Organized at Last, Part 2

Organized at Last

How I got clutter-free and organized in only fifty short years

Part 2


Okay, I admit that one reason my house is neat is that my children have flown the nest.   I miss them but it’s nice to know where the scissors are.

Cleaning my room was the great battle field of my relationship with my mother–She who Must be Obeyed.  I was required to wear a smiling face and a pleasant disposition at all times and  being “fresh” was a cardinal sin, maybe even a mortal sin, for which I’d be sent to my room.  My room was one place where I had autonomy and that may be why I kept it messy.  It drove her crazy.

So it comes as no surprise that when I became a mother my kids kept messy rooms, and I mean messy–my husband says the cleaning lady crossed herself at their doorstep.

I had to decide if I was willing to engage in the battle my mother did.  I was not.  Her constant nagging only taught me to ignore her.  So I closed the door, gave the cleaning lady a pass, and let the kids have their mess,reminding myself that I didn’t have to live like that–my own room was as neat as I wanted it to be.

For the sake of peace, domestic harmony and sanity stay out of your children’s rooms and do not comment on the condition of said room.

But as everything in life, there must be limits, so here are a few  rules.

1. Respect Privacy

Do not ever EVER, read a diary or a letter that belongs to someone else, and if you do, don’t then comment on it.   Your kids should know that papers that are put away will not be invaded.  I never read a diary, but if a paper was crumpled up under the bed I felt that it was fair game and I told them that.

There’s an exception to this rule and that is; unless health  and safety  are jeopardized.

2. No Food left for more than a week

I have a friend who asked her son if the girls in his co-ed dorm visited his room.

“Well, no, they’re afraid of the bees.”    The BEES?

It seems there were so many half empty beer bottles and soda cans that the room was full of bees.  Food attracts ants, mice, cockroaches, RATS, Raccoons, CoyotesBEARS!!   INSECTS THAT STING!!!!!!!

Parents must be allowed to enter to remove dirty dishes and uneaten snacks.  When you do this, do not look around, it will only depress you.   You could, of course, have a no food in the bedroom rule.  Good luck enforcing that.

3. Never help in the search for lost objects

When they are desperately seeking the homework, the backpack, the keys,  simply say, “If you start to clean up your room I’m sure it will reveal itself.”

My kids hated me for saying this but it reduced stress for me.

When I couldn’t find my own glasses I offered a monetary reward.

4. Give fair warning before the major cleaning

With this hands off approach there needs to be a periodic cleansing, or purge.  It’s best to do this when they are out of the house for an extended period, and I always warned them that that which was not put away would go to the garbage or the Salvation Army.  When they returned they actually enjoyed the neatness for a minute or so before they reverted to their natural state.

5. Have a little respect

This is a true story told by my uncle Dave to his big brother, my Dad, in about 1935.  Dave was at the home of his friend, Charlie Medd with some other boys.  One of them noticed Charlie’s Teddy bear on his bed and teased him about it. “Oh man are you still sleeping with a Teddy bear?”

Charlie, to save face, said to his mother; “Haven’t you thrown that old thing out yet?”

Mrs. Medd grabbed the bear, threw it in the trash, and took that out to the curb for the garbage man.  The Teddy was irretrievably gone.  As Dave reported, the other boys couldn’t bear to look at the pain on Charlie’s face.  Thirty years later my father was still shocked by the cruelty of that act and he wasn’t even there.

So have some respect. What may be a rag to you is precious to someone else–someone you love!

Somehow we all survived and I recently had the joy of visiting my daughter in her new home, where she proudly showed me her pantry with its neatly organized shelves.

After de-briefing myself on the battles my mother and I waged I have come to the conclusion that a tidy house is nice but nothing besides actual safety is worth a battle.  And tidiness isn’t everything.  I once had a friend whose house was neat as a pin but she occasionally forgot to pick up her kid as school.  Moderation is a good thing, even in being tidy.

Here’s a gift for you;  I printed these words and hung them over my desk.  They come from Haydn’s Creation, where God parts the waters and creates the land.   Feel free to take it and use it for your own inspiration.





September 11, A Day for Remembering

September 11, 2011  A day for Remembering

I kept the e-mails I sent to family on September 11 an in the days that followed.  Here are some excerpts.

