Sustainability down under (or how I spent part of my summer vacation)

July disappeared in the blink of my eyes. It was a milestone month that marked both my 25th anniversary as a San Franciscan/Californian and the 10th anniversary of my business. Initially I had visions of a celebration where I’d bring clients past and present together to get to know one another and exchange stories. Instead I hemmed and hawed under the radar about taking off a generous bit of time in the middle of the month and joining my husband, Sven, on a work trip to attend the Ecocity World Summit. Coming immediately on the heels of a long-planned vacation to visit family and friends in Europe, indulging in a second overseas excursion in two months seemed a bit over the top.

A handful of pros outweighed the cons rather quickly – among them being the opportunity to explore the world’s most livable city (as it’s been designated since 2011) on a continent neither of us had yet to visit. And then there was the chance to see former Vice President Al Gore present a keynote. Can you see how all of that added up to a good excuse catalyst to jet off to Melbourne, Australia?

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Things Can Really Hang You Up the Most

The content of this post was written by my friend, Paul Overton, teacher, creator, seeker, writer,  Renaissance man, and as you’ll soon read, active liberator of spaces. He shared it on facebook earlier today, and it kind of blew my mind. It has been reproduced here in its entirety with his permission. You are invited follow him at https://www.facebook.com/dudecraft.

It’s five a.m. and I’m sitting on the floor of my apartment with a shirt in each hand, trying to decide whether to keep either of them. I have been doing this for ten minutes, and god knows how long it might go on.

I’m supposed to have a simple rule in place that keeps these things from happening: If I haven’t worn it or used it in the last two months, it goes. But the practical side of downsizing is always more complicated. The first few items are easy. Stuff I haven’t used, worn, or looked at in a year or more goes without a second thought. “Good job!”, I tell myself. “You’re really editing now!” But when you get down to three or four-hundred possessions, your stuff starts to put up a fight, and what seems like a straightforward “stay or go” proposition can become so fraught with emotion and nostalgia that a sort of object paralysis sets in. I can spend hours weighing the pros and cons of a potato peeler if I’m not careful, and the importance of that decision can balloon in significance until it seems as crucial as choosing a university or investing in the stock market.

It sounds insane. And it is, in a way. It’s addict behavior. I am asking a part of my brain to do the opposite of what it has been conditioned to do and, unsurprisingly, it’s fighting me every step of the way…inventing justifications and playing on my emotions to prevent me from simplifying my life. But, why? Why are my attachments to things so hard to break?

Aside from the obvious social conditioning that we have all been subjected to that tells us to constantly consume, rather than pay attention to what’s actually important, I think it has to do with fear. My brain knows that if I get rid of all the non-essential possessions in my life, then my focus may shift from thinking about what I might buy next to what I might do with all the freedom that comes along with voluntary simplicity…and that is terrifying. “What happens then?”, says my brain, as it’s flipping out about the unknown and imbuing things like lemon zesters with inflated significance. “What happens if you fight your programming and become radically free from the urge to hold onto useless things? Then what will we do?”

My brain, in actuality, would rather not know the answer to that question…because it would mean a foundational change in my way of being…and that means a lot of work. My brain hates to break habits when I ask it to, and this would be the biggest one I’ve ever set it to work on.

It also knows that by making big shifts that appear to be abnormal by society’s standards, my relationships may be affected, and my brain is afraid of being seen as a weirdo, or rather, MORE of a weirdo. It just wants me to assimilate and be comfortable with the routine. Work, buy stuff, keep an eye on the Joneses, blend in, etc. But that’s not what my gut, or soul, or higher self is interested in. My soul, for lack of a less woo-woo word, wants to see what’s possible. It knows that stuff is meaningless and that, out there beyond it, is something infinitely more interesting. It knows that shedding objects may be the first step in shedding a multitude of other fears, self-limiting beliefs, and habits that my brain has been steadfastly maintaining for decades…and it has a strong suspicion that if we can manage to get over this hilltop, we might see something that resembles the truth and sets us free.

This is the thought that I’m keeping in front of me as my brain tries to convince me that because a shirt says Brooks Brothers on it, it has some kind of intrinsic value beyond its “shirtness”. Twenty minutes in, I’m fed up and I quickly stuff both shirts in the Goodwill bag while my brain isn’t looking, and then throw the bag in my car before it has a chance at any further protest. I might regret it, but I probably won’t.

Like it or not…we’re doing this, brain.

