Clutter vs. Clean: Who’s Got Time?

clutter-clipart“You’re the messiest girl I ever met.”  So spoke my brother-in-law almost 15 years ago, when I was renting out part of his condo.  Personally I think he had dramatic tendencies; still it was true I was not tidy.  I’m not that sensitive to my physical surroundings, I was living alone with no one to answer to, and had a great desire to do many things other than straighten up.  My mess provided me with a lot of extra time, and I lapped it up.

But though there was mess, there wasn’t clutter, and I was organized.  Laundry was done weekly (weekly!  do you remember the time?) and I separated my colours, returning clean clothes immediately to their hangers and stacks.  And I still remember my brother-in-law’s unmasked surprise when I once needed a document and wasn’t at home, and talked him over the phone to its precise location in my mismatched files on the floor of my bedroom closet.  He had assumed the unmade bed and other evidence of disarray equated with disorder, but it didn’t.

Fast forward to now and the equation has changed.  5 people (including 7, 5 and 2 year olds) + 1400 square feet + 1 closet + 1 bathroom = everyday chaos.  Techniques I relied upon in singledom – like putting something down and it staying there – don’t apply anymore.  Disarray does reflect disorder now, with a dollop of clutter to boot.

I’m good at not shopping and I’m not a hoarder, but I don’t really want to rid myself of the things in my home that contribute to the clutter.  Before kids, my interests took me largely outside the home (dance and yoga classes, socializing) or centred around largely clutter-less activities (reading and writing).  I’ve morphed some since then, and now I find myself wanting to make things within the home (cooking, crafting, knitting, gardening, woodworking, sewing), all of which require materials and tools that quickly become a steaming pile of clutter in a small house with little storage if I’m not really careful.  Which I’m not.

At some point last year I decided I was not too proud to borrow from the library books with titles like, “Organize Yourself!  Reduce Clutter!” and “161 Easy Steps to an Ordered Life.”   Did you know you can save an extra step of clean-up in the kitchen if, after using an item from the fridge, you immediately return it to the fridge, rather than placing it on the counter and then putting it back in the fridge?  I try to employ this tip and I think it helps… a little.

A primary complaint with clutter and mess – and trying to eliminate them – is that it’s all a soul-sucking waste of time.  And it does take time and money to tend to our things, so it’s wise to watch what you allow into our homes.  But having made that calculation, I find I want to keep much of what we have and I’m motivated to spend time to keep it orderly because doing so actually creates time.  If I’ve got 45 minutes to create something – and I often have no more – I can’t afford to spend 20 minutes of those searching for (and sometimes failing to find) supplies.

There was a period in my life when ignoring mess gave me time for the things that mattered to me.  Not so now.  As it turns out, I can live quite well with either clutter or clean, and I choose between them according to which gives me more of what I always want most:  time.


Reclaiming Calm From Clutter

imagesMy boys don’t know that every three-year-old Valentine and half-torn colouring page has the same effect on me as dumping a pail of water on the Wicked Witch of the West.

I’m melting!  I’m melting!

Not literally of course, but scanning their rooms and their collections of Lego, Play Mobil and Skylanders strewn, albeit in “tidy” piles, on the floor amidst crumpled birthday party invitations, random stickers and favourite unshorn pencils all mixed together like some sort of bottom-of-the purse cornucopia induces in me an intense angst.

The heat rises.  It always starts in my chest and within seconds my neck and face are engulfed. The only remedy for my anxiety is covertly ransacking their rooms, opaque garbage bag in hand like a deranged anti-Santa, snatching up all the cheap, plastic-y toys that have found their way into our home by way of take-out boxes or loot bags.  Once I get started nothing is safe.  I have this ability of scanning a surface and determining with speed and efficiency what is junk.  Very few things escape my sticky fingers.  With each toss into the bag, I feel a sense of satisfaction.  I am gleeful.  I am restoring balance and order to this room, my house, my life.

The toy room and craft cupboard are where I go for my biggest fix.  I am an addict looking for my next high as I sort through the toys relocating Thomas the Train with his friend Spencer in the bucket clearly marked TRAINS.  The brightly painted wooden tomato and fry pan are tossed back into the bucket clearly marked, you guessed it, KITCHEN.  If only everyone else would follow this simple system maybe they’d be able to find that missing Lego guy instead of bursting into tears of frustration at the thought of pillaging the mash-up of toys that occupy 8 bins.

Like with the toys, I am ruthless when it comes to clothing.  I keep bags at the ready, tucked at the back of closets with donation inked in permanent marker next to another bag that contains the best of my boys’ clothing, ready to continue the hand-me-down cycle.

