Everything Must Go: Tidying Up at the Root Simple Compound

We live in a small house (900 sq feet) which was built in 1920. The upshot of this is lots of charm but very little storage space. Folks back in the 20’s simply didn’t have as much stuff as we do now, and this is reflected in the tiny closets and minimal drawer space of older homes.

Erik and I aren’t hoarders (at least I don’t think we are…), but stuff does have a way of piling up over the years, especially when you’re a maker/DIY/homesteady sort of household. As a result, our house was bursting at the seams. Trying to find a place for everything was becoming a Sisyphean task, reminding of nothing so much as playing with those seriously un-fun tile games which children used to get in goodie bags–I dearly hope they’ve become obsolete by now–those little plastic grids of moveable tiles with only one open space which needed to be arranged into some sort of order.

At our house, books which could not fit on shelves stood in towers on the floor.The kitchen table had become some sort of horizontal storage depot for everything from bags of whole grain to random root vegetables to homeless Mason jars and shopping bags. Cabinets and drawers were all filled to capacity. Cleaning around all this stuff was a huge chore. No matter how much we cleaned the house, it would rebound into un-tidyiness overnight.

Then, the other day we had an epiphany, which I call the Junk Drawer Epiphany. We were standing in the kitchen, bickering about the lack of storage space there and solutions for that–we disagreed on what type of new storage systems we’d add on to accommodate all the homeless things. Finally, Erik stalked over to one of our kitchen drawers–we have 3 kitchen drawers in total–the one dubbed the junk drawer, opened it up and said, “What’s in here, anyway?” I realized that other than some tape and glue and a few light bulbs, I neither knew nor cared what was in there. If the whole thing burned or was transported into another dimension I’d never notice the loss.

I fished through it and took out the few things of real use, most of which belonged in the newly organized garage, and few of which belonged in elsewhere. A few more things were good enough to send to the thrift shop, and the rest I gleefully tipped into the trash. Suddenly we’d increased our kitchen drawer space by 1/3.

This made us start to look around the house with new eyes. Our new mantra became Everything Must Go.

At this point we remembered a book one of our readers mentioned, and which has been making the publicity rounds of late, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by the tidying consultant Marie Kondo (aka KonMari–her method is called the KonMari Method). She’s from Japan, where people have the same rabid hearty consumerist impulses as we do here in the U.S., but considerably less space for storage.

When I first read about the book, I understood the gist of it, but wasn’t prepared to engage with those ideas. It seemed unrealistic, frankly, and a little anal-retentive. But after The Epiphany, it all made sense and we were both were ready to hear what she said, so we bought the book.

Her premise is simple enough, and there’s no need to buy the book if you’re resolute enough and don’t need prodding. Basically all she’s saying is that we have too much darn stuff for our own good, and all of the sorting and rules and organizational systems in the world are never going to overcome that basic fact.

If you have too much stuff, you’ll always be caught in the endless hamster wheel of searching for a place for your junk and cleaning around it. It’s a disease caused by the combination of relative affluence and cheap consumer goods. The only way to organize your house and ease your cleaning routine is to take the plunge and just get rid of a ton of stuff. And we’re not talking about sending a bag or two to the thrift store every now and then, mind you. Her private clients typically pare their possessions down by two-thirds or even three-quarters over the course of one intense purge.

KonMari’s philosophy is that you only keep those things that bring you joy and resonate with you, so wherever you look in your newly-purged house, you feel and sense of peace and well-being, as opposed to the guilty, overwhelmed and vaguely harassed feeling we too often experience when we look at our bulging closets.

After such an extreme winnowing, there is a place for everything in your house–an easily accessed, logical, spacious place. She’s dead set against organizational gadgets and schemes. If you pare down your belongings sufficiently, you don’t need them. It’s easy to put your things away at the end of the day because there’s no more shifting, cramming or stuffing to make room for them. You have a handle on your possessions–you know what you have. You’ve reconciled with them, and honored them. The house stays clean.

It is difficult to deal with the guilt over “wasting” things, just throwing away a perfectly good object, but it does help to realize that if you don’t even know where something is, or remember that you have it at all, it is already in effect, wasted. It is existing in a forgotten limbo in a bin under another bin at the back of your closet. The only way to make amends with the world on that front is to reform yourself so you will only bring truly needed, wanted and loved things into your house henceforth (and know how to release things when they are no longer needed). In the meanwhile, there’s no need to punish yourself by keeping stuff around, because you vaguely think it’s worth something, or you might find use for it someday, or because it was a gift, or because you’re embarrassed that you bought it at all and don’t want to face that guilt.

KonMari has a specific methodology and a sequence for purging your household, and we’ve been following that–not because it couldn’t be done another way, but because following her scheme seemed safer and easier than making up our own (our own methods never having worked before, after all). Most importantly, she places the sorting of photos and personal mementos last on the list, because these are the hardest things to sort through, and are the points where we all tend to get stuck.

Personally, I like KonMari’s approach, especially her Shinto-influenced tendency to personify objects. I’m a bit of an animist myself, so it was easy for me to take her advice of trying to see clutter from the object’s point of view. They do not desire to be squashed, neglected, forgotten and/or resented. They want to be of use, or set free. More hard-nosed types might find this way of thinking a bit silly.

