CLEANING THE ATTIC #19: Take Out the Empties

As I enter into the last 24 hours of cleaning frenzy (assuming I don’t stay up til 2 a.m. for the next two nights, which I’m not saying I won’t, mind you, but at my age, it’s hard) there’s one cleaning tip I come back to again and again. It’s ridiculously simple, but perhaps the most single most helpful tip I’ve found.

When I enlisted the help of my good friend Carol Laughner, the second thing she advised me to do seemed kinda silly at the time. (I can’t remember the other two right now. If I do, I’ll share those, too.)

As I empty storage containers or organizers, she said I should gather them up and set them aside, in one big pile, in an out-of-the-way area.

I nodded my head obligingly when she told me this. After all, she was helping me. I wasn’t going to argue with her. But I couldn’t see why this was one of her “big three” organizing tips.

Well, guess what? It works.

It turns out that keeping them in your line of sight as you work creates a visual distraction. I’d find my eye roving around the room, thinking of what I had to do next. I would see an empty rolling drawer cart, or a magazine file, or a box, or a jar. Then I’d have to think, “Oh, it’s empty, I don’t have to do anything with that.” Except, of course, step over it, move it out of the way, push it aside or stack it on something else.

Also, when I’d get ready to reorganize a space, I’d think of a perfect “thing” to use–but then I couldn’t remember where it was. I’d spend several precious moments looking for it. And sometimes I’d realize I’d already commandeered it for another spot.

About the eleventh time I stepped over an empty plastic tub, or searched for a basket the right size, I realized Carol was right.

I set the “empties” in a pile near the door to my barn attic. Several times a day, I took them upstairs to the “master pile”.

I instantly had more walking-around space. And fewer distractions to boot.

I could then judiciously add some of the containers back in as I needed them.

I don’t know why this works so well, but it does. So listen to Carol and move those empties to a staging area while you work on your mega-mess.

CLEANING THE ATTIC Tip #5: Identify Your Legacy

This is too funny. I almost called this essay, “Break a rule”. You’ll see why at the end.

I almost tossed a pile of ArtCalendar magazine back issues. But as my hand hovered over the top issue, I saw a blurb for an article: Summer Project:Declutter your studio/Three Easy Steps

Now, I wasn’t about to fall for that one–remember what I said about magazines promising to change your life in 7 easy steps? And this one claims only three!!

But my coffee was ready, and I thought it would be fun to read for 10 minutes.

Oh, I am so glad I did!

The article’s author is Jo Israelson, master stone carver and installation artist. She also moonlights as a personal organizer. I can’t find any information on that aspect of her, though, so you’re going to have to find that back issue of ArtCalendar magazine (April 2007). No, you can’t have mine. I’m keeping it!

Jo uses those same ol’ strategies of sorting (keep, recycle, donate, trash) we hear so often, but with a twist.

She first requires that we identify our goals for the process. Understanding why we are doing this will help us stay centered and focused when the process gets hard.

I’m at that hard place this week. Most of the easy stuff to lose is gone. I can see attic floor! But my studio is in worse shape than ever. Decisions are getting harder and harder. I’m stuck again! (A friend has offered to come help me think, but not for another week….)

I apply Jo’s techniques and suggestions–and they work!

What are my goals?

Am I downsizing? Retiring? (No.) Trying to be more organized? (Yes.) Am I making room for larger work? (Yes!) Getting ready for a studio tour or sale? (Oh, yes, yes, yes!) There are even goals of a more personal and spiritual nature, and on that list is “overcoming a block”. (gulp…yes!)

But the part that is absolutely brilliant to me is when she asks us to define our legacy goals. This will help us move through the inevitable emotional wall we hit when the initial euphoria of de-junking ebbs, and the sadness, confusion and frustration of the process overwhelm us.

In the article, she says:

“…Most artists feel the underlying purpose of their work is to communicate, often in ways they cannot articulate explicitly themselves. Collectors often talk of being moved by, spoken to or touched by a particular work. Your legacy goals will serve as the framework for the distribution of the remaining items.”

What is my legacy?

What am I really trying to accomplish with my artistic life? What will I leave behind? What do I want it all to mean?

As a good friend always asks, “What is the highest and best use of my (artistic) time? And energy?”

What clarity this idea gives me!

Suddenly, I know what to do with the knitting machine my sister-in-law gave me a decade ago (and I only used for a few months.) It was a good thing for awhile. But what it taught me is, I love hand knitting, not machine knitting. I know now someone else will use it and enjoy it more than I.

I also know what to do with the tons of old books and cool “junk” I’ve acquired for making altered art. I love my altered artwork, and I’m good at it. But it’s more a creative process for me, not my actual body of work. (It’s not distinctive enough, for one.) Time to keep enough materials to play with, and release the rest back into the world.

I have a different legacy.

I know my fiber work, my jewelry, and my writing are the gifts I’m meant to focus on, for now.

And the funny part?

