No learning is wasted

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Just over a week ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend a talk given by Emma Kennedy. An all-round high-achiever, Kennedy is arguably best known for her work as a writer, actor and author, but she is also the winner of both Celebrity Masterchef and Mastermind. She is also a self-confessed conkers expert!

Inspiring women

The talk was part of an ‘Inspiring Women’ series, arranged by the Careers & Skills team at the university where I work. Although aimed at female students, Kennedy’s message applies to anyone who has tried, failed and tried again: follow your instinct; explore the things about which you are curious; be prepared to try (and fail); and never give up.

Starting out…

In a number of ways, Kennedy’s journey resonated with me a great deal. Like me, Kennedy left school at 16. Her first job was a washer-upper in a local hotel (later, she was promoted to vegetable peeler). Mine was for a well-known high street Bank where I ultimately worked for 4 years.

…At the bottom

My very first task in the Bank involved sorting what my supervisor called ‘rems’ and ‘giros’ into specific pigeonholes. I didn’t have a clue what a ‘rem’ was. It turns out, a ‘rem’ was a ‘remittance’ – a cheque/check to you and me. A ‘giro’ was a paying in slip. So, I was effectively handling ‘money out’ and ‘money in’ for customers, albeit in proxy (paper) form. These slips of paper, once sorted, would be collected for onward distribution to their respective banks. Exciting, huh?

London life

By the age of 20, I had moved to London where I worked for 8 months prior to embarking on my next life adventure. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and honestly remember London as a city of blue skies and sunshine. My experience was a bit like being at university, but with the bonus of a monthly salary.

In those 8 months, I did a lot of growing up. I learned about cultural differences and customer service, improved my mental arithmetic, got a bit drunk at the Long Island Ice Tea Bar in Covent Garden, and developed an idea that meant I might actually resume my academic studies and eventually go to a real Higher Education Institution (as opposed to the university of life).

Moving forward

After a gap year in Switzerland, I returned home where I became the oldest 6th former in town. My pals at college had come straight from GCSEs. I arrived with 5 years’ experience, 7 O Levels (ranging from the very good to the mediocre) and an exceedingly good Swiss-French accent. Most importantly, I was ready to learn.

Loving learning

Like me, Emma Kennedy took a little longer to achieve her ultimate goal of going to university. She had been unwell during her A Level studies and it was through the encouragement and tutoring of her former English teacher that she managed to secure a place at Oxford. In my case, it was through the inspirational teaching of my own wonderful English tutors, which meant that I was finally able to get myself a place at university.

Like Kennedy, along with own sister, I was ‘first in family’ to go to university. Although my parents (and grandparents) had been teachers, their route into this profession had not been via Higher Education. My own parents had gone to teacher training college before embarking upon their careers.

What next?

On completing my degree, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do next. So, I decided to follow in family members’ footsteps and train to be a teacher. For me, teaching wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, but it wasn’t going be my life’s work either. Like Kennedy who decided to leave her post-university profession as a lawyer, I worked out quite soon that there were other things I wanted to do.

Listen to your gut

This time, I started to truly follow my instinct and that’s when my career trajectory changed. I was suddenly able to flourish, to develop and to try new things. I wasn’t on an obvious career path, but I started to enjoy myself.

Each job I’ve had post-teaching has enabled me to develop and grow. Like Kennedy, I may not have ‘failed’ at what I tried, but I developed a self-awareness that meant I knew when I was a square peg in a round hole.

Along the way, I have learned an incredible amount from my experience and from the terrific people I have met along the way (many of whom are still good friends). I always say this – especially to those I mentor professionally – no learning is ever wasted.

Living minimally

Now, minimalism is an integral part of my life and I wouldn’t go back to living in a way that was unintentional. That said, my career trajectory could not really be described as ‘intentional’. It was more a series of experiments. Try something? Not sure it works for you? Then, try something else. In some ways, it takes courage and resilience to make these changes, but nothing worth doing was ever easy.

With minimalism and simple living, there are many different ways you can adopt a more intentional approach to life. Take a look at my previous post on the types of minimalism you might consider. The point is that you can take some time to experiment; to learn; to follow your instinct; to explore the things about which you are curious; be prepared to try (and fail); and never give up.