Also, I enjoyed imaging soft-voiced KonMari standing over me in a prim little pink suit, keeping me on task like some sort of bizarre cross between a good fairy and a dominatrix.

Certainly there are many tidying books out there, some of which may suit you more. Just today we were reading a very positive review of It’s All Too Much by Peter Walsh in the Cool Tools book, which sounds similar in its insistence that a purge is the way to start, and that by clearing your clutter, you clear your mind and your heart, and make room for new growth and possibilities.

We’re deep in the heart of the purging process now. As I write from the island oasis of our sofa I’m looking out at a sea of bags destined for the garbage, the recycling bin or the thrift store. It feels good. We’ll spend a couple more posts talking about how we worked through some of these purging categories, and what we’re learning along the way.

Erik on WFAE’s Charlotte Talks

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I’ll be one of the guests tomorrow (Friday January 9) at 9 AM EST on the Charlotte Talks Show on WFAE 90.7. The topic is “urban homesteading.” It’s a call-in show so save up those questions. Guests include:

Matt Kokenes – Founder, MicroFarm Organic Gardens

Laura Denyes – co-owner, Wish We Had Acres Farm

Dr. Dave Hamilton – co-owner, Wish We Had Acres Farm; Naturopathic Doctor, Carolinas Natural Health in Matthews

Erik Knutzen – author, blogger and podcaster, The Urban Homestead, Making It: Radical Home Economics for a Post-Consumer World and Root Simple; co-founder, Los Angeles Bread Bakers

The show will be available for streaming around noon EST here.

Rip-sawing by hand

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The first thing that comes to mind looking at this illustration from the classic turn of the last century manual The Complete Woodworker is, can we please bring back working in a tie, vest and apron? You’d probably have to journey deep into Brooklyn’s artisinal ghetto to find contemporary examples of dapper carpenters.

But I digress. What I like about this illustration is the deft use of the right leg in place of clamps when rip-sawing (cutting a piece of wood lengthwise with the grain). Some other pointers:

The angle at which the saw is held is of importance . . . A common mistake is to “lay” the saw: that is, to bring it too much into the horizontal, and this is especially the case when learning to follow the pencil lines with the saw. It is a habit which the beginner should get out of as soon as he can. The stroke should be wellnigh the full length of the saw, although this must depend somewhat upon the length of the worker’s arm; but in any case jerky sawing should be avoided. To lessen the strain on the hand and also to assist the saw in keeping to the line, do not grip the tool very tightly. . . In rip sawing the plank requires to be supported at each end, either on sawing stools or boxes. When the work tends to close and pinch the saw, a tendency which is always more evident when the sawing is not true, it will be necessary to hold the cut open, for which purpose the services of an assistant should be obtained, or, frequently, a small wedge may be inserted.

The illustration reminds me of the low to the ground benches and footwork of traditional Japanese carpentry:

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And Egyptian carpentry:

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I’ve seen video footage of present day Egyptian carpenters working barefoot. Feet, after all, can be just as handy as hands when it comes to manipulating a long board.

I’m thankful to be able to go electric rather than acoustic when doing rip-sawing around our compound. I don’t have a table saw, but I have managed to rip quite a few pieces of wood with my circular saw. That said, I’ve long felt like I need to learn some hand tool skills. Maybe barefooted and in a tie and vest?

032 Grist and Toll, an urban flour mill

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In episode 32 of the Root Simple Podcast I talk with Nan Kohler, owner and miller at Grist & Toll, a mill in Pasadena, California–and the first mill to operate in the L.A. area in the last one hundred years. We discuss varieties of wheat, the health benefits of whole grains, how to work with them and why flavor is important. Kelly is not on this episode but will return to the podcast next week.

Links
Ruth Reichl visits baker Richard Bertinet in England

Joaquin Oro wheat

White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Is it safe to use cinder blocks or red bricks in stoves and ovens?

As how-to book and blog authors we face many questions that begin, “Is it safe to . . . ?” And, for some reason, any post of ours involving rocket stoves sets off a firestorm of incoming Google hits.

An old blog post on a “Redneck Rocket Stove” made out of cinder blocks prompted many to suggest that the cinder blocks would explode due to heat. Leon, of the blog Survival Common Sense, does a good job of refuting this notion in a blog post, “Build a brick rocket stove: Is it safe to use concrete blocks?” The short answer is that those concrete blocks are not going to explode. But if you want something permanent you should use fire bricks and fire clay as mortar so it won’t crack.

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Related to this issue is our use of regular bricks in the hearth of our adobe oven. Most sources suggest using fire bricks or kiln bricks. Kurt Gardella, the adobe master who led the workshop where we built our adobe oven, is a fan of recycling materials and saving money. We happened to have a pile of ordinary red bricks and he said it would be fine to use them for the oven floor. He was right. We have fired the oven many times and none of the floor bricks have cracked. If I had not had the red bricks on hand and I was at the brick yard buying materials for an oven, I probably would have bought fire bricks. But having just paid for sand and straw gives me cheapskate bragging rights.

Opinions? Have you faced this issue?