home more than he might have AND he has invited friends in. Goal! It has also given Guy a new opportunity to bond and play with his boys and provided another comfortable hang out space.

Our garage-pantry makes for easy snack access; cat = happy, too!

Our garage-pantry makes for easy snack access; cat = happy, too!

No perfect solution, the Man Cave has also created new problems. Teen hears the siren call of video games so much louder than our reminders to get homework done first. It has become a too-frequent escape when he’d prefer not to engage with family. And the three guys enjoying the space so much sometimes leaves Mama out. As families do, we negotiate as we go.

We listened with ears, eyes, heart, and our love for Teen led us to a Labor of Love: a garage hang-out space. He receives love best through Time and Gifts, and I’ve seen it in his eyes – he understands that we spent significant Time to create a Gift of space for him.

I asked him again today: “Are you grateful we worked so hard to create this space for you?”

He responded, “No, Mom. Seriously, are you really asking me that? Yes, I’m grateful.”

Sarcasm aside, he is grateful. He received the love. I’ll take it.

The #Day Challenge

I’ve picked up an odd habit this year: I have said Yes! to an assortment of (mostly) online challenges, all for a set number of days:

The 30 Day Power Purge
Soulful Spring Cleaning: A 30-Day Life Reboot
Lenten disciplines, an annual 40 day adventure
The Body Love Experiment 21 Day Challenge
40 Days of Prayer (for a season in our church life)
Clean Eating 30 Day Challenge

Hmm, now that I look at the list, I see that my challenges center on a theme: cleaning out and cleaning up, whether it’s the kitchen junk drawer, my attitudes or relationships, my eating and exercise habits, or my prayers. Sometimes I crack myself up!

With the arrival of summer vacation, I am reminded of the theme song to one of my favorite animated TV shows, Phineas and Ferb:

There’s a 104 days of summer vacation
And school comes along just to end it
So the annual problem of our generation
Is finding a good way to spend it

Phineas Ferb

Around here it’s 72 days of summer, unless you’re in middle school and then you have 73. In any case, a finite number of days with the challenge to fill them well.

Truth: my kids can get pretty sludgey. I can almost watch them melt into primordial ooze as they stare blankly into screens – phone, computer, or TV. They’ll get up eventually, to eat or use the facilities, but return to their well-worn cushions of thoughtlessness. They get less creative and more grouchy as the day wears on.

I can’t have it, and I know from years of experience that they lack the drive of Phineas and Ferb and I lack the skills to make a good summer cruise director. However, I make a pretty good chart and so, some years ago, I devised a summer activity chart for each child. They have to do 5 activities each day, each for at least 20 minutes, and all of them at least once between Monday and Friday. There is no screen time between 9am and 4pm unless both boys have completed their five activities. If they complete all activities at least once before the end of Thursday then Friday might contain even better activities and treats.

Each year I tweak each kid’s chart – new interests and strengths (and occasionally, new weaknesses) require different activity suggestions. I’ve intentionally made the activities general so the kids can apply their creativity to how they will complete the activities.

For example, this year Teen’s activities include: reading, exercising, Eagle Scout project, creativity, writing, Bible, act of kindness, chores, and extra chore.

Tween’s activities include: reading, physical play (exercise, but at 11yo it’s still “play”), creativity, Bible, trumpet, Khan Academy, Typeracer.com, writing, act of kindness, chores, and extra chore.

Yesterday was the first Monday of summer. I reminded the kids Sunday evening that the charts were coming. All warning aside, when they saw the charts you might have thought I’d told them the world had cancelled summer. Teen threatened to leave the house, all day all summer. Tween, less mobile and just as determined, followed suit. I calmly explained that less than two hours of activity suggestions in 14+ hours of sunlight – and they have lots of choice in every regard – was not an unreasonable request, and yes, they’d still get plenty of screen time, fun- and friend-time. And then I left them to it while I walked the dog and walked off my frustration.

I do realize that at 11 and 16 years old it is less plausible that they will enjoy checking things off a chart. However, I also realize that they don’t transition well, that they benefit from lists and suggestions, and a chart has proven more effective than repetitive mom-reminders. And I need a) time to do what I need to do and b) time with them, and the chart helps them know what they should do with and without me.

