the AAGH zone

It is easy to lapse into a false sense of security.  Over the past few weeks we have had end of term and friends staying and auditions and university visits and parties and surprisingly enough the declutter has taken a back seat.

I have taken much that has already been decluttered off to its new homes but the remainder of the house has been untouched.  I have a confession to make.  I cannot lay the blame completely at the door of all the other activities  going on around me.  I have decluttered as far as the AAGH zone.

We all have an AAGH zone.  Sometimes they are just one zone, commonly the attic or the basement.  In our case it is the outside playroom.  The place where “things we don’t really know what to do with” meet “things that we need to keep but not in the house” (tents, sleeping bags, tins of paint etc).  Back to the theory that stuff attracts stuff and it is not long before the AAGH zone has sucked in so much stuff that you probably can’t open the door (we can’t).

Sometimes there are little AAGH zones scattered around the house.  The “present cupboard” which does indeed hold presents for other people which you have seen during the year and know will be just perfect for their birthday in six months time.  But also holds those free gifts you got at the make up counter thinking you could use as a present but never have, because just as you don’t want them, neither will anyone else.  More magnetic stuff attraction goes on here too.

With regard to that free stuff.  Say no.  Really, you can do it.  Do you want a twee little washbag to go with all the other twee little washbags you have?  Do you want all those little plastic bottles of stuff you don’t use? No?  Then say so.

We have both types of AAGH zone and neither can be done in one fell swoop, hence the procrastination and use of excuses.  Tomorrow I am going to the wonderful Nichola for my weekly reflexology and chinwag session.  After that I will be more than ready to tackle the AAGH zone under the Victorian staircase.

What is your AAGH zone and what is stopping you stepping inside it?

from the Leadmill to the pantry

Are the gigs at the Leadmill still as good?  Are the Peace Shop and The Fat Cat still on Division Street?  Is going over the top of the paternoster in the Arts Tower still the most frightening thing I have ever done?  Today I shall be finding out as I am accompanying the Dancer to Sheffield where she is going to check out the Medical School and I am going to find out how much it has changed since my student days.  Therefore I apologise but today you are getting a rehash.

This post was originally written for Susie at Let’s Get Organized.  But as I have no time to blog today I hope you don’t  mind if it comes back again.

How to tackle the kitchen…..


  1. Remove everything from the cupboard, endeavouring not to pin Newfoundland in a corner.
  2. Release cornered dog.
  3. Scrub cupboards and try not to show too much shock at the level of dust.
  4. Sit back on heels and look hopelessly at the chaos on the floor.
  5. Take a deep breath and dive in.

wall cupboard before

Wall cupboard before

Wall after

Wall cupboard after

At this point, traditional declutter divas recommend three piles.  Keep, Ditch and Maybe.  Personally I don’t hold with Maybe.  All you are doing is putting off the evil day when you have to make a decision.  As a Libran I know how hard that is so just get it over with.

Tins before

Tins before (oh my look at that dust!)

tins after

Tins after

              6. Sort into two piles.
7. Remove Ditch pile immediately to another room before you are tempted to put any of it back in cupboard.
8. Wash Keep pile as appropriate.
9. Enjoy replacing items in neat piles where you can see everything and there is plenty of space between items.
10. If (9) is not achievable go back to step (6) and repeat.

It sounds simple doesn’t it?  That’s because it is.  You don’t need fancy boxes or storage containers.  You do not need to spend the equivalent of a month’s salary at IKEA.  You just need to take command.  Whose room is it?  Yours or the Junk’s?

dresser bottom before

Dresser bottom before

dresser before

Dresser top before

dresser after

Dresser after

I can’t tell you how to approach level (6); we all have our own criteria.  But the important thing is to decide your criteria first.  I don’t necessarily go with the “if you haven’t used it in 6 months….”  Some things are only used a few times a year but are essential.  My husband wears his kilts only a few times a year but we would never get rid of them.  Our fish kettle is only used occasionally but is the only way we can cook a whole fish and as my husband is a keen fisherman we do cook whole fish.

My decision tree goes something like this:

  1. Do I use it?
  2. If no is there a reason why I should keep it?
  3. Yes answers may include family heirloom that would result in instant death and excommunication were I to ditch it/ I use it occasionally and need it for those occasions/ sentimental value.
  4. The above are all valid but the said items do not have to be kept in the kitchen cupboard taking up valuable space.  Is there somewhere else they can go?  Could they be put on display?  (Our fish kettle and wooden salad bowls live on the top of the dresser and look rather lovely but don’t get in the way.)
  1. Do I use it?
  2. If yes, are there more than one and do I need them all?
  3. I have a large collection of crockery because we entertain a lot and I don’t use anything disposable.  On the other hand I did not need 15 egg cups.  We are a family of 5, even with guests we are unlike to need more than 10.  I kept 9.  Three are family heirlooms, two belonged to my children and one belonged to me as a child.  Hit three birds with one stone.

