Zen and the art of disruption

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The topic of this post was nowhere on my running list of things to write about, but sometimes life or the random or unplanned event zips itself to the beginning of the queue, screams for attention, and ends up being shared like this:

I usually experience the before-during-after of home remodels, construction, and the like through the eyes and emotions of my clients. As the calm and practical voice of reason who can see where they are, where they’re going, and how to bring them back to center, I’m called on to help with the preparation, navigation, and resettlement img_7428of their spaces and minds.

As a long-time renter, and unlike many homeowners, I had yet to experience the temporary life-interrupting effects of residing in my home while contractors did their thing. Leave it to some defective paint issues in an old Victorian to provide such an opportunity.

For regular readers of this blog, the photo to the right depicts a familiar corner of my kitchen table. This particular scene – still-life with fruit, dental care, and toilet paper – is unfamiliar to all of us. The bathroom items (including the wandering dental floss) had to be relocated  to the only other room with a sink while the bathroom was being repainted. The extra roll of toilet paper was placed strategically in the event the contractors needed a fresh roll when Sven and I were out of the house.

But why the kitchen table? There is no actual physical counter space in our 100% countertop-free kitchen, so when we had to move the essentials out of the bathroom cabinets, the dining space was encroached upon. I knew things were going to be out of whack for a little while, and I was surprised by the effects this little dose of non-normalcy had on me. For a couple of days, my overall productivity and focus suffered even though my office and rooms of respite had yet to be impacted.

Four days in and the overall situation felt quite manageable and less uncomfortable even as the next phase of painting and repair work pushed us out of our bed and bedroom and into greater inconvenience.

You see, preparation for the seemingly simple job of repainting the ceiling in the bedroom revealed severely compromised plaster, the original from when the house was built in 1887. While things would move along quickly, the job would now take nearly twice as long as initially projected. This wasn’t the project our landlords signed up for. This certainly wasn’t what we tenants signed up for either. It was time for the dust to fly as demolition of said plaster began in order to make way for drywall.

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We gathered enough clothes for a week, carried the pillows and blankets to the room next door, and settled in as guests in our very own multi-purpose guest room / dining room / parlor. (I forgot to grab a belt before the armoire in the bedroom was shrouded and taped for eight days. Oops!)

Five work days in with a bonus weekend reprieve, we had to re-nest again as the contractors were ready to tackle the ceiling in the multi-purpose space. We moved further west to the living room, or what I began calling “the studio apartment” within our apartment.

Our greatly compressed, stacked, and scrambled living space was rather comical at this point. In order to fit the guest futon in the room, the couch had to be rotated ninety degrees to nest (with inches to spare) in the bay window. Temporary sleeping quarters were to be a mere three feet from my desk. The view was a landscape of inviting pillows.

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My office nook was piled high with boxes for a project I’d been working on in the parlor, a rolled up rug rested beneath my desk, and a chair from the bedroom was wedged in at the entrance to the space. The latter served as Sven’s clothes staging zone and a traffic calming feature. After walking twice into the chair that’s not usually there, I was forced to slow down when making the turn into my office. For some crazy reason, in the midst of all the chaos, I was more focused and productive when working at home than I’d been in weeks.

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Work in our flat ended a week ago. The ceilings are beautiful and our spaces are mostly back to normal. There’s a renewed appreciation for things being as they should and not taking basic conveniences for granted. Sweeping up the last bits of dust and re-hanging the last pieces of art have brought me back to center.

Being prepared and flexible made a huge difference. Little did I know this adventure was going to give me firsthand affirmation of the recommendations and strategies I present to clients when they’re getting ready to have walls opened, painted, added and otherwise.

  • Remove fragile and/or valuable items from the spaces in and around the site in advance of work commencing. Taking time to do this before contractors arrive allows them to get started on their work without delay. Knowing that ladders and other equipment were going to be brought up and down the stairs, we cleared artwork from the stairwell and the walls in the immediate areas where work was taking place. This is also a perfect opportunity to recommend triaging things you no longer want from the spaces.
  • Prepare for inconveniences. Things are not going to be where they are supposed to be, and the rhythms and habits of your days may be impacted. Have a backup plan if vital rooms – like the bathroom – will be partially or fully out of commission. This is where it helps to be on good terms with your neighbors and/or have really good friends who live nearby. Being able to use the loo at the cafe a half block from our house was a life-saver on days we worked from home. (The toilet and sink were accessible overnight.) Gym membership came in handy for taking showers until the paint finished curing in the bathroom walls.
  • Take care of your body and mind. In the midst of upheaval, what will make things easier or give you comfort? This is a fine time to indulge. Giving myself permission to go bed earlier than usual and simply checking out for a night or two was pure magic.
  • Expect the unexpected, delays, and all that jazz. Sometimes a contractor has to literally get into the work before discoveries are made that may lengthen or change the trajectory of your project. Tapping into your inner zen, sense of humor, and flexibility will make inconveniences a little more palatable. Bonus points if your contractor has a good and honest sense of humor, too!
  • Take the time to do a deep clean as you resettle. Putting everything back where it belongs is the mechanical part of reassembling the house . Cleaning (i.e. dusting, laundering, wiping down, etc.) provides a fresh return to and reclaiming of your spaces.

