Storage: the Home Organizing Con(tainer)

When your containers need containers... 

When your containers need containers... 

If you're like most people, when you think about organizing your home, you think about getting more storage containers. 

In the timeless words of Admiral Ackbar... IT'S A TRAP. 

Of the dozens of people I've worked with, not a SINGLE ONE has needed to buy more storage containers. Not one. Why is that?

There are a couple of reasons. One, if you've been thinking about getting your house in order for a while, you've probably already made some trips to the Con(tainer) Store. You've probably got extra hanging files and extra bins tucked away... somewhere out of sight... Or you have containers full of tax documents from 15 years ago that you could empty out without even reading any of them. You just... haven't gotten around to that part yet.

Second, you may not have heard about the great tricks I use in organizing that make many containers obsolete. For example, when you position bookcases about 4 inches away from a wall, there's great storage behind them for broken-down moving boxes. They're out of sight until you start packing for your next move. Furniture about 10-12 inches from a side wall make a great mini storage space for things like brooms, vacuum cleaners, umbrellas, and walking sticks -- no container needed. There are tricks for desks, traveling, bathrooms, you name it.

But the bottom line is that the problem I encounter in most homes isn't about finding containers for the stuff you use. The problem is that you have a bunch of stuff in your home that you don't use.

Storage containers provide a handy way to keep stuff out of sight, but they don't address the real problem. The problem is that there is stuff in your home that isn't helping your home work for you. That stuff is making you work for your home -- taking your mental energy to ignore, taking your money to buy containers and keep it out of sight, taking your time to sift through it and get rid of it. Storage containers may be a band-aid, but they're like a band-aid on an infection: they  cover it up, but they don't help it heal.

Next time you're thinking about organizing your stuff, don't fall for the great container con. Strike the heart of the problem. Empty out one of those boxes of old papers you haven't looked at in years, or call me in to empty a bunch of them. Now you have an empty container (or 15) to use, and less stuff to worry about overall. I call that a win.


Have other container-free storage solutions? Want to share your favorite organizing tips? Share them below!

How backpacking helps me organize

Backpacking in the Sierras, 2012.

Backpacking in the Sierras, 2012.

If you've never gone backpacking* before, getting ready for it can be weirdly mysterious. I've watched this process before, when I've helped friends get ready for their first backpacking trips. They don't quite know where to start. When you have to carry everything on your back, the impetus to lighten the load is powerful. But just knowing that really doesn't help. The problem is that without having already gone through the process of packing a backpack and living out of it for a few days, you probably don't have the tricks and tools that make this kind of adventure appealing. 

You might be wondering what backpacking has to do with organizing. In essence, both backpacking and organizing offer systems for simplifying your life. For a backpacker, the motivation to minimize is clear: you don't want to carry more than you have to when you're hiking. It hurts. Organizing seems a little more opaque at first glance; after all, you don't have to carry all the stuff you own with you every day. But you do pay for the stuff you own, in various ways; you pay for space to keep your stuff in. Every time you move, somebody has to carry all that stuff. Maybe you keep a storage unit, instead of getting rid of the stuff you don't want in your home space. 

Paradoxically, some of the most profound experiences I've had with Home Harmonizers have nothing to do with stuff. Like backpacking, organizing is not about the gear - it's about the people, and the experience, and what you can learn from it. I wish more backpacking articles talked about that. But there is a logic to the nuts and bolts approach. Taking leaps in bite-size chunks makes the whole experience a little easier to approach. So I'm going to break it down for you, and come back around to organizing again at the end.

Backpacking is pretty simple, when you get right down to it. The way I've started thinking about preparing for a backpacking trip is from a place of survival. The question I start with: What do you need to survive in the wild?

At first, the answers are almost second nature. Food, water, shelter. There! That's all. But go much beyond that, and the answers aren't so intuitive - at least, not until you get used to the process, and it becomes intuitive all over again. 

Easiest and quickest: protein bars. These are high-density calories and perfect to keep you on your feet for long days of hiking. But while they take zero time to prepare (win!), there's something way more satisfying about hot food than pre-prepared food when you're hiking. 

Which brings us to the complicated bit: the backpacking stove. Tons of models. Tons of kinds of fuel. The old-school kind were complicated enough that I backpacked without any stove for a few years. (I still haven't gotten tired of protein bars, though.) Thankfully, there are simpler models now, like the PocketRocket that weighs about 3 oz. and is remarkably durable. The stove paves the way for all kinds of awesome backcountry feasts.

I'm a huge fan of freeze-dried dinners. It's not just that they're chock-full of salt - these things actually taste delicious. I've brought them with me to conventions before, so I can make food for myself and avoid restaurant prices and lines. Oatmeal is great for backpacking too - any excuse to carry less weight on those trail days. Basically, anything you have to add water to when you're cooking it means you're saving weight on water.

Food-related things I usually forget: a pot for cooking in (doubles as a bowl for eating out of). A lighter to fire the stove up (pretty crucial). I never forget my spork, though.

Seems simple! You drink it! But unless you want to take your chances with giardia, which I will tell you is no fun, you'll need a good filtration system to make the water safe(r) to drink. And at least two 32-oz bottles to carry it in - more if you're on a trail with long distances between water sources.

A map is a must-have when you're backpacking. While most water sources cross the trail at some point, and while you can usually extrapolate from the terrain around you where you're likely to find water, it's not a good idea to gamble on whether or not you'll find water. Such gambles have ended relationships. I don't recommend them.

Oh, the possibilities... in wilderness first aid terms, shelter means protection from your environment. Think ways of staying dry and warm. Into this large category fall footwear, tents (or not), sleeping bags & pad, clothing, rain gear, and an enormous amount of other stuff. 

I won't go into every detail, but I will say this: less is more. Less weight to carry means less strain on your body. Fewer barriers between you and the world mean a more intense experience, and probably a more fulfilling one. I don't backpack with a tent any more, because I want to be able to see the stars when I sleep. Instead, I carry a waterproof backpack cover, and a bivvy sack - or bivouac sack - that keeps me mostly dry, and lets me watch the sky when it's clear out. It has a handy face-net to keep mosquitoes away, too.

That should give you an idea of how the backpacking system works, if not all the particulars. Let's jump back to organizing. 

