“The way you look at things is the most powerful force in shaping your life.” – John O’Donohue, from Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

I thought that this holiday season would be challenging to write about. It’s hard for most of us to wrap our heads around how we’ll travel and celebrate and connect – or not – in a year where almost nothing has gone predictably. Some of us are anxious. Some of us are exhausted. Some, unfortunately, are grieving. All of us are ready for something approximating normal, which, even if you’re staying healthy and safe will be a challenge. We know from experts in the medical world that this winter is likely to be rough in terms of COVID-19, flu and other viruses, and all of the effects that go along with them. It’s not just about whether we get sick, but whether our businesses will thrive, whether there will be shortages of certain items, whether schools will be open or virtual, and whether we see our loved ones in distant places. It’s quite the recipe for disruption and chaos, and what business do I have giving advice on sorting through clutter against the current world backdrop?


But this morning I was in a local big box store to do some regular shopping, and could not believe the frantic lines. People were filling carts and trunks of cars with everything from paper towels, to sheet sets, to cases of wine. That’s when it dawned on me that organizing, planning, and prioritizing will be more critical than ever before. Not just because you may be affected, but because everyone is feeling affected in one way or another – and we can’t control the choices of others.


One way to think about organizing is that it’s putting something (a space, a schedule, a brain) into its most usable, approachable format. Into something that helps us to make sense of, and work with (not against), chaos. Another way to look at it, is that organization is an act of optimism. Think about it: why plan for anything, if we don’t retain the hope that the planning leads to something worthwhile? Why take time to straighten and declutter if you aren’t considering how it will improve your day-to-day life? The more you can control in your immediately surroundings, the more likely you are to relax – and have a holiday season that although isn’t necessarily what you’d prefer, will still be an unforgettable memory to share with the grandkids someday.


So, in my own eternal optimism may I make a few suggestions of how to get started? First off – try listing all of your favorite things about your holidays, and then rank them. Think back to seasons that have been particularly meaningful. What was different about them? What was the feeling? What sorts of sensory experiences took place? If I think back to my own holiday memories I think about Thanksgivings where we traveled – turkey at the beach, sushi at EPCOT, salmon in Louisiana, watching the Macy’s parade sprawled on the floor of a cabin in the mountains. So here’s how I might rank the experiences:


  1. Favorite humans.
  2. A great recipe or two.
  3. A beautiful sunrise or sunset.
  4. Something new to experience.


Now I know our family won’t travel this Thanksgiving – and there’s no Macy’s parade (at least not the usual one). We’ve all gotten past those ideas. But if I think about it, it wasn’t just being able to go somewhere that was wonderful. It was the novelty of the menu, the different surroundings, the opportunity to be outdoors, and of course the people I was with that made the memories. Just because I can’t hop on a plane this year doesn’t mean I can’t create some novelty. Just because I won’t be at the beach doesn’t mean we can’t watch a sunrise. I realize, too, that those excursions required a potentially exhausting degree of organization and planning (especially the packing, reservations, schedule, mobilization of children, etc.). How much easier might it be to plan and organize to stay home this year and keep it intimate? Could there be an opportunity or two lurking behind what on the face of it might seem like a sadder, less exciting holiday season?


Some other considerations:


  1. Plan your celebrations now. Like the yesterday kind of now. It may be just your nuclear family, or your friend pod, or maybe you’re stuck on your own. Can you still have your traditional meals? Or test out something different? How could you get your kids involved? What ritual could you invest time and thought into that would give you a sense of peace?
  2. OK, and if it IS just you – who could you reach out to for some kind of connection? Would it be possible to get a friend or two to have a “drive-in” visit? Who else is on their own out there? What might you learn about them and have the opportunity to share if you reached out?
  3. Communicate openly and honestly with family members who may have different expectations of what this season should look like. Having that plan laid out will help you to confidently speak up if others are pressing an idea that doesn’t seem feasible.
  4. If you’re going to shop, shop early – before Black Friday (I never shop on Black Friday anyway). The reason being, it may take longer to get specific items, things may sell out more quickly, and some things may not be available at all.
  5. And along those lines, think contingencies, contingencies, contingencies. Make a plan for what happens if the gift your boyfriend wants is sold out. Think through how you’ll connect on New Year’s Eve if your WiFi goes down. Have a backup for how you’ll handle bad weather or an unexpected expense.
  6. Manage expectations – keep it simple. As I hinted above, smaller does not mean lesser. Time, and connection, and rituals that are meaningful to you and your loved ones can still happen. Maybe instead of the 25-person Christmas extravaganza, you could scale back to 5 but still have all the same foods. Perhaps opening fewer gifts could mean less clean up, and more opportunity to connect over a board game or baking cookies.
  7. Change it up. This year we weren’t able to travel and get our traditional holiday ornaments from whatever city we visited. So I’m checking out some options on Etsy for an ornament featuring a rendering of our own home – with of course, “Christmas 2020” prominently indicated. Where could you get creative with a tradition? If you usually go to see The Nutcracker in person, maybe you could check out Baryshnikov’s interpretation online instead.
  8. And of course, clear, declutter, and clean. Take some loads of clothing, excess pantry items, or gently used toys to whatever charity is looking after struggling families in your area. One thing that is certain, there will be more people in need. We are one human family, and we need to take care of each other. Bonus – your spaces will be more accessible, you’ll have less to deal with, and your heart will be lighter.


In closing, I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to write this article. I started from a mindset of “How on Earth can I write about the holidays now?” and ended with “Hmmm, there are some interesting possibilities here.” The power of the pen (or in this case, the keyboard) is real. I wish for all of you a safe, healthy, and meaningful season – and I look forward to connecting again in a brighter, even more optimistic New Year.