I stood across the street in the safety of our neighbor's living room, watching as thick, acrid smoke billowed from the broken windows of our rented bungalow. Firefighters' hoses snaked through the front door and into each room, dousing flames, extinguishing everything we owned. Our three small sons crowded around me, and we stared in disbelief as the life we had known turned to ashes.
The fire had started in the lower level just before lunch. It was the first day back to preschool after Christmas break, and I was upstairs eating PB & Js with the boys. In the distance I heard a fire truck's horn blaring loudly. Someone's in trouble, I thought, and I shot up a quick prayer.
I sent the boys downstairs to get ready for preschool. When I went down to check and see if they were dressed yet, smoke was streaming above their heads as they played on their bedroom floor, both of them unaware of the dire danger they were in. The family room was completely ablaze. Someone had seen the smoke before I realized what was happening downstairs. The smoke detector malfunctioned and failed to signal the trouble we were in. The fire was out of control and quickly spreading through the entire lower level of our duplex. That fire truck was headed to us!
I fled the house with the kids, spraining my ankle on my way out the door as I tried to grab the keys to our vehicle. At least we could live in our van, I thought frantically. We ran door to door, banging for someone to let us in. Mercifully, we found one neighbor at home. As soon as she let us in, I called my husband, Dan, and told him what was happening.
He sped home from work. When he arrived, he went through our still-smoldering house and sloshed through puddles left by the fire fighters. Ornaments hung forlornly on our now smoke-damaged Christmas tree. He kicked up a treasured family photo that had gotten hosed to the floor. Looking at the picture, Dan realized that if this fire had happened at night, the boys surely would have died.
We salvaged what we could from the house, about a laundry basket's worth of possessions, and moved into a fully furnished apartment for the next nine months while our rented duplex was being restored. With few material possessions to maintain, clean, and organize, I had more time on my hands than I had ever had before. This meant more time to play with our kids.
The boys got creative quickly. They'd turn the laundry basket upside down and use it as a stage and take turns singing. They'd race up and down the apartment hallway to see who was the fastest. With so many empty closets, they had plenty of great hiding places for hide and seek. We swam almost every day in the apartment complex pool.
I grieved losing our possessions, like the handmade dollhouse my aunt and uncle gave me when I was a young girl. I can still picture the colonial-styled house with rooms that could have been featured in Traditional Homes magazine. Each one was lovingly appointed with miniature furniture I had purchased with my babysitting earnings.
I lamented the loss of irreplaceable baby photos—birth pictures taken right after each son made his way into the world. Gone, too, were photos from my college semester in London, and grade school photos my mom had handed over to me once I became an adult. In spite of these losses, it didn't take long to realize the benefits of the fire. We had caught a glimpse of how liberating it is not to be enslaved by material belongings. Having our family intact and spending time with each other was more than enough. I never wanted to go back to the way life had been.
But here I am, 20 years later, and life has gotten complicated again. The simple life I discovered after losing our stuff has given way slowly and imperceptibly to the accumulation of Christmas decorations and toys, clothes I haven't worn in three seasons or more, and children's snow pants and hockey skates that our boys have long since outgrown.
Winter sweaters push their way out of my dresser drawers and the pole in my closet threatens to break under the weight of the hangers. I know I should purge. But what if I find the perfect blouse to wear under that old sweater I haven't worn in five years? What a waste to part with it. Why not hold on to it one more season?
That's how clutter begins. To borrow from Corrie Ten Boom, we hold on tightly to our belongings because it hurts to have our fingers pried loose. Shedding stuff—whether forced by a fire or given up voluntarily—involves loss. And loss is painful.
And scary. What if I don't have enough? This fear of scarcity has me hanging on to things.
"Clutter creep" isn't my only problem. Over the years another fear has insidiously seeped in: fear of lost opportunity. Or, in texting parlance, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).
What if someone offers me a good writing assignment, and I say no? They may never ask me to write again. Or if I decline a social invitation, the person may feel snubbed and never extend another invitation.
If you were to look at my calendar and the commitments I've made (mostly work assignments), your head would spin. I am the queen of overbooking, underestimating, and miscalculating my time. For years I've been chalking up this habit to a deficiency in organizational skills. This is only partly true. I'm actually pretty good at knowing how long things will take. What I don't know (because I never allow myself the time to find out) is how life would look and feel if there were blank spots on my calendar.
What would my marriage look like if I said no to the latest, greatest editing assignment and instead spent that same time with Dan? What would my relationship with my sons consist of if we spent more time together? How secure would our grandson feel if he knew he could climb into my lap and snuggle instead of vying for attention with my computer screen?
I want quality relationships—at least I say I do. But the reality is that my life isn't structured in a way to sustain or cultivate healthy connections. I've grown weary of hearing myself say to friends, "I'd love to have coffee, but I've got a deadline." It's unacceptable that I live 15 minutes away from two of my sisters, and yet I only see them a handful of times a year.
But why, if this is unacceptable, do I continue to sabotage my efforts to simplify my calendar? I feel like Paul crying out, ". . . when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong . . . Oh, what a miserable person I am!" (Romans 7: 21–25)
Earlier this year, I decided enough was enough. I resolved to make this my year of living simply. First, I had to define what living simply meant to me. Obviously, removing clutter is one clear path to simplifying. But what has been so much harder is tackling what's beneath my struggle with calendar chaos.
As long as my calendar is overcrowded, I don't have to take responsibility for the quality of my life or relationships. I get to be a victim of my life instead of an active, intentional decision-maker of how I spend my time.
Business writer Jim Collins says, "Good is the enemy of great." I'm trying hard to recognize this simple truth. For instance, it's hard to turn down a writing assignment (good), but being able to spend more time with my family is worth it (great). It requires wisdom to differentiate the good from the great. It's not as simple as it might seem.
It also takes courage—real courage—to say no to good things so that I can make time for God's best. And herein lies the basis of all my fear: What if God isn't really good after all? What if he lets me do without and lets me miss out because he's not watching or doesn't care? It's so easy for me to bow to this fear. Instead, I've decided to practice simple faith—an uncomplicated but courageous belief that God himself is enough. He has a life of purpose and goodwill planned for me. I don't need to strive and chase after more stuff and more achievements. I have enough, I do enough, I am enough, because God is enough. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some closets to clean.