Category Archives: SIMPLE LIVING

Nothing is really Simple

As a professional who markets herself as a “simplicity expert” I have a confession to make.  I’ve come to believe that nothing, that no existence is truly simple. Mark and I have almost completed a transition from our 30+ year life in New York City to a downsized life in Monticello, NY.  When we bought a house (and a shed) on four acres of  land on a dead end of an undeveloped tract outside the town (correction, the village) I entertained fantasies of becoming (almost by way of association with an expanse of undisturbed land, relative silence and solitude) self-sufficient.  I dreamt of solar panels, growing vegetables and self-generating electricity. Mark and I started our homestead project by destroying whatever vestiges of homeliness and comfort our predecessor managed to create within the crooked walls of our crooked little house.  We inhabited a shell full of construction materials, tools and sawdust.  Our porch was, for two years, filled with the remains of whatever did not suit our refined urban sensibilities. I’m still not sure I am meant to live in the country.  Country folk do not carefully refinished surfaces, worry about the right paint color or pore over magazines filled with mismatched eclectic pieces of furniture which have been skillfully reupholstered to create that perfect “Cottage” look.

I speak of the country as I knew it in Alabama, in the ’60s  and ’70s.  At that time there were still vast expanses of untouched geography lacking in the convenient hub which now replicates itself all over the country consisting of:  1) a Wal-Mart  2) a Home Depot or Loewe’s and 3) a culinary smorgasbord consisting of Dunkin’ Donuts (breakfast), McDonald’s (lunch) and Outback Steakhouse (dinner). Being still preoccupied with the intentions of a city inhabitant (fixing up the house) instead of the farmer’s (growing and preparing my own food and pruning the fruit trees) I created a weekend routine on the pretense that, as I’ve only recently reestablished a driver’s license, included driving practice to the local Dunkin Donuts for a coffee.  I can only assume that the reason I held off buying a coffee press and real coffee for the house is that I longed to confirm my connection with civilization.  After only a few hours of spending a morning upstate, I sat awake and uneasy, with nothing to disturb my thoughts but the caw of the resident crows.  I was compelled to contribute to the landfill expansion to which my neighbors so strongly objected.  How could I negotiate my morning without throwing away a styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts cup? I can safely say that after two years, I am now properly acclimated to being an upstater.  Home decoration is no longer at the top of my priority list and I am looking forward to spending the spring learning many new skills, starting with germinating seed, creating a garden bed and properly pruning the apple trees.  I feel just as overwhelmed with the prospect of becoming a steward of land as I ever was tackling any job in the city, going to music school or performing. We seem to live in a time when our environment is asking many of us who have taken it for granted all our lives to make big changes – in the way we live, in how we consume, in what we do with our time and energy and with what we produce.  I used to ask myself everyday: “am I up to the task?”  I no longer ask myself that question – someone has to be up for it – if I’m not fit to take care of what has come to me, then how could I ever expect anyone else to be?

Me, Myself and my Stuff

By Margaret Langston, Beautiful Corner

I am a voyeur at heart.  No, I don’t peek into people’s homes at night with binoculars.  However, being human, I will admit to being curious about what I see when working with a client, to clear their spaces and create order.

I think it’s important to remember that, for each of us, what we own is a reflection of our personal journey – where we’ve been, where we are and even where we’re going.  I’ve heard so many wonderful stories from clients about how they acquired treasured objects and why they’ve kept them.  I’ve also “kept confessional” for many people.  These confessors share painful and sometimes humiliating stories of unfulfilled dreams that haunt them in the form of extravagant purchases which then become white elephants, crowding their space and blocking their movement forward.  I’ve never learned more about a person in so short a time than when going through their bedroom closet.

To be the recipient of such intimate communication and the receiver of such a trust is probably the one thing that has kept me going as I persist in my relatively new organizing business.  Going through boxes of old correspondence, photos and other ephemera, I learn more about a client’s family history than probably even their closest friends are privy to.

