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Zen and the Art Of Clutter: Embracing The Mess

© Michelle Kennedy, 2006

Clutter. Disorder. Disarray. Believe it or not, I have come to respect these words and their meanings as I stumble and trip through my house.

Let me explain. I have a friend who is an incredible housewife (stay-at-home mom, domestic engineer). When I walk into her beautiful, freshly redecorated house, there is always the smell of something healthy and loving simmering on the stove. Her house is always spotless; clothes are always neat, wrinkle-free and put away.

Drips are promptly wiped up; dishes are done after every meal; floors are swept and the bathroom sink is completely lacking of toothpaste... um, er, are those balls or gobs? I am never quite sure what to call them. She also doesn't just mow her lawn: She landscapes.

Her children always look like they stepped out of a Tide commercial. There are no holes in the knees of their pants, and their faces are free from ice cream beards and milk moustaches.

My friend finishes her needlework projects promptly, and her husband always finds time to frame them. They are added to the wall with the promptly framed school pictures (rotated yearly) and the framed projects the children have brought home from school. She is the pre-eminent volunteer, a crafts woman extraordinaire, a Martha Stewart in the making and is always home when the kids get home.

Either my husband or I are also home with the children, but that is just about where the similarities between my friend and I end.

Somehow our clothes never seem to make it past the dryer. Well, that's not entirely true. They make into a basket in front of the dryer and then everyone pushes their way through to see if their favorite clothes finally made it out.

Choruses of "Hey, those are my socks!" and "I don't have any underwear!" are frequently yelled as the day begins.

Will someone please explain why they can put a man on the moon, but they can't make pants that kids can't wear longer than three weeks without putting holes in the knees? By February, my kids are all out of pants, but they have mounds of cut-offs.

If there are enough dishes clean to have a meal, this seems to be good enough. The dishes don't always match, but ... hey, who said chicken had to be eaten on a plate? And oatmeal is just as easy to eat with fork as a spoon, and besides, I am not giving up my coffee spoon for anyone first thing in the morning.

Our lawn is landscaped ... with the remains of trip to Toys 'R' Us. Lovingly strewn throughout the lawn are a variety of plastic shovels (I think the Latin term is Shovolius Ijusthavetohaveitius), a couple of bikes, a skateboard and socks. Don't ask me about the socks; I have no idea.

The lawn is mowed just often enough to keep the neighbors from calling the selectboard, and we did hang up Christmas lights last year.

Now don't get me wrong. I hate dirt just as much as anyone. Despite the clutter, I am proud to say that there is nothing growing (currently) in my refrigerator.

I have simply developed my own "Philosophy of Housework," otherwise entitled "Zen and the Art of Clutter." Don't be fooled, there is an art to it. It takes a long time to learn to leave well enough alone.

There are many righteous people out there now, telling us to "simplify." To get rid of our stuff, our debt, our desire for things. And I agree with a lot of it, but... I like some of my stuff. So I decided to simplify my mind. As Thoreau once said, "Simplify, simplify, simplify," and as Bob Newhart added, "Wouldn't it have been simpler to only say it once?"

Ask yourself: What can I live with? With a household full of active readers, my office in the house, and who knows how many craft projects, science projects and birthday presents in progress going on, I long ago decided that piles of books and magazines were acceptable. It's OK for the bookshelves and cabinets to be disheveled and for the kitchen table to be a virtual "inbox" for the plethora of papers that make their way into our home.

However, I do not tolerate leftover crumbs, food left out, unswept floors, etc.

Also, make your kids work! Most people are amazed when I tell them the things that my kids do to help. My 8- and 10-year-olds do very simple chores that save me loads of time, and it teaches them what it means to contribute to the family -- or at least, what they can do to not make Mom angry. My teenagers take on more physical chores like stacking wood or feeding the sheep -- and I have learned to tune out the standard heavy sigh, and I don't even see frequent eye-rolling anymore.

And they do not get paid for these chores -- sweeping, wiping counters and tables, picking up toys, folding laundry, sorting recyclables and taking out trash, wiping down bathroom fixtures, etc. -- any more than I get paid to do the dishes or scrub the tub.

Many parents feel that it's easier and faster to do most of these things themselves. I don't -- do you know why? Who cares if it takes them three hours to clean the bathroom? If they are dawdling and that's how they want to spend their day, then too bad for them. It only took me a half-hour to clean the living room and now I get to do what I want.

And no, maybe Junior won't sweep "properly" behind the piano, but he probably got everything he could see, and if he can't see it and you can't see it, why look for it?

There are some days when I am just frustrated with the whole idea of housework. Why bother? There will just be more tomorrow. Housework never ends ... and that is why I have decided not to dedicate any more of my life to it than I have to.

Yes, I am still jealous of my friend's immaculate home and hopeful that no one has white gloves on when they come over to mine. But mostly I am happy when there are enough clean dishes for the next meal, and I'm happy when everyone has something clean to wear. When kids start telling me there is no clean underwear, then I know I've ignored too much!

Michelle Kennedy is an author, activist, shepherd, organic farmer and mother of five. She is also the Founding Editor of Real Living -- a new 'zine for the organically inclined. Contact Michelle directly by visiting www.mishakennedy.com.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine

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