Despite their initial loud and dramatic protests, they settled in. Among other things, Teen went for a bike ride that led to a hike that led to tree climbing; Tween played tether ball, cleaned the tortoise enclosure, and we read together.

As we read, Teen came in with a bottle of bubbles a friend gave him in honor of getting his driver’s license. He obviously thought it was funny to blow bubbles at us; we found it funny, too. The bubbles were captivating, iridescent in the sunlight, big and small and beautiful. He put the bubble wand in front of Tween’s bedroom fan, then went to fetch another bottle of bubbles so he had two wands to create a bubble wonderland. Tween bounced on the bed to catch bubbles with his hands, his feet, even his mouth.

bubbles

We played and laughed and caught and popped bubbles for I don’t know how long. Eventually Teen was done. Tween and I finished reading our chapter, and then I made the craziest suggestion: push me on the swing? Tween couldn’t believe it.

We have a swing in the big pine tree in our front yard. It’s been on my mind for weeks, waiting for the ‘right’ moment, and this was it. I sat on the swing and, at first, Tween leaned against the tree, ridiculously smirking at me. He couldn’t believe Mom was doing such a kid-thing. But why not? So he pushed me, and I squealed, and we laughed some more.

The day started with battle cries and ended with hysterical laughter. Energized by day’s end (and not drained!), I’ve created my own activity chart. My sons’ mother, I also benefit from lists and suggestions, evidenced by the number of #Day Challenges I’ve undertaken this year. So I’ve joined my kids in the challenge of how to fill our summer days well. My chart includes: work (of course), exercise, reading, creativity, Bible, blog, “project” (a little something I need to get into gear), and purge (once begun, constantly in progress).

And on Day 2, I can already say with confidence: it’s working for all of us. I’ve completed at least five if not more of my activities each day, and so have the kids. Today they didn’t complain at all. I had to go to the office for a couple hours and Tween texted me a picture of his chart with check marks and the word, “Finished!”

Too soon we’ll have to say, “Finished!” to summer and “Hello” to a new school year. But I’m determined to fulfill this 72-day Summer Challenge and live the days well.

Uncluttering Our Lives: Simplicity

Oh, the irony of the day set aside to consider simplicity being more complicated than any typical day! Between church, sports, and school commitments, this family set off running in multiple directions. Some of us said goodbye more than twelve hours ago and haven’t been face-to-face since. And before bedtime one kid suddenly started puking. Nope, nothing simple about this day.

Let’s face it: simplicity is simply a struggle for most of us. Culture pushes us to be more, do more, buy more, more, MORE! We measure our worth – consciously or not – by the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the gadgets we carry, the black space (as opposed to blank space) on our calendars.

I am not a simple gal, though I long to be. I dreamily page through each issue of Real Simple magazine, knowing it is not now nor ever will be my life’s reality.

I am dramatic and disorganized, complicated and continually overwhelmed. I fight hard, and maybe not hard enough, against the entropy determined to rule our home. As much as I dislike being a stuff manager, I spend a fair share of every day shuffling our belongings (backpacks, shoes, laundry, dishes…) from here to there and another fair share ignoring belongings that ought to be shuffled. No matter the organizational systems set in place (yes, we have key bowls and shoe baskets, not to mention laundry baskets and towel hooks), it still feels like a sisyphean battle.

After remodeling bids came in way too high, dear friends have recently taken advantage of the economic upturn to sell their house. Any move prompts a purge, and they purged prior to putting their home on the market and again more thoroughly once it sold. Watching the process has initiated something in me, and I have begun to ask myself (and Guy, who might be a tad overwhelmed at this turn of ‘tude): “If we were moving, would we move this?”

We opened the garage for just one hour this weekend and came up with an obscene number of things we could donate or sell, some stuff in good usable condition but so well put away (read: ignored) that we hadn’t seen it in years. We’ve listed only a fraction on a local ‘garage sale’ listserve, and took a trunk-full to the Rescue Mission drop-box. We have so much more to do!

A laundry basket filled with items to sell/donate

A laundry basket overflowing with items to sell/donate

Why do I hang on to stuff I don’t use when it could be precisely the thing someone else needs? Why do I hang on to earthly treasures I have ceased to treasure when they might form a wobbly barricade separating me from Jesus?