The questions I ask most clients are deceptively simple. I start with broad strokes along the lines of "What do you want to do more of in your home?" Whether the answers are "work," "have friends over," or "have quiet, separate spaces for everyone who lives here," those answers help chart out a path for the work to follow. Despite the differences in how people want to use their space, the answers all boil down to one simple thing: everyone wants to create spaces in their house - using stuff - that shift the focus from the stuff the own to the people who will use the space. Whether it's a cozy reading room for an introvert or a family room slathered with sofas for a family that's always throwing parties, the goal is the same: make the space work for the people who use it. 

Given how much I think about how to make spaces work for people, it's hard for me to imagine taking a different approach to the question. It would be like getting ready for a backpacking trip by asking "what will I be sorry I didn't bring" instead of "what do I need?" Both questions are good to ask, don't get me wrong. But if you only think about what you might regret not bringing, you'll probably find yourself with a pack that weighs as much as you do - and that does not make for a good backpacking trip.

Why not approach your home space with that perspective? Ask yourself, "what do I need to make this space work for me?" Save the decisions about what to do with specific things you already own until after you have a game plan for your space - and if those things don't fit your plan, don't be afraid to let them go. After all, it's up to you what you make of your home. So go make it awesome for yourself.

*To clarify: I'm talking about the kind of backpacking where you're hiking on trails, in the backcountry. That whole "backpacking around <insert city name here>" is a whole different beast.

Organizing Fads (a la Marie Kondo)

More organization isn't always a good thing. Some people would love a pantry that looked like this. It would drive me crazy.

More organization isn't always a good thing. Some people would love a pantry that looked like this. It would drive me crazy.

A friend recently asked me what I thought about an organizing fad that's been pretty popular recently. According to this fad - and I'll explain why I call it a fad in a minute - the best way to downsize your stuff is simple. You pull every "thing" of one kind out of wherever it is. You put it all together. You get rid of half(ish) of what's in the pile. And then you put the smaller amount of stuff you're keeping back in its closet again.

This is a terrible approach.

If you're like most of my clients, you'd hire me because you find organizing painful and difficult. Pulling something like shirts out to look at - that won't be too bad. All the shirts. On the bed. Let's look through them.

Actually, let's sort them into piles of long-sleeved and short-sleeved first. Oh, plus a pile for the button-downs. Ok. Three piles. Go!


I have never worked with a client who could get rid of half of their shirts - or anything else - in a short period of time. People who can do this easily don't need help with organizing. I can hear my clients' reasoning, and it makes perfect sense. For some - they travel. They need multiple sets of clothing ready when they come back and head right into a work marathon. For some it's sentimental - the clothes that they don't wear mean something, and there aren't that many they really do wear. Some have already been winnowing their possessions. Some are in the middle of weight loss or weight gain and don't want to have to go shopping when their size changes, just to follow the rules of some over-simplified one-size-fits-all fad. Some have just lost a parent or sibling and the problem is that all the stuff cluttering up their home isn't theirs, and they have no idea where to begin.

The reason this part of Marie Kondo's method is a fad is simple. This method misses one truth, known by all people who own Stuff: the stuff that's hardest to sort and get rid of is always the stuff that doesn't fit neatly into any category. Shirts are simple enough - but what do you do with the contents of THAT ONE DRAWER? Everybody has one. In my house, it's a combination of office supplies, hardware, memorabilia, and junk that should really just get tossed. What do you do if half of your clothes are in storage for winter? What if your parents' entire house-worth of stuff is in storage? What if, like most people on the hoarding spectrum, you have trouble seeing each of your possessions as anything other than unique and irreplaceable? What if you have art supplies - does this mean it's time to say goodbye to all the warm colors, or should you get rid of all the subtle ones?

Even if you're nowhere near being a hoarder, there is no way to sort most stuff into a few simple categories and get rid of half of each category. That's why I think this method won't be around for long. Basically, it won't work unless you're already seriously well-organized, or don't own that much to begin with.

If you're *not* already well-organized, there is no cookie-cutter way to get there. I prefer tackling things one space at a time - a room, or a closet, are pretty easy to sift through in a few hours, in most cases. I prefer to keep things neat while they're being sorted or winnowed, so you don't have a lot of cleanup to do after organizing just one kind of thing. What I prefer, though, doesn't much matter unless you decide to work with me.

There is one thing I can tell you. Getting organized is going to take time - your time - because you'll have to develop and get comfortable with an organizing method that works for you. And that's the really important thing: making it work for you. Don't listen to people telling you there's only one way to organize your stuff - they're wrong. You can organize it, or leave it disorganized, in thousands of different ways. The entire foundation of organizing should be to make your space easier to navigate - and more enjoyable to inhabit - FOR YOU. 

Taking the debris of a life, or several lives, and imposing some kind of order on it is simple... in a way. It only takes time to get it done. If you go in expecting the process to be easy, you will be disappointed. Working with a professional organizer can make it easier to start with, but maintaining organization is a challenge that will always, always take your commitment and your time. Minimizing that time is useful. Minimizing your stuff is also useful. But if you rush in with a set of abstract rules and no understanding of what you need from your space, you'll end up with a bigger mess than you had when you started. Don't do that to yourself.

It's up to you whether you make a commitment to yourself and your space to be more organized. For some people, it's worth it. For others, it isn't. But rigid systems that claim to be The One Right Way are only useful so long as they work for you. After that, ditch them. Do things your way. It may not be easy, but in the long run it will work for you - and that's what matters.

A new Mother's Day practice

desert sunrise - painted when I was in high school

desert sunrise - painted when I was in high school

Today, I decided to do something new for Mother's Day. 

It wasn't quite a spur of the moment. A week ago, I visited the town I grew up in. I happened to drive past my mom's favorite garden center. The sign out front said, "Remember Your Mother." I had forgotten Mother's Day was coming, and the sign made me stop and think. I've never liked Mother's Day. It feels obligatory, not heartfelt; a Hallmark holiday, no depth to it, another excuse for marketing campaigns and a deterrent to meaningful reflection. So many people have relationships with mothers who were neglectful, abusive, or absent. So many people have mothers who have died. So many people have stories that are more complicated than brunch with the family or flowers or a card, and the Mother's Day hype isn't gentle on those people.

I loved my mother dearly. I took care of her for 9 months, while she struggled with cancer, and they were some of the hardest months of my life. Those months will never be repeated, because my mom died just under a year ago. 