The kitchen counter and cupboards are at their best when they are stark, barren, neatly itemized.  Achieving this kundalini state is a thing of lore.  My kids always want to be fed.  They are always hungry.  They are always in the kitchen demanding more!  More!  More!  And all I want is to neatly group the applesauce beside the crackers.

I don’t discriminate.  I am not exempt from my own wrath.  I attack my own closets and collections with as much vigor and yes, accuracy.

It’s meaningful to note that I have rarely been called out, chastised, whined at or worse, hollered at, in the wake of my purges.  I count only one item, a denim dress with pearl-faced buttons as a casualty, a donation made in haste.  My lone regret.

If anything there is a sense of calm in our mostly chaotic home when “there is a place for everything and everything is in its place.”





Books, books and more books

My name is Nathalie Foy, and I am a book addict.  Also, a stationery addict.  Also, I buy too many pens.  I may be developing a similar habit with perfume; the jury’s still out on that one.

I willingly admit to buying way too much of what I have listed above, but in no way will I cop to the label “hoarder” or call what I have “clutter.”  It’s precious.  I have these absurdly abundant collections of things because they are a passion, not a problem.  It’s true that the sun will burn itself out before I have occasion to write a note in each of the thank you notes I have collected, but that’s ok with me.  I like to have a selection to choose from, and as long as stationery designers and etsy are still in business, I will keep adding to my collection.

It’s true that I will probably not get around to reading every single one of the books I have bought and that have piled up on my TBR shelf, and some of them (a very rare few, because I do read reviews and do my research before buying a book) will be duds that I give away after reading.  However, the books I read get marked up and annotated and they bear the trace of my having enjoyed them.  I have a terrible memory, so the marks I leave behind serve as an external hard drive.  You can’t do that to a library book, and I’m terrible about returning them on time, anyway.  I gobble my books, but the wonderful thing about gobbling books is that they survive the process and go on to live long and happy lives on a new shelf, in alphabetical order, so that I can easily find them again.  And I do go looking for them again.

arthurTrue story: I gave away a set of books once.  All of the books from my Old English class in graduate school and some Middle English books from undergrad.  I tossed the notes, too.  I felt assured that I would never, ever in my life need to look at those books and notes again.  Along came my kids who developed an interest in Beowulf and King Arthur and The Hobbit, which draws heavily on Old and Middle English, and where, oh where, were those books?  The collections of Old English riddles that I translated?  My notes on the Arthurian matter and where history and legend meet?  Gone, and I have regretted it for years.

Of course, I could have gone to a library for everything that I wanted, but I wanted my own books, with my notes and my marginalia.  My memory.

I don’t have a lot of patience for clutter or disorder.  A place for everything, and everything in its place.  I work to make that true for 90 80 70 percent of the house .  There are towering piles of books all over our house, but I look at them with nothing but fondness.  I enjoy putting order into the piles and sorting and shelving and relishing all the delights past and still to come.



At Issue: To Keep or Toss

It seems in the past few years there has been a “de-clutter movement”.  Perhaps it is the Oprah Effect.  In the final years of her eponymous show Australian organizational guru Peter Walsh was a regular and would routinely lecture on the benefits of a tidy living space without any extraneous clutter.  His 6 books, DVD and App help us, the lay people, turn the clutter and chaos of our homes, room by room, into a calm, peaceful place that promises to restore some balance to our lives.

TLC and various cable networks have added shows about hoarding, extreme collections and couponing to their line-up while countering with interior design programming and home makeovers.

The real question though is, what exactly constitutes clutter?  Is one person’s crap another’s precious memento?  Is there a dried corsage for every high school dance you attend 20 years ago buried away in your closet or do you quite happily toss the program from that Broadway show as you walk out of the theatre?

Kathryn Laskaris recently wrote, Why I can’t throw anything away: Days Like These for the Toronto Star.  Her witty and thought-provoking piece serves as inspiration for this week’s At Issue.

Our guest for this week is urban, green mom of two little boys, Sara Vartanian.  Sara is the founder of Green Moms Collective, where she helps moms to take simple steps to add green living practices into their family’s lives through eco-consulting and workshops. If she’s not on Twitter talking all things green, she can be found wandering the city’s green spaces and farmers markets with her family.

Join the conversation and let us know what you think!  Are you a mild hoarder?  Do you prefer the term “keeper of memories”?  Maybe you’re more inclined to break out in hives at the sight of a chotchkies?  Let us know!

Guest Blogger Sara Vartanian of Green Moms Collective: My best green tip? Saying “no” a little bit more in order to say “yes”!

In our on-demand world, I believe green living is slowing down enough to conscientiously connect to our choices.