One of Jo’s rules: “Do not stop to read old magazines… (Y)ou had plenty of time to do that before you began to declutter.”

Well, that’s one rule I’m glad I broke today!

Back into the fray I go, with a lighter heart.

And hopefully, an emptier studio.

Making Room

So what great insights came from my four questions session yesterday?

Carol and Barb came over for two hours. We had coffee and a quick nosh. (Can’t work on empty stomaches!) We “checked in” briefly to see what everyone was up to.

Then it was time to start.

What did I want to talk about?

I wanted to talk about my vision for my art. Wanting to catch everyone up on where I was coming from, I presented a five-minute summary of the last couple years:

My realizing I still have a vast new audience to present my current body of work to….(validation!)

Me knowing my work will evolve naturally and organically once I can clear space in my studio to get back to work….(relief!)

Me recognizing that writing, though abstract, makes me feel like I’ve done something…and may be distracting me from my actual art production time/energy….(hmmm…at least I see it, though I’m not sure what to do about it.)

Me remembering that last year my first surgery, and first foot injury happened two months before my big League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Craft Fair…(manageable, but still putting me off my game.)

and that it was the first fair I’d done in eight years without my daughter Robin assisting me every step of the way…(difficult.)

Me understanding the many negative things that happened to me at last year’s Fair (let’s just say that sometimes, there’s nothing scarier than your fellow craftsmen), and how long I’ve had to deal with the repercussions….(frustration.)

Me realizing my cancer scare began almost immediately after the Fair and lasted through several months of testing and follow-up….(emotionally exhausting.)

Followed by two more surgeries in December…(uh oh.)

Resulting in being housebound, in constant pain, inactive, incurring weight gain and depressed….(it was, well, depressing.)

And me now realizing we have to clear the garage for a new wood boiler, and clean out our house attic so we can insulate before winter….(yikes!)

And I still need to clean out my barn attic so I can begin to clean out my studio….(double yikes!)

There! “So,” I said, “I’m ready to talk about my plans for my art.”

“Not so fast, sweetheart!” exclaimed both my friends in unison. “We can see what the problem is here. And it’s not what you think.”

The problem wasn’t about the art. The problem was making room for it.

They both pointed out that the first step was to get a plan of action for this huge de-cluttering laid out–before I even begin to think about making more art.

They said they understood, because they’ve both struggled with the same issue. And gone through the process, and come out the other side–lightened, encouraged and energized.

And they said they both happened to be very, very good at creating such plans for action.

When they said that, a huge weight lifted from my heart. How perfect that these two people were doing this exercise with me.

I knew they were right. I knew I had to do this. I had no idea how I was going to do it.

It turned out they were going to give me exactly the help I needed.

They guided me through a visioning exercise. I mentally walked through my studio, “creating” the perfect new work environment. I thought about what really needed to be there and what didn’t.

Then we took a quick tour of the two staging areas. With their eyes helping, it was even easier to see what could be “at hand”, and what could go upstairs into the barn attic.

Shelves will keep my current storage containers more accessible, and labeling will help, too.

Teen-aged boys will be forbidden to set up a man-cave in the attic. (If you have teen-aged boys, you know what I’m talking about….)

The list goes on.

Someday, perhaps I’ll be able to section off part of the barn and actually insulate or heat it during the winter, so my office and shipping station can be upstairs, away from my actual workspace. (Email and internet stuff can be a huge distraction!) For now, there’s a lot that can be stored up there for quick grabbing when I need it. A little hassle to run upstairs (especially in winter!), yes, but better than tripping over E*V*E*R*Y*T*H*I*N*G underfoot.

My friends also offered to help.

It was so hard to ask! “Come on, Lu, say it—‘Will you help me?’–four little words! You can do it!” they urged.

I did, and they said yes. (They want pizza, beer and music. I think I can swing that!)

They encouraged me to make a list of other people I could ask for help, too, and how to make it easier for people to do so. (Keep the request to a couple hours, add the music and food.)

They encouraged me to set a deadline (three weeks!) to see how much I could accomplish by then.

They promised to come back for another session to make sure I’m making progress, and not getting bogged down in details.

As we stood by the top of the barn stairs and talked, I worried about how much shelving and labor would cost.

And then looked up and saw…..a stack of shelves, commercial-quality slotting and brackets I’d bought seven years ago, originally to use in my studio but set aside because I hadn’t needed it.

Here’s the funny thing. If you’d asked me where it was, I would have said I’d given the stuff away already! I’d walked by them a hundred times in the last few years, and yet not seen them.

Yet at the exact moment I realized I needed that stuff, there it was. (Okay, I’m not sure I can find the brackets, but those should be easy to buy again.) (I hope!)

In the end, nothing monumental or too big too handle. Just something that’s easy to do for others, and sometimes so hard to do for ourselves.

Update: I’ve already packed up six boxes of books for a prison library; set out a ton of stuff on our tree lawn which disappeared within hours; posted stuff on Freecycle which was picked up in minutes, and thrown out two bags of trash. I think it’s working!