Subj. This morning Date: 9/11/01

We live less than two miles from the World Trade Center.  As I walked out this morning I saw people on the street all looking downtown.  someone handed me binoculars and said the WTC was on fire.  I went to vote where a neighbor told me that a plane had crashed into the building.   When I was inside the second plane hit and we knew it was a terrorist attack.   I walked across town to buy some art supplies and in the store someone said  the Pentagon had been hit.   The manager said he was closing the store an everyone had to get home.  They’ve closed the subways and all ways in and out of the city.  As I headed home I heard all the people on Fifth Avenue scream and that was when the first tower collapsed.

Say a prayer for all those souls, for the emergency workers and for our country.



Subj.  Sunday-Monday

Date: 9/17/01


Today our church was as packed as it is for Christmas and Easter.  We sang ”A Mighty Fortress is our God,”  “There is Balm in Gilead” and “America the Beautiful”,  all three full of words to cherish but two lines really spoke to me.  “Oh Beautiful for heroes proved…who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life.”  Our firefighters, police and emergency workers, the iron workers and construction workers are such heroes.

These words from Thomas Wolf were printed in the bulletin; “To lose the earth for greater knowing, to lose the life you have for greater life, to leave the friends you loved for greater loving, to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth, whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending, a wind is rising and the rivers flow.”

The scripture lesson was from Romans, Chapter 8; “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”  The friend sitting next to me gasped at these words.  They’re hard to understand but when was the Bible ever easy?

This evening I walked along the Hudson River and watched the sun go down over New Jersey. (It was more poetic than it sounds.)  Part of the park there is under construction and people have tied yellow ribbons all over the chain link fence, each ribbon holding a message.  Everyone wants so much to do something. Day spas are offering free massage and treatments to all relief workers, coffee shops near Ground Zero are giving free coffee and snacks, the animal hospitals are offering help in retrieving pets who were abandoned in the first evacuations.

Love, Barbara


Subj:  Thursday


Things are struggling back to normal here, or to whatever normal is going to be from now on.  People are saying that the feeling in the air here is sad.  I don’t know if I would call it sad.  I think there’s more eye contact made and we’re all trying to be gentle with one another.  Everyone seems to be thinking about the same thing and all irony has been eradicated.  Flags are everywhere as I guess they are in the rest of the country.

As we sing “God Bless America” and as we consider what we will do in response to the attacks, saying “Wanted Dead or Alive”, and “Let’s bomb them all” I hope we also sing America the Beautiful, especially the third verse:

“America, America, God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.”

Some are holding God responsible.  That’s a place I won’t go to.   I don’t have answers but I know what I learned with our family’s losses–of Larry, Matt, Mary Gae, Joy Joy and Dave; that if I were to blame God and turn away I would lose the source of comfort and strength that is always there.  As William Sloan Coffin said at the death of his son, God’s heart was the first to break.  I believe that all those innocent souls, all those happy faces on the posters for the missing, when they left this earth mounted up with wings as eagles, as it says in Isaiah.

Did I say I wan’t feeling sad?  Here is a verse from Jeremiah that has always helped me; “For I know the plans I have for you-plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Love, Barbara


Subj:  Two weeks after

Date: 9/25/01


I voted today, which is what I was doing when it happened  I cam out of the polling place and looked down Washington Street and tried to remember what the towers looked like.  I can’t remember where they fit in the landscape, or how tall they were.  It’s like when you lose someone and can’t remember his face.  I look at pictures of the towers and can’t believe how tall they were.  It’s like leaving a funeral and thinking, Wow, there’s so much about her I never knew.  The twin towers were my least favorite landmark here because they were so out of scale and so uninteresting to draw but now I miss them terribly and regret all the mean things I said about them.

The 8×10 missing posters are still papering the wall of the city but their meaning has changed.  They’ve become memorials; they say, this is what she looked like-I need you to know about him, how much he meant to me.

When we said good-bye to Uncle Dave in January Arthur said to me, That’s enough funerals.  And I agreed.






Sunday, September 11, 2011


That’s what I had to say then.  On September 15 Captain James Gormley of Engine Company 40 at Amsterdam and 66th posted a letter in the neighborhood  in which he spoke of the men missing from his company.  At that time he still held out hope for their rescue.

He ended his letter with these words;

“Pray.  Do not underestimate the power of prayer.  Hope remains.  Make your hope contagious.  Inspire confidence in one another.  Be polite to each other, it makes life easier.  If you despair, act courageously.  If you are scared, stand up straight and march forward.  That’s what we do.  Children, kiss your parents and tell them you trust them.  Tragedy may yet visit us, we will face it. Together.  We are not giving up.  Maintain your health, we have lots of work to do.  Allow yourself rest.  Embrace the path God puts you on.  He has his reasons and he does not tell us his secrets.  Again, I ask you to pray, because Hope remains.”