Multiples of useful items are common stumbling blocks.  We all need mugs etc.  But how many do we need?  How big is your family?  How often do you have guests?  How many guests do you have?  Do you have a dishwasher? (Dishwashers eat crockery – if you hand wash you can get away with less).

tea cupboard before

Tea cupboard before

tea cupboard after

Tea cupboard after

I discovered we had 4 sets of bone china tea services, each contained a cup, saucer and tea plate for 8 to 12 plus two to four sandwich plates, milk jug, sugar bowl and teapot.  I had kept them for sentimental reasons and pretended I had kept them for my daughters.  My daughters will not want them and if they do they can fight over the one I will keep or do battle with my future son-in-laws’ families over their own tea services.  I don’t use coffee cups after dinner, I think they are far too small, I use the tea service.  Thus I have kept the largest service the rest will be boxed up for auction.

I did the pantry last week so there are no before and after photos.  However this is the one room I do declutter (rather than merely tidy) on a regular basis.  I am a bit anal about my pantry.  But that too turned out to require more attention than I had realised.  You will continue to buy more mint sauce if you can’t see the jar behind the rosehip jelly.  You have to inventory on a regular basis.  If you don’t you will end up making multiple purchases.



It helps if you plan your meals on a weekly basis.  I don’t subscribe to the 15 (or whatever) circulating recipes.  How boring that must get.  Instead I start my shopping in my pantry and freezer.  Then I get out 2-4 recipe books and look for new recipes to try using the major ingredients I have found on my in house shop.  I bought some mutton at the last farmers’ market so we have had several mutton/goat recipes this week (the two are easily interchangeable).  I supplement with recipes that catch my eye and then allocate them to days of the week, taking into account any evenings when one or more of us will be out late or away and to the length of time I will have available to prepare.  Baked potatoes and pasta (not together!) are our no time to chop night meals.  The shopping list is made on the basis on the ingredients I need which are not in the pantry or freezer.

This way you keep a regular eye on your store cupboard, have a menu plan for the week, buy only what you need and try out new recipes.  What’s not to like?

There is no point in getting rid of things you no longer need or want if you are just going to fill up the gaps with more of the same.  Like a dieter who drops two dress sizes you don’t want to go back.  You have to rethink how you shop.  I now have a strict one in one out policy.  I still love shopping, it’s just that I don’t buy anything.  I can enjoy and appreciate the beauty and form of everything from a dress to a vase.  But I don’t need to buy it.  I treat shopping like a trip to a museum, I admire but I leave it behind.

the procreation of stuff


There comes a time in the decluttering process when everything slows down.  The first push is over and you can already see improvements.  The first exodus has been made and items rehomed where they will be used and loved.  You sit back and smile.  Pat yourself on the back and admire your newly neat and uncluttered cupboards.

I have spent quite a lot of time the  last month opening and closing cupboard doors and wandering in and out of rooms and giving myself great big congratulatory pats on the back.  Not content to do this alone I have encouraged, nay forced everyone who comes to the house to do the same.  I have drawn the line at inviting the postman to inspect my linen cupboard, but only just.  I am in the evangelical phase.  I want everyone to know how liberating decluttering can be.  I want to share my joy and I want to show off just a little bit as well.


However, the clue is in the first line.  The first push is over.  I may have won the first battle but the war is by no means completed.  I fully intend to win but it will be a protracted process.  Today I moved all the stuff in the Barn that I had removed from the kitchen.  I packed up tea services and plates and labelled the boxes for charity.  Then for good measure I did a quick whizz around the Barn to pick up any stray items that had snuck in whilst the kitchen stuff was there.  Stuff attracts stuff.  Leave stuff around and it will double in size as more stuff is added to it.  Have no stuff lying around and there is nowhere for new stuff to hide!


the lure of the list

Lists.  Obligations. Hobbies. Bucket List.

Do you really need them?  Are they helping you move forward in your life?  Helping you to achieve your goals and dreams?  Or are they holding you back; weighing you down with things that you must do.