But I want to remember her the way she was before she was sick, too. And today, that's what I did. I remembered that when I was in high school, she used to walk clockwise around her house, through the gardens she adored, and scatter pinches of tobacco and cornmeal, saying what she was thankful for. I think she did it every day.

I can't tell my mom what I did in her honor today, but I can tell you what I did, and I can tell you why. 

Today, for Mother's Day, I went outside. I walked through my new garden with my mother's little boxes of tobacco and cornmeal. (Yes, I saved them, and yes, I knew where they were.) I walked clockwise around the house, and scattered pinches of the stuff, and murmured aloud what I was thankful for. For water, wind, and shade on unseasonably hot days. For being home. For raspberries and wood poppy and cardinal flower and trillium and bleeding heart, and all the others. For dear friends and family. For all the love I have in my life, even now. For having had my mom in my life for all the years I did. 

I can't tell my mom that I liked the slow way my thoughts moved when I was saying thank you, scattering tobacco and cornmeal. I can't tell her that I noticed more plants growing today than I did yesterday. I don't know yet if the cotoneaster I planted and forgot to water will survive, but I watered it - because I took the time today to see it, because of her. 

I can't tell my mom that I think I'll keep doing this morning ritual in her honor. Not every day, but often enough to keep in touch with the back yard. And that also makes me reflect on Mother's Day, and wonder why it's just once a year. The gestures Hallmark tells us to make on this day are sweet, but they're not satisfying, at least not for me. It's the times when the world isn't shouting at me to honor my mother that I most want to honor her. And it's those times, the random days with no title, when it feels most genuine to me to say - hey mom, I'm doing this because of you.

So I'll keep walking around my garden, scattering tobacco and cornmeal until they are gone. Maybe then I'll uncover a new ritual, or start an art project, or write. I'll make another step on this path of healing and grief. I don't think I'll know what my next step is until I'm ready to take it. It will be new, as this old idea was new, but it will also be tied to the memory of my mother, who I loved and miss dearly. 

One final thank-you, mom. You know it already. I used to say it every time I came home, and I meant it in all the ways it can be read. 

Thank you for having me. 

My mother's garden.

My mother's garden.

What do you care about?

This may be a difficult entry. Not the reading, but what I'm going to ask you to do at the end of it. 

I've been thinking a lot about mortality recently, and about the framework death puts around life.

I've been thinking, particularly, about the thousand ways I've found to distract myself from doing exactly this kind of thinking. It's not comfortable to think about mortality. It makes me itch to get up and do something, prove I'm still alive, stop just thinking and watching time tick past. Do something worthwhile, specifically.

We all have our avenues of distraction. Our world teems with them, businesses profit by them, malls extol them. Anything can be used as distraction. Many of the distractions we turn to may well have worth in themselves... but, when we use them as a distraction, that worth is undermined because we're trying to avoid the very thing that, when we confront it, can prove to be the opposite of the thing we thought we were afraid of. 

Ok, that got a little convoluted. Let me try another approach.

A few nights ago I spent the night alone, near sleepless on a mesa in Chaco Canyon, wrapped in a thin fleece blanket against the cold, waiting to see the lunar eclipse. I went to this place I used to visit with my mom because I love it, because she loved it, because it feels like home to me in a way I still don't understand, a way that intrigues me. I brought books and a flashlight but found that I had no interest in reading. I had an interest in... being. I sat on cooling stone watching the stars and the moon and as the hours passed, I remembered how to ask questions slowly, in place, and absorb its answers. Questions circling around mortality, around the ways people become obsessed with new and extremely unlikely ways to die, while looking away from the obvious risks (driving, poor food, lack of exercise) that are behind many more deaths than, say, plague or ebola. The Desert showed me that that is how people are. We fear things that feel different far more than we fear what feels familiar. We ignore the things we could change in order to argue with things we can't. In a way, arguing gives us a handle on a mortality that is ultimately inexplicable, inconceivable, so different from the rest of our existence that trying to understand and explain it has become a focus of fantasy, of religion, of all of our inner and outer lives in ways that sometimes we cannot admit even to ourselves.

But that is how we are. Sometimes we need to argue with mortality, shout into oblivion, even if we are the only ones who hear that shout. But sometimes, sitting on a mesa in the bright moonlight, we are capable of seeing that need, and capable of thinking that maybe it's time mortality argued for us, instead. Why shouldn't we put our own finite-ness to work against our tendency to look away from what is uncomfortable? Why shouldn't we use mortality, deliberately *use* it, not to enable endless distraction, but to focus ourselves on what we care about?

What do you care about?

This isn't a trick question. This is where things get interesting. 

I sat on a mesa in the cold for 5 hours. I'm only asking you to take 5 minutes, for now. But take those minutes to focus, and do NOT distract yourself from this question. Do not reach for your cellphone - no, not even if it buzzes. Do not think about the errands you have to do before you sleep, or eat. DO let your thoughts stray along the paths you love most. DO think about the people you love, how you feel with them. DO think about the times in life when you have been most content, felt most alive. 

And ask yourself: what do you care about?

When I work with harmonizing clients, this question - what do you care about? - is a key part of what I talk about with them. I don't always ask the question directly. Sometimes I ask if anything is missing from their home - sometimes I ask what they use each space in their home for. But I've found that the things we keep in our homes often fail to remind us of the things we care about most. Sometimes they oppose them; sometimes the sheer volume and time it takes to take care of the Stuff we own gives us less time to spend with people we care about. Sometimes the stuff we own takes up space that could be occupied by friends, by musical instruments, by a cozy corner in the sun that reminds us to take time, read a book, drink some tea, relax. Sometimes the Stuff that's right in front of us - distracting us? - makes it harder to think about what we care about. Surely what we care about *is* what we have chosen to possess... isn't it?

I don't believe that what we care about most is easy to find, UNTIL you figure out exactly what it is - and seek it out. 

I'm sitting in a mall right now - sophisticated torture, waiting for my car to be fixed, watching people create themselves from a limited array of objects, watching people shop.... And it feels like a trap. It's a plastic, sanitized mass delusion, what I'm watching. It is distraction masquerading as achievement. Congratulations! Ch-ching! You have purchased something, earned points, made progress... towards... well, towards what? 

That's for you to decide. 

So here's the hard part. The part where we try to get mortality to argue on your side, bold reader. 

