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Make Space for What Matters Most

*Author's note:  Today I wanted to share a more personal, complete story of how I came to be one half of New Minimalism.  Also, I am deeply grateful for my mother's current vibrant health and well-being.

The first time I ever did a major decluttering project, I didn’t have a name for what I was doing or a even clear understanding of why.  

Twelve years ago my mom was hospitalized for several weeks with a terrifying and seemingly undiagnosable illness.  My dad was doing his best to be the breadwinner for our family as well as the health advocate for my mom, parent to my little sister and brother who were at home, and optimist for my older sister and I away at college.  

I rushed home early from a term in college to find my parents’ home a functioning if hollow place. 

My little sister, still in high school, was trying to run our house, take care of herself and my brother, all while being terrified that our mom still had no diagnosis and wasn’t coming home.  My little brother, just into double digits, said upon receiving a school lunch our father had made him without the usual motherly touches (read: the wrong kind of cheese and no dessert), “You’re my favorite dad, but you’re not a really good mom.” 

After returning home from the hospital where I had spent the day with my disoriented, confused, and deeply upset mom as she received a series of MRIs and other scans, I went up to my childhood bedroom, curled up into a ball as panic and sadness washed over me.  I cried, hyperventilated, went down rabbit-holes of all the terrible scenarios that might play out. 

I felt wholly impotent and scared, powerless to make my mom healthy or to substitute for her in my fragmented family.  How could I explain to my brother what was going on when I had no idea?  How could I help with the things that really mattered: finances, insurance, treatment plans -- when I was barely an adult myself?   

And yet I needed to do something.  I needed to feel like I was making at least one small thing better.

So I went down to the basement of our old 1913 farmhouse and looked around.  A month's worth of dirty towels, sheets, clothing, my brother's sports uniforms -- they were spilling out of our massive hamper on onto the floor.   Laundry.  That was something I could do.  

As I slowly chipped away at the mountain of laundry, I felt better.  Just a tiny bit lighter and inspired to do more.  If I couldn’t fix the big things, I reasoned, at least I could somehow make life a little easier for everyone. 

Looking around our dark, crowded basement I decided to start with all of the stuff there. 

As so often happens with families, our basement had become a zone of cast-off hobbies, outgrown clothing and equipment.  

Many of these items had been passed down through all four of us, had been well used and loved.  And most of it was ready to go.

For five days, any time I wasn't at the hospital or getting dinner ready for my siblings, I worked in the basement and was able to donate of three huge SUVs worth of stuff to our community rummage sale.  Everything else in the basement suddenly fit on the shelves, like-with-like, orderly, good, calm.  I could breathe a little deeper still. 

Looking at the washer and dryer in corner, I was struck by the sheer number of loads of laundry my mom had done for us in the 20 years we’d been in the house.   All of the hours spent in the dark, musty, old basement just to take care of us... 

This, I knew, was my turn to be the one taking care of my mom.

So I went to the hardware store, selected two shades of paint that I hoped would transport her from the basement to somewhere softer, warmer, easier.  Then I hung a few of my parents prints from Jamaica on the walls and placed a brightly striped rug for the floor — and ta da!  Just like being in Negril (not really, but I tried:). 

A few weeks later, my mom returned from the hospital with a clear diagnosis and path to health.  As I showed her around the basement, I was suddenly self-conscious.  

It seemed so clear when the two of us were together that this project had just been a way for me to channel anxiety while unable to do something that really mattered.  But my mom loved it.  She understood my desire to show her my love, to care for her in some way, to make her life a little brighter and easier.

The Telander Clan:  My parents, sisters, brother and me before my little sister's wedding.

The Telander Clan:  My parents, sisters, brother and me before my little sister's wedding.

Over the years my aesthetic has matured (and by that I mean I teamed up with Kyle!), and the speed with which I help others declutter has increased exponentially, but at my core, the reason I do what I do is the same reason I decluttered and elevated my parents' basement:  

To make things easier when they are hard.  To lighten burdens, to lift spirits, to open space for happiness and creativity.  I find it an honor to bear witness to the things that people part with, to celebrate their rediscovery of an item they deeply love, to support them through the challenges of the process, and to shepherd them into a new phase in their lives.  And to give a small piece of my love.

There are so many things in this life that we cannot control, so many joyful and challenging times that arise unexpectedly, so much mess associated with life in general.  At New Minimalism it's not that we're trying to control life so that nothing out of the ordinary ever plays out.  We’re actually clearing a stage so that the real, meaningful events and relationships can receive the attention and focus they deserve (I love you mom:).