Homeschool Impossible: The Clutter Episode

The people on Hotel Impossible are all alike. They are hard working people with a simple dream: like running all the operations of a hotel even though they’ve never even been to a slumber party. They tend to make the same mistakes over and over – because they’re so good at them. Reminds me of myself as a homeschooler.

Long ago, I too, was a hard working person with a dream: teaching an ever growing population of children everything which my approximately 28 teachers taught me over the course of 13 years – plus all the stuff I missed while I was staring out the window. In so doing, I would save my children’s souls.

But I did not realize what it would take – except that every time a baby was born, I knew it would take another 18 years.

The difference between me and the TV show chumps is they get the services of an expert. The expert has lived the dream and knows its secrets – such as, cockroaches, however delicate, should not be used as a garnish.

The expert enters the establishment, observes what is going wrong, cleans up the mess, and then retrains the chumps so that they can succeed after the expert goes home.

It just makes my problem solving heart go pitter-pat.

Lacking an expert to assess my homeschool issues and clean up after me, I had to retrain myself. Instinctively, I started where every expert starts: getting rid of stuff.

Clutter is everyone’s problem here in the First World. It’s not that we deliberately acquire it. It grows from spores in our backyard.

I find it under bushes while I’m weeding and I always say the same thing, “Where’d that come from?” Just like weeds, people have a hard time getting rid of it.

That is because something in us believes in it. Give it a chance. We might need it someday! I used to think that way.

Years ago my husband and I replaced our kids’ ratty mattresses. Did we throw the old ones away? Of course not. They might be useful. We hauled them down to the basement just in case…

Ten years later, I picked my way – which was an athletic achievement – through a basement full of highly evolved garbage and I finally asked a life-changing question: Just in case – what? In case we want to convert our basement into a prison?

I now purge every summer, before the school year begins. It’s like nesting. I start with last year’s books. Before I order new books I need to have a convenient place to keep them so that I can find them again and not walk around on Monday mornings hollering, “Who had the Summa last?”

After I’ve cleared away last year’s homeschool curriculum, I organize what I still need and begin ordering books to start another homeschool year.

I do not want to bring any of last year’s used up homeschool clutter into the new school year just as I don’t want to wake up in the morning to yesterday’s dishes.

“The evil of the day is sufficient.” Even though Jesus seemed to be talking about not worrying about the future, I like to apply it to yesterday’s mess as well.

I don’t stop at books. I do a multi-room purge. Too much stuff makes housework harder. It makes it take longer. It makes it hard to find the rare items you own that you actually need to run your homeschool – like a pencil. Picture your pencil drawer. Is it filled with dried up markers, grubby half-chewed erasers, and leaky pens? Do you rummage through it grumbling, “I know there’s a pencil in here somewhere!” My whole house aspires to be a pencil drawer.

Sometimes the TV experts see some junk that is just bad enough to need replacing but not bad enough for the owners to take care of right away or ever. So they finish it off. They tear it all the way or clobber it with a baseball bat. Not only is this entertaining, it keeps the owners from reinstating it once they’re gone. Anyone who has ever attempted to get rid of toys or games with missing parts knows what it feels like to see it resurface in the toy box. You feel haunted. To make sure no one reinstates my garbage, I throw it out when they are not around and use opaque black trash bags. It’s amazing how much fun kids can have when you clear away the rubble and they can actually find their working toys. You can practically skip Christmas.

Once you get started, purging clutter becomes a favorite hobby. It’s almost a game – how much stuff can I live without?

When the local news carried a story about some people had a fire and were asking for donations of homegoods, I hesitated, then sent them half of my blankets. One year I purged all the pots and pans that I had been shoving out of the way so I could get to the four I actually used. When my toaster oven burst into flame – as those things are wont to do – I didn’t replace it. The broiler setting on the oven burns toast just as well.

The other half of the game is finding a new purpose for your junk. Most of the garbage on the shows is not worth the dust that is caked on it but once in awhile it is worth cash. There was the gigantic electric ice cream cone which decorated the front yard of a small hotel, the owners of which did not, nor ever intend to, sell ice cream. They sold it on Craig’s List for $750. Yes, this is America – the land of people who are not content with just growing clutter like weeds in their yards. They buy it too. The bigger the better. So look around your house.

Your clutter just may be your vacation fund in disguise.

Perhaps you are not so fortunate as to own a gigantic electric ice cream cone worth $750 but you do own all the seasons of Downton Abbey. Your children have been playing fort with it. You can set up a free seller account on amazon and list it for just a little less than the cheapest one listed which is in the same condition as yours: Acceptable for fort building – but you already know who died.

Suppose, however, after a thorough internet search, you find that your garbage is not worth the cost of shipping. Yet, in your mind “it’s still good.” You hate to throw it out. You’d drop it off at the Goodwill but it’s just too big for your measly 15-passenger van.

Freecycle it. Freecycle is an online network of yahoo groups which works like the classifieds except everything is free and it doesn’t attract scammers like Craig’s List does. You sign up with a local group for free, get approved, list your clutter, and wait for someone to come to your house, strap your prison mattresses to the roof rack of their Ford Escort, and drive off into the sunset.

Thanks to Freecycle I got rid of a smoking hot lawn mower. a pool that I thought had all the parts for but wasn’t sure, and a wooden outdoor bench that was once a cherished pet but had become a biter. I told the absolute truth about all of these items but there were still dozens of takers. My policy is to give it to the first person who says: “I have a pick up truck and I can come today.”

If your house, like mine, aspires to be a gigantic pencil drawer, try these things. I guarantee that relief will be instantaneous.

I don’t just mean material relief. Here, in the First World, we have too many attachments, things we “can’t live without.”

You may think getting rid of your excess stuff is low on the list of spiritual priorities but we are supposed to get rid of everything that keeps us shackled to this world. “Solicitude for material things distracts the soul and divides it. The devil seizes the divided soul and drags it to hell.” St. Anthony of Padua. Decluttering your material environment is training to get rid of your deeper attachments. Detachment has got to start somewhere. You come into the world with nothing and you are going out with nothing. Meanwhile, God gives you stewardship over certain things. Your job – your only job regarding all these things – is put all of them in their proper places.

A lot of times that’s somewhere else.

And so as we leave Homeschool Impossible, a final thought: Things are your servants, you are not their slave. If you don’t believe that, I know where you can get a sweet deal on an electric ice cream cone.

This article was originally published in The Latin Mass Magazine. Cartoon credit: Ted Schleunderfritz from my book, Bless Me, Father for I Have Kids, Sophia Institute Press.

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