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The most poignant kind of decluttering

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I’ve been a bit quieter on the blog over recent weeks. During the time when I would normally have been writing, I’ve been involved in what is arguably the worst – and most poignant – kind of decluttering. Along with family members, I’ve been clearing the home of my late mother-in-law who died in July.

Whilst I know you can get professional companies to do house clearance for you, as a family, we decided to get stuck in ourselves. Last Sunday (“Skip Sunday”) was the final event in a series of days when we finally felt we had achieved our goal.

Here’s what I learned during the process.

Go for the low-hanging fruit first

There are some obvious things you can do early in the process. These require relatively little thought and can be done quite quickly. Cans of food in the cupboard? Get them straight to a Shelter or take them home and eat the contents. Take clothes to the charity shop (check pockets first!) and return any borrowed items. In doing these tasks, you’ll make a solid start and create a bit of space in the process.

Sort paperwork away from the space being decluttered

It’s worthwhile sorting out paperwork at home in your own time. I brought back papers to be sorted, laid them on our dining room table and went through them with care and attention. This is important; you don’t want to shred or throw away something that you might need later. For example, we had an invoice that needed to be paid. I didn’t know that it hadn’t been paid until we received a reminder, but I was able to deduce that it hadn’t been paid from the document I had held onto.

Pace yourself

House clearance is really hard going. I have huge respect to those who do this for a living; it’s physically demanding work. Plus, for those who have an emotional stake in the items being decluttered, it can be tough emotionally.

Give yourself (and others) time to consider what you might need to keep (at least, in the short term). If you’re not sure about something, it’s worth consulting with other family members in case there’s a good reason you might need it.

Get jewellery valued

If you find a little bit of jewellery – even something like a 9ct gold dress ring – don’t assume it’s worthless. You may get £20 scrap value for each item, which might perhaps generate a little bit of surprise pocket money for the children. Check out your local jeweller who will be able to give you a price on the dot.

Do as much good as you can with the stuff you have

My most recent post considered what to do with stuff you don’t want to sell. Here’s where you have the chance to do something good with the belongings that you aren’t going to retain. That said, be prepared to reach a point where the only things you have left will (unfortunately) need to go into landfill. For us, this required a skip, which enabled us to give our house-clearance project a final push.

Don’t forget out-of-sight places

When we first sat down to consider the task that lay before us, a couple of us had clocked that we were going to need to shine a light into some dark corners that maybe hadn’t been looked at for quite some time. The words ‘shed’ and ‘loft’ were uttered.

The loft yielded a surprising amount of stuff, including some dining room chairs that had originally belonged to my own parents and which we had used when we first got married.

It’s likely that anything you find in the loft may have been what I call ‘Procrastination Pieces’. These are things that are unlikely to be needed (because no-one has been using them), but you’ll have to go through them nonetheless.

Looking forward

At least, with a project like this, there’s the end goal to look forward to. This was an intense period of time, but it’s behind us now.

Still, while we’re looking forward, it’s worth considering how you manage your own space.

In a recent ‘Happier’ podcast, Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft proposed the creation of a very useful item – a Facts of Life document. How much easier would it be for those around you (if/ when something happened) to have access to a folder or simple document that detailed ‘Facts You Need to Know’? This saves family members going on a metaphorical voyage of discovery at a time when they could do without playing detective.

In addition, consider the impact of your own stuff on those who might have to deal with it after you die. You may have heard of a more recent phenomenon in the decluttering space; Swedish Death Cleaning. It’s certainly worth considering and there are lots of articles out there that tell you how. If you want to read more, I’ll leave you with a post from my friend, Angela, over at Setting My Intention.

Right now, my intention is to put my feet up and take it slowly this weekend. After all, we’ve earned it.


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The ‘bell curve’ of a minimalist’s home-buying journey

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This year, Mr G and have been married 21 years. Like many couples of our generation, we started small but then our home (and our belongings) grew, as we ‘upscaled’ through our first, second then third home.

I liken this to a classic bell curve. We started little and small, things got bigger, but now we are on our way back down the ‘bell curve hill’. Here’s our story.