The To Do List.  Almost every organisational book, every guide to planning is an instruction manual for the to do list in one incarnation or another.  Don’t get me wrong,  I have a to do list, I even have a book that I write my to do lists in.  I could probably write one of those instruction manuals.  But sometimes that list is a killer.  Just looking at it makes me want to fire up the laptop and play candy crush saga for the rest of the day.

Are there things on that list because you think they ought to be on there but you know you are never going to do, at least not today.  Things like dust the top of the wardrobe, write to your great aunt.  They sit there and stare at you and make you feel guilty.

If you are not going to do them don’t put them on the list.  Declutter it.

If you are going to do it one day but not today have a second list, I call mine the 25 hours in a day list.  The things that I have to do at some point but not right now.  That list gets decluttered once a month.  If I haven’t done it in a month I am not going to do it.

Obligations.  How many do you have.  Are they real obligations or have you convinced yourself that they are?  There are somethings you have said you will do so you must.  But what are you saying yes to and why?  Out of a sense of duty, love, reciprocation.  They are all valid reasons but you should balance them out.  If every obligation is out of a sense of duty you will start to resent them.  My obligations include a fundraising charity I currently chair.  I do that out of love and fun.  I really enjoy it, I share the work with friends and though it can be stressful and hard work the payoff is well worth it.  I also run our church Sunday School.  Initially that was out of duty.  My children made up a sizeable proportion of the Sunday School.  It only seemed fair that I contributed.  My children have long grown out of Sunday School but I still do it, partly out of duty (I think every church should have a Sunday School) and partly love .  Another is the Durham Local Food Network.  I helped set up both the Network and the subsequent Directory out of frustration!

Hobbies.  Oh these are real time sucks and clutter generators.  Whether you fish, knit, make paper airplanes or nurture bonsai trees will have kit.  Lots of kit.  Because you have the kit you will begin to feel obligated to use it.  Cast your mind back to when you first discovered your hobby.  When you had no kit.  When you went fishing with one 15ft salmon rod, one reel and a small box of flies.  You were ready to go in seconds and you went out a lot.  Now a fishing trip requires almost an entire day to sort out the best rod and reels.  The right flies for the water, the right waders and net and then the right bag to put it all in.  How often do you go fishing now?

Bucket List. I am all for having a list of things that you would like to do before you die.  But unless you are genuinely terminally ill are you using your bucket list to avoid living your real life.  Are you too busy accumulating experiences to experience the everyday?

Lists are a tool designed to help us.  Yet it is all too easy to allow them to become clutter themselves.  Filling our lives with things we do or feel we need to do but don’t.  Don’t be lured by the appeal of the list.  Make sure you stay in control and not the other way around.

letting go



Remove unnecessary items from (an untidy or overcrowded place)

That could include what?

  • wardrobe
  • kitchen cupboards
  • dvd collection
  • garage
  • desk


The list is endless.  But what about:

  • blogroll
  • Facebook “friends”
  • Christmas card list
  • to do list
  • bucket list
  • hobbies
  • tv programme must watch list
  • obligations


They fall into two main categories:

  • contacts
  • to do lists

I am not suggesting you cut your friends down to two, dropping all others like a rotting fish.  We have concentric circles of friends and acquaintances.  Life would be very lonely with only two close friends and no passing acquaintances, the people you meet at a party or the bus stop and can chat to without any obligation to “meet up for coffee”, yet have enough in common to genuinely be pleased to see them and pass a few minutes of your time with them.  Equally if these were the only friends you had you life would be equally lonely.

However there a some people who appear to have your best interests at heart but in all honesty drain your energy, block your movement forward and leave you frustrated, though you don’t know why.  Julia Cameron calls them the crazymakers, the people who cannot survive without a drama and usually at the expense of somebody else.  They have only one schedule, theirs; they expect special treatment (because of course they would give it to you if you needed it); they live in their reality not yours, your boundaries only count if they fall within theirs; they are expert saboteurs, the ones who plant a tiny seed of doubt “for your own good, I can see the bigger picture”.  And all the time they maintain a brilliant facade as your protector, your champion, the only one who really understands what you want to do with your life.

Let the crazymaker go.  We all have them and they are often the people we least expect.  When I gently let my crazymaker slip away after far, far, far too many years my entire family noticed the difference.  We were collectively less stressed.

Some people are perfectly lovely but were never destined to be in your life forever.  There are some people who live thousands of miles away but with whom I still keep in touch.  It may be irregular but it is genuine and we care about each other despite the distance.  There are some people to whom I am still sending Christmas cards, who live maybe 20 miles away and I haven’t seen for over 10 years.  Why am I still sending those cards?  Every year I feel immense guilt that despite the promises last year, we have not managed to find a single day out of 365 where we could spend even an afternoon together.  Isn’t that telling me something?

