Looking Forward to Spring Cleaning…seriously.

Though February is speeding its way toward March, we just had our first significant snowfall this weekend in Southwest Virginia. And even though we’re currently living in a winter wonderland, I can’t help but have my sights set on one of the more interesting spring traditions in which so many of us participate: spring cleaning.

Though it lacks the nostalgic joy of dyeing eggs and the earthy satisfaction of sowing the first seeds of the season, in my household, we take spring cleaning seriously.

Well, I do. My husband mostly grunts and nods. Who would get excited about cleaning the ceiling fan with a pillowcase, pulling all of the shoes out of the closet, or lugging a box of old junk to Goodwill? Besides me. Anyone?

New Year ’s Day arrives after the flurry of the holidays, when the tree is still up, the gifts are still shiny and new, and the year is a clean slate. We arrive full of hope for the upcoming year, a fistful of goals in our hand and an ambitious resolution in our pocket. The first months of the year drag on, for many of us, full of gray days spent complaining about the weather and searching for our missing glove. Resolutions fall into a period of waxing and waning of purpose.

For me, the year really gets going in the spring. It’s the start of a year in a different sort of way, a beginning more in tune with the cycles of nature, of rebirth and growth and fertility. Spring cleaning can be a time to cleanse our surroundings, physically and spiritually. We can dust all of those places we always forget about, sort out that pile of papers accumulating on the corner of the desk, or sweep the remnants of the last fall leaves off the front porch.

In the delirium of cabin fever, thoughts of my spring cleaning frenzy are already swirling in my head.

Intellectual clutter…

Spring cleaning can be a time to finish or discard old projects. That scrapbook we started and then forgot? Should we finish it? Or is it possible that we went to the craft store, bought all the supplies, and came home full of enthusiasm, only to realize that we hate scrapbooking more than we hate scrubbing the toilet? The picture frame we fell in love with, but forgot to put a picture in and stick it on the mantel? In the spring, nature is in a frenzy of growth and chatter. The robin is building her nest in the holly tree. Why not clean our nests and start afresh?

And the emotional clutter…

Who isn’t notorious for filling their home with sentimental clutter? For years, I kept my high school graduation gown. Our school colors were green and gold, and, no surprise, the gentleman got to look dashing in hunter green while the ladies wore brighter-than-the-sun yellow, a color that looks flattering on no one. I hated that graduation gown, and yet for some reason, I held onto it. Finally, I had to acknowledge: I will never wear this again. I have photos of my graduation and lots of memories of high school. I don’t need that gown hanging in my closet, blazing out at me like a polyester hazmat suit.

Spring is a good time to go through the drawers, closets, bookshelves, and miscellaneous bins and get rid of the clutter that no longer serves us. Since I live in an apartment, I can’t keep every single gift everyone has ever given me. If it isn’t useful and we don’t love it, why keep it?

I have a hatbox in my closet full of mementos I don’t plan on parting with. The oddest of them is a Pokémon “finger skateboard” my youngest brother gave me. I was a teenager, and he was in fifth grade. We had nothing in common and didn’t get along well in that period of our lives, but one day, I happened to mention that I thought Pikachu was funny. My brother went to the mall with his friends and brought this mini-skateboard back for me. It makes me smile. So I keep it. 🙂 But we don’t have to keep everything.

And, ugh, physical clutter…

I can hear my husband sighing, but I like to go from room to room and make a list of everything that needs to be done. Yes, there’s occasionally always a clipboard. Some rooms are easier than others. Our bedroom, for example, is usually the easiest room in the house. The living room is harder. The baskets next to the door fill up with random items, heavy foot traffic means the carpets need to be scrubbed, and my stack of catalogs needs to be recycled. Going through all of the papers in our offices is so scary that we tend to leave that task for last. I’m still looking for a better way to deal with paper clutter. I’ll let you know when one arrives. 😛

Maybe we don’t finish everything on the list, but I get a sense of satisfaction in checking items off—even the small ones, like “clean off bottom shelf of coffee table” or “discard old textbooks.”

When we need a hard hat to enter our closets, it's spring-cleaning time.

“Out with the old, in with the new,” seems to apply better to January than to March, but as the season of rebirth heads our way, we can make room for growth in our old lives. Finishing an old short story or admitting we no longer care for it allows room for a new project. Cleaning out a door crammed with clothes that don’t fit makes it easier to find the ones that do. Clearing the physical clutter brings fresh air into the house as much as opening the window to the warm spring breeze.