And, interestingly enough, I think that my keen interest in what my client has to show me has been the key to helping them relate to their possessions in a fresh way and therefore, the key to change.  To know that I am open to listening to their stories – about themselves and their stuff – indicates my true interest.  My clients can relax, secure in the knowledge that I see them first as interesting and unique people, worthy in their own right, rather than as projects full of obstructions I intend to eradicate.

The most important teaching I’ve received was this: people don’t want you to tell them what to do – they want you to listen to them.  They already know what to do – they just need someone who is willing to create a loving space in which they can act in their own best interests.  I believe that this is true for all of us.

Have you ever gone into the home of a new or prospective client, and were met with chaos from the floor to the ceiling?  What went through your mind?  Where you so overwhelmed by the stuff that you couldn’t focus on the person standing in front of you?  People and their clutter (I’ve never liked this word, just can’t get used to it) are not only messy.  They are also colorful and interesting, like a 1950’s Expressionist painting.  I can look at a Jackson Pollock for hours, following the jumbled lines, trying to look deep into the crevices of the web of information before me.  How is that any different from my job?

Let’s Play a Game – 10 % is the Treasure

Let me tell you right away – in theory, what I’m offering to clients would make my service obsolete. I am a personal organizer who wants to go beyond the boundaries of your physical possessions. I want to help you organize the various aspects of your life – let’s start with your stuff, which is just the key which will unlock many doors to rooms which have other doors which will finally lead to the corner in which stands the box filled with what matters to you most.  I can’t tell you what that is but I think I can help you find the rooms that will guide you there.

I want to make a game of this process.

#1 – Stop buying non-essential stuff. Just for a little while. Go to the PUBLIC LIBRARY and look for Not Buying It – My Year without Shopping.  It’s a good read and will inspire.

#2 – Make a fun project for yourself which involves going through everything in the house. It’s called “Looking for Treasures”. The basic idea is this – rather than approaching the task as a purge of what you don’t want, take a more positive approach of looking for those possession which reflect your deepest goals, aspirations, interests and desires.  In fact, my position is that if you cannot define the foregoing playing “Finding Treasures” may very well help you to do so!

Try these steps. Remember, this is supposed to be fun, it’s a game that can span over a course of hours days or weeks. You can start and stop over and over, whenever you have time:

Set up three boxes somewhere where you don’t have to look at them all the time and label them as follows:

1) nothing to do with me
2) used to have something to do with me but not now and probably never will again and
3) nothing to do with my life at present but may very well serve me in the future.

Start in any part of the house or apartment, any closet, any drawer.  Take one thing out. Examine and ask yourself the following:

  • What is this and what do I do with it?
  • If I don’t use it what was its original purpose?
  • Is the original purpose one that has a place in my life now?

If the answers are all in the negative then put the item in question #2 box.  On the other hand, answering the same series of questions in the affirmative will lead you to a whole new query which will help to define what you are about now and, just maybe, who you are becoming or want to be.

I must digress, just for a moment – bear with me. A human being is not a solid object in stasis but an ongoing process of change, both body and mind, every day.   Some change we consciously seek – but much of it happens by way of the very nature of life itself.   We have much less control over this process than we may think, much of it being unconscious. Young adults start with a certain set of expectations for their lives and of themselves which may be fulfilled in part or in whole, or may not. And, as we mature, expectations and perspectives change. Our possessions can be a telling reflection of this process.  Much of the environment we create for ourselves in our 20s may not be relevant in our 40s or 50s.  A lot of people get hung up on this point.  Holding on to accumulated “stuff” when one has  moved to another level or in another direction altogether often indicates an unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of what one has  become and what is no longer important.

There is an important relationship between the amount of unused “stuff” which one holds onto and and the amount of energy and “head space” one has for direct experience of life and pursuit of one’s aspirations in the present.  The Western epidemic of over-consumption may be a collective avoidance – avoiding real experiences (in real time and in real space), pursuing our relationships and living our lives.