The energy you invest in keeping in touch with somebody with whom you no longer have a relationship is draining.  The guilt, the broken promises, sometimes made with your fingers crossed behind your back are all sucking you of energy you could spend on the people who matter to you whether they are next door or on Christmas Island.

I have friends who have bursting address books and for whom maintaining friendships with vast numbers of people is simple maybe even their lifeblood.  But if you are not that kind of person don’t beat yourself up about it, so what?  We are all different and bring different gifts to the table.

Now, whilst it is warm and sunny while the summer lies before you (sorry for my Southern Hemisphere readers, I too have lived south of the equator and used to get more than a little irritated by the sweeping seasonal generalisations made by the other side of the world) lie out in the grass and think about who you would miss if they slipped out of your life tomorrow and who you might be sorry to say goodby to, but you know you’ll feel a little lighter without the responsibility of keeping the friendship going.

Sorry no photographs today.

wardrobe challenge

Yesterday was the first challenge for the capsule wardrobe.  We were invited to a reception by the County Durham Foundation.  Dress (for women at least) “cocktail dress”.  As the reception was to be held in the garden and the weather is famously inclement up here I would also need some form of cover up and shoes without heels.


No problem.  Blue spotty dress, white cardigan and blue wedge sandals.  It was SO EASY.  None of that staring at the wardrobe and trying on different things (and discovering they no longer fit) and then agonising over whether a cardigan or jacket would be better.  Thanks to the vagaries of Air France I arrived home from the airport with only 15 minutes to get ready.  It was a breeze.

Getting dressed generally is so much easier and more fun.  I have to think laterally, to be imaginative with less is fun.  I don’t have to wander around the bedroom from wardrobe to chest of drawers. It’s all hanging up in one place.

I still only have 30 items so there are 3 more to be added.  As we are going on holiday during this period I am going to hold off until I have decided what I want to take on holiday.  Packing is going to be a lot easier too!

read or dust?

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France


A couple of people asked how I decided which books to keep and which to give away.  Faced with a wall (or several walls…) of books that you have carefully cultivated over decades is daunting.  You have invested a lot of money and emotion in them.  They have been old friends.  You have carted them from house to house, packed them up in boxes, unpacked them again.  Arranged them by size/colour/subject/Dewey Decimal Classification (well maybe that’s just me).  You may even have read them, maybe even twice.  All of them?  No.  Recently? No.

I rest my case.

Go up to your bookshelf/bookshelves/book piles/library (delete as necessary) Go to a random shelf and without pausing pick out ten books you have either just acquired and haven’t had time to read yet but know you will within the next two months or have already read but are so fantastic that you know you will have to read again within the next six months.  No cheating, no going to the pile of books that just arrived from Amazon, no wandering around cherry picking.  One shelf at random.

How many did you find?

I rest my case again.

The biography of the Duchess of Devonshire may well have been fascinating but are you a historian?  Are you going to go back and check facts?  Are you a Mitford aficionado and will reread it over and over?  Or are you just keeping it because it looks good on the shelf?

My first degree was in philosophy.  I had an admirable collection of philosophy books from original texts to commentaries and commentaries on commentaries.  Today I am a stay at home mum.  I do not have an illustrious career or a glamorous high-powered job.  I like that.  I love doing what I do and if you flick through my gratitude journal you would see I offer up my gratitude for that on a regular basis.  However, there have been times when I have been made to feel small and insignificant because I don’t go out to work.  At those times it is nice to flick through those philosophy books and remind myself I once read them all and even understood them.

Codswallop.  I don’t need a pile of dusty books to boost my self-esteem and furthermore I am never going to read them again.  Somebody else with a pile of student debt would probably be grateful for them.

Some books will have been presents or belonged to relatives.  You can’t get rid of them because you would feel guilty.  How about feeling guilty that you are hoarding all those precious books which you are never going to read again.  Think of the Tate, The National Portrait Gallery, The British Museum.  Imagine your indignation if they were closed overnight and only a very select handful of people were ever allowed to visit them and see the artwork and artifacts they hold.  But even worse, those people never bothered to go.  That’s you and your never to be read again books.

By all means keep some for sentimental value.  I certainly did.  Some of the hardest books to give away were books from my childhood.  Though oddly enough as I child and a voracious reader I regularly did deals with the chap who sold secondhand books from a dingy shop on the corner of  Hillgate Place and Uxbridge Street.  I took him 100 or so paperbacks in part exchange for another selection, which in turn would be returned to him for another and so on.  The shop has long gone and last I saw it was a trendy deli.  A shame, Notting Hill Gate has plenty of trendy delis, it needs good second-hand bookshops where children can learn to explore and learn the art of part exchange.

