Dec 282014
Not quite what you might picture when you think of Santa's workshop!

Not quite what you might picture when you think of Santa’s workshop!

My husband has been bugging me to clean out our basement for some time now. There are a lot of things to go through but a large pile of toys was one of the problem areas. These were hard to get rid of for me for a couple of reasons. They were extremely sentimental to me and were given to us by sweet people we love. My children still liked a lot of them and they were all quite nice toys that seemed to me should be worth something to someone. I told my husband that I planned to give them away to needy families for Christmas.

A week before Christmas I had made exactly zero progress on this project (as there were a million other things to get done). I didn’t really have time to do this project but something inside me was bugging me to get on this.

My husband doubted that anyone would even want these old, used toys. If you donate to groups like Toys 4 Tots, you will note that they only want “new” items. Nobody wants used.

I told my husband that I would try a test. I would post a quick list of the toys to CraigsList in the “free” section. If there was no interest, I would round up a donation for Goodwill. So, I went down to the basement and began pulling out a small selection of our old toys. I took a photo, wrote a description and posted to CraigsList. I showed the list to my husband.

"We have new-in-box toys stored in the basement?"

Yes, we did! Mixed in with the old stuff were new, completely unwrapped toys. These were duplicates we had received for holiday or birthday gifts that I had never quite gotten around to returning or the kind of toys that my children just don’t appreciate and never play with.

An example of the used toys posted to CraigsList.

An example of the used toys posted to CraigsList.

At first, there was no response. A few hours went by, however, and I had 5 or 6 responses. We didn’t ask anyone for details about why they needed the toys but some volunteered.

Thank you so much,
Living with family.
Husband working three jobs to make ends meet.
Thank you for blessing my daughter

I have a 2yr old little girl and would like to get whatever you are willing to give.

My grandson will be very happy. I’m taking my hubby to get surgery tomorrow. He has stage 4 throat cancer.

It seemed like most of our recipients were hardworking, resourceful people. They were the sort of people you are happy to help out!

The new toys were of course the most popular. I was gradually whittling my list down. I took items off the posting list as they were spoken for. There were a few used baby toys left and I went to bed with the listing up.

I awoke to 6 or 7 responses wanting the baby toys! I took the posting down and wrote everyone who had responded by then telling them I had more toys to go through and would probably be able to come up with something for everyone.

I spent the day washing and tidying up the used toys. I sprayed them down with my favorite orange-scented Lysol to remove any dirt or germs. I rounded up all the tiny pieces for each set that my children often strew throughout the house. I packed them up into boxes or bags, wrapped them and bagged them for delivery, writing each person’s name and address on the bag.

"You want me to drive where?"

I needed my husband’s assistance on the last leg of this project. Even though every person I interacted with seemed like a kind, decent person, I realized that I still needed to exercise caution when interacting with random strangers on the Internet. These nice people had all trusted me with their addresses and the fact that there could be children at each address.

The first group of deliveries.

The first group of deliveries.

Just to be extra safe, I sent my “muscle” (a.k.a. husband) to do the delivery work. I let everyone know that my husband would be dropping off on their porch and gave them a rough time window. My husband ended up in some interesting places, including unpaved county roads.

This experience made me wonder if Mrs. Claus isn’t getting short shrift to Santa. Would it surprise anyone to know that Mrs. Claus might be the driving force behind the legend? Sure, Santa gets all the photo ops driving around in the sleigh and filling the stockings but is it really Mrs. Claus’ kindness toward children and her goading of Santa that makes Christmas happen at all?

My husband was so thrilled to be finally getting rid of stuff out of the basement, that he gladly drove our used stuff all over town. When I had the first shipment ready, I told him we might want to wait until the next shipment was ready to do the delivery.

"No, let's do a first round and I'll go again if necessary."

Since this was our first “Santa” experience, this ended up being an excellent idea. For the first test run, we were delivering to 4 houses. That evening I heard from two of our recipients who indicated they did not get their shipments.

