Returning from holiday can be hard – and not for the obvious reasons.
Last year I was fed up when we came back from the Lake District, and it wasn’t just the fact that I could no longer see Lake Windermere from the bedroom window. It was also because I missed the neat tidy air of the holiday cottage we’d stayed in. It was so serene and uncluttered. If I put a book down on the coffee table, I would still be able to find it the next day because it wouldn’t have been submerged under papers, junk mail and post-it notes.
Simplicity, clarity and peace reigned in that little cottage. I felt as though a loudspeaker had been turned off in my head and I could hear properly for the first time. And what I could hear was the voice of Marie Kondo (author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying) saying, ‘Does all that stuff in your house really spark joy?’
Because if it doesn’t, you’re meant to allow it to pass on to spark joy in someone else’s. A great recycling manifesto.
So that’s why I launched the very first Awesome August Clear-Out in our house (a designated annual event).
Like many people we worked from home during the pandemic lockdowns and despite officially going back to the office many moons ago, not everything seems to have made it back there. In many ways the house is still a home-office hybrid. Remember those days when every surface had to multitask? You’d wonder why the hairdryer wasn’t working only to realise you’d picked up the stapler instead. And vice versa. Our house hadn’t fully recovered from that and it needed to because I wanted that holiday cottage vibe. I wanted to open a cupboard and immediately find what I was looking for. I’ll never be the mad-clean type who whisks away an innocent person’s half-drunk cup of tea before they’ve finished, but I do crave clear surfaces and curated shelving. If you’re there already, I salute you. Move along, people, there’s nothing for you to see here.
For the rest of you, here’s why you too could benefit from an Awesome August Clear-Out.
- Coming back from holiday usually means you’re motivated by how pleasant it was to live a simpler life for a week or two. This was because you weren’t surrounded by stuff. We can’t all decide to renovate our homes, but we can make it easier to find things.
- Thousands of you have August off. School staff, pupils, students – you know who you are. You also know that when the month beginning with S comes around, you won’t have the time or motivation to engage with the great recycling push that comes with Recycle Week (September 19-25). September has the feeling of a fresh new start along with the crisp new notebook and academic diary. It’s also a much better month for resolutions than January so get ready for it now.
- The mild weather means you can dump all your stuff outside to sort through it all, like they do in the TV decluttering shows. Obviously you couldn’t do that today because it’s pouring down. And it couldn’t have been yesterday for the same reason. But you know, one day, in theory, that would be nice.
- One message that comes through loud and clear from the TV shows is that many parents can’t let go of their children’s childhoods. Guilty as charged. But I’ve now reduced the piles of memorabilia to one box per child. Parents, stop the insanity. I hate to be harsh, but – it’s gone.
- Children are at home in the holidays to help choose which things they want to keep. They will be fine with moving on. It’s you who’ll be clinging to a tatty rag, wailing, ‘But we can’t let go of Goosey!’
- Will you really read those books again? During the first Clear-Out I asked myself that question and realised I would have to live to about 140 to read not only all the books waiting silently to be read, but also those I intended to re-read. There is only one book I’ve ever read twice – To Kill a Mockingbird. So the evidence points to my not being one of life’s re-readers. Accepting this meant I could let go of dozens of books. Now when I pass my Agatha Christies on to friends and they say they’ll return them, I’ve learnt to say, No, it’s OK, I know who did it.
- My mother is a great fan of Death Cleaning – this is the Swedish custom of sorting through your lifetime’s possessions before you die, so sparing your loved ones the task later. It’s become her favourite hobby. Most people might visit their 80-something mothers and find them weeding, knitting or watching Bargain Hunt. Mine is to be found among piles of crockery, Tupperware and spare lawn mower parts. She death-cleans with such gusto that I suspect if she’d heard of it years ago she might never have accumulated anything in the first place. ‘I’m doing this so you don’t have to,’ she says. But recently I’ve noticed what seems to be happening is she’s passing things on to me so I’ll make the decisions about what to keep and discard. What she means is – ‘I’m letting you do this now so you don’t have to later.’ But I don’t mind. I’ve seen friends struggle to cope with these heartbreaking clear-outs after their parents have passed away. Now feels like the better time. My husband used to say things like, ‘We appear to have a large bag full of your mother’s retirement cards in the garage.’ Now he accepts it too. Her stuff has been annexed into our clear-out.