Notwithstanding the foregoing statements,  I am not a psychologist and I realize that there is a mental illness which involves hoarding, brought on by trauma, usually at a young age (i.e. victims of abuse, people who grew up in extreme poverty, etc.) and I do not mean to belittle in any way or oversimplify the complex issues anyone with such a condition faces, or is trying to overcome.  I only address what I sense is a general problem in our society and I am trying to offer some ways of approaching a problem which keeps many of us in an
unnecessarily “stuck” position.

Here’s an example from my own life.  It’s been years now since I donated a beautiful box of oil paints to a nonprofit that supplies under funded schools with art supplies.  When I hit my mid-thirties I started a long-term stint at the Art Students League in New York 2-3 times a week. I had much less responsibility and I was looking to avoid, well, certain realities one often faces approaching midlife.  Art  was my outlet. Now, I’ll be honest with you.  I have some talent which I’d never pursued as a younger person, as do many middle-aged dilettantes who frequent such non-accredited institutions. At the time I bought the paints I was on a roll – living in a fantasy world in which I was a burgeoning talent living on the edge of the NY art scene. Of course, this was far from the reality.  Anyone observing from the outside could see that I was one more frustrated office worker trying to muster a slightly above average gift into some alternate reality. So, I bought books. I bought the best brushes. I sought out instructors for advice on just the right “palette”, telling myself that getting it JUST RIGHT would make me the great painter I knew myself to be! So – I also bought paint – lots of it.  One instructor said, “you must have umber, ultramarine and cadmium red. But you also need Thalo blue.” Another said, “No, I find turquoise to be much more useful then Thalo and lead white is a must for glazing, etc, etc.”  I solved the dilemma by buying ALL the colors.

Long story short, after one tiny failed showing in a Park Slope coffee shop I gave my two best still-lifes to the friend who helped me get the showing.  I took digital photos of the rest of the paintings and trashed them.  Maybe they ended up at  a local thrift shop and some lone admirer of my work bought all of them.  Or not.  After a realignment of priorities (top of the list, my husband and the acquisition of two big dogs who keep me outside most of my free time) the paints and brushes went into the closet for three years.

So, going back to our game.  When I took the paints out last year the answer to Q#1 was: “This is a box of beautiful oil paints I paid dearly for.  I don’t do anything with them nor am I likely to in the near future.  They are slowly losing shelf life (drying, separation, etc).”  The answer to Q#2 was: “the original purpose of the paints was to give me the pleasure of painting.”  But, if I were honest I would have to say that there were two competing agenda, one apparent and one hidden, the latter being the narcissistic fantasy that I was destined to be a great (and need I say famous and successful) artist?   The hidden agenda was the stronger and driving force behind much of that paint purchase.  The answer to Q#3 was that, at this point in my life I do not take painting classes, I have no dedicated space for oil painting, nor do I have the time and inclination to paint, nor am I likely to before all the paints dry out.  So, the box of paints went to charity.  After that, I approached the decision of what to do with the brushes and the more apparent and far healthier agenda won out.  I did love to paint and still do. And I definitely hope to have time to go back to it in the future – but I don’t expect it will be the near future.  The brushes will be fine in 10 or 15 years when I’m ready for them.  They take a tiny corner of drawer space. They are waiting for me and
I’ll be back to visit them some day.

OK, now, you play the game with me!  Lets say you have picked an item and upon considering it, you were actually able to answer the three questions in the affirmative. Now, what deeper questions arise from your answers?  I’ll go so far as to say that you can gain some important insight from just about anything you own if you ask yourself the three questions, give a bit of time for answers and are not afraid to be honest.  Let’s say you are looking at a beautiful sweater, one that you don’t wear often but that you love, that is flattering and always gets compliments. Hold it take a nice long look. Enjoy this process.  So, here we go:

  1. What is this and what do I do with it? This is a beautiful sweater that I bought a year ago – I wear it over a simple black dress to very special occasions. It brightens me up and just looks great on me.  I feel great when I wear it.
  2. If I don’t use it what was it’s original purpose? I bought a year ago when I was feeling sad and just looking for something that would bring a little color back into my life – but I don’t wear it often, only for special occasions.
  3. Is the original purpose one that has a place in my life now? Yes, I’m still looking for more color in my life, in so many ways. Color, a feeling of luxury and pleasure. That’s it – I’m looking to get more pleasure.  How can I do that? What’s holding me back?

