Friday, December 29, 2006

A Resolution to be Kind

I have conducted a thoroughly unscientific study of various resources and have discovered what the most popular New Year's resolutions are that the vast majority of us will be making (again) this year: We would like to lose weight, exercise more, and get organized. I suspect that a fairly good case could be made that these popular resolutions are inter-related issues for many of us. Now, I'm not saying that all overweight, out-of-shape people are disorganized, or that all disorganized people are overweight and out-of-shape, but work with me here just in case this scenario sounds familiar to you.

Based on my own thoughtful but thoroughly unscientific reasoning, I ask that you consider these possibilities. While there are many factors that lead us to being overweight, one significant reason that we over-eat is depression. Over-eating is "self-medicating" and, honestly, who doesn't feel better, at least momentarily, after something chocolate? And where does that expression, "comfort food," come from? Notice that it's never applied to salads. Unfortunately, after feeling better, we usually feel guilty and that makes us depressed.

Depression and being overweight also leave us feeling fatigued and that is hardly the frame of mind that prompts us to leap off of the couch and exercise. That produces guilt and then that usually makes us inclined to self-medicate even more. Perhaps brownies.

I'm not trained to offer profound insights into all the various causes of serious clinical depression. However, I can pretty much guarantee that, for the average person, living in a cluttered, over-crowded environment and constantly feeling overwhelmed by extra stuff can be enough all by itself to make just about anybody feel pretty depressed. And if you're feeling depressed and overwhelmed, you might decide to self-medicate with an extra snack or two. Also, if you're feeling overwhelmed, you might begin to wonder what's wrong with you, to blame yourself, criticize yourself and feel like you've failed somehow. Well, at least some candies will help, won't they? Only temporarily. Then, more guilt, more depression. And all those excess possessions stay right where they are, continuing to torture you.

It's not a healthy cycle but I think it's an all-too-common one. If it's a cycle you know well, you're probably wondering how to snap out of it. I'd like to suggest that you stop resolving to diet, stop resolving to exercise, and even stop resolving to get organized. Instead, try making a resolution to be kind to yourself. Unload all the guilt completely. Stop berating yourself for your perceived "failures" and start treating yourself the way you'd treat a friend or family member who simply has a problem. My bet is that you would never say to someone else the type of critical remarks you say to yourself in your own head; you'd simply try to figure out a way to help fix the situation.

Because I believe that our environment has a profound effect on our state of mind, naturally I'd suggest that you start trying to fix your situation by eliminating clutter. My book covers different approaches you might take, various obstacles you'll undoubtedly face, and lots of little tips and tricks. But however you tackle your clutter problem, simply be kind to yourself as you're working on it, the way you'd be kind to your closest friend as you helped her out with her troubles. Be kind, but firm. It is a challenging job you're taking on and you will be required to make some difficult decisions.

My theory is that if you make progress un-cluttering your home, your spirits will be lifted. That means less need for those extra cookies to make you feel better because you'll already feel better. And you'll have more energy, too. Maybe a walk around the block wouldn't be such a bad idea. You'll come back refreshed and ready to un-clutter even more.

I'd love to hear if this approach is helpful to you. All it takes is making one resolution: Be kind to yourself. Happy New Year!

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, December 18, 2006

'Tis the Season to Lighten Up!

It's commonly accepted that the holiday season can produce stress of monumental proportions. For reasons perhaps best understood by psychiatrists and psychologists, many of us create much of that stress because we seem determined to make everything perfect: the holiday decorations, the holiday meal, the holiday gifts. For those of us who already have perfectionist tendencies -- and often people who struggle with clutter actually do so because they are perfectionists, difficult as that may be for "regular" people to understand -- this can create a level of anxiety that makes us want to decamp to a remote mountain top and hide in a cave. Add to that those fast-approaching New Year's resolutions that are usually uncomfortable repeats of the ones we made last year and, well, we may want to stay in that cave like a hibernating bear until spring and skip the whole traumatic experience.

Let's get a grip! This is a holiday season, not an endurance test. And let's be honest about our feelings: seeking perfection is usually about us trying to do what we think we're "supposed" to do, not what others actually want or expect. In fact, if you have someone in your life who wants you to be perfect, you're dealing with a person who is delusional. Rule of Life: no one is perfect and no one should expect anyone else to be perfect. The best we can hope for is to make the holidays as enjoyable as possible for the people we care about. That requires a more realistic approach to handling our time and energy so that we can enjoy the experience, too.