A rented flat was home #1

Our first home was a modest rented flat in a purpose-built block that was equidistant from my work and my husband’s studies (he was doing his master’s at the time). I had started my first post-graduate job so was on a teacher’s starting salary. As a result, we didn’t have a lot of money so we managed accordingly.

For a wardrobe, we had a rail. For drawers, we used lidded blue and white striped cardboard boxes (all from Next). Our dining table and chairs were gifted to us, but we actually bought our own sofa (with cash!).

Our first ‘proper’ house came next

As soon as we had viewed our soon-to-be first ‘proper’ home, I remember exclaiming, “That’s my house!”

When I say ‘proper’ home, I mean one with a mortgage. Here in the UK, the obsession with home ownership has persisted over many decades. This has worked in our favour, as we have benefited from historically cheap mortgage rates, but it’s even harder for youngsters to get on the housing ladder these days.

On viewing this particular house, my other half sensibly urged me not to become too excited, but everything eventually worked out. We duly moved in during January 1999 and would own this home for the next 7 years.

This place was a modern two-up, two-down sweet little semi-detached house, set on the side of a hill, which included a large but steep back garden. In terms of living space, we had an entrance hall, kitchen and lounge/dining room downstairs. Upstairs, there were two bedrooms and a bathroom. That was it.

What we did have was a substantial loft space in the roof of this house, as well as a large adjoining garage with its own spacious loft….

The stork came calling

When our daughter, Amy, finally came along (a much longed-for baby), we continued to live in our tiny house until – eventually – we really did more space. We wanted to entertain. We wanted my parents to be able to come and stay over. We wanted a flat garden where our little girl could play. So, we decided to upscale.

Before moving to our next home, we sensibly uncluttered the garage loft of the baby items we no longer needed, but we nonetheless took a lot of stuff with us.

A sunshine house was house #2

Our next home was a 1960 design called a sunshine house. With enormous windows that were set into the corner of the building, it was a light and airy property. This house was a ‘project’, so we lived through the chaos of renovations whilst carrying on with daily life.

Since the man of the house now worked from home, our new third bedroom became his office. A ‘box room’ at the end of the landing was a fabulous space to store…. well… stuff. With shelves floor to ceiling, we could store toys, a filing cabinet, bags, old curtains (why??),  the vacuum cleaner.. and so much more. So, we did.

Our stuff, our little girl and our home was growing.

1800 square feet, anyone?

Whilst our sunshine house was lovely in so many ways, our tastes were changing. The trend to have an open kitchen/dining space was emerging and I certainly didn’t want to be hiding in the kitchen whilst family members were in the living room.

Our sunshine house was unsuitable for alteration or extension and we felt that we’d already improved the property as much as we could.

In addition, my parents – who live 90 miles away – were coming and staying with us fairly regularly. This involved the use of a sofa bed for Amy with us sleeping on her opened-out day bed. My parents occupied our room. But with only one bathroom, thing were pretty tight.

So, when a somewhat unloved, ex-rental property came up in a lovely cul-de-sac just a few minutes walk from our sunshine house, I could see its potential. I remember saying, “I could live here.”

And so, on the last day of Amy’s school summer term in 2012, we moved into our present home where we have lived for the last 6 years.

Enter decluttering

Here’s where my journey towards a minimalist lifestyle began.

When we moved to our current home, we had little need to take a long, hard look at our stuff. We were upscaling, so that meant that everything we brought with us had a home. What we found difficult to accommodate before had its own shelf, its own cupboard, its own drawer. Wonderful!

However, in 2014, I began to see that ‘tidy’ didn’t equal ‘minimal’. I wanted to clear the excess, dig into our carefully-stored belongings and see what we really owned.

I wanted to clear the excess, dig into our well-organised clutter and push the bell curve of our lives in the other direction.

Interestingly, when I drew an actual bell-curve in MS Excel to reflect on this journey, I noticed that that the top of the bell curve came around the 15 year point. That’s when my decluttering really began in earnest.

What did I unclutter?