What I remember about that day is this.  In the afternoon I went out to see what was happening and if there was anything I could do.  I thought of giving blood, so I headed to the nearest hospital, Saint Vincent’s.  The sidewalk outside of Saint Vincent’s ER was lined with gurneys with clean white sheets, waiting for the injured who never came.   I was directed to a place where they were taking blood donations and saw that the line was five blocks long, and they were only taking O-positive.   There was a sign outside my church saying there would be a service of grief and lament at 6.

Everyone was saying; We’re ready to help–we’ll do anything it takes.

I’ve always loved this city, but never more than on that day.

Art’s the Answer–Here’s to the Teachers!

Here’s my tribute to three wonderful teachers. These are three among many, some who were less than inspired or even kind, but they all made an impression on me.

One school morning years ago I asked my third grade son how he liked his teacher, Mrs. Williams.  He didn’t stop drinking his orange juice, just gave me a thumbs up!  Here’s a thumbs up to all teachers, and here’s to a great school year full of learning and fun.

At the end you’l see that I have a gift for the first 10 readers who respond to my offer.

Mrs. Brilliant–that was really her name–Mrs. Brilliant, my tenth grade Algebra teacher.   I was a terrible math student until I was forced to stay after school for extra help.  Standing at the blackboard I suddenly seemed to be right handed, all became clear and I could do that stuff!

I’ll never forget taking the next test–as I worked on the 10 point bonus question Mrs. Brilliant came by and looked over my shoulder.  When she saw that I had gotten it right her face absolutely lit up with joy. That look has stayed with me all these years as a reminder of how important it is to find the right work, to give it your all and to reap the rewards of a job well done.  Now that’s a teacher.

 Roberto DeLaMonica  taught printmaking at the Art Students League.  Printmaking is paradoxical; it’s terribly messy, but the point is to make a pristine product. Roberto taught us to be meticulously clean in a dirty and toxic medium.My friend who’s a retired ER physician says above all, you have to be prepared.  Roberto made sure we were prepared.

I still treasure his class list–20 pages of sources, instructions and recipes. Before we could make our first print we had to scour the city for ingredients and materials–asphaltum, rosin–who ever heard of this stuff?  And we had to go to the most arcane out of the way businesses, up rickety stairs to places where we had to say the pass word to get in.

Then we had a week or so of cooking–and one recipe said; do not let this come to the boil–it will explode.  Only then could we begin.

Brazilian born, Roberto gave his excellent English a spicy twist.

When a student complained about the mess he said, “Make dirty your hands!”

But you had to keep your paper clean!

He said;  “What’s that word–when you make messy the paper?”


Roberto;  “Yes–Never careless your paper.”

I have been careful not to careless my paper ever since.

but my favorite Roberto-ism is–”When you have a free hour or even a minute–get to work–use your time to work–it’s money in the bank!”

Robert Beverly Hale taught anatomy for artists at the Art Students League.  His anatomy lectures, each on a different part of the body, but ranging all over creation, were legendary;  he spoke in an elegant mid-Atlantic accent all the while making exquisite anatomical drawings without looking at them.

I could go on writing about Mr. Hale, but I could never do it as eloquently as Phillip Hamburger did in a profile published in the June 13, 1977 issue of the New Yorker.   You can find that piece in the New Yorker Archives, but I have something even better for you.

In 2001, the year of Hale’s centennial, the Art Students League celebrated his gifts with an exhibit of his work and the work of his students, and a booklet with a reprint of the New Yorker profile.  On the cover is a portrait of Hale by Daniel Greene and inside are photographs and a copy of his poem “The Big Nasturtiums”.

I have several copies of this wonderful little book and will send one to you if you go to the contact page of my website and send me your postal address, which I promise not to use for any commercial or nefarious purposes.





My grandparents, Robert Sinclair Swanson and Louise Mayhew Russell Swanson,  took for their motto the Bible verse, Romans 8:28; “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love the Lord, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”

It sounds like it means if you love God nothing bad will happen to you and we know that’s not true. Another translation says; “In all things God works for good”. That works for me.