Take your 5 minutes. Sit inside, walk outside, but focus on the question of what you care about most. Friends? (Which ones? Why?) Activities? (How often do you get to do them?) Your family? (Do they know?) Your career? (Why do you love it?) Money? (To what end?) Freedom? (What does that mean for your life?) Being alone? (What does that mean to you?) Helping others? (How, and who, and in what ways?) Art? (What do you love about it?) If it helps you narrow things down, ask yourself - what would I wish I could have done differently, if I died tonight?

There are no wrong answers, unless you settle on something you don't actually care about because what you do care about doesn't seem "good enough". You happen to be the only person qualified to say what is good enough, and in my experience, doing what you think you should (instead of what you actually want) is a distraction from doing what actually enriches your life.

So - pick one thing you care about. And take the next 10 minutes (or more) after that to bring more of what you care about into your life. Plan a family outing. Call a friend you haven't talked to in too long. Reach out to a prospective business partner. Take some time for yourself. Donate your time or money or stuff you don't use to a cause you care about. Make a space in your house that reminds you to play music or invite people over. (Invite a Harmonizer to help you.) But don't wait on this. Do it. Life is short, and this is something you care about immensely.

And then tell me what you did. And tell me why it matters, to you.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Living with loss - emphasis on the Living.

Taken in the desert near Flagstaff, shortly after I moved there.

Taken in the desert near Flagstaff, shortly after I moved there.

A church near my home has a sign out front that keeps catching my eye: "Live like someone died for you". 

The first time I passed the sign I cried. It was too true; my grief over losing my mom was fresh.

The second time I passed the sign, I got upset. My mom didn't die *for* me. It was cancer. Not a gift. How dare some church make me feel guilty - more than I already did - by implying that there was a debt placed on me by the fact of her death? It was a cruel thing to say, when I saw it that way.

The third time, I read the sign differently, and this is the interpretation I haven't been able to get out of my head. I read it as support -- and a surprisingly effective push to do exactly the best I can do, no less. Bear with me, and I'll try to explain what that means.

The fact that people die doesn't impose a debt on those who haven't died yet. Being alive, though... well. Living is precious, and it doesn't last forever. I don't have a choice about living with loss. But I do have a choice, some days, to live well and fully with my loss, and to let the memories of my mom give me strength, and remind me that she wanted me, quite simply, to be happy.

Every single one of us had parents. Grandparents, great-grandparents, ancestors, going back to the birth of humankind. We'll never know most of those people. Some of us don't know any of them. But one thing I suspect almost all of our ancestors had in common is a desire to see their children content and fulfilled in their lives. And most of them have now died. For us? Not exactly. But they are gone, and we are here, and one way we can honor their memory and that intention - paradoxically? - is to find the life that fulfills each of us, and live it.

When my mom passed away, my life changed. I don't know all the ways it's changed yet, but I do know that I value gardens more, and that the urge to teach people about the sky and the seasons is getting stronger. I've started drinking tea more. But more than taking on aspects of a dear absent person, in the past few months I've found the impetus to follow my own dreams. I've moved to the Southwest, where I've wanted to live for ten years. When I'm here, I go out to meet the high desert or write most days. 

I think I've finally actually understood that time is short, and precious, and if I don't work towards the world I want to live in now, I never will. I wish I'd worked up the gumption to make this move to the desert years ago. I wish I could share what I'm thinking and doing and seeing now with my mom. I hate that it took someone close to me dying for me to actually live in a way that fulfills me, to live in a way that doesn't feel like putting off what I need until it's convenient. (Hint: it will never be convenient to put off what you need.) 

So that sign on the church near me? Now, when I pass it, it's a blazing reminder that if I'm not challenging myself, if I'm not doing the things that really fulfill me - making art, writing, having good conversations, supporting people I care about, going adventuring and entangling myself fully with the world - I'm not doing the best I can, for my mom, for all the other people who aren't alive any more, and for myself. That's on a good day.

There are other days, and they're just as important. I don't know how to talk about this, but I know it belongs here, somewhere. Hours before my mom passed away, after she had stopped talking, the last time she moved under her own power - she sat up in her hospital bed to give me a hug. For an hour. Just me and her, until my arms were asleep and my back was cramping from supporting her weight and I didn't have any tears left. I don't remember what I thought about during that hour. What I remember is love. Just love. Maybe that's more important than all the rest of these words put together, because that hour was the greatest gift I've ever received. It's a gift that clamors to be passed on, to grow in the sharing. It will take my entire life to do justice to that gift, and doing justice to that gift is already remaking my entire life. 

I'll leave you with that, for now. Not with any obligation, but with the slender beam of a flashlight shining on a path that I'm trying to walk. Maybe it's a path near your own, maybe it's one you saw years ago but said, "not yet". Figure out what that path is, for you... and don't wait too long to step onto it.

In Honor of Judy Young

My mother passed away early in the morning on Friday, May 23rd. She departed with immense ease and light, after a day surrounded by loved ones. I was blessed to be with her through the days leading up to her passing.

Two memorial services will be held in her honor: 

1) Wednesday June 4th: 7 pm at the UMass Sunwheel, rain or shine (BYO chair and umbrella if needed). Gabrielli LaChiara will lead the service.

2) Thursday June 5th: 10 am at the Jewish Community of Amherst. Rabbi Weiner will lead the service.

This blog entry is dedicated to her memory, and a small portion of the work and play she loved. I hope you'll share your own memories of her as well, and connect with the many people whose lives she touched. 

If you're not already familiar with it, please enjoy the blog she wrote from 2008 - 2010, Living Joyfully With What Is

Whether or not you can visit the UMass Sunwheel for Judy's memorial service, there are fascinating insights on the interconnection of sky and season on theSunwheel website that she created. 

Her home page through UMass contains links to more of her work, accomplishments, and interests.

Her more recent teachings are described on her website, Astronomy and Spirituality In Our Daily Lives.

Judy's obituary will appear in the Hampshire Gazette on Wednesday, May 28.

Judy Young, University of Massachusetts Astronomy Professor and longtime resident of Amherst, passed away in the early morning on Friday, May 23rd. She is mourned by her daughter, Laura Little; her mother, Vera Rubin; her three brothers, David, Karl, and Allan Rubin; and a remarkable network of family, dear friends, and lifelong learners around the world.

Judy was born on September 15th, 1952 to Bob and Vera Rubin, the latter a noted astronomer whose teachings on black holes inspired Judy to become an astronomer as well. Judy earned a bachelors degree with honors from Radcliffe/Harvard University in 1974 and a doctorate in physics from the University of Minnesota in 1979. 

