Permission to putter

“There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.” — Bill Watterson

yellow curtainLast Friday, I had oral surgery to remove part of an infected bone in my lower jaw, under my tongue. The ordeal wasn’t quite as grisly as I’d anticipated — but I felt out of sorts for a few days while the anesthesia wore off and the surgical wound began to heal.

I’d been advised in the home-care instructions to “avoid over-exertion” through the following week, which, to me, was a pink permission slip to indulge in guilt-free puttering.

Cheaper than air fare or psychotherapy, puttering lets your mind wander while your body hangs out around the house. And unlike housecleaning, which involves physical energy and high-powered appliances, puttering puts you in a Zen-like state of bliss.

Not to be confused with slacking, procrastinating, fidgeting, or fiddling, puttering is good for mental health. But sadly, ours is a goal-directed, work-till-you-drop culture in which “putter” isn’t recognized as an empowering verb. Most of us prefer to boast about how terribly busy we are, so puttering is rarely easy to pull off.

For those who practice on the sly — or following a doctor’s orders — puttering styles are varied and highly personal. Puttering can be the act of sorting through a box of college textbooks in the basement; tinkering under the hood of an old Chevy; or rearranging things on a shelf while you listen to jazz on public radio. In other words, puttering is a way of clarifying lifes myriad details, especially when its done with reverence for the objects at hand. Its an opportunity to reconsider what we most enjoy in our homes, and to make a mental list of what wed like to edit later.

If puttering still sounds like a chore youve postponed, its only because you havent found a method that cheers or relaxes you. One man’s notion of drudgery, after all, can be another’s idea of soul craft.

“I can’t explain it, but I enjoy doing dishes,” writes Thomas Moore, a former Catholic monk and author of the best-selling Care of the Soul. “I’ve had an automatic dishwasher in my home for over a year, and I have never used it. What appeals to me, I think, is the reverie induced by going through the ritual of washing, rinsing, and drying.”  Thomas Moore can come over to my house and wash dishes any time he visits Detroit (especially if his visit coincides with another power failure). Meanwhile, I’ll keep loading my dishwasher.

Still, theres merit in savoring the ordinary tasks of daily living.

A lot of us spend our lives reaching for lofty goals, or at least trying to look productive 24/7. This wouldnt be such a bad thing if so many of us werent scratching our heads and feeling as if somethings missing — even after weve won all the trophies.

“My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet Im happy. I cant figure it out. What am I doing right?” observed Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts.

Charlie Brown, after all, was pretty good at puttering.

–Top illustration: a painting by my husband, Douglas La Ferle.

Useful and beautiful

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” — William Morris

After quitting Facebook and limiting the hours I spend online daily, I’ve suddenly reclaimed more time to dig into household projects I’d been putting off for ages.

Borrowing my mantra from William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, I’m making it my mission this month to eliminate everything I don’t find “useful or beautiful.” In other words, this goes much deeper than the topic of spring cleaning or tossing mismatched Tupperware.

It’s about refurbishing an entire lifestyle.

At first, the very thought of sweeping the whole house at once seemed daunting. So I divided my “Pitch and Purge” project into small, manageable steps. Drawer by drawer, room by room, day by day.

Starting with my home office, for instance, I cleared every scrap of paper and dried-out pen from the top of my desk. Then I tackled the bookshelves, filling two grocery sacks with paperbacks to donate to our public library’s annual book sale.

Newly energized by my clutter-free office, I turned my attention to the garden room. One of my favorite spots in our home, the garden room hadn’t been redecorated since it was added to our vintage Tudor about 16 years ago. Because it serves as both an eating space and a sunny spot to read our newspapers, I wanted to make the room even more functional and inviting.

This goes much deeper than the topic of spring cleaning. It’s really about refurbishing an entire lifestyle.”

Clearing every shelf in the garden room, I found additional space to display the Portmeirion Botanic Garden dinnerware we use daily. I gleefully tossed or recycled the knickknacks that were cluttering the tabletops and shelves, saving only the pieces that hold sentimental value. Then I moved some furniture, which opened up more space and makes the whole room look newer, less cluttered. Lastly, in keeping with the room’s original purpose, I added a few more plants to cheer us until spring arrives. The plants, in fact, were the only purchases I made in addition to a new set of woven placemats for the table.

Upstairs in the bedroom, I filled 10 garbage bags with clothes and accessories I haven’t worn in years. Though I can’t bring myself to pare down to the 10 essential pieces listed in Jennifer L. Scott’s Lessons from Madame Chic: The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris, I’m trimming my wardrobe down to several key pieces in a neutral palette. I also pitched an entire bag of shoes that hurt my feet — because life is too short for unbearable footwear, no matter how cute it looks.

When I am not pitching, I’m re-purposing. The cosmetics in my bathroom cabinets and drawers are just a case in point.

Like many women I know, I used to feel guilty about accumulating (and not using) creams and cosmetic samples that don’t work for my skin type. Instead of tossing them, I’m giving some of the creams a second life by using them on my hands. By placing these products within easy reach around the house or in my purse, I’ve freed extra space in my bathroom. An added bonus: The creams that were too rich for my face are now making my hands look nicer. (Note: Liquid cosmetics that are more than a year old may be spoiled and should be tossed.)

I’m nowhere near finished with this project, of course, but I hope it will be ongoing. Every day, I try to look at each room in the house with fresh eyes, then ask myself:  What is useful, what is beautiful, and why do I own it?

As I type this, my soul feels lighter. My possessions have less control over me. My life is less cluttered. And my home, which I’ve always loved, is bringing me twice as much pleasure.  — Cindy La Ferle

NOTE:  For another spin on the topic of house-clearing, please look for my “Puttering” meditation on page 158 in my collection of inspirational essays, Writing Home.