Chaos to clarity

chaostoclarity_headerimage

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

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?

hugging carrots

 

hugging carrots

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?

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Giving things away by passing them along

tiny violinistMy great aunt took great joy in giving possessions away during the latter years of her life. I recall one afternoon when she told me she’d had “a talk” with her long-deceased mother-in-law, and that they agreed it was time for the old German chair – a bit of a family heirloom I long admired – to go home with me. She insisted it leave that very day, despite my uncertainty as to whether it would fit in the backseat of the car. (It did.)

She loved knowing the chair had a new home and would frequently ask about it. The chair continues to make me smile, and it gets used every day. But this story isn’t about the chair.

When she passed away I acquired a handful of meaningful items I continue to enjoy. The smallest of these was a tiny silver violinist.

During the years I visited and sipped many cups of tea with my aunt, this little guy and his instrument sat behind me atop the mid-century modern buffet and china cabinet. To me, this was the material manifestation of the proverbial sad song on the world’s tiniest violin. (You know it: the song you mime by rubbing your thumb and forefinger together while making a faux sad face as a friend tells you a story that is far from pitiful.) But I also found it to be quietly uplifting and inspiring. My great aunt and her husband were fans of classical music and loved attending the symphony. Her father (a.k.a. my great grandfather) was a violin teacher.

Up until a few weeks ago, the figurine lived on a ledge above my desk, fiddling a tune for an equally diminutive dancing Ganesh. When I was presented with an invitation to a dear friend’s middle school graduation party, it took no time for me to ponder and determine the perfect gift. A passionate and dedicated violinist since her single digit years, I had a hunch she’d appreciate the story attached to this slightly tarnished fellow. It’s better than anything I ever could have found in a store. Passing along this little token from my biological family to someone who is part of my chosen family felt like the right thing to do. After opening it, she decided it needed to live on top of the piano.

Thank you so much for the tiny violinist! It’s very motivating and it will definitely be a good reminder to practice the violin, in addition to the piano.

Did I mention my great aunt played the piano, too?

The gift of connection

The countdown to the year-end ritual of flocking to malls and online stores is upon us. Care to guess where you’ll find me? Dashing (as usual) in the opposite direction.

When the holiday freneticism is unavoidable at every turn, there’s something wonderfully delightful and perhaps a little bit deviant about choosing to swim against the mainstream current. I actually manage to avoid stress and languishing in long lines, all while fully embracing the season’s spirit of generosity on my own terms.

I’ve never understood why, as a society, we collectively wait to the last minute – or in this case, the last month of the year – to squeeze in all the big-heartedness and giving we possibly can that could have been applied liberally throughout the previous eleven months of the year. Continue reading

The power of we

In early 2008, the following email was sent to the general listserv of the National Association of Professional Organizers’ San Francisco Bay Area chapter (NAPO-SFBA):

I’ve been contacted by…Rebuilding Together, the national organization that does Habitat for Humanity type rebuilds and remodels of both private homes and non-profit organization’s facilities.

I was a construction captain a few years ago on a fabulous remodel of the basement of the Larkin Street Youth Center and last year did assessments on two homes…

Apparently there are projects in communities all around the Bay Area, but if you’d like to team up with a corporate sponsor and do some great work while showing off your organizing skills and NAPO’s community spirit–please let me know asap.

Really? A unique opportunity to stretch one’s organizing muscles, volunteer for an awesome nonprofit and cause, AND be part of a team that positively impacts the lives of strangers? “Please do put me on the list! I’d love to help if the timing’s right,” I responded to my colleague, Victoria Roberts-Russell.

Two weeks later, another email landed in my inbox. This one contained descriptions of various projects that could benefit from the input of a professional organizers. I signed on, completed a project, and was hooked. When it was over, I wondered how we could get more organizers on board with this seemingly natural partnership and began conspiring with Victoria and our enthusiastic associates at RTSF. Continue reading

The greatest “swag” of all

A week ago, I returned from a visit to NYC where I attended the BlogHer 2012 conference. As I do before any trip, I printed out my handy packing list and meticulously crossed things off as they entered the suitcase staging zone (a.k.a. the floor of my office). I was prepared for almost everything, including layers to ward off the chill of air conditioning, a thermal mug to keep my morning tea warm and my afternoon thirst trash-free, and a pen with an extra refill for all the notes I anticipated taking in the breakout sessions. I say almost everything because the one thing I was unprepared for was unpackable. It looked like this:

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