- According to Jen Gale in The Sustainable-ish Living Guide, once you’ve gone through the hassle of decluttering you become far more selective about what you bring into the house that might need decluttering again down the line. Once you start this process it becomes easier to live by the ‘Buy Less, Buy Better’ eco mantra.
- Try this hardcore technique showcased by the Minimalists: Pretend you’re moving and pack up all your stuff into cardboard boxes. Label them so you know what’s in each one and then store them in a room in your house. When you need something over the next month, go and get it out and find a home for it. The theory is that anything left at the end of month isn’t something you use much and can be eradicated from your home.
- When it’s time to get rid of documents such as bills, receipts, statements and personal letters, it can be a big but satisfying job. Some people burn them after shredding or dunk them in water, but the most eco-friendly method is to compost them. Paper is rich in carbon, which provides balance with materials rich in nitrogen, such as food waste. Avoid composting any paper that might contain high levels of toxic chemicals such as glossy paper. You can cut down on the volume by only tearing out the parts that contain sensitive data. Many letters contain a lot of standard official jargon with no personal references. These parts could simply be added to your recycling bin.
A compost bin is the safest of all bins for personal papers. As one of our customers said, ‘Good luck to anyone who wants to go rummaging through my Green Johanna!’
The golden rules of clear-outs
- The number one rule is this – respect what’s important to other people. For me this means accepting that to certain family members thousands of West Bromwich Albion, Leeds United and St Helens RL programmes have the historic value of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It also means my husband will never again try to throw out the battered flight bag that is priceless to me because my Auntie Margaret bought it for me when I ‘went away’ to university. I actually only crossed the Pennines but I was leaving Yorkshire so…
- Do not be fooled into thinking this is merely a physical exercise. This is a mental, emotional, and, yes, spiritual (if that’s the way you roll) activity. We are letting go in all senses of the word. If, like me, you are a fan of shows about hoarders, you’ll know that hoarding is thought to be psychological in origin, apparently related to feelings of loss. But don’t let this put you off. Take it slowly and gently, one room or even cupboard at a time and get a sympathetic (but not too sympathetic) friend or relative to help. Plan some treats, like taking a coffee break in a cafe. Go for the easiest room to tackle first – the bathroom.
- Don’t leave the house while a clear-out is taking place. My cousin managed to get her husband to clear out their garage. But then she went out, while he got busy taking all the ‘junk’ to the tip, along with a lifetime’s accumulation of precious Christmas decorations. I know. It makes no sense, what was he thinking? Childhood ends but Christmas is for life.
- Children are often motivated by the kind idea of giving something away so another child can enjoy it – but don’t force this spirit of philanthropy. When the great comedian Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage) died earlier this year I read that he blamed his bibliomania on the time he returned from school as a boy to find that his mother had given away all his precious books to the Salvation Army. Her argument was that he had already read them. To compensate for this loss he went on to collect 30,000 books over his lifetime. So encourage but don’t push too hard – it could backfire.
- There are wonderful schemes to redistribute books to children who have none of their own. Abel and Cole’s organic delivery service is running a Give Back with Books scheme working with the Children’s Book Project. They are collecting books as they make deliveries until August 18th.
Give Back With Books
Passing your things on:
- Charity shops are always crying out for donations of decent quality – that means clean and undamaged goods with no missing parts.
If we give them things they can’t sell, all we’re doing is passing the work of sorting it out on to someone else. Check with charity shops as to what they accept – most won’t take electrical items as they need PAT testing (Portable Appliance Testing) to ensure they are safe to use. Many shops also won’t accept car seats, bike helmets, medical appliances and safety devices.
- Check out freecycle.org and ilovefreegle.org.
Acknowledge that your family’s needs change as your lives change. The small second-hand dining table that had served my family as our children were growing up was no longer adequate when our sons grew up and got partners, meaning a bigger family table was needed. I put the old one on freegle along with the five small Ikea chairs that had served us for years. The young mum who came for them was overjoyed. I felt delighted, if a little nostalgic for times past, at the thought that her children would now be eating and crafting at that table just as my sons had done. Time to move on.
- Don’t forget to donate – and shop – at church fairs. There are some interesting and unusual donations depending on the lives lived by parishioners. On our book stall a few years ago an elderly lady asked if we had any Nietzsche. I don’t know what surprised me most – the request or the fact that I was able to say yes, we did indeed have some Nietzsche, and not just one but two! Waterstones, eat your heart out.
Job done. Now when Recycling Week comes round you can sit back and polish your green halo.