February 25, 2020

Pancake Day will be marked in my house by an argument between my eight-year-old daughter and my six-year-old son about whether lemon and sugar are better, or worse, than Nutella.

They don’t know how lucky they are. As a child, my mother would always make us eat a savoury pancake — usually wrapped around an old bit of bolognese sauce, or ratatouille — before we got to the pudding ones. And it wasn’t just because she’s a rapacious user-up of leftovers. She did it to honour what she saw as the real tradition of pancake day: using things up in preparation for the Lenten fast.

These days, far more people celebrate Pancake Day than bother with fasting afterwards. Those who do follow tradition tend to cut out alcohol, or chocolate. As a child, I always decided to give up chocolate, and then promptly forgot until I found myself half-way through a KitKat, when I’d give up and vow to try harder next year. I’ve still never managed it.

But this year, my goal for Lent is not about food at all. I don’t want to learn to live with only the nourishment I actually need: I want to learn to live with only the stuff I actually need.

Just to be clear: I am an atheist. But I often find inspiration in the rhythms of religious rituals. I don’t think religions would have the great pull they have over so many billions of people if they didn’t offer so many little patterns and behaviours we human beings need. And Lent seems like the perfect time of year for radical decluttering of the whole house, not just the larder.

There’s a Persian tradition, also honoured in this season, called khooneh takouni: in English, ‘shaking the house.’ In preparation for the New Year — Nowruz festival — families clear their home from top to bottom, washing carpets, painting the house, and even decluttering the yard and attic. Cleanliness is seen as a way to keep evil away, in preparation for a fresh start, physically and mentally.

What I like most about this tradition is that it comes around every year. You’re never supposed to be fixed, or perfect. The year will accumulate its chaos around you, and every year you take on the challenge of pushing it back outside. Like the tide and the seasons, a big spring clean isn’t a sign of failure, it’s a natural ritual of life.

And as carpets get hung in the street to have the dust beaten off, and paint is slapped onto the walls of houses, it ends up being an explosion of colour in every town and village: a celebration of life. Tidying isn’t a chore: it’s living.

This isn’t the kind of tolerance you get from the tidying evangelists who’ve become fashionable. Japanese ‘organisation consultant’ Marie Kondo says tidying is ‘life-changing magic’. Academic Jordan Peterson is clear that you’re basically a failure in life if you can’t keep your room tidy: his mantra is ‘sort yourself out’. They dole out their lectures about how to live and seem to expect you immediately become a perfect carbon copy of them. I am certain that both would look down their noses in contempt if they had to come back after a year and sort you out a second time. Frankly, I’d be frightened to get their help.

This year, I finally feel free enough to tidy my house because I’ve come to terms with the truth that it will never be finished. Yes: living with children is basically engaging in a permanent war with entropy, as you struggle to tidy faster than they can disarrange. But what’s the alternative? Living without them?

And honestly, I don’t think the chaos of my home is their fault. It’s mine. I think I hold onto things because of the potential they symbolise. The books I will read, some day. The clothes I might fit into again. The baking tin that might be useful if someone wants a train cake for their birthday. The ravioli maker that might be fun to use with the children if they ever start to like ravioli. The spare bits of fabric I might repurpose into a cushion or a costume for World Book Day; the sewing machine I might get fixed so I can do so.

The person I might be: the creative decorator, the well-read aesthete, the domestic goddess, the better mother, the more patient wife. All these futures have to be let go.

There is also a lot of guilt to be dealt with, in our age of excess consumption. While you hold onto something you don’t need, you can still fool yourself that it was worth buying. Those trousers that didn’t look right; that juicing machine that was such a faff to clean; that box set you never watched. The moment you let these things go, you have to face the truth of the mistake you made. But I believe — and hope — that accepting that truth is the best way to learn to live differently.

I have not clutched objects to my heart and asked if they spark joy; I haven’t thanked any of the objects I have thrown away. My goal is not to have a home fit for an interiors magazine. It’s simply to let go of the lives I will never lead, in order to better appreciate this one. This is about living in the present — not just letting go of the past, but the future, too.

I have some tips to share, if you are a fellow hoarder, or just someone without visible horizontal surfaces in your home. Do something — a little something — every day. I set the whole family a challenge: we each took our age, and put that many items away every evening; even the littlest could manage two, and it’s such a faff counting all the way up to my advanced years that I just carried on and on until I was sure I’d done about double.

Another good trick is the “30 day declutter”, where you give away one item on day one, two on day two, and by the end of the month you’re 465 items lighter. By breaking the job into tiny pieces, it helps conquer the sensation of being overwhelmed.

But above all, accept the ebb and flow. You will always make mistakes. The job will never be done. When the shed is tidy, and the toys are in boxes, and the washing up is done you’ll feel wonderful. And when they aren’t, don’t fret. There will always be another spring on the way, another opportunity to make pancakes out of your leftovers, and another chance to try again.

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