It’s the decision to go back to my natural hair colour. Rather than quarterly visits to fix my roots, I’m only battling the few sneaky grey hairs that are starting to appear. I see my hairdresser less but luxuriate in the time spent much more.

It’s spending a messy afternoon in a sunlit kitchen with two small boys discovering the magic of making natural dye from beets, mixing up big bowls of colourful playdough.

It’s instituting a family bake day, making package free snacks for the school week.

Being green is asking for a reusable mug at the coffee shop, trusting I’ll spend enough time talking to my friend or simply sitting with my own thoughts, knowing that I’ll not need to take it to go.

It’s organizing myself to schedule waxing in advance at my favourite eco-beauty spa rather than wait until unruly eyebrows force me to comprise by going elsewhere.

It’s finding myself a local seamstress who patches our jeans, sews missing buttons, and repair snags preventing me from tossing out a favourite pair of pants and buying a new.

It’s deciding not to use conventional perfumes because of their questionable ingredients but rather crafting my very own scent with an aromatherapist in her little downtown studio.

It’s the anticipation of summer park nights. Where we choose produce at our favourite farmers market and eat “park pizza” made in brick ovens within the park and served on reusable plates. It’s sticky hands from fresh peaches before building bridges and moats in a watery mud pit with children who used to be strangers.

As I find myself a few years out from 40, speeding through a self-made checklist, I’ve come to know the unexpected gift that green living has brought me: the joy of decisions big on heart and easy on our earth.

My green tip? I encourage you to practice saying “No” a little bit more in order to say yes to the choices that matter to us all.




Best Green Tip: Mindful Consumption


When I think of favourite green tips, long laundry lists come to mind, so I’ve opted instead for maybe one over-arching tip.  I think ultimately, if you want to respect the earth you’re living on and dependent upon, you need to practice mindful consumption.

What does mindful consumption mean?  To me, it means being intentional about buying and consuming goods and services, with an explicit, unwavering knowledge that everything we buy requires resources from the earth.  Being mindful about those purposes means thinking about whether our consumption has appropriate value to us considering its real cost.

This real cost goes beyond the sticker price and asks what was the cost to the person who made or grew it, and the earth that produced it?  How much energy did it require to bring it to you and how much packaging will go in the garbage after it is consumed?   How much pleasure does it give you and for how long, and what is the quality of that pleasure?

I read somewhere that spending money means voting with our dollars, and I believe it’s true.  Money talks.  Whether we are conscious of it or not, the way we spend our money translates into supporting people, companies and practices.  I may not have much money, but I’ve got some, and I like the idea of wielding whatever power may be in it in the direction I choose.

The beautiful thing about mindful consumption is that it brings one’s purchases into alignment with what you actually believe, and maybe even helps you to define what that is.  Spending less on the-everything-that’s-everywhere will mean having more to invest in what matters most to you.   Being mindful about how we consume is a path to clarity, respect for the earth, and peace of mind, which naturally makes it priceless.





“The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

DSC_0431My best green tip?  It’s simple. Be more open-minded.  Being “green” isn’t a movement or a trend.  It’s not about not shaving your armpits and using a rock for deodorant.  Although I suppose it could be.

Being green is an act of social responsibility, being an adult, being a kind human.  It’s our duty to leave this world a better place than when we came into it.

Since my friendship with Carol has blossomed over the years, Carol has pushed me to consider how I live my life and raise my children.  She has encouraged me to be more conscious, more observant and more thoughtful.   She has shown me that’s possible to live a cleaner, calmer, healthier life.  That one size parenting, one size greening, one size simple living doesn’t fit all.  She doesn’t do this with an air of superiority rather she quietly encourages.

The changes that I have made to our day to day may be subtle but they are lasting and the result of thoughtfulness not a fleeting trend.

Plan Ahead to Stay Green

Eldest is currently writing a science report on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  I’ve put a link instead of a picture because, frankly, I find it too offensive to post a picture of what we have done to our oceans.  It is to weep.

This month’s posts have been loosely about renewal and rebirth, but before the riot of green that is spring, we are surrounded by the heaps of garbage that emerge from the melting snow, the bleak brown land reminding us of our hidden winter sins.  Chip bags, candy wrappers, pop cans, water bottles.  Oh, the water bottles.  As T. S. Eliot wrote,

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering          
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

I am no fan of spring, and even less of a fan of the sins that the forgetful snow exposes.

Food and drink packaging has to be the easiest green sin for a parent to fall prey to.  We were recently asked to review a food product that I had to decline to review because the ratio of food to packaging was so poor.  In this enlightened age, packaging seems to me to be proliferating, not disappearing.  Why manufacture, sell or buy 24 mini-bags of crackers instead of one box?  Why??  How much more time or effort does it take to throw them into a reusable container?

