Harlan: Time for experiences not more stuff

As 2012 wound down, a number of friends and family members made similar comments about the past year. It can be summed up as follows: Let's put it behind us and hope for a brighter 2013.

Although I heartily echo that sentiment, I'm looking for something a bit different this year. I'm also looking forward to a year of lightness.

Let me explain.

Toward the end of the year, my wife and I started an earnest campaign to purge stuff from our home. All of those little items — paperwork, magazines, mysterious electronic cords, neglected toys, half-used crafts and more paperwork — conspired to strangle the energy out of our small living spaces.

The usual routine of moving unwanted things to the garage (temporarily, of course) where we could assess what really needed to go had run its course. The garage, like my patience, was on the verge of imploding. And when my parents invited me to visit their storage unit in Los Angeles to claim some of my old belongings, I knew it was time for a drastic move.

A holiday gift from my brother and sister-in-law — an authoritative book about feng shui — provided some much needed guidance about getting our house in order. The ancient Chinese art is based on the idea that everything in your surroundings affects you. As a student of design, I have always believed the physical environment can be shaped to channel energy and create balance (or not).

The effort to rid us of clutter and find that balance, however, has not been a terribly simple or methodical process. I have a habit of saving things (much more so than my lovely wife), and opening a box to explore its contents can be a wonderful (or infuriating, depending on the individual spouse's perspective) trip down memory lane.

The physical and emotional weight of our stuff, though, required we undertake a serious diet.

To kick start our feng shui crusade I pulled up a dust-laden sisal carpet in my youngest daughter's room (older sis's room had a makeover last month), scrubbed off the gummy glue residue, and refinished the original hardwood flooring. With all of the furniture removed, my wife suggested I repaint the room's not-so-subtle pink walls. I obliged, and now my daughter is calmly inspired in her Teardrops-blue bedroom.

Of course, adding new paint and flooring and rearranging furniture are not going to magically change a 5-year-old's habits. The colored markers and books will still end up on the floor, along with the Barbies and her sundry accouterments, and some fallen stuffed animals. But we're going to start the new year attempting to change our behaviors and minimize clutter.

One feng shui principle I've tried to introduce to my family is that energy flow in the house has an impact on wealth and prosperity. This is especially true in relation to bathrooms, where desirable energy (and one's money) can be easily flushed down the toilet. To avoid this, I am regularly asking my kids and wife to run through the feng shui checklist: close the lid, wash your hands and shut the bathroom door. And we are closer now because of this.

It's also time to clear out the emotional and mental clutter, and make room for accumulating experiences not things.

Starting day one, we joined friends at our family's first New Year's Rose Parade. Despite some initial grumbling about waking up early and braving a cold Pasadena morning, everyone enjoyed something special and new, together. Being there with thousands of spectators and all of the parade participants — the floats, marching bands, cheerleaders, horses, the queen and her court — was both memorable and inspiring.

I'd rather invest in the programs, education and events that spark our imagination and feed our curiosity than buy another item that will ultimately make its way to my garage for storage or disposal.

I recognize that achieving lightness takes time, effort and restraint. I'm ready to leave the baggage and clutter of last year behind and travel a little lighter in 2013.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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