Jesus wants to be my treasure. He wants my heart, but it’s pinned beneath towers of cascading clutter.

Guy and I married when we were 23 years old. We lived in small spaces and moved every few years, and so we left my archivally-preserved wedding dress in a corner of my grandmother’s closet. Some years ago during a Chinese Checkers marathon, I asked her if I could at long last have it back. She sat up straighter, made a funny face, and confessed: “It’s gone.”

My wedding dress had been stolen when she moved from an upstairs to a downstairs unit in the same building.

While I felt strong disdain for whomever would steal boxes from a 96-year-old woman as she belatedly moved to a downstairs apartment in a building she had occupied for 30-some years, I also experienced heartbreak for my lost wedding dress.

And yet…
* I had no plans to wear it;
* I have no daughters for whom I should save it;
* And, most importantly, its loss has in no way affected the quality of our marriage.

That loss has affected my view of stuff, however. If I can release my wedding dress into the great wide world (of dirty rotten grandma’s-box stealing thieves… oops, sorry), then I can certainly let go of items far less sentimental.

As a family, we have done a few things to counter the cultural tide, to anchor our hearts solidly in Jesus’ kingdom:

1) Among our posted family values: “Boredom = Opportunity” and “Play!”
We try hard not to over-schedule our kids. One sport at a time, and mostly rec leagues, and no more than three weekly activities each season (sport, church, music) has been our MO. We also don’t allow screen time during the school week, so the kids have plenty of time to get bored, to be creative, and to simply be kids who play. One Mother’s Day when Teen was still in elementary school he made me a home-made card that read, “Thank you for not over-scheduling us so that we get stressed out!” Melt a mama’s heart!

2) Another family value: “Need vs. Want.”
We don’t buy just because we want. We weigh desires against needs. We can easily convince ourselves that we need more, but honestly we need far less than we think we do. Staying out of stores is also a big deterrent against shopping for entertainment.

Creating margin on the calendar and on our counter tops will be an ongoing process, but it’s one to which I’m committed. Here are a few of my recent and regular steps:

1) Set a timer for 20 minutes, choose one cluttered space, and attack. When possible, set aside a longer block of time.

Even 5 minutes could make a dent in this pile

Even 5 minutes could make a dent in this pile

2) Continually winnow. I’m not one for taking everything out of a space and only putting back the essentials. That approach feels too drastic, too large, too time-consuming. And so I try to look fresh at each space as I come to it: what do I see today that I can let go of? Same goes for the calendar: do we need that activity? and likewise: what good activities are missing because we seem to be overscheduled?

It's tempting to say I need a bigger closet, but I really just need less stuff

It’s tempting to say I need a bigger closet, but I really just need less stuff

3) The Art of Simple has become one of my favorite blogs. The posts tend to be short and to the point of simplifying so many areas of life.

4) A book I expect to come back to again and again: Throw Out 50 Things. Gail Blanke walks you through each room/area of your living space and your brain and examines why we hold on to our stuff and our unhelpful thinking patterns.

And a Bible study for you, as together we treasure our relationship with Jesus.

Connect
Reflect on an example from your life when you lost (in some way) a precious possession. What was it and what happened?

Study
Read aloud Matthew 6:19-21.
Give three examples of someone storing up treasures on earth. What do you think Jesus meant by storing up treasures in heaven?
What problems result from storing up treasures on earth (v. 19)?
What are the benefits of storing up treasures in heaven (vv. 20-21)?

Live
In what ways can earthly treasures get in the way of storing up heavenly treasures? Explain.
How does storing up treasures in heaven help you simplify on earth? (cf. Mt. 6:33)
Where would you put yourself on a spectrum from hermit to hoarder? Explain.
Describe a time in your life when you lived simply. What were some of the advantages?
Name one or two obstacles to simplicity that you might be able to remove from your life, and how you might begin to address them this week.
Which Faith Training Exercises have you tried recently? Share joys and struggles.
Which exercises might God call you to this week, and why?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that the Holy Spirit will use a discipline of simplicity to draw you nearer to God.

Day 30

What gives when your life goes wonky? (Personal follow-up: when is my life ever not wonky?)