My grandparents named their house in Sag Harbor 8:28, and had those numbers inscribed all over the place. There was also an 8:28 salad, which is much more delicious in memory than reality–it involves green Jello, canned pineapple, mayonnaise and cream cheese.

Although their address was simply Noyac Road, many people addressed their mail to

8:28 Noyac Road,

Sag Harbor, NY

Years later, when the post office actually did assign street numbers, they used 8:28 as their starting point.    I wonder how many residents of Noyac Road know that their address is based on a Bible verse.

That number has become a watchword for me, maybe even a mantra. When a clerk at the check- out said to me, “That’ll be $8.28”, I went straight home and called my grandmother.

And once when I was about to commit road rage over a parking space the dashboard clock, which was always silent, clicked loudly and I  saw that it said 8:28.


“OK,” I said, and took a deep breath and calmed down.


When our church called a new pastor I was asked to host a gathering in my home to greet him. I was offered several dates; of course I chose August 28 and it marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


August 28, 1963 is the date of the great March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech. Did Dr. King know the significance of the date when he planned the march? Who knows. But I’ll always have it in my mind.


Now whenever a digital clock tells me it’s 8:28 I take a moment to give thanks for all my blessings and that includes my friends–like you!


P.S.  My daughter read this and said that now she has a daughter she sees 8:28 all the time.  “I think it means that someone’s looking out for me,” she said.


P.P.S. I’m sending this out a little early in case Hurricane Irene causes you to lose power. As we wait for Irene to hit us I’m especially grateful for the scientists who devised ways to predict the weather, so that we can be ready.


Ice Cream and happiness




My mother and her family summered on Fire Island in the thirties. So did Jimmy Durante and whenever he came into the general store he’d say,

“Who wants ice cream?  Everybody line up!”  And he’d buy ice cream cones for all the kids who happened to be in the store.


This story is still being told about him seventy years after it happened.  What a legacy–for people to think of you and ice cream together.
Because after all,  money can’t buy happiness but it can buy ice cream, which is just about the same thing.

If you don’t know Jimmy Durante, you’re in for a treat.  You can hear him sing As Time Goes By on the sound track for Sleepless in Seattle, or just google him to see  videos of him singing.  He didn’t have what you’d call a lovely voice, but he’s a perfect example of making something wonderful out of what you’ve been given.

Organized at last



I know, I know.  this blog is about being an artist and making art while living a full life,  but it’s hard to make art when you can’t find your keys, your glasses, your pencil.

Who was it who said, “Live like a bourgeois so that you may make art like a revolutionary?”  Flaubert?  DelaCroix?  Rimbaud?  Whoever it was, he was right.  Keep your house in order so you can get on with your work.

After years of thinking of myself as a scattered slob I have come to realize that my life is organized.  My closets are neat, I know where my keys are and I don’t have a junk drawer.  If only my mother were alive to see this, although it might give her a heart attack all over again.  She was a paragon of tidiness except when she wasn’t, like with her checking account.   She kept two accounts and when one got hopelessly unbalanced she’s switch to the other for a month or so.  So, nobody’s perfect but we all do our best.

How have I gone from hopelessly slovenly to neat and tidy?

It took a long time.

We live in a loft that we bought half finished–it was a big room with a kitchen and a bathroom and I got to design the floor plan. I put in a pantry, a laundry room, a hall closet for coats, a cedar closet for out of season clothes. a media closet because that was in the day of huge TV’s and stereo equipment, a walk-in closet/dressing room for me, big closets for my husband, a big one in the kids‘ room.

My neighbor told me; “You have too many closets.”

Too many closets?   There’s no such thing!

He said; “When your closet gets full it’s time to get rid of stuff.”  Well, clearly, he and I could never be friends but he was not entirely wrong.

Last week I painted my closet and in the process had to empty it out completely.  In doing so I found a ton of stuff that I’ve been storing for at least 15 years.  I took two carloads to the Salvation Army and threw away three large garbage bags of shredded paper.  I feel liberated.

Why did I keep that stuff for so long?  What are my stumbling blocks to getting rid of the things that clog my home and my life?  Here are the four big ones.


         1. The Pathetic Fallacy

I am haunted by the image of our old station wagon sitting forlornly at the dealers as we drove off in a new model.  I’m afraid that if I get a new raincoat and hang it in the closet the old one’s feelings will be hurt. This is called the pathetic fallacy and it is truly pathetic.  Barbara, wake up.  A car is not a puppy. My stuff does not have feelings and it can be put to better use than to sit in my closet.  Pass it on.