In the same way getting more organized can be a messy process, so is life in your own home while wonderful improvements are being made around you. What seems linear and clear as a bell, can also take you off your tracks for a little while. Resiliency kicks in, new habits can be discovered and unlearned. Take it from me. It took no time to find my way back to the bathroom for the toothbrush.

Chaos to clarity

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Describing what they face as the familiar clutter, mess, chaos, disarray, congestion, roadblocks, or the unique paper salad (one of my all-time favorites) or landscape of piles is a state of disorder that is real for and relative to each and every client I meet.

One person’s chaos is another person’s bliss and vice versa. I will never forget a phone call from a woman who confided that photographs of super tidy kitchen drawers made her extremely uneasy. She was most comfortable with a degree of “stuffedness” that would frustrate or overwhelm someone else.

I appreciate the diversity of and challenges for every person who invites me to enter their home, the bravery it takes to call for help, the transformations that happen within and around them. Everyone has muscles to stretch and new things to experience.

So it will come as little surprise I was filled with intrigue when I was invited to be the guest lecturer for an experimental weekend workshop titled “Chaos to Clarity: Finding Order in a Disorganized World,” at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (a.k.a. the d.school). The invitation also included an offer to attend and participate in any or all of the workshop. Knowing this was a rare opportunity, I opted for the latter. Continue reading

A vote to opt-out of e-waste

I’m going to get a little political without getting political. The California primary is two days way. Voting guides arrived weeks ago. That’s it.

Sort of…

Below you’ll find the voting guides from the San Francisco Department of Elections and the California Office of the Secretary of State that were delivered to a visually impaired client. The former was delivered via a thumb drive and the latter was delivered via an audio cassette. That’s right, two different formats. At least one, if not both, arrived in bubble mailers. (Grrrr…)

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Whether or not she and thousands of others have the technology or technological know-how to listen to the content contained on these is an entirely different topic for discussion. At issue and the point of this brief post is that the recipients of these cassettes and drives are now responsible for disposing of these inherently single-use items. Most will be tossed in the trash because that’s what most people do.

In this case, the cassette will be added to a bag of e-waste I’ve collected from clients over the past month for proper recycling/disposal. The 8GB thumb drive is reusable. I deleted the voting information and renamed the drive. It’s ready for action in my office.

Do our municipalities and state offer an opt-out of these delivery vehicles? Could there be a program for taking these back for re-use? How about phone-in options where folks can listen to a recording. The recordings already exist as evidenced by the above.

It’s time to make some calls to investigate the alternatives. I’ll wait until after Tuesday.

This is not (only) a basket

basketloadedAs the Earth makes another trip around the sun, we find ourselves arriving once again at that day for collectively celebrating and honoring her awesomeness. And it is on this occasion that I’ve chosen to share a little tale about how we can become mindful and respectful of her resources while we connect with one another.

The story begins with a visit to southern Germany shortly after my partner and I started dating. One of the things that struck me was the sight of women carrying baskets to and from the village bakery for their daily loaves and pretzels. There was something so old world and quaint about these containers, while at the same time, their use made so much modern-day environmental sense. They were decorative, multi-functional, and they  eliminated the need for paper bags and the accompanying accumulation and storage of the latter.

IMG_5246Back at home, I kept re-noticing the beautiful Ghanaian Bolga baskets I coveted so much on the arms of my fellow farmers market shoppers. Oh, how much I yearned to have one, but it was impractical to walk to and from the market with a full and often heavy load hanging from my arm. Those baskets are great for someone who walks just a couple of blocks or drives. Our forays to the farmers market are on foot, by public transit, or by bicycle. Sturdy reusable bags or a backpack are ideal. Once I started pedaling there, panniers became the carrier option of choice.

The idea of integrating a basket into my life never left my mind. One day I had an aha moment: we visit the bakery down the street with enough regularity to warrant a designated receptacle for transporting and storing our purchases. Finally, I had a reason to acquire a fair trade Bolga basket! Beyond bread-like things, it gets used for transporting goods to parties and other social gatherings.

But let’s get back to the bakery for a moment. More often than not, the worker-owners at the bakery cooperative down the street express gratitude whenever we bring and use our basket. A brief conversation often ensues at the register while the transaction is completed. They wish more people saw the benefit of bringing their own bag or container, and all we can say them is that we hope our basket will inspire and motivate others who see it in action. One cashier, complimenting me on the basket, told me it reminded her of the market baskets used Mexico where she grew up. We chatted about that for a bit. It was then and there that I realized the basket is more than a device for carrying or storing things. It’s also a catalyst for communicating with others and sharing our stories. In fact, whenever he sees me with the basket in tow, the owner at the corner cafe gets a kick out of what he calls my mushroom hunting basket. I hadn’t thought about becoming a mushroom hunter, but there’s an idea…

 

 

How to tame your paper piles

IMG_1982I’ve written about paper before, and I’m writing about paper again. Why? Because one area of life people routinely wish to get under control once and for all is the overwhelming array of papers that congregate in any number of places around the home.