Judy served as Professor of Astronomy at UMass from 1993-2013. Her work on star formation in galaxies earned international recognition and many awards throughout her distinguished career. She was a tireless support and friend to the many students she mentored, who remember her for her dedication, passion, humor, and warmth. She dreamed up and built the UMass Sunwheel, a stone circle whose 8-10ft. standing stones line up with the rising and setting sun during solstices and equinoxes. Judy led seasonal sunrise and sunset gatherings at the Sunwheel, making the connections between sky and earth real for over 8,000 visitors. 

Judy enthusiastically shared not only her knowledge and passion for science with those around her, but also her deep love of living. She cultivated a profound connection with nature, and enjoyed backpacking, biking, hiking, and simply being outside. Her garden is a Certified Wildlife Habitat and has been featured in the Amherst Garden Tour. Above all, Judy loved her daughter Laura, with whom she shared a bond of warmth, support, silliness, song, and love. 

In 2006 Judy was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, the cancer that later claimed the life of her father. Even as her health challenges increased, Judy continued for many years to dedicate herself to teaching and sharing her insights. The blog she created, Living Joyfully With What Is, shares a beautiful series of thoughts on her journey and her unflinching determination to enjoy what life has to offer in spite (and because) of its brevity. Her spirit and her independent, courageous, joyful approach to living were an inspiration to the many lives she touched. 

Two services will be held to celebrate Judy's life and honor her memory: one outdoors on Wednesday June 4th, 7 pm at the UMass Sunwheel, rain or shine; and one indoors on Thursday June 5th, at the Jewish Community of Amherst. Both will be open to the public. All are encouraged to wear vibrant colors, in celebration of life. If you are so moved, please consider making a donation to The Nature Conservancy in her honor.

Hygge: fresh approaches to living well

I want to talk about hygge

If you haven’t heard the word before, so much the better. I’ve settled on a completely off pronunciation of it in my head now - I hear “higgy” when I see the word, and it makes me smile because I know it’s nowhere near the actual pronunciation. Hyoo-guh is what the internet says it is. I’ve heard people suggest huggy, hee-jeh, hi-gee, a host of pronunciations. I like all of them. I think the uncertainty over the way that word is pronounced makes it more memorable, and what’s more, makes the meaning of the word more flexible. Uncertainty does that. Another reason to like uncertainty. 

But the meaning, ah, the meaning of hygge… it’s a feeling. Okay. There’s that. A feeling brought on by - probably different combinations of things for every person who’s ever experienced it. The broad and faceless internet, again, defines it as “the art of creating intimacy: contentment, comradeship, and coziness all rolled into one.” It seems to be social for many people, though there are some, like me, who can find it more easily while alone. For the Danes, who created the word, it often involves candlelight, and I dare to venture a guess that the warmth of candlelight and the warm associations that flickering glow holds for many of us is behind that piece. 

Hygge… I think it’s the way you feel when you see a warm light shining out of a window on a cold evening, and realize that that window and the light belongs to the place you call home, and there are people there waiting to welcome you to it. I think it’s the feeling Frodo had when he realized his impossible quest was completed and saw Bilbo’s face again. I think it’s the feeling after astounded joy fades when you bring your newborn home for the first time. I think it’s a certainty of love shared that many of us have learned not to trust. I think hygge and the incredible comfort it brings are the best gift any person can give another, and give to themselves at the same time. 

I’ve been inviting small groups of people to come over on occasional Saturdays to “cultivate hygge” together. Usually we turn the lights off, I light candles around the room, we read our favorite stories aloud to each other. Sometimes we play games. There’s a lot of laughing, there’s usually some cuddling, some people wind up giving other people massages, somebody falls asleep and everyone who’s still awake giggles if they start to snore. We snack or share a meal. We sit in circles. There is no agenda, it’s just friends new and old, getting to know each other better. My favorite hygges are the ones where the people who showed up said it was a perfect evening, or when people fall asleep in a comfortable pile and wake up the next morning and say the same thing. 

In college, the first course that really caught my interest was called “Living Deliberately”. It was a course in nature writing, in experiencing the world firsthand, in thinking carefully about the ways other people talked about their experiences. It didn’t mention hygge, and yet I can’t help but notice the similarities. During those hygge evenings I do things deliberately. I turn my phone off. I don’t check email. I’m far more present with the people I wanted to see than I usually am, in a social evening. I make a deliberate choice to do that, and the word and the people and the whole concept of hygge help me stick to that choice, get through the moments of discomfort if I’ve forgotten to turn the pesky little text-buzzer off, and stay in the “real world” of my ancestors long enough to remember that it feels a lot more like home than the virtual world I spend a lot of my time in now. 

When you come right down to it, I think hygge is the meaning of life.

It’s not that I don’t value accomplishment, industry, grit, perseverance, ambition... but all of those things are means to an end, although they do bring a satisfaction in themselves. And that end, for me, is hygge. It’s the feeling of the interactions I have almost all the time with the people I call my best friends. We know each other, we affirm each other with the old jokes and the easy grins, we know we’re welcome, and if we’re not, we know it’s ok to say so. It’s the feeling of spending time with chosen family. It’s entirely the opposite of that awful feeling of rushing to something important, knowing you’ll be late, knowing there will be consequences because Somebody Said There Would Be. It’s security. It’s love. It’s a relaxed afternoon with your favorite book, quality time with your best friend, snuggling with your lover. It's a reason for being.

It probably isn’t realistic to say that hygge is possible for everyone on the planet to experience. People who have lost their homeland, whose hearts are broken by war or abuse or neglect, people who I have no right to talk about, having experienced so little of that scale of trauma - yet I have seen those people find contentment too, and hygge. It isn’t realistic, I understand - it cannot be expected - but it happens, nevertheless. The human spirit is resilient and it seeks balance and contentment no matter the horrors it has seen. And when it finds hygge, it heals. Yes, hygge is that too; healing, healing of the soul, of the heart, of the whole. 

I might be a little obsessed with hygge right now. But I think it’s worth it. Finding the word has made an incredible difference in my life, in the last few months alone. Somehow, a simple word made me realize how much I was missing that feeling of coziness and contentment, made me remember how much feeling that way mattered to me, and reminded me that the power to cultivate hygge with people I care about was mine. So I did. 

