Inner Voices Redux: Strong as Ever…

The inner voices don’t go away — they just get stronger and more insistent…

xmas tree 3rd gr ca1820
(#1820: art work, 1962; recycled — also see narrative details below)

During my first 1000 things project, one of the first things I discovered was the presence of inner voices: an internal dialogue between me and my things which I encountered whenever I dealt with them. I learned that these inner voices were the most subtle but perhaps also most powerful attachment, and so I learned to listen to them and try to understand what they were saying.

They often took the form of scripts or mantras which I’m sure you’ll recognize (and indeed many of you have told me you’ve heard these same ones), such as:

  • “It might be worth something; I can’t just throw it out”
  • “I paid a lot for that; I can’t just give it away”
  • “My son [child, relative] might want that some day”
  • “This was my favorite [x] when I was a kid”
  • “I might want to look through those (papers, pictures, drawings, etc.) some day”
  • “This was so-and-so’s favorite [y]”

These inner voices also embodied certain larger themes for internalized rules about how to deal with my stuff, themes like “Just in Case,” “Get Maximum Value,” or “Some Day.”

Now that I’m well into my third and final 1000 things project, I’ve learned a deeper truth about them, which is this: The inner voices don’t go away. Not for me, at least. You might think that, after having gotten rid of so many things, I would have learned to manage the inner voices better or subdue them more effectively. But no. If anything, they are at least as loud as ever.

This phenomenon in itself is not new; I had previously noticed that my inner voices were stronger and more insistent when I dealt with things that had deeper attachments to me. But I’m finding that it’s more common now, probably because I’ve gotten rid of most of the easy things to get rid of, and the ones that remain have a stronger claim on me.

In particular, mementos require more attention and more difficult decisions. I’d already started this process in the 2nd thousand things project with many of my own mementos; I’ve disassembled trophies (e.g., #1750, 1774-75), thrown out moldy baseball caps (#1682-86), and disposed of a lot of old school papers (e.g. #1697-98, 1804-05). This process has continued in the third 1000 things project with certificates (e.g., #2042), art work (e.g., #2043 below), and high school handbooks (#2051, 2052).

js artwork date unknown 2043
(#2043: art work, date unknown (middle school?); recycled)

The process involved a fair amount of time discovering, reminiscing, and deciding, and parting was sometimes not that easy. I expect it will be even more difficult when I go through other remaining mementos such as photographs, some of my son’s stuff, and some of Martha’s remaining stuff.

In some cases, encountering these objects evoked instant strong memories of something I may have remembered now and then over the years, for instance Little League and Teener League baseball team pictures (#1836, which was a bit moldy; I have kept the others for now).

indians bball team pic 1836
(#1836: Little League team picture, ca. 1965 ; trashed)

In other cases, the memento evoked a long-forgotten memory, for example the faux stained glass X-mas tree I made out of tissue paper in third grade (#1820). (For me, third grade seemed to be a big art year.) In still other cases, I had no recollection of the object, and seeing it did not evoke any memory for me, for instance a letter I wrote to my mom in second grade (#1830) asking her to make sure I got enough sleep so that I could do well on exams the next day.

js note to mom 462 ca1830
(#1830: letter to my mother, 1962 ; recycled)

There were also some new inner voices, or at least some which I had not paid any attention to previously. For instance, I recently got rid of some comic books. Most of them were in decent shape but certainly not in mint condition; they’re mainly Archie, Jughead comics from the 1960s (only 12 cents!). I listened to the inner voices and followed their guidance for awhile. They could be worth something. Maybe one of them could be worth a lot of money. So I looked on eBay — eh, not so much. Maybe someone else will value them. So I visited a local comic book store while out doing some errands nearby (I’ve learned from the previous projects that they weren’t worth a separate trip!). Not interested; ‘try this other local store, or there’s a place in Waldorf’… So I called the local store; not interested either, ‘but there’s a place in Falls Church that might take them; or there are a couple of places online…’ Falls Church? Waldorf?? Online? Now we’re talking entirely too much time and effort; if two comic book stores won’t take them, then maybe I should just — Still, It would be a shame just to throw them out. The inner voices are strong and insistent. So I went on Freecycle — any comic book collectors out there? Turns out there were plenty who were interested in them, and they found a good home, with my efforts producing a little more gratitude in the world in the process.