Don’t answer that.  My rhetoric belies my own waste.  How many times have I failed to plan ahead and had to buy snacks and drinks on the run, leaving a trail of garbage in our wake?

untitledLast year, when the kids’ school instituted a full-time boomerang lunch (all litter goes back into the lunchbox to be disposed of at home), I embraced it wholeheartedly.  I had been a pretty eco-conscious lunch packer even before that, but now I aim to be letter perfect.  Everything goes into reusable containers for lunch.  I avoid at all costs individually wrapped snacks.  Granola bars are not healthy anyway, and if we want a treat, we go to the bakery some days after school and eat the treats right off of the shelf.  The drink boxes, about which I still feel a twinge of guilt, can at least be recycled at school.

This year, also, I made a conscious decision never to leave home on weekends and after school without packing food and drink that would also limit our garbage output.  Sliced fruit, a tub of raw almonds, some quickly-cut slices of cheese.  Water bottles.  It takes less than a minute to prepare and assemble these things, and it saves a world of whining and pleading about vending machine and snack bar “food” at the various rinks and arenas where we often find ourselves on weekends.  Less waste, better food.  Win win.

I am not an eco-warrior, or trail-blazer or even an exceptionally good consumer.  But I am a planner, and planning has made a huge difference this year.  Now, if I could just learn to love drinking coffee out of a reusable, portable mug….


Theme Week: Favourite Green Tips

“Take care of the earth and she will take care of you.”

This week, in honour of the spring, the re-birth and earth day we share our favourite “green” tips.  We welcome Sara Vartanian, an urban, green mom of two little boys.  

Sara is the founder of Green Moms Collective, where she helps moms to take simple steps to add green living practices into their family’s lives through eco-consulting and workshops. If she’s not on Twitter talking all things green, she can be found wandering the city’s green spaces and farmers markets with her family.

As always we encourage you to join the conversation!  What are some of your green tips?  How have you made simple changes to your life to make it more eco-friendly?    


049Yesterday when I was at a restaurant with a friend and our collective five children, she turned to comment on how my two year old’s speech has really blossomed.  His talking also included borderline yelling, lots of demands, and utensils banging on the table – this in addition to the racket from the other kids.  “Actually,” I replied, “I just want him to stop talking.”

I don’t, of course, not really, so I should have known something was off.  I promptly fell asleep with all three kids at 8pm and waking up half an hour later realized I was plain sick, and so were two of my three boys, which was a big part of the reason why dinner wasn’t more fun.

Morning came too soon, with dripping nose and ringing head, presenting a full, uninterrupted day with toddler bearing similar symptoms.  Judge me if you must, but I asked my five year old to stay home from school to help me take care of his younger brother (they play with each other, and having two is often easier than having one).  The angel said yes.  My kindergartener said, and I quote, “I can take care of him and maybe you can take a nap.”

The nap didn’t happen, but the childcare by the child did.  My two younger boys played forts and some other things that I didn’t register.  They watched some television and ate whatever leftovers I put forward for lunch.  I floated around in a fog.

After picking up my oldest from school, the usual mayhem of late afternoon led me by the nose into a couple of parental tantrums.  I was unreasonable, I know, but I did make some efforts.  We made people sandwiches of ourselves on the bean bag.  We did pull out the woodworking that they are always asking to work on.   I cooked, as opposed to warmed up, a dinner.

Doing isn’t the same as being, so listing these efforts gives me only partial comfort; I really wasn’t great to be around.  The best part of the evening was facilitated by the house illness that had facilitated the worst bits:  my two year old asked during dinner to go to bed, and fell asleep early.  This meant more reading time for the older boys, and because my middle had fallen asleep without me noticing in the car, he was awake at his bedtime and joined my oldest and me during our homework window.

My boys flanked me on either side while we read chapter upon chapter of On the Banks of Plum Creek of the Little House series.  So far as I can tell, these books are largely a love letter by Laura Ingalls Wilder to Ma and Pa, who are a perfect combination of loving, firm, gentle, giving, and playful parents and spouses.  I think about this sometimes as I am reading to my boys, and the contrast to the imperfect combination of traits that is me.

Then again, that is a book while these are actually the days that we’re living.  I believe more than ever that perfection is the enemy of the good.  I called on my five year old to help me today because I am imperfect, I was impatient with my children because of same.  But I was also there, in the bed, holding them with stories to close the day, as I am almost all of our days.  It is not perfect, but it is good, and maybe it is good enough.