A week after we returned from Costa Rica I heard about this great language-learning app, Duolingo. Determined to capitalize on two months of hearing and attempting to speak Spanish, I immediately installed the app on my phone and got to work. Just five minutes a day, easy-peasy! I could fit that in between appointments, while waiting for the kids, while transitioning from one task to another… And even though I loved it, I don’t think I made it a month. Exploded work-load, kid activities, volunteer requirements…despite my desire to live slow and simple, it didn’t take long for the cultural pull and expectations to become too much. I’ll get back to Duolingo, but I haven’t yet.

Exercise went next. I even scheduled Teen-pick up at the gym (conveniently, he can walk from school to the gym) so I could work out while he did and then we’d go home together. Nope, I stayed at work longer and Pick Up was just that: pick up.

Sleep, of course – how can I manage consistent healthy sleep with all this chatter bouncing around my brain?

Day 30 of the 30 Day Power Purge came and went with no fanfare. It could have been significant had it accurately represented 30 days of decluttering, but sadly, it didn’t. Week 1, Zone 1: The Kitchen – all good! Since I necessarily spend a certain amount of time each day in the kitchen preparing food for the fam, it took little extra effort to clean out a few drawers and what not. Each baby step made visible progress. It felt good! And then it didn’t as we moved on to other projects and even more cluttered closets. Forget five minutes, these projects would need at least a good hour if not more, time I didn’t have to give to stuff that could continue to sit.

The thought buzzed around my eyes: one more failed attempt? Beat it, bug! Hannah has great suggestions; I read every email, mostly “on break” from the over-work I brought home each day. I will get back to it, determined to live a simpler, less stuff-oriented existence; I will not consider this a “failure” but a “pause.” Hah, maybe I need a 30 Month Puny Purge instead!

And then last week. With all good intentions someone delivered a solid wallop to my gut. A project I’ve been so excited about, had taken on as my “cause,” well, let’s just say others haven’t been appreciative of my significant investment of time and effort.

After a good, long wallow, I began to realize that this might provide the adjustment of time and priorities I’ve needed. Certainly not the way I’d ever imagined it would happen, but I had prayed that God would make clear a different way.

Since then I’ve exercised five out of six days. I’ve started reading a new book. And I scheduled a chiropractic appointment that I’d been putting off for calmer times.

Last spring my chiropractor, in our first appointment, diagnosed an issue I’ve been dealing with for 20+ years, previously missed by every doctor I’ve seen including another chiro and two neurologists. But 20+ years of working issues into my body will take some time to work out again. Just being in the office, I breathed differently. The music, especially, caught my ears: not something I’d typically listen to, but in this environment, so right and so relaxing. Zen bliss.

Lying face down, electrodes tacked to my back delivering deep-delicious stimulation to my overwrought muscles, I had no option but to simply be. And then the music…a piano instrumental, familiar but new. I listened, questioned, and Oh My Good God, realized the song was the hymn we sang at our wedding: How Great Thou Art.

O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works Thy hand hath made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed. 

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

Yes, God is great. He created the glorious beauty we appreciated in Costa Rica and likewise He made the beautiful small California town to which we came home. He made me, He loves me, He saves me (sometimes He even saves me from myself!). No surprise to God the situation I’m in, not that He wants me to hurt but He does want me to seek shelter in His awesome arms. His power will be reflected in my weakness as I allow Him to rearrange the details of my life.

That night we took the kids to see The Book of Life. Set on The Day of the Dead, gods La Muerte and Xibalba place bets on three children: will Manolo or Joaquin eventually win Maria’s love? Beautifully rendered, the story tackles life’s great themes: life and death, war and peace, love and fear, heroism, artistry, and ultimately, writing your own life’s story. I think I may have audibly gasped as, in a critical scene, the voice-over declared that Manolo had finally faced and overcome his worst fear: not fighting the 1,000 bulls of his legendary bullfighting family, but his fear of becoming himself.

Sometimes being yourself is the scariest, hardest thing you can do. Others may not like you or appreciate the gifts you bring to the table. Hiding, pretending, can seem the better options. Being yourself can leave you vulnerable, raw, exposed – and real. How great is our God who stands with us for better and for worse; who loves us when others misunderstand us or, worse, reject us; who gave up glory and took on pain in order to be with us.