I know maybe I go a little overboard, but how do you approach spring cleaning? What method works best? At the end of the process, do you feel rejuvenated and less stressed, or exhausted and more stressed?

How to Evoke the 5 Senses and Create a Meditation Space

Meditation can take our lives from drowning in deadlines to sailing on a sea of tranquility. Carving out a special space for the practice, which can take the shape of anything from a simple yoga sequence to guided imagery to reflection on a religious passage, means we’re more likely to take a few minutes each day to ground ourselves and reflect. The practice allows us to cultivate relaxation, gratitude, and awareness.

I take my own life as the perfect example: I’ve spent this week on a tight deadline for an article for work. I know as soon as I finish this story, several more will emerge from the sidelines to take its place. Between dog-walking, doctor’s appointments, paying the cell phone bill, and cooking dinner, how do we find time to focus on nurturing our deeper selves? Between jobs and hobbies, friends and family members, eating and exercising, how do we make a space to reflect?

The first step can be a small one. We simply make a place for that reflection. What better way to ensure we meditate than to create a space in our home–whether it’s a small corner or an entire room–especially for this practice? Here’s a guide to creating a meditation space, one sense at a time.

Floor pillows, available at www.westelm.com.

Floor pillows, available at http://www.westelm.com.

1.)  Touch: For meditation, comfort is key. Few of us can meditate while seated in an uncomfortable high-backed dining chair. Meditation requires a mix of focus and relaxation. Touch means comfortable surroundings. A floor cushion, folded blanket, or yoga mat provides the necessary foundation for good practice. Add comfy clothes (my go-to is yoga pants and a tank top) and just say “om.”

2.)  Smell: Scent is powerful. It can ignite the first spark of attraction or trigger a memory. Lightly scented candles can set the scene for a meditation, though overwhelming smells or chemical fragrances can trigger migraines or asthma attacks for some. If the smoke of incense isn’t your thing, consider a much more subtle alternative: an aroma diffuser, such as these, sold at Mountain Rose Herbs, which also offers an assortment of essential oils. Add a few drops of the essential oil of your choice–anything from eucalyptus to bergamot to lavender–and allow the scent to waft through the room. Electric diffusers that use a light bulb instead of a tea-light candle are also available from other retailers.

3.)  Sound: Few things are as personal as our taste in music or the sounds that produce a sense of relaxation. This can be a Tibetan singing bowl or a gong, so that you’re in charge of the sound; a podcast of nature sounds, anything from bird songs to ocean waves; the soft strains of Vivaldi; or complete and utter silence. Even if you’re in a space that’s normally full of the hustle and bustle of the household, try to make it as quiet and serene as possible. Not even the most disciplined of us can truly focus on a meditation exercise when surrounded by a cacophony of car horns and crying children. Having music or nature sounds also gives us something to focus on. That way, if our minds wander, we have something to draw us back into our practice.

4.)  Sight: Don’t forget to set the stage for tranquility. Anything from the art on the walls–whether you fancy the pastel hues of Claude Monet or the black-and-white nature photos of Ansel Adams–to the statues and knickknacks we surround ourselves with helps us relax into a receptive state of mind. A small, low table can become a makeshift altar when we add a few meaningful items. Houseplants or fresh-cut flowers, statues of deities, inspiring artwork, and relaxing colors can all play a role in finding our inner zen. If you can paint the walls, bright red probably isn’t the way to go. Cool tones like blues or greens, earth tones like adobe or khaki, or a middle-of-the-road hue like purple whisper (not shout) zen.

5.)  Taste: Taste doesn’t typically come into play when creating a space for tranquility. But consider brewing yourself a pot of green tea to have nearby. At the very least, pour yourself a glass of filtered tap water. (Bottled water consumes more natural resources than water straight from the tap.)

Whether you have an entire floor or a small nook, an hour each morning or a few minutes each evening, setting aside a time and a place for meditation can benefit body, mind, and soul. Creating a space for meditation practice encourages us to carve out that time in our busy lives. The practice can rejuvenate our creativity, alleviate stress and anxiety, and help us head off stress-sensitive conditions like high blood pressure, migraines, and depression. Create your space one breath, one object, and one sense at a time. Then relax and enjoy.

