Monday, June 22, 2015

Of Clutter-Clearing and Clarity

Copyright June 22, 2015, by Leonore H. Dvorkin
All Rights Reserved

To start, I need to explain that my husband and I have lived in this same house in Denver for close to 44 years, so you can only imagine how things have accumulated. Now, at the ages of 71 and 69,  David and I are feeling ever more strongly that we need to divest ourselves of as much of our clutter as possible. We don't want to leave all this stuff for our only child, Daniel, to have to deal with after we die. We also want to take back our house. That is, we want to feel, once again, that the house belongs to us, not to the many, many things that crowd our rooms and one-car garage.      

I don't want to give a false impression. We are not hoarders. We can easily navigate every room, and even though it's a rather tight fit, I can park my Subaru wagon in the garage. I have received numerous compliments on the overall appearance and cleanliness of our home. I tutor Spanish and German and teach exercise classes here at home, so we have other people in our house almost every day of the week. Thus the place has to look reasonably neat and clean. 

When it comes to having excessive stuff, our biggest problem is that we have a total of 29 bookcases in the house and garage. Most of them are quite large, and most are filled end to end with books--plus notebooks, office supplies of all sorts, hundreds of records (vinyl LPs, I mean), CDs, VCR tapes, photos in envelopes, some decorative items, and thousands of old letters in three-ring binders and envelopes, mainly letters sent to me over many decades and copies of letters I have sent to others. Then there are the countless papers, even numerous manuscripts of books, connected with my teaching and with David's and my work as authors and editors. (We are the authors of a total of 30 books thus far, and we've edited and produced 21 books by other authors. Several more books will be published in the near future.) That number of bookcases does not include the two large storage cabinets in the kitchen, which are separate from the built-in cabinets, and our four large filing cabinets, two in David's study and two in mine, which are also stuffed full. I don't actually know how many thousands of books we have. So you can only imagine the huge job it is to do any kind of clutter-clearing or rearranging.

When we were preparing to have some extensive electrical work done in the house in the fall of 2014, we had to uncover every single outlet in the house, and we found that many of them were behind heavy, filled bookcases. So all that stuff had to come out of the bookcases before we could move them. The way we did it was to unload the books from one bookcase at a time, put the books on a large folding table and on the floor, carry the bookcase out to the garage, and then reload the books into that particular bookcase. Once the 10 bookcases that were in my study and the smaller adjoining room were out in the garage, we had those two rooms painted. Then everything had to go back. In the process, we did some changing of where certain bookcases went. Now I am in the long, hard process of deciding on new placement for many of the items, as well as trying to get rid of as many objects as possible.

The fact that we have way too many books is obvious to others, as well as to us. We are trying to get rid of at least some of them. So far, about 200 have gone. That felt good, but many more need to go. Given how little money one can expect to receive for a book that one sells to a used book store, we're content to simply give most of our unwanted books away: to friends, to the public library, or to secondhand stores such as Goodwill.

In the process of moving all those books, I greatly aggravated an old elbow injury that I sustained about three years ago. The new damage makes it much harder for me to grip anything at all heavy with my left hand. So, while David and I are glad about the electrical work, happy with the new paint job, and glad to be getting at least some stuff in better order, I am not in the best shape right now, and we still have a long, long way to go to conquer all the (mainly) paper clutter in the house. But we will do it! And I assume that my elbow will get better in time.

The important thing is that both of us have broken free of our old lethargy regarding all this, and we are finally moving forward with our separate and shared clutter-clearing tasks. I cannot adequately express to others what that means to me emotionally, given how down on myself I was about all the clutter and how angry I was with myself for not being able to change my ways. But the electrical work and the painting job forced my hand, as it were, and so on I go, toward a much better organized future!

In the clearing of paper clutter, we are uncovering some interesting and amusing old things from our past, things that we had forgotten all about--such as my very first temporary driver's license, from August 2, 1972. I got that when I was 26 years old; I did not drive before then. David taught me to drive. My first car was a Volkswagen. I had to learn to drive in order to drive Daniel to and from preschool, as David was working full-time away from home back then. The temporary license is a small, thin slip of paper, measuring a mere 3.5" x 4.5".  I assume that not even the most ruthless of professional organizers would begrudge me a souvenir that takes up so very little space, and so I intend to keep it.
At this point, I'd like to tell you about a man I used to know. He was about my age, but he had habits quite different from my own. Although M. is not his real first initial, I'll call him that.

M. had never married or had children. When I met him over 10 years ago, he owned a large house that was among the cleanest dwellings I had ever seen in my life. Without a doubt, it was the least cluttered. Most surfaces in the house had nothing or next to nothing on them, and as far as I could see, there were no decorations or photos anywhere. I remember seeing only a single abstract painting on one wall of the living room. While I had to admire and even envy the simplicity of it all, and I could well imagine how quick and easy it would be to dust the various tables and other surfaces, the overall effect was both very odd and slightly creepy. 

When the opportunity presented itself, I had a private conversation with M. about his most unusual lifestyle. I asked him whether he had always been like that, such an extreme minimalist. No, he said. He went on to explain that over several years, he had conducted three major "purges," as he termed them, of the unwanted and unneeded objects in his home. When I inquired as to his motivations for those purges, he told me something I have never forgotten, something that I am now trying hard to put into effect in my own life.

He said that when you're clearing out the clutter, it's pretty obvious that you need to rid yourself of papers, letters, and other things that are connected with past jobs or past relationships, especially any that went badly or ended badly. But beyond that, he said, he had realized at some point years before that he needed to get rid of things that were connected with dreams that he had once had, dreams that he had finally realized would never be fulfilled.   

A very poignant and personal example he gave was connected with the fact that he had always hoped to marry and have children. With that dream in mind for decades, he had saved a lot of his own childhood books and toys, hoping to pass them on to his own child or children. Eventually, at some point past the age of 55, he had come to the conclusion that he was rather unlikely to ever marry, and that even if he did, fathering a child or children at his age would probably not be advisable. Thus it was time to let the books and toys go, to give them to some secondhand store that would, in turn, sell them to the parents of some unknown but appreciative children. He added that that particular act of purging had caused him considerable sadness right at first. But soon thereafter, the sadness had been replaced by a tremendous lightness and sense of freedom.

As so many of the rest of us need and want to do, M. had succeeded in crawling out from beneath the rubble of his crumbled dreams.   

I know something of that sense of freedom, as I have felt it every time I have succeeded in getting rid of anything that felt more like a chain around my neck than a link to the past: anything that I knew to be truly useless to me (even if it was still in very good condition), anything that reminded me of old hurts and disappointments, anything that made me feel angry that I had ever been so foolish as to buy it. Any good book on clutter-clearing contains lists of things that one should learn to let go of: all that I have named and much more. Some additional examples are unneeded tools, cookware, and dishes; clothes that don't fit, are badly out of style, are worn out, or merely excessive; most old holiday and birthday cards; and even the majority of your personal correspondence and dairies. The best book on this theme that I have read is Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, by Karen Kingston; you can find it on Amazon. I have no use for what I consider the more woo-woo parts of the book, but the author's practical advice and her many insights regarding the psychology of both hoarding and purging are terrific.

Books on clutter-clearing, including the aforementioned one, typically also contain inspiring anecdotes about how good clutter-clearing has made other people feel and how it has brought about very positive changes in their lives, sometimes even helping them to lose weight. I'm still a long way from seeing the radical changes in my home and body that I would like to see, but I am most certainly motivated to try to make more progress.

It's proving to be difficult indeed to throw out things having to do with certain major parts of my past, both past occupations and past dreams or expectations of myself. Those objects include the piles of paper that are reminders of past work in high school and college and more personal, private things like old letters and diaries. But do I truly need those things? No, I don't, and I have to admit that I haven't looked at most of them in years or even decades. Will they ever be of any real interest to any of my descendants? Almost surely not. And if I leave them here in the house, they will almost surely be relegated to a dumpster at some point in the not-too-distant future. We see that happen all the time here in our suburban neighborhood. The old folks die or go to a nursing home, and the kids just roll up a dumpster, then start pitching the furniture (which is not always worn out), the appliances, the papers, and much more. Do they have the time or desire to sort through every box and cabinet? No way! So do I want to put that burden on my husband (should he outlive me) or on our son, who has his own numerous boxes and piles of stuff to deal with? No, I do not.

Most of these thousands of objects here in our home are bound up with my own past, my own memories. I don't need to burden David, Daniel, or anyone else with the vast majority of my tangible reminders of those memories. In fact, to my considerable consternation, I'm finding that many of the objects are bound up with memories that have either faded or totally disappeared!

Here is just one example of what I mean. Sorting through pile after pile of old notebooks from my studies at Indiana University in the 1960s, I found that not only had I forgotten virtually all the details of what I had once worked so hard to learn, but I could not even remember taking some of those courses! My first reaction to that discovery was sadness and some embarrassment. But once I got past all that, I found that chucking most of the notebooks and papers gave me great satisfaction. That is, I felt myself freed from the old, deeply buried sense that somehow I should have been able to remember all that history, philosophy, pre-20th-century literature, Latin, biology, geology, psychology, and math. But I could not remember what I had studied in those courses because I had never used that information after graduation.

Ever since the mid-1970s, most of my working life has had to do with the study and teaching of weight training, which I've taught since 1976; with the study and teaching of German, French, Spanish, and ESL (English as a Second Language); and with writing and editing. Because I continue to use that knowledge, I have retained most of what I learned in my many, many courses in modern languages at two different universities. But  virtually all the rest of what I studied in the process of earning two B.A. degrees has fallen by the wayside.          

Ah, memories! May we always hold and treasure the good ones and the useful ones, and may we find the strength to liberate ourselves from the bad ones and then move beyond them. And may we always manage to be deeply engaged with our present. In short, may we always strive to live for the moment-- because that is all we ever really have.

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