Speaking of process, the process of dealing with these mementos is helping me develop my own process for getting rid of things more quickly and effectively (at least in the long run!). More on that in my next post…


Que sommes-nous tous, vraiment?

It’s a fair question – who are we all, really?

js acadia lebanese 815
Pourquoi ne sommes-nous pas tous les libanais également? is another fair question…

A Facebook news feed can be a revealing indicator of our collective psyche, or at least my sampling of it. For a day or so, mine was filled with blue, white, and red while personal posts dwindled to a minimum, out of respect for the horror of the terrorist attacks in Paris.  It’s been a few days now, so the animal videos and song postings and personal musings have started to return amidst a still healthy sprinkling of blue, white, and red.

I understand and appreciate the desire to express support, outrage, sadness — to do something — so saying “nous sommes tous parisiens” or some variant is one way to express these things. But what does it mean, really? My experience is that it falls short of meaning what we want it to mean:

Nous ne sommes pas tous Libanais. By now, there has been more effort to recognize that there was a similar tragedy just the day before in Beirut, where several dozen people died from a terrorist attack.  Still, it has been rightfully pointed out that this tragedy was largely ignored in the US and the West. My FB feed has many dozen French flags, but I’ve only seen one Lebanese flag. So that’s one reason why my profile picture has a Lebanese flag instead — for the sake of better balance and a wider perspective.

Nous ne sommes pas tous tristes. So many of us are sad at what happened in Paris, but then there are those few who are not sad at all, who are rejoicing at what happened in Paris, specifically the perpetrators and their supporters. Also, to be honest, it’s human nature to be sad about more familiar things. My FB feed has shown many pictures of friends in Paris, always associated with a fond memory, as do I.

Very few people I know have memories of Beirut, so the ability to identify more easily with a personal memory is not there. Still, many people are not sad at what happened in Beirut because they (still) don’t know about it. It is just as saddening, so that’s another reason for the Lebanese flag.

Nous ne sommes pas tous unis. We are all not united either. Even as many people aim for unity and other manifestations of our better angels, others have used the opportunity for more axe-grinding. The comments of the GOP presidential candidates have been especially appalling — It’s Obama’s fault! More guns! Close the borders! Only accept Christian refugees! Blame for the Paris attacks has also been leveled at the “Liberal Left,” homosexuality, Edward Snowden, America, the UK, and France itself. But the finger pointing goes in all directions, for instance the pictures in my FB feed of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as the creators of ISIS through their misbegotten policies. It’s not a picture of collective unity.

What are we all then, really?

The other night, I starting talking with someone about the Paris attacks. My conversation partner said she thought that an attack on the US was now inevitable. At first I thought this was rather fatalistic. Then she also mentioned how most everyone was ignoring Beirut, which she said was a lovely, wonderful place back in the day when she first lived there — “it was like Switzerland,” she said.

She then told me she thought that Americans will have trouble coping with attacks, with the noise of sirens and bombs going off. She knew this because she also lived in Beirut during its civil war, and she recalled what it was like to hear bombs and sirens and lamentations on a regular basis — to live for six months at a time without electricity or water — how she almost got killed, and how she saw people die in front of her.

So this is the other reason that I have a Lebanese flag on my profile picture: because her story made it real for me. Whenever I look at this person again, I will see someone who knows first hand what such attacks are like, and who reminds me that who we all are extends beyond our immediate experience.  I don’t know what we all are, really, except maybe that we all are aspirants for a better world, even if we do so in such wildly different and often destructive ways.

Thoughts on Doing a 3rd (& final!) 1000 things project

(Just!?!) one more time…

2070 corkscrew honeymoon
(#2070: part of a corkscrew (other part missing); recycled 10/30/15)

As noted in my previous post on this topic, the total number of items in my 2nd 1000 things project carried me well past the 2,000 mark, which has started me on another 1000 things project. To be honest, this decision falls somewhere between a plan and a rounding error. My last haul to Goodwill put me at 2,037; with such a great start, how could I not keep going and count 963 more?