And so on, and so on…what I’m trying to do here is give you some rather unorthodox ways of firing up the imagination a bit, to help you figure out what has meaning in your life and what doesn’t.  I’d wager that 90% doesn’t, which makes it hard to see the other 10%. But it’s that 10% that hold the signposts pointing the way you really want to go.  Weed out the 90% and find the 10% that is treasure.


I love beautiful things.  So do my clients.  So does everyone I know.  I go into homes every week that rival the best Village boutiques and the most well appointed Dumbo antique lofts.  Living in New York City for the past 30 years has been wonderful and terrible.  If you live on the Upper West Side, as I did for many years, going out for a morning walk was like being a kid in FAO Schwartz.  The abundance of boutiques, full of handcrafted items from the global community, the small jewelry retailers with one-of-a-kind pieces, the amazing clothing boutiques are all outside your doorstep.  Electronics suppliers have anything you saw in last month’s “Computer World” in the store, in stock ready for the taking.  The street vendors are out year-round now; selling things you’ve never seen before and never will again, so buy one of each while you can.  Let me stop now!  Friends and neighbors, the rest of America subscribes to magazines, surfs the net and watches movies and television to see and experience second-hand the luxury offered in our beautiful town.  Then, it spends lots of money to come here for just a brief moment to access all of the opulence we experience every day.

So, when we consider the expense of living in New York City, not only must we take into account covering the absolute necessities that translate into astronomical rents, unaffordable co-ops, pricey food and endless entertainment.  We must also consider that we are living in Emerald City, Disney and every marketplace in the world all rolled into one and then carry on with daily life undistracted.  In my own limited situation, I spent my youth in New York City spending the balance of all my paychecks on unusual, splendid items, which came into my home – and eventually left.  Did I need any of them?  No, I rarely needed anything I bought.  Could I really afford to give my expendable income away on a regular basis?  Well, what do you think?

The problem I have found in my quest for the best and brightest in the Big Apple is that there was always MORE.  The beauty never lets up and what I get is always overshadowed by the next wonderful thing that catches my eye.  Maybe not the next day or even the next week but soon enough I’ll be lusting after the latest mobile device, sweater or piece of jewelry.

After a while, it became evident that I would have to curb my insatiable appetite for “eye candy” or forgo ever having a home or a retirement fund.  How did I do this?  Well, I started to consider the fact that I have a limited capacity to enjoy the beauty I collect and with which I surround myself.  The more I get, the harder it is to see and experience what I have.  There is only so much time and energy to look at, wear, care for and experience all the great stuff you own.  I also notice that in foregoing buying more and keeping only what I really love, somehow increases my enjoyment.

I also have examined the real elements of beauty that I seek in my acquisitions.  One is color.  I love rich colors – they make me happy.  I finally figured out I can actually look at the sky on a beautiful day or the fall foliage in the park to get just the boost I need.  Or even when window-shopping, instead of thinking about how a dress would look on me (when I have a very nice one that is quite similar in the closet at home) I can focus on the color and the pattern.  As long as I remember that I already have everything I need and want I can even go into the store and pick up that dress, examine the texture of the fabric, see how it’s sewn, and maybe even try it on.  Then, I walk out without a shopping bag, feeling somehow enriched.  Yes, there’s always the option to buy.  But it’s no longer an imperative.  As long as I leave “I want” out of the equation I can really enjoy everything this Eden has to offer.

Beauty is everywhere.  Revel in it – just don’t try to gather it all up and hold onto it.  You only have two arms.  Hold onto, love, use and share what serves you best.  Then, from a distance, enjoy the rest.