While paper can cause feelings of anxiety and overwhelm, you’ll be happy to know that once it’s reined in, the very same paper can also produce calm and control.

For many, paper congestion begins at the mailbox, and I’ve got a handful of steps you can take to curb the influx, increase the paper flow, and create greater clarity and control. Continue reading

The stuff in her dad’s garage

A little over seven years ago, a friend invited me to meet her parents at their home in San Jose. Her father had amassed a collection of stuff in the garage, and she asked me to bring my camera in case I was inclined to photograph it.

Having been told little about what to expect, but assured I’d be interested in what was there, I was prepared for a garage packed to the gills scenario.

We arrived at the house where she grew up and rang the doorbell. Her mother met us at the front door, and said she’d see us at the garage. We walked back toward the car and waited a few minutes on the driveway for the wide double door to rise.

Continue reading

The day I threw away my journals

When you’re in the throes of a drought and a rainy day is but a far off promise the meteorologists continue to dangle in front of you, you have to take matters into your own hands. This past weekend, I gave myself a rain day.

A couple of stay-indoors-and-focus kind of projects had been gnawing at me for quite some time. They were never in the way, but they managed to push their way to the front of my mental line. These were purge-y kind of endeavors, but they were far from urgent. In fact, they’d been out of sight for years, contained in bankers boxes on a shelf in the back of the closet. It was decision and action day. My initial targets: a series of journals. Continue reading

Perfectly imperfect: Coming to a Grocery Store Near You?

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Food was the gateway to a more mindful and sustainable approach in my life, and it happened very much by chance. Shortly after my move to San Francisco in the early 90s, I found myself having adverse physical reactions to a wide range of fruits I had always eaten. When a roommate suggested I try their organic counterparts from the corner market five blocks from our flat, I was set on a new path. Around that time, too, I was introduced to Whole Foods. The retail chain didn’t have a location in San Francisco just yet, and someone brought the then car-free me to their understated outpost in Mill Valley, CA, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. “Beautiful food for beautiful people,” was how the store and its customers were described to me.

And my, oh my, the produce was beautiful. Similarly-sized and arranged in impeccable formations, it seemed sacrilege to interrupt the peppers and heads of lettuces – many varieties which I’d not seen before –  in order to selections to my basket. But more than beautiful, the produce was kinda sorta strangely perfect. Perfect produce? How on earth was that possible?

Continue reading

A donation for a favor

“Paper is a big challenge. The mailman always brings more.” I hear some version of that sentiment quite often. Even after they have gone through the process of opting out of credit card and insurance offers, a large percentage of my clients struggle with an influx of unsolicited mail. Envelopes filled with pre-printed return address labels, bundles of cheesy seasonal cards, calendars, and the occasional random penny or nickel, yield slippery piles of unruly papers. And all the senders of these “gifts,” invitations, and pleas want is a donation for their good cause. Ninety-some-odd percent of the time, their attempts result in generous contributions to recycling bins and short-lasting relief on the faces of these clients.

Mind you, I’m all for good causes. I spent many years working in the nonprofit educational realm – art and natural history museums in NYC and San Francisco – and volunteer in my spare time. Nonprofits depend on the support of individual donors, and I’m happy to contribute to their betterment of our world and ways each year. But I had a lapse recently when, for the first time ever, I became a museum member. (One of the great benefits of museum employment was free museum entry at any reciprocating institution. I miss that.)

Weeks after my membership welcome arrived in the mail, so too did a solicitation from another museum. Oh dammit. That’s right. Nonprofits sell our information to other nonprofits, and in my case, the unsolicited mail cycle was resuscitated. I stopped that train mid-track by phoning both organizations to ask that my name be removed from all mailing lists and to request they do not sell or distribute my information. The unwanted mail ceased.

As we find ourselves in the midst of the season of giving, sharing, and storytelling, my hope is this little tale can contribute to the betterment of your desk, entryway, dining room table and/or countertop as the new year begins.

It is extremely rare to find a “donate” page on a nonprofit’s website that provides a box for you to specify if your donation is in honor of someone/s, write a note or message to the organization, and/or allow you to opt out of being added to their mailing list. So here’s what I do. I resort to a tried and true approach and mail a check with a letter. The basic version goes something like this:

To whom it may concern,

Enclosed please find my donation to [awesome nonprofit]. I am happy to donate because of the meaningful and vital work you do.

In exchange, I wish to ask the following: Please do not add me to your mailing lists or sell my information. I hope you will honor my desire to provide support without being inundated by mail that I do not wish to receive. My mailbox is on a diet : )

Sincerely,

P.S. Perhaps you’ll consider adding a box to the main donation form page on your website for donors like myself to donate quickly while providing us with an opt out option at the same time. I bet it could help save you time and resources in the future.

Less paper to manage yields more time for things that matter. Think of all the things you can do if you minimize your time shuffling unwanted mail.

And that, my friends, is my gift to you!

There are few more checks to be written over here…