If the logic of that escapes you, well, let’s just say it’s not entirely logical to me either. Clearly there’s something deeper at work here which on some level is worth my knowing. But I do have my limits, so I’m calling this 1000 things project the 3rd and final one for a few reasons:

– I’m starting to get a little tired of counting at this point. The phrase “blessings beyond counting” has been recurring in my mind lately, and I’ve been playing with its possible dual meanings: ‘blessings that result from reaching numerical targets’ and ‘the blessing of finally being free from the need (desire? compulsion?) to count.’ The longer I keep counting, the louder the voice which says “are you crazy? OCD? obsessed with counting? weird?” [etc.]  Writing about it and sharing my thoughts with others has the same effect. I find myself wondering if I’m somehow revealing some deep secretive part of myself, at once aware of this in the abstract but blind to what’s actually being revealed. At any rate, I don’t want counting to become counting for counting’s sake. I’d also like to avoid the same OCD trap that seemed to afflict several of the authors whose books I read over the summer.

– At the same time, I’m curious about just how many more things I’ll need to get rid of to reach my stated goal of living in a dwelling where everything I own has identifiable purpose or value. Will 3,000 get me there or within sight of it? Only one way to find out…

– The notion of forcing the issue seemed appealing to me lately. I’ve derived this notion from watching the experiences of several people I know who have moved or are in the process of preparing to move, whether a downsize or a move to a faraway location.  The appeal of forcing the issue is to speed up the process; it makes getting rid of things a high priority, and thus it’s easier to get rid of a lot of them relatively quickly. When my older sister recently moved, for instance, she told me that she got rid of about one-third of their things over a several-month period. Then there’s the extreme, “natural disasters” version which I encountered recently at a conference, where I heard three different stories from colleagues about losing home possessions from a fire (in which they lost almost everything), flood (of a basement, but lots and lots of things had to be thrown out), and lightning (they had to throw out about 25 bags of clothing, and all of their remaining clothing had to be dry cleaned).

Despite this appeal, having to move usually means not having the time to be maximally, or even satisfyingly, thoughtful about each thing you own. I don’t want to abandon being thoughtful about the process, so I really don’t want to force the issue — but I don’t want another project to drag on for another nine or ten months either.

As a result, for this project I intend to focus on how to accelerate the process without forcing it — get rid of stuff more systematically and quickly, yet thoughtfully.  I intend to apply what I’ve learned from my first two 1000 things projects, including my readings and learning from the stories and experiences of others (which includes many of you who’ve told me such great stories and shared such wonderful tips!), toward developing and testing out one or more specific processes for doing this. I’ve already started identifying some of the steps and testing them out, trying to learn as I go. (More on this in later posts.)

This 3rd and final 1000 things project also appears to have several other important characteristics:

Awareness of (almost) everything I own. Now and then, I still rediscover a stash of forgotten things, most recently the stack of music, song, and lesson books stashed inside the piano bench. While this briefly makes me wonder if this will ever stop happening, I really have just about run out of such places. While I can’t tell you what’s in every single box or bin yet, and there may be a few more surprises left to rediscover, there is no area of my house that remains unexamined. For me, this awareness of all my things is a major milestone towards being able to identify their purpose and value. Which brings me to the next step:

What does “identifiable purpose or value” really mean anyway? — I’ve treated this goal as if I know what it means — that I’ll recognize it when I see it, that I can define it in concrete terms, and that I’ll be able to tell you and others when I’ve reached it. But I’m starting to realize that this goal may not be quite as clear as I’ve been treating it. So there may be some interesting surprises and insights in store for me here.

Tougher decisions about getting rid of stuff. I’ve gotten rid of most of the easy stuff by now, which means that the decisions about individual items are getting tougher. The corkscrew cover (#2070) pictured above was missing the actual corkscrew, but it was a somewhat tougher decision since the Cartwright Hotel was one of the first places Martha and I stayed on our honeymoon to Northern California 26 years ago. (Still, I don’t need the actual thing now that I have the picture and the reminder now.) Even relatively easy ones like the old high school student handbook below, with its explicit instructions for disposal (read the notes in red) still required a momentary stroll down memory lane.

(#2051: CVHS student handbook, 1971-72; recycled 10/27/15)

This reality directly opposes my intent to get rid of things more quickly, but it does feed into my being more systematic and still thoughtful about it. The resulting conflicts are already interesting: I’m starting to hear newer inner voices, and the familiar ones are becoming louder and more stubborn; the embedded stories are more numerous and compelling; the attachments are stronger and often more deeply buried; and I’ll need to up my game in the curation and gratitude departments.