In our household we've managed to pare down both the gift list and the decorating over the years to a manageable bare minimum. We have a simple holiday meal with the immediate family and one or two guests. I save my major entertaining for a Chinese New Year party in February. I made that decision quite a few years ago and friends now look forward to my unusual annual event rather than worrying about trying to squeeze in another party during party-packed December.

But I confess that I still feel stressed sometimes anyway, probably as a result of my own perfectionist tendencies which cause me to compare everything I do with my memories of my childhood holidays. I have the good fortune to have very happy memories, thanks primarily to my incredibly organized mother's skills at creating a charmingly decorated home, preparing delicious meals, and selecting special gifts -- all while thoroughly enjoying herself and not worrying at all about perfection. Yet she even made the gift-wrapping look exceptional, pleating different colored tissue papers, mixing different paper designs, hand-tying unusual bows. Looking back I realize that many of my gifts were quite practical, yet they were still exciting to receive because they were wrapped so beautifully. And there was always some truly special item that I particularly wanted that I was lucky enough to receive, too. I also realize that it took a lot of effort and frugal spending throughout the year to make the holidays enjoyable for my family. Mom's a tough act to follow, although now that she's moved to Los Angeles and shares the holidays at our home, she kindly insists that I'm doing just fine.

But there was a ten-year stretch in which my mother faced this time of year alone. My father had passed away and Mom was living in a small town. She never wanted me to travel there during the usually snowy weather (a long drive was required following the flight), but she was not about to mope around or rely on friends to entertain her. Instead she volunteered every Thanksgiving and Christmas for the Rescue Mission, an organization that served a full holiday meal to everyone, not just the homeless or poor population, but every single person in the whole town who wanted to attend. Now, that's a friendly town! Obviously, this was a major community event requiring many, many volunteers and the generous donations of several businesses, including the use of the huge, newly renovated, historic former train depot, which was always specially decorated for the event. This lovely, sit-down dinner was a great success with a cross-section of the town's residents but it was especially popular with senior citizens who were on fixed incomes and alone for the holidays. Mom always had a wonderful time helping out with the baking and serving the meals. What could be a more inspiring example of the true spirit of the holidays?

So, instead of feeling stressed about trying to be perfect, let's just admit that we'll never be perfect anyway and take a look at what this season offers us: we have a chance to give to others, a chance to share with family and friends, a chance to feel the joy of being a part of something larger and more significant than any pointless attempts to create some imaginary "perfect" holiday. Let's not miss our chance.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Gift-Giving 101

People so often agonize over what to give friends and family, but it really shouldn't be such a struggle. If you take some time to pay attention to what a person finds interesting or useful, your gift ideas will be limited only by what you can afford and even the tiniest budget can be considered a challenge rather than a deterrent. Contrary to what regrettably seems to be public opinion, the holidays are not an excuse for contests to find out who spent the most money, who got the biggest gift, or who got the largest quantity of gifts. This is the time of year when that old expression "it's the thought that counts" really is supposed to count.

Not surprisingly, I'm an advocate of giving gifts that I know can be used and, preferably, completely used up by the recipient. I often like to give food, especially an unusual or homemade treat. When I had a larger gift-giving list, I used to bake a lot for the holidays, but I've also given store-bought items such as an assortment of hot sauces to a fan of very spicy foods, jugs of Vermont maple syrup to a confirmed pancake lover, and truly decadent chocolates to a friend who deeply appreciates the indulgence.

Of course, there are many other excellent fully-consumable gifts that don't involve food at all, such as spa massages, theater tickets, or memberships to museums. I'm also a huge supporter of making a donation to a charity in honor of someone on my gift list, particularly if I know that charity has a special place in the recipient's heart or is devoted to a cause that the recipient would be excited to support.

In my book I devote a chapter to gift-giving and offer a number of other suggestions, some costing nothing, that are thoughtful alternatives to give to friends and family who are already over-burdened by their possessions. It's helpful, too, for those of us who struggle with too much stuff of our own to begin thinking this way rather than always feeling that a "thing" is required to qualify as a gift.

But I know that there are people who are still attached to that more traditional idea of giving a "thing." If you've decided to give someone something that's going to be around for awhile and you can't be persuaded that there's probably an equally attractive if not better alternative, then I'd like to suggest that you at least consider the source of your gift as well as the gift itself. In fact, it's worth considering the source no matter what that gift may be, even if it's completely consumable or totally practical.

Fortunately, many stores and websites now offer a huge variety of "fair trade" items for sale. You can find fair trade clothing, jewelry, household decor, toys, musical instruments, spa-style gift baskets, and just about any other gift you can imagine. If you're not familiar with fair trade products, the Fair Trade Federation explains them as the products of "wholesalers, retailers, and producers whose members are committed to providing fair wages and good employment opportunities to economically disadvantaged artisans and farmers worldwide."