I hope you will, too. 


A New Definition of Luxury

What does luxury mean to you? Wealth? Power? Possessions? Or... the ability to focus on what you really care about?

What does luxury mean to you? Wealth? Power? Possessions? Or... the ability to focus on what you really care about?

It was earlier this year that I really noticed, in a personal way, that buying things didn't feel like a luxury any more. 

It was just after the holidays, about 10 months ago, when a friend introduced me to a lovely store that sells vegan, organic, sparkly makeup that I (still) love - Lush is the store, in case you're curious, and they don't test their products on animals, for a wonder. After my first visit, I acquired enough eyeliner to last me until now (and probably through the end of next year, at this rate). I enjoyed shopping there. The people were very friendly and helpful. But when I went home, in spite of the sparkly delight of the eyeliner, something didn't feel right.

So I thought about it.

I thought about how much I would enjoy the fun things I'd bought. (I still am enjoying them.) I thought about the experience, the people, the help they had offered in finding colors I liked. They were perfect models of friendliness, helpfulness, everything you could want in customer service. Incredibly personable. So... why did I feel so dissatisfied? 

Over the next few days, I realized that in some way, buying things I didn't really need, no matter how much I would enjoy them, felt like a trick. It felt like I had lost something, not gained it. 

I don't know if the reason I felt this way is out of the thrift that our grandparents knew intimately during the Depression. I don't know if it's years of training myself not to buy things I didn't need, because time is money and I want time for myself and my family, and spending money feels like it takes time away from my family. I don't know if this is a feeling that everyone has after going shopping, and they keep the feeling a secret because it feels like a betrayal of our consumer-driven society to mention - hey, that doesn't actually feel good. Why are we going shopping again?

I may not know the exact combination of reasons I felt dissatisfied. There are many. But I did find something that helped me feel better. And if you sometimes feel oppressed by a perceived need to buy things, I'll share in case it might help you too.

The day I realized how dissatisfied buying extraneous things made me feel, I jumped into an experiment. My goal was to not purchase any material goods for one month, starting that day, except for food. I was lucky in that I happened to have a big enough stash of toilet paper and toothpaste to get me through the month with plenty to spare. I didn't have a plan in place for what I would do if I ran out of basic necessities, other than vague thoughts of picking up a few extra napkins from a restaurant somewhere.

The only things I ended up spending money on were food and gas, that month. And I had a fantastic time. I went through old clothes and got rid of some I haven't worn in years, and repurposed others (mostly into bags). I used up old bottles of cleaning supplies or got rid of them instead of giving up and buying new ones. I spent time watching my favorite movies at home with friends, and going out for more walks, and getting into fantastic conversations. I had absolute freedom every time I walked into a store, because I had already decided that I wouldn't buy anything - and oddly, that freed me to appreciate everything completely free of pressure to trade my time for possessing it.

I called that month luxury month, and it was one of the most relaxing months I've experienced in my adult life. After 30 days, I felt so comfortable not buying anything that I kept it going for almost another month (until I needed shampoo). For almost 4 months in 2013, spread out through the year, I didn't buy a single material good. It felt fantastic, better even than my early experiments of buying only used stuff, which I've made into a remarkably fun lifestyle choice at this point. Next year I'm planning to aim for 6 months of that kind of luxury.

Coming up on Black Friday as we are, I'd like to suggest an alternative way to spend the morning after Thanksgiving this year. Why not give yourself and your family or dear friends the immense gift of a cozy morning making breakfast together, reading aloud or watching really good movies, catching up and relaxing, playing a game? Why not step back for a week, or a month, from the cycle of spending money, and focus instead on spending good time with the people you care about?

For me, the idea of the luxury month cuts straight to the beating heart of what I live for. I want to have a good life full of creativity and satisfaction, find ways to help other people do the same, cultivate strong relationships, and have a good amount of fun along the way. We all need to make money to keep the day-to-day living part possible, unless we're in that lucky 1%. But I don't want to make money just so I can stand outside big box stores at 5 in the morning trying to spend it. For me, it's the conversations, the connections, the friendships, and the loves that make everything else worthwhile. And this year, those connections are exactly what I'll be focusing on during Black Friday. 

May you find a definition of luxury that works for you. I'd love to hear about your reactions to this kind of experiment. And if you're inspired to try a luxury month yourself, I'd love to hear about what challenges and successes you experience. Thanks for reading!

Tip: 4 minutes.

Small projects like organizing a spice rack? Bet you can do it in 4 minutes.

Small projects like organizing a spice rack? Bet you can do it in 4 minutes.

Everybody wants to know how to keep their spaces organized. The most common question I get, from almost everyone I talk to about organizing, is "How do I keep the place looking like this?" 

My usual answer: 4 minutes.

Take 4 minutes of your day, every day, and focus on organizing one manageable little space. Choose a different one each day. Tidy a drawer. Clear off the surface of your dining room table. Straighten up the coat rack or coat closet. Go through last week's mail and recycle or shred everything you don't need. Get a basket or create a system for the mail you don't have time to deal with right now, but that needs to be dealt with at some point relatively soon. Go through the food you've had tucked away for months - put some aside to donate, or throw away what's expired. With an investment of 4 minutes, if you really do it every day, you'll be able to make surprising progress towards keeping your space organized. 

But... lately I've started to think that my answer is too simple. Maybe it's simplified enough that it's worth complicating, just a little. Because saying that it takes 4 minutes a day to organize is a trick. It's a trick that's designed to get you to notice the shape your space is in, and incorporate the little time it takes to keep places organized into your daily routine - but it's still a trick.

The trick in giving "4 minutes" as the answer to that question is that it covers up what's really going on. It is true that keeping spaces organized doesn't take long. But it IS a basic change in the way you interact with your space. Taking those 4 minutes every day is a commitment to yourself, an affirmation that a well-organized home is important to you. It will change how you interact with your stuff. Perhaps it will make you a little more deliberate in deciding whether or not to bring new things into your space. It might shift your priorities ever so slightly. This might not be exactly what will work for you. But it is worth noting that the very commitment can become a point of discord if you live with a person (or several people) who haven't made the same commitment themselves. And the decision to take those 4 minutes every day - or not, if it's not the right thing for you - is one that should not made blindly. You'll need at least a hint that, like any decision, there may be consequences to your choice that go farther than just having a well-organized house. 