Sharing Space

Recently, I read that since 1950 the average new house has increased by 1,247 square feet.  Yet since 1970, the percentage of households containing five or more people has fallen by half.  Overall, the average number of people per household decreased from 3.14 to 2.57.  What is it about this phenomenon that is so telling of the change in the psyche of our culture? As to the downsizing of the American family, one could point to population growth, change in gender roles, increased mobility and dispersion between generations, the economy, and countless other factors.  I sense a paradox. Why is there a need for increasing amounts of square footage required by, and allotted to, each family member? Would it not follow that given the decrease in bodies, decrease for time families spend together and increasing amounts of alienation in our society that we should desire to be closer to loved ones – that we should require less space? In the past 50 years or so, movies, TV, music, and books have alluded to a growing lack of connection between people. We are all familiar with the problem. I dare say many of us would be uncomfortable admitting this influence in our own lives. Ever growing use of technology as a means of relating, eliminating the necessity of any contact, is creating a new population uncomfortable with physical contact, one that often prefers Facebook to “face time.” I have traveled a few times with my husband Mark to his homeland, the former USSR. I learned that there was no Russian word or idiom for “personal space” nor has there (until recently) been any need for the concept. Togetherness – close proximity, visibility, being within earshot – has always been the normal state of affairs. Remember the old TV commercial that exhorted us to “reach out and touch someone?” That was quite a while ago and the dictate was only figurative (i.e., call your mom!) Today, it would be quite a leap to take that literally. So – how could any American family go from a McMansion to a “junior 4” apartment? Aside from economic downshifts that would force such a drastic move or the inevitable population squeeze that in the future may necessitate such a trend on a global level, are there any unseen benefits? Is there a way to re-frame downsizing as a means of re-establishing connection? Between our marriage in 1991 and 2001, Mark and I progressed from my tiny bachelorette pad to owning our first co-op apartment, a beautiful space that was palatial by New York City standards. We reveled in the expanse even as we struggled to pay for it! Being well-informed homeowners and looking to the future we flipped our large apartment and downsized to one roughly two-thirds the size. The first year was at times quite painful. Besides the necessary “content purge” to get us and our two very large dogs into our new home we were suddenly much, much closer to each other – and not always for the better. However, I can honestly report that the diminished physical square footage has enhanced my life in many ways. First, it has forced me to work out differences with my husband. Without the luxury of being able to avoid my partner in a large space, I face the reality of conflict. Like a grain of sand in an oyster, conflict is a motivating irritant, which if borne patiently can yield a pearl – a closer and more communicative relationship. Second, sharing a smaller space has opened me up to the idea of letting go of territory. Third, being in constant and close proximity to Mark forces me to consider the needs of another, who has his own perspective and opinions on what is, and what is not, important. I have become more flexible about my living environment; I am able to see it more as a process rather than a static result. Last and most important, sharing space has led me to an inner space which stills all preconceptions of how everything should be and which invites in other ways of being, other points of view, and other people. I believe that this new awareness has been the most precious gift, borne of the necessity of sharing a small physical space. I believe that the ability to open up to the ones closest to us – our families and friends – is the beginning of compassion and understanding for everything and everyone else. To say that loving my husband leads to loving all of humanity may sound ridiculous. Then again, I did not coin the well-worn phrase: “charity begins at home.” Love begins and grows when we are willing to share space with those we profess to love and need. That, even if taken no further, is an achievement worthy of a lifetime.

So, Why Do You Call yourself Beautiful Corner?

So, for anyone who’s interested, here’s a little bit about my company name, BEAUTIFUL CORNER.  It’s a play on a translated Russian idiom, KRASNY UGOL, meaning Red Corner, but which also has an archaic translation of Beautiful (now Krasiva).  The idea of the “red or “beautiful” corner in the traditional home of Old Russia is an aspect of that culture which has most intrigued me.  The Beautiful Corner was that place in the home where the icons and family saints were placed.  The Corner is a spiritual center of the home and the place that provides a sense of peace, comfort and security.  The idea of the corner is one that has pervaded my life.