       2. “I might need it some day”

       If you can’t get over the pathetic fallacy, find your stuff a happy new home where it will be loved and appreciated.  My ice skates sat on my top shelf for 15 years.  Every time  I looked at them I thought, they’re getting dusty and taking up space but I may still go skating.  Hey, if I go skating I can rent skates! And, as my daughter reminded me, there may be a little Tara Lupinsky out there who really needs skates!   Pass them on!

     3. It Will Fit if I Lose Ten Pounds

If it didn’t look good on me last year, it’s not going to look good this year.  If it doesn’t fit it just makes me depressed to look at it.  It may fit someone else, so pass it on.

     4.  The Trojan Horse

There are about 16 billion products for sale that promise to organize your life.  Before you buy one, think it over for a week.   It might be just what you need and then again it might be another dust collector.  Remember, you’re de-cluttering, so why add something new?  If you wait and think before you purchase, you might come up with a solution that doesn’t involve bringing more stuff into the house.

Okay, I admit that one reason my house is so neat is that the children have flown the nest.  In my next blog I’ll talk about

the Black hole of Calcutta–the children’s room!

Here’s one of my drawings and a quote that I printed out and posted over my desk.  It’s from Haydn’s Creation, just after God has said let there be Light  “And there was LIGHT!”   It’s one of the great moments in western culture and I hope it inspires you!

Now Chaos ends and Order Fair Prevails




Thoughts on my Dad on Father’s day

Thoughts of My Dad on Father’s Day

Here are two shots of my father, Robert Sinclair Swanson, Jr.  On the left, what are he and I doing?   Read to the end to find out.  On the right is the quintessential shot of Dad, because to him, punctuality was a cardinal virtue. Except for the time when Larry and I showed up an hour early and he was furious, because it meant we had been speeding.  Safe driving was an even more cardinal virtue.

Volumes have been written about finding your life’s work but Dad was succinct; “You have to look forward to getting up on the morning,” he said and he did. Saturday mornings he would dance in the kitchen to his favorite singer, Joe Turner, the Boss of the Blues. Dad knew all the verses to Shake Rattle and Roll; “Get outta that bed, wash your face and hands, Get out in that kitchen, make some noise with the pots and pans.” Mom, who’s idea of breakfast was a cigarette and a pepsi, was not amused. There was usually a work program after breakfast; raking leaves, washing the car, but any trip to the hardware store or the dump always included a stop for popsicles, even between meals.

Father’s Day was the worst day in our family’ s life–that’s the day Larry was killed. Dad was broken-hearted but he set us an example in carrying his grief with dignity and grace. He met with all his friends and cried his heart out with each one. He reminded himself that he still had children and grandchildren, and he continued to find ways to laugh with us. He was determined see Larry in Heaven, and he set about living a life that made him worthy. He had tried repeatedly to quit smoking but the last time he started to light up he swore he heard Larry’s voice saying; “Hey DAD!” He never had another cigarette. He cut back on his drinking to white wine in the evening with Mom, when they’d sit on the porch and talk about the old days. He even started a men’s group titled Devotions, Dialogue and Doughnuts. A group of Greatest Generation men talking about their feelings? I’d love to have been a fly on the wall.

Dad made friends easily–wherever he went he soon became a regular. He was invited to a baby shower for the daughter of the managers of the Quick Mart where he bought his morning paper. Most men would hand this job over to the wife, but not Dad. On his own he went to a baby shop and bought two little blue outfits–he knew it was a boy–and had them nicely wrapped with a blue ribbon. Then he want to a Christian bookstore for a card. “I want a card that’s Christian but not too Christian,” he told the clerk. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said. Dad said, “I’m a born-again Christian. The person I’m sending this to is not. I want to let her know what I am without making her think i’m telling her what she should be.” And the clerk said, “I think I can help you with that.” When I think of this story I think of Matthew 5:16, where Jesus says; “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.”

At his memorial service a lifelong friend recalled Jesus’ parable of the talents, and called Dad a five talent guy, who invested all that he had and all that he was in service to others. Dad was one of life’s encouragers. I’ll always miss him, but the things he left behind will serve me all my life.

and what are we doing in that picture?  Snapping our fingers.


Eric in Lenox

Wall of pictures by Barbara Swanson Sherman
We were at the opening this weekend--Eric's room was a smash hit. If you're in the Lenox, MA, area, try to stop in and see it.