Oh! The stuff you hold onto, just in case! The riding hat and accessories, Dorma quilt, cushion covers, electrical items, clothes, shoes, bags, sheet music, books, sentimental items…. Out it all went.

My ‘enough is enough’ moment

In 2016, my ‘enough is enough’ moment came when I made the intentional decision to change my life for good, following an intense period of stress and overwhelm. My decluttering efforts ramped up and I began blogging about what I was doing, as well as reading every source of useful information on minimalism and simple living.

Fast forward to 2018

Moderate minimalism is where we have settled. ‘Middle minimalism’ if you like.

Our shared living spaces are clutter-free, but our teen can be messy sometimes (although she loves a good declutter when the situation becomes critical).

As a moderate minimalist, I enjoy and appreciate the benefits of a simple living mindset, especially when it comes to domestic chores! But I don’t unclutter other family members’ stuff. Actually, by modelling decluttering myself, I seem to have taken my family members with me. Except the dog. He leaves his tennis balls all over the garden.

The family home-buying bell curve

The story of our home-buying journey has indeed ended up looking like a classic bell curve. We started with very little, then both our home and our stuff swelled, as our little family grew.

When I began to see that more and bigger was not necessarily better, the curve started dropping down on the other side, which is where we are now.

So, what next?

We are about to enter a new and interesting phase, as our daughter has just begun her first year of Sixth Form. When Amy goes off to university in 2 years’ time, maybe we can consider how we live all over again.

What I know is this: when we’re ready, the prospect of presenting our house for sale and actually making the move will be so much easier now. That wouldn’t have been the case if we’d held onto 21 years’ worth of stuff.

We won’t be burdened by needing to find somewhere to accommodate all our belongings. If we need to let stuff go, we will. We’ll be back at the baseline of our home-buying bell-curve and I’m happy that the prospect of that part of our journey is just in sight.


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A change of identity

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I’m migrating my MidlandsMinimalist website over to CatherineElizabethGordon.com

I’ll be making some little changes over the next few days, as I switch from the old to new domain name, but things should otherwise remain as they are.

The key focus of the blog remains: Minimalism and simple living are still at the top of my agenda, as well as topics including:

  • Decluttering
  • The minimalist kitchen
  • Digital detox
  • Wellbeing
  • Budgeting
  • Ethical consumerism
  • Sustainable living
  • And more!

With over 1000 followers the blog, now’s a great time to move forward using my own name instead of my original blog title. So, thank you for following! I really appreciate it.

Come over and say hi on Twitter – I’m @CathElizGordon (but you’ll still see me there if you follow @MidsMinimalist) and on Instagram, I’m @catherineelizabethgordon


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Sustainable shopping: tumble dryer wool eco-balls

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As the weather continues to get cooler (and certainly a lot wetter), there are some items in our laundry for which we use the tumble-dryer. These are notably things like towels, which would otherwise take a long time to dry.

Tumble drying isn’t energy efficient

Now, I know that the tumble dryer uses a lot of energy so it’s an expensive way to dry our laundry. Indeed, I certainly don’t tumble dry clothes because it’s too wearing on the fabric. I discuss the other methods of drying we use here.

Ways to combat downsides of tumble drying

To offset the energy-efficiency issue, we only dry during the hours when our electricity is at its cheapest rate. We have a tariff, which offers a reduced rate at off-peak times (according to where we live).

To improve the tumble-drying process, we bought some wool dryer balls. These are not only reusable, but they save 15-30% drying time, thus saving energy too.

Eco-friendly balls

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These 100% New Zealand Wool eco-friendly balls tumble in the dryer, along with the laundry, pulling excess water out of the items to reduce drying time.

These are also gentle on the skin, as they contain nothing but pure wool (we never use fabric conditioner).

They work in two ways:

  1. They absorb some of the water, thus taking the water out of the items to be dried.
  2. They help separate the items in the dryer, creating pockets of air so that the items don’t clump together.

From New Zealand?

Balls

I looked for a UK-made version online, but haven’t found one yet. Maybe there is one, in which case it would be good to know.

In the meantime, we continue to use these balls, which certainly give the weekly washing a bit more bounce!

Just don’t let the dog anywhere near…


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