The general idea is that one’s environment should provide a safe, serene and secure “corner” of the world from which to gain strength and sustenance for the daily journey out into the larger world of experiences.  I believe that the art of organization can never be an end in itself (think front page of the Container Store catalogue) but a means to an end.  The goal is not perfection and stasis, but the creation of a fluid yet manageable environment, which minimizes the handling of “stuff” and maximizes time for life’s larger concerns.  Having done this work for many years as a specialized sideline in office environments and as special projects for friends and family,  I have gleaned a vast amount of experience working with different personalities, both individuals and couples, which provides a sound structure for my profession.  I’ve worked with those who are eager to downsize and simplify as well as with entrenched packrats who agonize over getting rid of last year’s New York Times!  I give an initial consultation, in which I endeavor to engage my clients in a complete assessment of the possessions and/or information which they wish to arrange and encourage, if necessary, an initial purge of obsolete and unwanted items, files, etc.  One of the techniques I use is “digital cataloging”, to help the client “step out of the eye of the storm”, as it were, to gain a more objective perspective of his possessions and ease decision making.

While I strive to facilitate the process, responsibility in the initial phase rests COMPLETELY with the client, and if we are successful in
working together, this phase is usually an enlightening and empowering experience.  I work through the rest of the phases without the client or, if he wishes to be involved, with as much participation as she wishes to provide, including assessment and measurement of space, existing storage materials (the purchase of storage units and materials is discouraged until we have utilized what is already available at hand), replacement of contents and final cataloging and legend for reference.

My philosophy of organization ties in with a larger belief that sustainability, recycling and downsizing are the most crucial issues of our time.  While I do not push an agenda when working, my approach is informed by my beliefs.  I am not an anti-materialist; on the contrary, I myself love beautiful things.  I have some treasured possessions.  But I do believe in the difference between the healthy appreciation of useful objects and the bondage and chaos that an overabundance of material goods can create in our lives.  I agree with the economist E.F. Schumacher’s core belief that SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL, and think of myself as a “specialist” when working with small spaces.  Like most interested in this field, I love collecting books on organizing.  However, my work is mostly informed by many wonderful economists, social scientists, and journalists, to name a few favorites, Judith Levine (Not Buying It), Juliet Schor (The Overworked American), Jane Hammerslough (Dematerializing) and Elizabeth Royte (Garbage Land).


In the year 2000 I was invited by a good friend to visit Japan.  This was long before I ever dreamed of becoming a professional organizer.  While there I made a solo trip to Kurashiki to visit the Museum of Folkcraft.  Upon entering the museum, I read the slogan “Usability Equals Beauty” and, indeed, everything in the museum (mostly household items) was not only useful but beautiful.  This little phrase made quite an impression on me.  Slowly, over the years, this slogan stuck with me and informed how I chose to live, what I chose to let into my life – and what things to leave out.

Without being aware of it, my husband, Mark, is a strong proponent of this slogan.  He comes from a place where, at one time, useful and frivolous things were scarce.  I only got a taste of what life must have been like in 1970’s USSR when Mark and I visited St. Petersburg in 1996.

Mark scavenges the streets of NYC for small and large things, which he always finds useful.  To me, they are rarely beautiful but in his hands they become so.  The apartment we sold in 2005 had a pot rack made from an old bike rack and a wall unit with a pull down Murphy Bed made from lumber scraps scavenged from other apartments in our building.  Both creations fit both criteria found in my favorite slogan and attracted many prospective buyers.  Still, even now that I have evidence to the contrary, when Mark occasionally hauls these treasures into our apartment, often all I see is junk.  Like so many of us my knee jerk reaction is that only the shiny and new can be beautiful.  The old and dirty has lost its value and, once lost, that value is irretrievable.

I see my attitude echoed when working with clients.  Here, in New York City, in the US, there is so much to have.  The options never end and my clients’ overflowing closets attest to this.  Are we fortunate?  Or rather, as we drift in a sea of stuff, have we lost the ability to discern usefulness in what we own?  Anxious to get even better things tomorrow, can I actually find the time to use what I have today?  And, if I don’t use it wherein does that object’s beauty lie?  Who is there to notice it?