Once upon a time, in a cabin near Bordeaux, France in a region called Les Landes, there lived a vivacious and kind French couple. They had retired to this small, but infinitely charming house after spending their lives working hard to make ends meet. The home was quite decrepit and ordinary when they bought it, but the price was right, the location impeccable, and the couple had a knack for turning ordinary things into something magical.
For part of my life, I had the good fortune to call these two wonderful people family and spent many vacation days immersed in the hard-earned, well-deserved paradise they had created for themselves. We never did that much sight-seeing during my visits because I never wanted to leave their house. Most of our time was spent sitting at a plastic patio set on their porch eating something that looked like cheese-filled bugles or at the dining table that literally consumed their small living area sipping wine out of half-size wine glasses (by American standards).
Nothing the couple owned was particularly valuable, beautiful, or unique. Yet, there was an overall feeling about their possessions that made them seem so much more meaningful than anything I had accumulated back in my much grander house in the suburbs of Washington DC. No matter how much I studied the details of their decor or the patterns of their organization, I could never quite isolate what made their home so special, until they came to visit me in the states.
They stayed with me for several weeks. I only had weekends and a day here or there to spend with them, so they were frequently stranded at my home, left to entertain themselves. After a few days, I started to notice small changes around me. With each passing day, my home began to feel more like theirs, more at ease, more orderly. Some changes were obvious. They hung the cuckoo clock they brought me as a gift, grouted a tile table in need of TLC, repainted my mailbox stand, and did lots of yard work during the day. Yet, the transformation taking place went much deeper and I couldn’t figure out how they were doing it.
So, one afternoon I snuck home early to try to catch them in the act. When I arrived, I found the two of them dressed in gardening clothes, geared up with sponges and old toothbrushes, vigorously cleaning every crevice of my garden water fountain. It was a monumental task to empty that thing and clean it, so I usually only did a cursory job of it. But they had taken it on and were in fact laughing and enjoying themselves when I found them.
Once I realized how they’d been spending their time, it became evident that they had deep cleaned other neglected areas like the insides of appliances, under bathroom cabinets, the corners of closets, miscellaneous drawers, and more. After they left, I also discovered that they had leveled all my pictures and touched up the paint on the walls throughout the house. Yes they had deep-cleaned, and made many visual improvements, but I think the real warmth came from the care and energy they poured into these objects that I had chosen, for better or worse, as my living companions.
What a glorious gift it was to have this couple come visit and love my house and possessions the way that I had never been able to. It gave my whole home new life for a while.
I wish I could say that the experience transformed me and I kept up the care after they left, but back then, I worked too much and had more money than time, so it was easier to buy new than care for old.
Yet ever since, that experience has stayed with me as has their spirit and the strong impressions they made on me. I have told Matt repeatedly that I wish I could become the kind of person who cares for my things as they did. So, this year for Christmas, he bought me a little book that I thought might help set me on the path.
I am now 125 pages into “the life-changing magic of tidying up” by Marie Kondo. The author is clearly passionate about her subject and at first comes across as irritatingly repetitive and a bit crazy. Yet, the more I read, the more I realize, I need to be hammered over the head with this message and she is fabulous at it. Nothing she says is ground-breaking or innovative. It’s about as dull and ordinary as a self-help subject gets. Yet, it feels like exactly what I need to hear. Sometimes it’s the less sexy and sensational road that needs to be traveled.
Yesterday I kicked off my New Year with an honest effort to become more like this amazing couple who showed firsthand me what it means to be tidy. De-cluttering your clothes is step one in Marie Kondo’s master plan. I still have to go through some jewelry, but since I have far less clothing than the typical American female to begin with, I managed to collect, sort, and purge a leaf bag and a half full of clothes that don’t “spark joy”. (I also took those bags straight over to Goodwill this morning and wished them happiness with their future owners.)
As a homesteader, my clothes need to be comfortable, easy to clean, and breath well. So most of what sparks joy for me now is the stuff I grab first when heading out to shovel manure or that is comfortable to wear when I squat to milk goats. And, as the saying goes, shit happens, especially chicken, turkey, and duck shit on our farm. I often go through several t-shirts a day if I spend too much time cuddling the critters. So volume in t-shirts means less laundry and that means more joy! My favorites also have bright colors so I look like a flower working around our landscape in winter when they are very few real flowers.
At the end of the process, I had a two and a half foot wide closet full of “city clothes”, a shelf of work sweaters and jeans, one drawer of t-shirts and shorts, another of socks and underwear, and a “seasonal drawer” of city sweaters and swimsuits. And in our coat closet, I kept several light to heavy coats for layering and different farm activities. I only had six pairs of shoes to begin with and four are farm work shoes, so my shoe population suffered no further losses in the purge.
Giving away clothes is easy. The hard stuff is still to come. But even as I was finally letting go of fancy dresses I have known for years I would never wear again or business suits I had held on to “just in case” my life as a farmer didn’t, well, suit me, I had two epiphanies.
First, the less you own, the easier it is to appreciate and care for what you have. Obvious, I know, but still hard to see when you own too much. And also, of course there will be a point of diminishing returns when owning too little would be a hindrance and suck all the happiness out of life. So owning the right amount of stuff is key.
And second…it occurred to me that as grateful as I am for my experiences detailed above, I actually didn’t have to go all the way to France to learn how to be tidy. My dad, and my mom and my stepdad, are some of the tidiest people on the planet with many of the same habits as this French couple who ignited this fire in me. It’s just too bad no one ever listens to their parents or I might have figured this out a whole lot sooner!