Google Play: your free online music library?

Update, 2016: Spotify is easier. But I still use Google Play to keep track of my old favorites.

So... confession time. My music has never been well organized. In fact, it's been a real pain to get it all from CD (or DVD) to computer to iPod to mobile phone to other computer... every time I need to replace just one of those devices. Add to that the fact that some music is in my husband's iTunes account, and some is in mine… it's a real tangle.

But Google Play offers the best way out of that tangle that I've seen yet. With all my music stored in one place, on the cloud, I don't have to worry about transferring it all to a new device, or losing it if my computer goes haywire or gets stolen. It's just there - and free - and I can finally get rid of those CDs that have been clogging up my desk drawers for years. It's such a relief!

Here's how it works: Google Play offers free storage for up to 20,000 songs. You'll download an application called "Music Manager" to help upload the music. It could take a couple of days with a good internet connection to upload everything if you have a big collection. But once all your music is stored on Google Play, you can access it in a couple different ways - and your playlists never get lost. (At last!!) On a mobile device, you can create playlists that are available whether or not you have an internet connection. 
There are all kind of perks about keeping your favorite media on the cloud - because Google Play isn't just limited to music. Books, movies, magazines, it's all explained here: 

Drawbacks: Two big ones. First: if you want to listen to all your music through Google Play on the computer, you'll need an internet connection to play your music. Could be awkward if you spend a lot of time traveling and listening to music on a laptop. Second: If you have more than 20,000 songs - well, congrats on an impressive collection! - but currently, there's no option to add additional storage. I'd guess that Google will be rolling that out soon. If not, there are always options like Amazon's Cloud Player or iTunes Match that, while not free, also don't have that 20,000-song cap on storage. All in all, I'm just happy to finally have all my music in one place. It's that same sense of satisfaction - the "ahhh, NOW things are working better" - that's at the heart of why I love organizing. 

What IS harmonizing, anyway?

As a professional Harmonizer, a good part of what I do is try to keep things simple. I don't have a terribly complicated philosophy or approach to organizing, but I've found it really helpful to describe to my clients what my goal is as a professional organizer - and why I call organizing 'harmonizing'. 

Harmonizing isn't about getting rid of stuff - necessarily. It's not about buying more stuff - usually. It's not even really about organizing the stuff you already have. Here's what it *is* about.

The heart of Harmonizing, for me, is a balancing act between the exterior and interior landscapes of your home and your self. It's a process of matching your needs as an individual with the framework of your home, your space, and your possessions. The end goal, in all cases, is to create an exterior landscape that supports and encourages you in pursuing the things that matter to you. And the shape of that exterior landscape depends entirely on the person who will inhabit it: you.

Some people need their space to be clear and completely uncluttered - some need artfully placed knick-knacks - some need practical but decorative containers for all their projects - some need chaotic clutter. For some people, getting rid of all those boxes in the attic will be a relief and a weight off their mind; for some it will be uncomfortable. My goal is never to push you to get rid of things you want to keep, but rather to help you figure out what you want from all your stuff. Not what other people say you want, or what you think you should want, or what the media tells you to want; what I do is help you clearly identify the possessions that really bring you joy, or ease, or even simple convenience, and the ones that matter to you. Once you know what you want from your stuff, it becomes much easier to pick out the things you own that do not serve you. 

And that's it. The Harmonizers philosophy and basic approach to organizing / harmonizing, in a nutshell. There's no judgement, no prescribed path to follow; just an opportunity to envision and create a home space that is in harmony with your vision for yourself. 

Consider this an invitation to talk about one of those topics that can be touchy in our culture - owning stuff, and how much is enough - or too much. If you have comments or thoughts about this - whether you think what's laid out above is a helpful 'philosophy', whether you have a strong opinion about owning less (or more!) stuff - I'd love to hear from you.

Click the image to fill out my contact form. Or give me a call! 330-967-0721.

Click the image to fill out my contact form. Or give me a call! 330-967-0721.

Ecological Footprints: the Big Picture

Chances are you've heard the term "ecological footprint" or "carbon footprint." But did you know that taking this kind of quiz can help you understand your impact on the planet, and prioritize changes in those parts of your life that have the greatest impact? Here's how it works.

When you take an ecological footprint quiz, you answer a bunch of questions about the way you currently live - everything from how much you spend on heating or cooling bills to your travel preferences to your diet. At the end, using a bunch of aggregated data (usually tailored to your region), the quiz will generate not only a "footprint" for what activities like yours require of the planet, but often a sense of how this fits in the larger picture. One of the quizzes I like best shows how many earths would be needed to support humanity if everyone currently living used the resources you do.

Every one of these quizzes is slightly different, but they do tend to agree on the big things. If you travel by plane, that's almost certainly the most damaging single activity you're engaged in, and reducing it (if you have viable alternatives) could be the single most important step you take in reducing your impact on the planet. And that's why I think it's worth taking one; they give you a glimpse of the big picture, and they show that a relatively small number of changes in your day-to-day routines can make a real difference in your personal impact on the planet we share.

Drawbacks: carbon footprint quizzes aren't terribly accurate or precise. By definition, they deal with big picture data. But most importantly, they don't point out the real benefits associated with changing those daily routines - increased health when you replace a commute by car with one by bicycle or train, more local connections when you go to the farmer's market, lower costs for your municipality when you choose drought-tolerant landscaping instead of a lawn that needs regular watering. Those added benefits and win-win-win situations - and the harmonies they bring to lives with too much discord - are the real reason sustainability is catching on, and the reason so many people are passionate about it.

Quizzes: The Center for Sustainable Economy has a comprehensive ecological footprint quiz at that I recommend starting with. You can find a number of alternates by searching for "ecological footprint quiz". If you're really curious about how the quizzes work, try taking them a few times and just changing a few of your answers. Just switching from buying "most" things used to "all" things used can make a surprisingly big difference.

Need help with your budget? Try Mint.

I've been using to keep track of my budget for almost 5 years now. It tracks purchases on all my bank accounts, categorizes them, and helps me track spending month by month. It's decently intuitive to use, and I've never had a problem with the security it offers. And it's entirely free. 