Stop the Yuletide Clutter: A few thoughtful holiday gifts that don’t take up much space

Gifts don’t have to take up a lot of space to be full of heart. I know few people who can honestly say, “I don’t own enough stuff”—at least not in America, where we have consumer fever so bad we ransack stores during the holiday season like starving wolves picking a caribou carcass clean.

I grew up in a big farmhouse with lots of space, and we filled every nook and cranny. (Granted, there were five of us, and we often entertained long-term guests, usually extended family—so we also filled that space with memories.) But I knew how much work it took to keep that house clean and how difficult it was to manage that much stuff. And since I moved out on my own, I’ve always lived in small places—apartments or tiny houses—where keeping everything I’ve ever owned wasn’t an option.

I love tearing into presents under the tree. I’m a Sagittarius, and I like the excitement and anticipation that comes with gift giving and receiving. (I’m often more excited watching someone open a gift I bought them than I am opening my own presents.) But I think we’re at a stage where we can look for ways to give gifts that don’t just add to the clutter of our busy lives. I believe that often times, less is more.

Here are a few ideas that I’ve come up with. Feel free to share your own. I’m always open to new ideas!

1.) Secret (or not-so-secret) Santa. In my family, by Christmas day, we all know who got whose name, but it’s the spirit that counts. Simply set a price limit (we generally do $25) and draw a name from a hat. Instead of buying seven or eight gifts, you’re buying one. You also have more time to focus on buying something unique for that person. My husband and I do this with both my family and his, and I can assure you that the spirit and joy of the holiday is not at all hindered by the fact that we get fewer gifts. If anything, it’s enhanced.

2.) Give an experience, not an object. Give a stressed-out mom a day (or afternoon) at the spa, a busy couple a gift card for their favorite restaurant, a music lover tickets to a concert. If the recipient has always wanted to learn French cooking, yoga, karate, or guitar, now could be a time to treat them to an experience instead of buying something that they’ll have to find a place for. I always love a gift card to Target, but if you want something more personal, you can purchase a gift certificate or card that appeals to the recipient’s unique tastes and interests.

3.) The much-loved basket full of goodies. I love filling baskets with handmade soaps, all-natural bath products, or the recipient’s favorite foods. My mother-in-law used to make homemade hot cocoa mix and put it in a mason jar topped with a piece of festive cloth and ribbon. It never went unused. If you’re a cook, baked goods in a Christmas tin will make a yummy treat. Farmers markets and natural-food stores often stock locally made products, anything from artisan cheeses to all-natural lotions. You’re being kind to the planet, creating a vibrant local economy, and giving someone a gift they can use but that won’t require long-term storage. The best part is that you can tailor the basket’s contents to the recipient, including their favorite foods, soaps or lotions with their favorite scent, etc.

4.) Go digital. If you’re shopping for a bibliophile who also owns an e-book reader (or uses an iPad or smart phone to read books), an e-book allows you to give them a gift sans wrapping paper—and they won’t need to buy a new bookcase to house their growing collection. I can keep a library of 3,500 books on my Kindle. When I move, it’ll be much easier to move those thousands of books than it will be to pack up my hard copies. Digital music files allow you to give someone a good soundtrack for their days (and nights) without buying a CD or vinyl (yes, my musician friends assure me that vinyls are back in style).

5.) Give the gift of giving. Lots of nonprofit organizations allow you to make a donation in recognition of someone else. If you know someone who’s a cancer survivor, an animal lover, or who has an issue he or she is passionate about, a gift to a beloved cause can be just as nice as one wrapped up in paper and bedecked with a shiny bow.

What about you? How do you celebrate the holidays without amassing a house full of stuff?

A dose of holiday joy: A few feel-good Christmas stories

If you feel like you’re seeing more grinches than carolers this holiday season, here’s a round-up of inspiring holiday tales from around the web:

Secret Santas Share the Wealth, $100 at a Time

Kmart Shoppers Pay Off Other Shoppers’ Layaways:

Finally, in the wake of a senseless tragedy, the Virginia Tech community is showing the world that, in the face of hate, we can sow seeds of love; that the community is one defined not by tragedy, but by resilience; and that the university motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), continues to thrive. See how students established a memorial fund for the family of a fallen Hokie.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, and however you share and spread joy, I hope your season is full of gratitude, love, and friendship. Happy Holidays.