At first, we feared that someone might have taken the presents but some investigation showed that Santa had a few delivery errors—in one case delivering to the house across the street and in other to the house next door. My husband was disappointed and personally fixed one of the deliveries. The other, seemed to have been fixed by a neighbor who saw the address on my delivery bag and realized there had been a mistake.

It was interesting to learn interacting with some of these families that disappointment is an intense emotion for them. When the deliveries were temporarily missing, one family adopted a mindset of “I’m going to do whatever I can to find this package.” But it was more common to have families adopt a defeatist attitude of “Oh well, things like this always happen to me. I guess we tried.” I can’t imagine how much life must have to kick you in the teeth to want to give up so easily. Fortunately, we were able to find the shipments and not disappoint any of our families.

I went back into the basement the next day looking to find deliveries for the remaining 6 families. Somehow, yet again, we came up with something for everyone. We washed up toys, put in fresh batteries, tested everything to make sure it worked, wrapped and packaged. Out went Santa again—two days before Christmas — this time with a 100% success rate.

Round two of our Santa deliveries!

Round two of our Santa deliveries!

In the end, we gave away about 39 packages of toys, helped out 10 families and roughly 17 children. It cost us nothing other than our time.

Our recipients were so grateful:

We received your gift wrapped toys! Thank you so much! Happy holidays once again.

Thank you so much again for the gifts. My kids are gonna love them.

Just want to say thank you again. He really enjoyed everything.

But these families gave us a lot in return. They gave us a more peaceful and serene home with less clutter. They gave me the motivation to start cleaning out the basement! They also helped us to remember our blessings and to think more kindly of those in need. Many times in the news, the needy are portrayed as a kind of drain on society. This project helped us to remember their humanity and see how wonderful these people can be as well.

This project made a huge impact on my children. When we were deciding which toys to give away, our kids had a much easier time letting something go when they realized that it might be someone’s entire Christmas present. They also stopped whining about their own first world Christmas problems immediately when I reminded them of the children we were helping who would be glad to have as much as they did. I even think my husband had at least a little fun dropping off the deliveries.

"We should do this every year!"

I was surprised to hear my husband say. For him, it honestly has nothing to do with the charitable aspect of this project. He just likes to see the stuff go out of our house and me cleaning out the basement!

I now have a better appreciation of how wasteful it is for me to have extra, unneeded toys in my house when there are many people who would gladly give them a good home. As we go through the year, I will have a better eye for what might be better off blessing someone else. It will really help me in my decluttering efforts in 2015!

 Posted by on December 28, 2014 General Tagged with: , , , ,
Jan 262011

To give the contrarian perspective on this month’s cleaning theme,  I was intrigued by the title of Mary Randolph Carter’s latest book,  A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life. Unexpectedly,  this is one of my favorite organizing books of all time!

Who is Mary Randolph Carter?  Carter,  as she is known to friends,  grew up as one of nine children in the historic Monument Avenue neighborhood of Richmond,  Virginia.  Her childhood role in the family led ultimately to her future career:

“When I was growing up, I was in charge of ambience.  Possibly the task fell to me because, of the nine of us, I was most helpless in the kitchen and had a knack (along with others) for pulling a room together. To create a mood for rooms already burdened with the character of so many years of living was more of a supporting role for sure.  My task was to garnish each, in summer, with cut herbs from the garden, and in winter, pewter pitchers filled with holly, bayberry, and branches of magnolia; to light candles tipped into tin chandeliers dangling from the dining room ceiling and in the wobbly silver and pewter candlestick holders scattered everywhere; to see that fires were crackling; and to ensure that Frank Sinatra crooned out a welcome as the first guest walked through the door.”

–Mary Randolph Carter, A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life

She went on to become Vice President of Advertising for Ralph Lauren’s Polo brand and supervised all of the brand’s photoshoots. She has written several books on interior design and a series of books on “junk.”  She has a website at chronicling her “junking” activities.