Mint has some features that, to my mind, make it very worth the minimal time it takes to set up. For example, it has sent me alerts several times when my bank charged fees I wasn't expecting. (I was able to get them reversed.) It tracks when my bills are due so I don't miss any. It also offers advice tailored to the way I spend, lets me know when spending in a given category is unusual, and - best of all - makes it really easy to set goals and track progress towards them. Whether you're saving up for a vacation or trying to get out of debt, the easy visual progress towards that goal can be a really helpful motivator.

The best reason to use Mint, to my mind, is that it directs your attention at what you're spending money on. Credit cards make it all too easy to buy without considering the actual impact of what you're buying down the line. Using Mint can help you consider what you really want to do with your money, reclaim your spending habits, and get out of debt that much faster.

Drawbacks: The main drawback is that it does take time to set up and manage all this financial information in Mint. While Mint will automatically categorize your purchases, it doesn't always categorize things correctly. If you buy things from the same places, you can set rules that govern how Mint does its categorizing, but buy from a new vendor and it's likely to end up somewhere unexpected. Keep a weather eye on Mint, especially for the first few months! I've gotten into the habit of checking it every couple of weeks to make sure things aren't too out of place, but checking once a month would probably be a little more efficient. 

There are a couple of other minor drawbacks, like the fact that you can't actually move your money around from within Mint, but for me, they're significantly overshadowed by how much easier Mint makes it to track spending from multiple accounts. And it's entirely online, so there's no need to make extra storage space in your house for more pieces of paper you'll never look at after you file them. Now that's a good deal.

What's Home Harmonizers doing for the planet?

At Home Harmonizers, caring for the environment isn't just a job. We all know protecting our home involves more than protecting habitat, or wild places. Human life and human society depend on a healthy environment. By protecting the planet, we're ultimately protecting ourselves and our children. That's what sustainability really means.

The core mission of Home Harmonizers is to share tools that help us live more sustainable lives, while enjoying more comfort, fun, and a greater ability to focus on the things that really matter to us. Sustainability should be built into our lives, not tacked on as a chore that we try to remember to do once a week, like taking out the recycling.

But it's not all big picture stuff. Home Harmonizers is committed to minimizing its environmental impact in all aspects of its operations. Here are some examples.

The web hosting service I use, Fatcow, uses servers powered by wind energy. The company that makes my business cards, Moo, uses paper from sustainably managed forests. Even the case that the business cards come in is made from recycled pulp. The company laptop was not bought new, but as a refurbished product. I don't rent a dedicated office space, or have my own fax machine, or even my own printer. Not only does this choice keep my costs down; it also means that Home Harmonizers is a uniquely mobile and low-impact company. 

Oh, and speaking of mobility, I never travel by plane on work-related trips. Trains are a remarkably pleasant way to see the country, and they offer a great environment to get work done in, with far fewer carbon emissions that plane travel causes. While I do travel by car for some projects, I always try to use vehicles that get 30 miles per gallon or better. While in Chicago, I use the local non-profit car-sharing service, I-Go, and take advantage of the hybrids they have stashed around the city.

Home Harmonizers also offers clients help with the day-to-day aspects of sustainability. At no additional cost, I deliver your electronics that are ready to be recycled to Best Buy - they've finally started accepting old electronics for free! I take all your donations to secondhand stores, where they can be resold and reused if at all possible, and send the receipt for a tax-deductible donation back to you. If you're interested in lowering your monthly home energy costs, I can recommend some top-of-the-line companies that offer home energy audits.

So, what *else* can Home Harmonizers do for the environment? That's a question I ask myself regularly, and that question is how I stumbled across my first web host, Fatcow, and their 100% wind-powered servers. If you come up with other ideas, I'd love to hear them!

Nice crowded little footer from my first webpage. Ah, Fatcow, you were lovely.

Nice crowded little footer from my first webpage. Ah, Fatcow, you were lovely.

Moving? Test your new commute with Abogo.

If you've ever commuted by car, you know what a pain it can be. Recent studies have shown that people tend to underestimate the impact a long commute has on their happiness. While a big house in the suburbs may feel more like success, that extra hour (or two) you spend in traffic every evening adds up. Fast.

So, if you're thinking of moving, it pays to consider your transportation costs. That's exactly what Abogo helps you do.

Abogo was developed to help you uncover the hidden transportation costs of living in areas that are more (or less) accessible. Their website uses a mix of household-level and regional data to deliver accurate estimates of what people in your neighborhood spend on getting around. 

It's incredibly easy to use. Just type in the address you're interested in. Abogo generates a "dollars per month" rating for transportation costs associated with that specific address, along with a regional average that lets you compare your address to others near you. The carbon footprint of all that transportation is calculated too. They recently added a really neat tool that lets you track the impact of gas prices on that "dollars per month" rating. 

Drawbacks: Some of Abogo's built-in assumptions may not apply to your household, so you may not actually be getting an accurate estimate of transportation costs for your commuting patterns - especially if you don't own a car, or don't use it as often as the tool expects you to. I've found the most useful feature to be the comparison of your selected address with the local area: it lets you determine which areas are cheaper and more convenient to get to, and make a choice of where to live that really works for you over the long term.

Here are a couple of sources, as requested. If you search for "commute happiness correlation" you'll find more articles and perspectives than I've listed here, though many refer to the same study as #1 does. 

  1. which refers to the actual study, here:


Freecycle: free, easy, neighborly

Freecycle is one of those beautiful ideas that I wish I had thought of myself. It's a simple premise: a network of volunteer-run websites let neighbors post things they want to give away, and things they need, and exchange them. And it's all free.

To get involved, just google "freecycle," click "browse groups," and sign up in your area. They ask that you start out by offering something for free. It can be something as simple as a three-ring binder, a book you've already read, or office supplies. Or it can be something big that you don't want to worry about carting out of the house - a dining room table or an old by

I've used Freecycle many times, both to give things away and find things I need, and it's worked really well for me. My best find was a beautiful old wooden desk that needed to be sanded and refinished. That was 5 years ago, and that free desk is still one of the most beautiful pieces of furniture in my apartment. I also picked up some great free lamps and curtain rods, all from people within a couple of miles of where I live.

Drawbacks: Sometimes people don't show up on time (or at all) to take the free stuff I offer. There is a temptation to get frustrated when people don't show, but really, it's their loss. To make sure I don't lose time waiting for them, I've started telling people when to show up instead of asking for times that work for them.

There are plenty of similar resources out there. Maybe your area has a Facebook Buy, Sell, or Free group. Look around, see what you find, and don't forget to let us know how it works!