Curiously, the one area where I feel things getting easier is with “completing the cycle”: I don’t feel any urge to fill the newly emerging spaces in my home with things; instead, I feel stronger, cleaner, and leaner every day as another small pocket or space is emptied.

Overall, though, it will be interesting to see how the conflict between tougher decisions and more effective disposal plays out as I move forward.

More blog entries and writing in (near) real time. Up to now, I’ve been playing catch up most of the time with my chronicling of the 1000 things projects. There was no chronicling for the first project since I had no intention at the time of doing so; most of my chronicling during the 2nd project was about the first project, with the exception of a new stories and the book reviews, which were only a couple of months after I read them. I still have a lot of catching up to do with the second project, but I will be making more of an effort to chronicle in (near) real time what happens in this third (& final!) project.  Starting with my next post…

Keep in Touch: A Tribute to Jay Cross

cross informal learning p7
(from Informal Learning, p. 7)

Last night I called a dear friend whom I hadn’t spoken to in a while. Too long, in fact — again. You know how it goes. You think of the person(s) and say to yourself, ‘I should get in touch with him/her/them.’ And then life intrudes, and you forget about the person until the next time you remember.

Eventually, usually, we get in touch — we overcome the inertia, or something overcomes it for us. In this case, calling my friend was the first thing that came to mind when I asked myself how to pay tribute to Jay Cross.

I learned on Facebook a few days ago that he passed away, unexpectedly and far too soon, when a tribute to Jay appeared on my news feed in which a FB friend was quoted.  Then more tributes started showing up in my news feed from several more of my FB colleagues.

I’ve known his work for some time, and my Seven Futures of American Education book cites his work in three instances: one related to the history of online education (p.42), one related to his work on informal learning (p.21), and a third one which relates to the value of networks and connecting, how “networks increase their value exponentially by increasing the number of interconnected nodes, and connecting networks to other networks accelerates their growth” (p.158; also see the cited source below).

cross informal learning p3
(from Informal Learning, p. 3.)

I’ve tried to apply these insights in my professional work; recently, for example, I collaborated with two colleagues on writing a paper on definitions of e-learning, a term which Jay is widely credited with inventing. We presented this paper as a conversation starter at the recent OLC conference in Orlando, with the explicit aim of connecting this work with as many other people, institutions, organizations as were interested.

Many of my FB colleagues knew Jay much better than I did; they had met him in person or had worked with him directly. For me, Jay was one of those people whose work I admired from afar when I first encountered it. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if I could actually communicate with him someday. The possibility seemed remote and slight. Then social media came along, with its capacity to connect people. Jay and I became Facebook friends, and we even interacted a couple of times, exchanging comments about his postings. Certainly modest in comparison, but enough that I feel OK about referring to him by his first name, and still in its own way a little dream come true thanks to the power of networks.

Then I made a mistake. I thought to myself, maybe I’ll get to meet Jay in person some day. That was not the mistake; the mistake was in thinking that I had plenty of time for this. I’d made this mistake before with people I’d known, and news of Jay’s death reminded me of the regret I’d felt from taking such things for granted.

Maybe I’ve finally realized that making that mistake once is once too often. So last night I called my dear friend whom I hadn’t spoken to in a while. We’re making arrangements to get together for dinner, to catch up with her and her husband, to make sure the connection stays strong. We laughed about how the two of us, for some reason, still prefer the phone to communicate with each other, even though it seems quaint — and perhaps an unnecessary barrier. Next time, we’ll use email, and we won’t wait so damn long. And I’ll contact the next person with whom I need to keep in touch.

Reflections on Finishing the 2nd 1000 Things Project

bed 1286 41015
(#1286, twin bed; donated 4/10/15)

Two weekends ago, I finished my 2nd 1000 things project with a flurry by taking almost 100 items to Goodwill, which was possible since I had assembled them in staging nests over a period of time.