I’ve preached to you long enough.  But please, look at those bookshelves again, take off the rose-coloured spectacles and really look at them.  Somebody else could love them, could really use them.  Somebody else might read them rather than just dust them.



good homes

There should be photographs for this post.  Photographs of my car stuffed to the gunnels with books.  Photographs of the shelves of books at Borderline waiting to be taken to new homes.  Photos of the boxes and boxes of books Amina and I packed up out of my car.  But I am afraid there are none.  Because I forgot.  Sorry.

I can show you a photo of what is left.


Despite filling the back of my Grand Scenic with books there are still more to go.  Which is perfectly fine as that means I get to go back to Borderline and maybe this time I will have a shortbread.  Better still I can take some with me.

This morning I had a meeting in Bensham with the lovely Meg Gilley to talk about spiritual direction, prayer, retreats and what do I think God looks like.  It seemed the perfect opportunity to pop down the road with part one of my donation to Borderline.  I am so glad I did.  As we packed up the books from the back of my car into box after box, I occasionally came across one with which I wasn’t sure I wanted to part.  But after talking to Amina and having the grand tour I had no regrets.  My books would be going to good homes and would be read and loved, not left to gather dust.  The memories are in my heart they don’t need to be on a shelf.

Borderline is essentially a free bookshop.  They collect books that are about to be thrown out by publishers, book shops, charity shops and ordinary mortals. The books are sorted and stamped with their name and slogan and then redistributed – free of charge – amongst organisations that help refugees and asylum applicants, homeless people, women and children in shelters and others who have no funds for books.

Personally I can’t think of a better home for my books.

cull to 33

Head first.  That’s the way I usually go.  I did that recently when the lovely4 year old daughter of a friend of mine encouraged me to do a forward roll.  I am fairly sure that I didn’t break my neck but it was, I feel touch and go.  You would have thought I had learned my lesson.

Yesterday I worked through the first day of the Project333 programme.  What makes this appeal to me is that is isn’t just about creating a capsule wardrobe, but about making you think about what you actually need as opposed to what you thought you wanted.

One of the first exercises was to list the items in your wardrobe that you know you will never wear and why you haven’t got rid of them before.  In every case my answer was guilt.  Guilt that I had spent money on something I haven’t worn and probably will only wear a few times.  Guilt because they were presents and I can’t bring myself to get rid of them.  The source of the guilt was immaterial.  Guilt was the reason.  Just writing that down was freeing.  I don’t have to feel guilty.  I have forgiven myself for much greater sins than the rash purchase of a dress in the East sale.  I have regifted or rehomed any number of presents, why should clothes be different?

Another very illuminating question.  If you could start over, what would be in your ideal wardrobe?  As I listed the items I realised I already owned that wardrobe.  Those things were all there but I couldn’t see them for all the other stuff getting in the way.

So here is draft one of my capsule wardrobe.  Thirty three items not including underwear , gymwear (in my case yoga kit) lounge at home wear (identical to the yoga kit), nightwear (dressing gown and slippers), jewellery worn 24/7 (wedding, eternity and engagement rings, pearl earrings,  silver cross, watch and glass bead bracelets) glasses and prescription sunglasses and yardboots for dog walking/gardening/working outside.


One leather tote, one cotton scarf, one pair flat sandals, one pair suede wedge sandals, one pair fitflops one necklace one bracelet (7).


Two strappy vest tops, 1 cotton loose knit top, 1 turquoise and 1 matelot 3/4 sleeve tee shirts (5)


One pair white linen trousers, 1 pair navy linen trousers, 1 pair black linen trousers, 1 pair grey jeans. (4)

IMG_1032  One long white skirt, one short blue and green skirt and I am wearing a green and white skirt (3)

floaty tops

One sleeveless floaty top, 1 chiffon kaftan top and I am wearing a 3/4 sleeve white floaty top (3)


Two cotton Boden dresses, 1 silk and cotton floaty white dress, 1 smart blue & white silk spotty dress, 1 long jersey dress (5)


One 3/4 sleeve white cardigan, 1 3/4 sleeve green and blue cardigan, 1 long black cardigan with silk chiffon “skirt”. (3)

That comes to 30 – which gives me three more things I can add if and when I need.  It was surprisingly easy.  Now to see how well I can stick to it!