‘Cycling’ through stuff, one dead fish at a time

By LAUREN FLYNN KELLY October was a somber month in our house. My daughter invested in her first aquarium, and we managed to kill six fish in three weeks. Several fish experts attributed this to a failure to cycle our fish tank. “Cycling,” as I understand it, is the process of ensuring a balance of healthy bacteria and, well, fish poop. But while we needed to create a stable environment for tetras, I was also preoccupied with helping my father consolidate two homes into one and trying to reorganize my children’s growing toy collection. 

For the last year, my father had been keeping a dozen or so pieces of furniture in a nearby storage unit. In a perfect world, I’d have a house large enough to take all of them (a coat closet would be nice, too). But I could only make room for one item — a pedestal dining table that came with memories of birthday celebrations, Thanksgiving dinners and my mother frantically wiping its lacquered top after a spill. The rest we donated to Community Forklift, which even incorporated one of our old high-backed chairs into its fall display. It was easy to arrange a pickup and comforting to know our donations might go back into the community.  

Next up, toys. After watching the popular Netflix series, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” my older daughter and I tried the professional organizer’s method of sorting through items by category and learned that everything in her bedroom sparks joy — i.e., she couldn’t part with a single thing! Tired of having to clear a path just to tuck her in at night, I called my friend and neighbor Mandy Sheffer, organizing guru and owner of Curated Play Spaces, to have a look at what we were dealing with.

Everything in its place: Organizing guru Mandy Sheffer helps clients cut the clutter and create an attractive and functional play space in the home. Photo credit: Courtesy of Mandy Sheffer.

Mandy’s visit was eye-opening. She agreed that we definitely had too much stuff, and that’s partly because I saved all of my old Barbie toys so that I could pass them along after my dad’s big move. But she pointed out that we actually have ample amounts of space and storage; we just weren’t maximizing them. She first recommended we do a purge, which meant giving away stuff we’d outgrown to the HY-Swap and relegating a garbage bag of stuff to the attic to see if anyone would miss those toys later. (Update: No one misses them.) Next, we took away some bulky furniture that was inhibiting play, and we are now in the process of rearranging our existing storage.

“One of the main things that surprises clients when I visit for a consultation is that they often already have everything they need, and it’s just a matter of seeing it in a different light (or in this case, from someone else’s perspective),” said Sheffer in an email. “One of the main things that surprises me at nearly all my visits is how miserable stuff can make people and how hard it is for folks to part with things, even something like tchotchkes that their kids have from fast food meals.”

I can relate. In addition to thrifting for Playmobil, I’m guilty of buying too many beauty products and candles — and throw pillows, if you ask my husband — and have been thinking a lot about the environmental impact of these purchases. So aside from reusing old containers to make my own hand creams and candles, I’ve been trying to cycle through what I already have. For instance, it’s unrealistic to think I’m ever going to use all the travel-sized items I get from Birchbox on an actual trip. So I’m using them, rinsing out the tiny containers and recycling what I don’t reuse at MOM’s Organic Market

That’s just one example that can be replicated in so many other areas of life. And as I go through the cycling process — which takes patience, according to the fish experts — I’m excited about the things I’d forgotten about and relieved to have a little more breathing room.

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