If the first 1000 things project was of a journey of self-discovery, gaining insights, and reflections on what I learned, how to characterize the 2nd 1000 things project? Here are some of the things I can say about it:

  • The 2nd 1000 things project was more of a journey of recognition — rediscovering, recognizing, and getting to know better the themes I had discovered on the first go-round: inner voices, stories, attachments, curation, gratitude, completing the cycle.
  • To some extent, it was also more of the same, but with the awareness of the themes which I had discovered on the first go-round. (More on that below.)
  • The 2nd 1000 things project was also to some extent an initial attempt to apply what I learned in the first go-round to the second round. In retrospect, I don’t feel that I was very systematic about it or did this as much as I’d planned. Maybe this is in part because I was documenting the first project while also doing the second, so I may have crossed my wires more than I realized at the time.
  • I also attempted to learn more and get better at the process. I read several other books about decluttering, focusing on the sub-genre of books that focused on decluttering as a form of life improvement, because I felt that my journey was most like those, as distinct from being a set of projects focused on being more organized or minimalist.
  • I also made more of an effort to elicit and harvest stories from others. Hearing other people’s stories has been very helpful and gratifying. Even though my own journey feels at times so individual and unique that it borders on idiosyncrasy, hearing other people’s stories makes has made me realize that dealing with our stuff is both an individual and universal experience. I continue to be impressed by how amazing my own stories are, and how even more amazing other people’s stories are. Dealing with our stuff really is, or can be, a touchstone experience — something that so many people can relate to, finding commonalities and uniqueness coexisting side by side.

I can readily see several noticeable accomplishments as a result of the 2nd 1000 things project:

  • The volume of papers and items in my home office has diminished greatly. In fact, I can say that my home office is almost under control, if not exactly tidy. (I’m not really the tidy sort.) One small file cabinet is entirely empty, as is one drawer of a second file cabinet. All the extra bins are gone, as are the stacks of papers from the storage carts. Tops of surfaces are almost clear. There are actual spaces on my bookshelf, even after I moved some of Chris’s books from his bedroom bookshelf to here for consolidation purposes.
  • The dining room is noticeably clearer.
  • A lot of culling has taken place in the kitchen, dining room, backyard shed, porch, basement, and all the closets.
  • I got rid of about 100 things at a time twice during this project, thanks to a strategy of gradual collecting decent but less valued items over a period of a few weeks and then hauling them off en masse to Goodwill, as described in my previous post.
  • Several nests are completely gone in the basement and dining room. The “staging nest” by the front door has been emptied several times and doesn’t have a whole lot of stuff in it right now.  Even though things still sometimes sat in my front door staging nest for months at a time, I definitely got better at dealing with them, especially once I become comfortable with utilizing Goodwill.
  • I’d started tackling mementos and made some progress in culling through various boxes and bins of those, for example:

ll bball cap 1685
(#1685, Little League baseball cap (SH = Sporting Hill); trashed 8/1/15 because it was too moldy to do anything else with it)

I got better at:

  • hearing the inner voices and at identifying more of them;
  • capturing the stories behind some of my things and the basis for my attachments to them;
  • understanding just how powerful and controlling possessiveness is;
  • curating my collection of things, including culling many items and bringing some others out for display and greater enjoyment;
  • Seeking opportunities to create gratitude, focused on others but usually generated gratitude within myself.

I especially got better at completing the cycle — about being very careful about what I took in to my home. It feels as if I have installed a radar system that’s pretty effective overall at keeping unwanted or unneeded objects out of my home. There are a few notable exceptions, which will make an interesting future blog post in and of itself, mainly due to the fact that I can probably identify almost every new object I’ve brought into my home over the past nine months, which in itself is an indicator of my success in this area.

I’ll write more about the specifics of these in future posts.

I still can’t really see whether my end goal of living in a dwelling where everything I own has identifiable purpose or value is in sight, but I do feel as if it is getting closer and maybe within reach. Overall, though, I feel that it was well worth it.

The process of getting rid of my 2nd 1000 things took about 10 months — a bit longer than I’d planned (I was shooting for nine months) but not by too much. In fact, the total number of items carried me well past the 2,000 mark, and the resulting momentum has, yes, taken me into another 1000 things project. More on that in my next post…

On Finding Good Homes for My Stuff

Sometimes it’s important to find a good home for your things — somewhere else…

LLWS program front

(#2079: Little League World Series program, 1962; Donated). Sent this off today to the LLWS Museum as a donation; wrote a note saying it was in honor of my dad, who was a Little League coach and assistant coach and kept score for the game we attended.