Global Exchange, a great resource for fair trade gifts, explains the participants' requirements further:

"Paying a fair wage in the local context,
Offering employees opportunities for advancement,
Engaging in environmentally sustainable practices,
Being open to public accountability,
Building long-term trade relationships,
Providing healthy and safe working conditions within the local context,
Providing financial and technical assistance to producers whenever possible,
Ensuring that there is no abuse of child labor."

Buying fair trade items offers us the opportunity to give twice: not only do we give a gift to its recipient, but we also give financial support and hope to the skilled but impoverished creators of these unique and often fabulously creative, colorful, hand-made products from all over the world. Many items are beautifully decorative, but just as many are quite useful, too. In fact, it is with some hesitation that I point out even a few of the possible sites for fair trade gifts because the temptation will be so great to buy more than you need for others, then buy even more things for yourself! If you do choose to look, please be strong!

Finally, before you proceed, please remember that the greatest gift requires nothing more than giving love, giving time, giving yourself. Everything else is just "stuff."

Two Hands Worldshop
World of Good
Ten Thousand Villages
Fair Trade Quilts and Crafts
A Greater Gift

(I have no vested interest of any kind in any of the sites mentioned. If you search for "fair trade gifts" on Google, Yahoo, or whatever search engine you prefer, you will find further information and many other websites. You can also find retail outlets throughout the USA and internationally that sell fair trade items by searching the list on the Fair Trade Federation site.)

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, December 04, 2006

Too Much Very Fine Stuff

Years ago I attended a glamorous party at the lavishly furnished Beverly Hills home of a Hollywood icon. His long career had provided many awards, mementos, photos with other famous people, and an income that allowed him to purchase whatever elegant accessories caught his fancy. The party was a thrill, but the house was positively claustrophobic! Furniture crammed tightly into each room. Every flat surface covered with collectibles, photos, decorations. Walls smothered with paintings and more photos. That was when I realized how easily even expensive, beautiful and sentimental possessions can turn into plain old clutter.

I happen to be a fan of modernism. I like the sleek lines, the lack of ornamentation. I also like the Japanese design aesthetic. If I were completely re-decorating our home, I'd probably look to a Zen monastery for inspiration. But I didn't always feel this way.

I inherited lovely 19th and early 20th century furniture, dishes and decorative items from my grandparents, and purchased many other antiques on my own. I collected Victorian teacups and plates with roses on them. I once bought a massive 18th century English linen press that we used for years as a dresser. (My partner, The Writer, hated it and said it looked like a huge coffin, but he's always been more concerned with function than form.) I truly enjoyed living with all these things for most of my adult life.

Then, several years ago, something changed. I can't explain it, I can't point to a particular moment in which I had an epiphany about it, but gradually I had to admit to myself that my beautiful antiques no longer "worked" with the way I live my life. I discuss in my book the process of letting go of most (no, not all) of these things that I valued so highly and associated with wonderful family memories. It wasn't an easy process, but it was rather liberating. The small number of dishes, decorative and personal items that I kept now feels quite manageable to me. Instead of antiques, empty space with no clutter has become my most sought-after "collectible."

So, I was interested to read recently in the L.A. Times an article by Jeff Spurrier spotlighting decorating trends. He reports on what he calls the home interior "vanishing act" that started in the kitchen some years ago with paneling that covers the appliances so that they blend into the cabinetry. According to Spurrier, other parts of the home are reflecting "our growing penchant for a clutter-free life." Now, in addition to hidden dishwashers, refrigerators and microwaves, we have such things as ceiling fans with retractable blades, medicine cabinets that pivot from the wall on the back of full-length mirrors, and, most amusingly, a "BenchToilet" in which the entire commode can be concealed by a teak panel that slides over the top of a long stainless steel cabinet that surrounds the fixture. This particular item will be available in Southern California next year and will cost $11,475 to $13,345 (plus the cost of the toilet). I'd suggest that there are many less expensive ways to eliminate visual clutter, but I do admire the spirit and ingenuity of the designers!

Of course, you don't need to be a modernist to enjoy a clutter-free home. I have friends who have lovely traditional furnishings in their very comfortably livable homes. And those homes all have some things in common: collections are contained, not scattered haphazardly everywhere; furniture is placed in such a way that there's plenty of room to move around it; and the decorative items in each home reflect the personalities of the people who live there. I try to achieve that in our rather eclectically furnished home, too, though it takes me a bit of extra effort. But I think a home is always a work in progress. At least it's nice to feel like this one is headed in the right direction.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob