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Cleaning Up My Life

Except for an occasional brief foray in decluttering, I have spent most of my life accumulating things. I must have lots of company because in the last decade, I have noticed a proliferation of people who make their livings writing about and assisting people part with their possessions and organize the ones they keep. It doesn’t take a scientist to discern that most Americans would end up with too many things in an economy predicated upon excess consumption.

I finally acknowledged the high cost of clutter in my life; I spend too much time searching for things I need. The piles of papers and books next to my bed impede access. My groaning cupboards and closets began to weigh me down. I felt overwhelmed. My monumental clutter was living proof of my powerlessness. Yoga and meditation have brought me a sense of peace and spirituality in my life, but had not helped me take on the challenge of clutter. When someone recommended the spiritual benefits of decluttering, I was open to the idea.  I have been surprised at how profound the experience has been even though I have just dipped my toe into the ocean of clutter that surrounds me.

I began to declutter the last week of December and already feel the weight of the past lifting. My mother died 34 years ago. I found the scarf that she wore to her last hospitalization. It used to smell like Youth Dew, the Estée Lauder perfume she used to wear, but the fragrance has long since dissipated. I have missed her throughout my life. That scarf, tied to her final hospitalization, was a sorry reminder of her loss. Out it went.

I also got rid of presents that did not hit the mark, like the itchy wool scarf that has sat in my coat closet for years. I will leave to another day a discussion of the ethics and perils of re-gifting. I finally released myself from the obligation to keep gifts that I would not use, and have donated them so that someone is finally able to enjoy them. What a relief to be free from the obligations to generous family and friends. I can feel gratitude for their generosity even more now that I no am no longer burdened by things I won’t use.

Most surprising to me was the relief that I felt when I decided to get rid of all those clothes I did not wear. Clearly I have made more than my share of mistaken impulse purchases. I didn’t realize how much they made me feel bad every time I looked in my closet. Chief among the mistakes were clothes that I bought because they were a “bargain.”  Value depends on whether you use them, and I often bought clothes that were a little too tight or a bit too big, or didn’t match anything I owned because they were just too good to leave in the store. I also have so many clothes that I forgot what I already owned. Emptying my closet of all those mistakes lifted my heart. Now I just have to remember not to buy them in the first place.  Envisioning my spacious closets newly shorn of unworn clothes may help me keep on task.

Getting rid of impulse purchases did not include the full range of sizes reflecting my predilection to gain and lose the same ten pounds over and over again. Since turning sixty this summer, I decided to let go of those clothes that I won’t fit into again, even if I lose ten pounds. My body as changed over the years. Good bye to that beautiful pin stripe suit that was a size 8. That suit had lots of company in the give away pile. After developing several chronic illnesses in my mid-fifties, I took early retirement from my position as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of New York. I can count on one hand the number of times I have worn a suit since I retired. While I had given a number of suits away to an organization that helps outfit women who are entering the workforce, there were many that remained. This time I let them go. Looking at old suits doesn’t make me feel like I was once a productive member of society. I don’t even like how I look in a jacket anymore. Most importantly, I am unlikely to wear them to my yoga class, the market, or a movie.

When I began to go through a pile of papers in my armoire, I found a touching letter from a classmate from law school with whom I had one of those ambiguous friend/lover relationships. He shared that at one time, he had felt closer to me than almost anyone on the planet. I swelled with the emotion but this time was able to throw the letter in the trash without trashing my memories. I haven’t been able to throw away my sons’ expressions of affection, but I hope to pare down the letters that I keep. I appreciate the written word, and know how much I treasured reading letters from my grandmother, mother and sister when they died. But that is no excuse for me not to plow through the bundles and toss out the dross.

Of course, the biggest lesson from all this is to stop accumulating in the first place. I collect ephemera and use found images to make soul collage cards and other kinds of collages. It has been an excuse to collect and retain just about anything I get my hands on. I have boxes of such images waiting to be rediscovered. Learning to ignore free magazines, newspapers and art gallery advertisements will be a real challenge. I managed to walk around Barnes and Noble the other day, and almost succumbed to buying another book, when I imagined all those books sitting in my house yet unread. I put the book down and walked out. De-cluttering must be a daily practice.

The incredible thing about taking a critical eye to your possessions is that it requires you to look at your life, not just your closet. I must admit mine isn’t pretty. But what is so amazing is how little it takes to feel better about one’s self.  I was caught up in an initial flurry of downsizing in the first 24 hours, which coincided with my yearly ritual of donating unwanted items at the end of the year. Since that time, I have managed to spend at least 15 to 30 minutes a day getting rid of things, and re-organizing items I want to keep. Who knew how easy it was to feel a tad virtuous. Of course, my husband has estimated that if I keep this up every day for the next six months, I may make some real progress.

I have yet to take on the really tough projects. My basement is a subterranean nightmare. My sons still have lots of things stored in our house. But I can’t really blame them. It is my stuff that litters the floor and the shelves. I think that junk has proliferated like a non native species that has invaded the ecosystem without a natural predator.

The biggest challenge, however, is my so called “art room,” a burial ground for art supplies and writing materials. You can barely get through the door. My computer room isn’t much better. These areas require me to organize lots of messy materials. But more significantly, decluttering requires an honest appraisal of my creative efforts. There is a part of me that fears that once I get the clutter out of my life, I will have to face my lack of creativity and discipline. Now I feel so bogged down by the mess, I have an excuse, paltry though it may be.

While I feel good about taking the first steps to clean up my life, it has raised other issues.  In addition to being the queen of clutter, I am an accomplished procrastinator. Getting me to sit down in front of the computer to write is tough in the best of circumstances. But now that clutter is calling, it may be more difficult to tackle writing and art making. Throwing something away is a lot easier than trying to express myself.  I am learning that I can use my resistance to declutter. Now there is a tip you are unlikely to find on a website. I hope that as I chip away at the piles of stuff in my home, I will run out of excuses not to write or paint. I know how easy it is to give up on New Year’s resolutions. I better get back to work re-cycling whatever is within reach before torpor sets in.