Life will keep on being wonky. I will continue to juggle requirements and desires. People will love me and hurt me. And God will be great, holding me tight as together we write the story of my life becoming me.

Purge

I believe that often books come into our lives at a time for a reason. A friend compiled a great list of books for me to read throughout our summer away. After enjoying one of the books I recommended to her, she started following the author’s blog. That author had a promo of a free kindle download of another author’s book, which my friend mentioned to me. I downloaded the book, googled the author, and found her website.

Twisty-winding its way to me, the best result of this book download discovery was the author’s website. Hannah Keeley is a motivator. I signed up for her “30-Day Purge” and after just one week I am so glad!

I don’t qualify as an Organized Woman. Now and again I stumble upon a system that works for me, at least until something throws a wrench in it (and “something” can be as simple as one of the guys dumping a load of papers on my desk – the overwhelming nature of having to sort paper creates a system wrench, not to mention the wrench it generates in my gut…). But I also know that my lack of organization drags me down. I lose things I want, I can’t find things when I need them… Being disorganized takes time when I least to have time to spare.

Hannah has divided the home into “zones” and Zone 1 is the kitchen, the focus of Week 1. Each day I received an email with instructions to declutter/clean one specific area of the kitchen and tips for how to go about it. Hannah recommends setting aside one hour each day, but it didn’t take that much time. And it was fairly easy to build the work into other work – as I extracted ingredients for dinner, I did a clean sweep of the fridge; while a pot simmered, I tackled the spice drawer. One day I thought I might not have the energy, but I caught a burst when I was prepping the coffee pot for the morning.

I didn’t do it perfectly, but I did well enough. I took baby steps. More than once I left a piece of the assignment for the next day. I haven’t yet mustered the courage to excavate the under-sink cabinet, and the cupboards will require Guy’s assistance – after all, some of the clutter is rightfully his. (The first fight we had after our wedding: where to put things in the kitchen. We each thought we had primary domain in that one small room…).

It surprised me how starting and completing one small task could give me such satisfaction. We’ve lived in this house for six years and I had a) no idea how many crumbs had accumulated in the bottom of the freezer (seriously, how do crumbs end up in the freezer?) and b) no idea how to get the freezer pan out (Guy happily helped – of course he did, I was doing the real work!). Maybe that little bit of organization isn’t revolutionary, but it did make dinner prep faster and shopping less expensive – I knew exactly what I had on hand and where to find it.

And I feel freer. I can give myself grace for disorganization in that area because I have reorganized this area; that area will have its time. One assignment at a time, I am heading in the right direction.

This afternoon Tween opened a drawer that had been the “junk” drawer of junk food, all the leftover treats from every holiday and birthday party, the stuff I won’t eat but mysteriously won’t throw out. But really, no one needs candy from last Christmas or even Easter. It’s almost Halloween, for crying out loud! Anyway, Tween was shocked but, even better, he didn’t complain that I’d thrown out the junk. I had kept a few recent treats and he happily helped himself to a not-gunky-because-it’s-so-old lollipop.

Gretchen Rubin attacked clutter as one of her January tasks when she first began The Happiness Project. She couldn’t find any research to back up the popular belief that organization boosts happiness, but just look at the success of The Container Store or Real Simple magazine: at least in the good ol’ USA, people seem to crave an uncluttered life. And it’s difficult to achieve and sustain. [I just discovered that Gretchen also has decluttering projects on her website; maybe Purge Part 2…?]

So my small attempts at organization this week have been a miracle in my mundane. And they have me thinking: what else do I need to purge from my life? Besides the clutter, what else holds me back? And what small steps can I take to tackle it?

Three times this year I’ve done a three-day food-based cleanse. The first time I was thrilled to lose five pounds. The next two times I was disappointed to only lose two. But then I realized that comparing one experience to the other was the problem. After all, I’d lost two pounds in three days – not bad! A cleanse is really a purge for your diet. The cleanse rebooted my physical system and upped my commitment to healthy eating. I don’t know that I could eat like that all the time, but it was a good discipline.

I have 21 days left of this purge experiment. I already anticipate that, like the diet cleanse, I will need to repeat the process and probably more than once. But my new commitment is to purge the clutter while I ponder the question: what holds me back?