Getting rid of my stuff thoughtfully has meant learning to follow a few simple rules in the actual process:

  • Avoid putting something in the trash unless it’s really necessary.
  • Recycle useless objects when possible.
  • Spend at least a moment thinking about the thing and what it has meant to me.
  • Find a good home for something which seems to merit one.

In practice, of course, the process has hardly been this pure. Some days I put stuff in the trash without much of a second thought; spending a moment may mean more like a second, for instance recycling a piece of paper which I’m sure has some deeper meaning to me if I thought about it more deeply. This question becomes a key part of the curating process: when to spend time trying to remember or otherwise extract a meaningful moment, and when to simply let it go.

I don’t have reliable go-to answers for this question yet. Here are two good examples: these wooden statuettes are mementos from former ESL students of mine, but I can’t remember the stories behind them. Who gave them to me? What country are they (the students, the statuettes) from? Sadly, I no longer remember. So these two things are in one of my staging nests awaiting a decision about where a good home would be for them.


Conversely, there are objects which have been very hard to let go, many of which I still have. Some of them I’ve handled numerous times, perhaps even a dozen or more in some cases. This has hardly been rational or efficient, but it is still useful in reminding me of the hold my things have on me even now, after having gotten rid of 2,000+ of them (more on that in my next post).

Overall, though, I’ve learned that there is no Right Answer when deciding how much time to spend with each thing since it’s ultimately a very personal decision, but it’s also inevitable that some things will get a lot of attention, and others will get little or no attention.

Freecycle is great for finding a good home for your things more thoughtfully. It will require more effort — creating emails, replying to multiple responses, managing the pickup process, and occasionally having to deal with no-shows. Freecycle is particularly good for generating gratitude — recipients are usually glad to have your item and will often tell you so, which is nice. Even more reliable is feeling grateful to be rid of the things once they’re gone. So Freecycle is a good choice when “finding a good home” is important to you.

What about those things that you don’t care about so much but don’t want to treat as junk either? I’ve found that Goodwill is a good option in this case, and especially good for getting rid of a lot of culled things at one time. I’d never used Goodwill until recently, but I’m starting to run out of items that my other charities of choice will take. Then a few months ago, a colleague told me about he regularly collected items to take to Goodwill en masse, and his story persuaded me that it was a good strategy.

It’s essential to know what items your local Goodwill will take or not take; if you have more than one Goodwill available locally, it’s also essential to find out which one takes the widest selection of stuff. Once you find one of those, it’s culling and assembly time! When I started the 1000 things project, I had a colleague tell me that she got rid of 100 things in one weekend, and it just about killed her! My reaction then was ‘well, no wonder; that’s way too much stuff to tackle in one weekend.’ And it can be too much, depending on the stuff involved and how it’s organized. But since then, I’ve gotten rid of 100 things in one day twice, and both times, it has involved Goodwill. “100 things in one day” is misleading in that I didn’t do all the work in one day; I spent some time culling and organizing into staging nests until I had a sizable collection assembled, then I took it to Goodwill.

That doesn’t mean that Goodwill is always the best solution for your decluttering process. I don’t feel entirely comfortable getting rid of things there because it feels to some extent like I’m somehow passing the problem on to someone else, even though what I’m giving them is not junk. One thing that makes me feel more comfortable about the process is to include some relatively valuable items, especially ones which I have no particular attachment to. For instance, the last batch included a Lenox flower vase and serving tray. I don’t really know how valuable these things are or were, but the point for me is to make the act one of generosity, not just purging.  Goodwill is a good solution for finding new homes for those items which I have no lingering attachment but which are likely to have some value to others — in other words, for those items for which I don’t find a need for a whole lot of thoughtfulness. For instance, there was this pitcher from Spain which we may have bought during our trip there, but I don’t remember the back story anymore, and there’s no one else who knows or cares now either. So better to let such things go IMO.

It may also make a difference that I’ve now gotten rid of over 2,000 items using this thoughtful process. It’s been a great experience, but I’m starting to wonder if I’m getting tired of being this thoughtful about the process — and even about the notion of counting itself. More about that in my next post…