Spider Webs and Squirrel Droppings - Next Action Associates

August is done, but–as I try to catch the wave of work here in September–I’m feeling a tinge of nostalgia for the month just past. August means many things for me, and one of them is that it’s Tool Shed Month. Pretty much every August for the past 15 years, I have cleaned out the same tool shed, the one that sits about 10 metres west of my cottage.

That I need to do it each year is a source of annual surprise for me. On some level, it feels like the kind of thing that I should need to do once a decade or so, but no, each year–in order to create order in the cottage itself–I need to purge and organise the tool shed. Part of the surprise comes from the fact that although I only use the tool shed for maximum 4 weeks per year, by the time I return the following summer the chipmunks and wood fairies have done their work and the place is chock-a-bloc with new stuff.

The contents of the shed is a mixture of tools, treasures and plain old weirdness from the three successive cottage owners: my grandfather who built the cottage, my mother who kept it going for 40 years on a shoestring and a desire for her children to have a deep experience of the wilderness, and yours truly who bought it when–having had that experience–it looked like the cottage might leave the family.

Although I do the cleanup every year, this is the first year that I have noticed that there is a pattern to how I get it done:

Step 1: Go into the shed and feel the despair that precedes the annual clear out. So ‘inspired’, leave immediately and go and do something, anything, else. Repeat until Step 1 becomes so shame-inducing that it is a relief to move to…

Step 2: Get everything out of the tool shed. For the purposes of getting it organised, I find it easiest to simply get everything out of there. For me, this is a great way to start because that way the first decision is already made–whatever it is that I have in my hand, it is leaving the shed. Over the years I have learned that this produces much better decisions later on; it is easier to be clear about things standing outside in the fresh air than when standing in the shed and trying to work out where something goes in amongst the mass of other things that are in there.

Once everything is out of the shed, I simply declare all items outside the shed to be in a large, open air ‘inbox’. (NB–it helps to have checked the weather forecast to prevent the need to hastily undo step 2….)

Step 3 is a variant of Step 1: I find I need to be able to live with the moment when I look at the situation and it has actually become significantly worse, at least temporarily. No matter how many square metres of spider webs have accumulated in the corners, or how many tons of squirrel droppings line the floor, when everything is still in in the shed it actually looks relatively well organised. When I get to having everything all over the yard, I need to be able to hold the ‘oh sh-t!’ feeling that comes up, a bit like the first time I disassembled my bicycle in the middle of a long trip and had no clear idea how to put it back together again. I also need to be able to hold the commentary from any local pundits, who often don’t foresee this particular version of the annual event ending well.

Step 4: remove spider webs and squirrel droppings. They are back at it before I’ve shut down the hoover, but getting the place really clean is critical to getting a sense of progress.

Step 5: get down to processing. The first question, ‘what is it?’, actually has more relevance than processing from the inbox on my desk or computer; very often, I have no idea what ‘it’ is, and wish I could have a quick chat with my grandfather to understand, for instance, just what on earth the jaggy pump-action thingamajig is really for.

Most things are not actionable, they just need to get back into the shed in a way that allows us to find them quickly when we want to use them. Occasionally there is actually something to do, and that gets noted on the ‘@Cottage’ list, but the main business is purging and organising. Given the nature of the items, an A-Z filing system isn’t quite going to cut it, and each year I kind of allow the things to pick their places around the shed. As each item is processed, there are some logical clusters that develop: a cupboard for cleaning supplies, shelves for nails and screws (all labelled and in jars this year, wahay!), and a wall with hooks that naturally attracts the larger garden implements. As I can’t always identify what things are, I allow myself a ‘no idea, not actionable but meaningful to me’ drawer for things I’m not ready to part with yet. Not quite an art form, but certainly not a science either.

Many old friends turn up year after year. Some make the cut. Some don’t. I don’t know what that is about, but some years a certain thing is a definite keeper, but by the next year it has become trash. My grandfather’s army cot that was turned into a makeshift bed for me for a decade after I’d outgrown my crib is always a keeper, as are many of the tools (they don’t make them like that anymore), but old pictures that might have been going back up on the wall at some point are now damaged beyond repair, so year after year, 10-25% of what was in the shed doesn’t make it back in.

At some point there is a big pile of garbage in one part of the yard, and all the rest of the things are back in the tool shed, in order.

This has five significant benefits:

  1. I don’t have to keep adding real-estate to the shed to be able to store what is accumulated magically each year
  2. I know what I have, and what I don’t have, in the system
  3. I can find things in the shed quickly when I need to
  4. Space is created upstream in the system for things to leave the cottage and join the someday/maybe melee in the tool shed
  5. I feel cleaner, lighter and much more comfortable in my hammock for the rest of the holiday

(For those of you who don’t know me well, it is probably important to note that August is not only tool shed month, but also swimming in the lake month, canoeing on the lake month, and cycling and hiking in the woods month, reading on the porch month, and–most importantly–lollygagging in the hammock month. My ma didn’t keep the place going for 40 years for me to learn how to clear out a tool shed.)

Tool Shed Month is over; now it is Back to School Month. I’m glad I’m heading into it with a clean shed.

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