First of all, this book has one of the most beautiful layouts I have seen.  It feels like an art book as you page through it.  Carter takes us to visit eight of her close friends and family and lets us in on how they live interesting lives while surrounded by lots of stuff.  Many are professional artists whose homes serve a dual role as studio space.  Every single one of these people has a creative bend in some way.  Most are surrounded by lots of physical objects and some have lot of animals. One home housed 4 dogs and another 8 cats!

The biggest challenge to describe to you is the main point of this book.  I am not sure there is just one.  Based on the title alone, you might think it is entirely about how you can be as messy as you want to be and have the freedom to do whatever you want in  your own home.  It is,  but not entirely.  Even Carter and all her friends acknowledge there are limits on how you have to keep your house.  She wants you to make your bed every day and never leave dirty dishes or party debris sitting overnight.  She wants you to make extra effort to set out candles, put on music and whip up great food when guests come over.

There are a couple of key messages I took away from this book that make this a standout from most books on organizing and interior design:

1.  All mess is not equal.  There are those that know how to give their homes an “it” factor by displaying treasures in a beautifully cluttered way. This type of display is often more appealing to the eye than a sterile,  plain,  perfectly organized home.  Carter is queen of this style.

“There is mess and there is clutter.  If you grew up with the former . . . you probably make no distinction.  Clutter vigilantes contend that clutter is always a mess;  clutter connoisseurs contend that clutter is liberation from the rigidity of over-organization.”

–Mary Randolph Carter, A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life

2.  We all suffer from a continuing tension between wanting tidiness and wanting to surround ourselves with treasures we discover.  For Carter and her friends you tend to see a perfectionist all-or-nothing streak where they either want lots of artful clutter or a zen-like space with none at all.  The tension is ongoing and unresolved with some moments calling for clutter and others for zen.

“I have always worked in the comfort of personal clutter both at home and at work.  . . . When colleagues pass by my office door . . . I hear them whisper ‘Oh,  this is Carter’s office–she’s creative,’ as if that is the best excuse they can offer for what lies inside.”

–Mary Randolph Carter, A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life

Just how cluttered is her office?  If you want to see pictures of Carter’s office you can click here to view them at

Yet even Carter has her limits and you will be shocked to see the studio she creates for herself at the end of the book.

3.  The biggest lesson in this book though is that too much organization and tidiness is not human.  Rather than making us feel relaxed it makes us feel tense, inadequate, and nervous about messing things up.  When you aim to clean to welcome others into your home, give them a little artistic mess to relate to.  Let them see your human side.

As Italian photographer Oberto Gili shares:

“[T]hough he understands the hygienic case for cleaning,  he hates everything about it,  mostly the sound of the vacuum cleaner.  . . . He tries to do a little cleaning up when company is coming,  but if he can’t get to it,  well,  a little mess isn’t so terrible.  ‘If someone comes to my house it’s because he or she truly likes people,  and I try to make my home as friendly as possible.’ And that he does by allowing friends to share his life whether at work or at play, perfect or imperfect.”

–Mary Randolph Carter, A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life

Come visit Oberto and he will treat you to handmade pasta while you peruse his latest photography stills stacked in artful boxes around his home.  Sounds pretty heavenly,  eh?  I wouldn’t notice his lack of cleaning either.  If you can’t be tidy, be interesting!

This book has tips and ideas mixed in with stories, beautiful photography and charm.  It would be a delight to meet Carter and all of her friends. They have amazing and interesting lives which they reflect in their avant garde homekeeping.

Even if you disagree with the basic premise of this book and your own style leans toward a sterile zen-like space you can learn a lot from this book about creating warmth through picking the right combinations of beautiful objects.  Accessorizing a room is a complex art and this book has many inspiring photographs to show you how.   You don’t have to take it to the extremes of some of the homes profiled. Most of the homes you will encounter are not hoarders’ paradises but rather relatively tidy homes but with lots of visual interest.  I know my own home could benefit from these tips and I intend to return to this book again and again for inspiration.

Do you agree that a welcoming home needs a little artful clutter or does Carter’s style turn you off?  Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on January 26, 2011 Ruly Bookshelf Tagged with: , , , , ,