Room for Joy

As I wrote in my last post, I’m making room for my present life by letting go of much of the past. It’s a slow process, because handling each of items I’ve surrounded myself with, from clothes to books to mementos, means I’m also dealing with the emotions attached to them.

My focus is driven by a few ideas that have stuck with me.

What We Leave Behind

As you get older, more people you know and more people they know, die. Estates have to be processed, possessions sorted and distributed. For years, I’ve heard about the nightmare that the process becomes – from bickering siblings to overwhelming hoarding and undue burdens passed to the next generation.

We don’t have one of these, but we have an impressive number of flashlights.

My husband and I are the products of working class families. There are no heirlooms or antiques that have been trundled along from generation to generation. So everything we’d leave behind would be something with which our daughter would have to deal. I like my kid and I’d prefer her resentment of me to end sometime before the grave and not be something that would linger for years after – unlike that voice in her head that sounds remarkably like me.

Sometimes that divvying up of a loved one’s possessions helps to process grief, but more often than not, it ends up in a storage garage someplace to be dealt with by a reality TV show or a relative who didn’t much care for you when you were alive and has even less feeling for your stuff.

There are things that I do want to leave her. A journal I started writing soon after she was born – all about her development milestones and lessons that I might have missed passing along to her in daily life. Pictures – digitized, sorted, clearly labelled and easily transported (via USB stick or DVD). My wedding ring – the band that I had to stop wearing after I got pregnant – a symbol of the love her parents shared, but of so little monetary value as to put all this wedding hyperbole into perspective.

These are, coincidentally, the same things I’d grab in case of a fire. Maybe. If the family and cats are out already.

Burning Bridges, Shredding Ties, Letting Go

I’ve been slowly sorting through photographs. Scanning, labeling and saving them takes a lot of time. There are services that do this. They’re often pricey and my guess is that you’d give them all your pictures, since it is so convenient. I’ve decided to take the harder route, because it’s my thing. I figure that if I have to look at and decide if I’m going to spend 5 minutes scanning them, I am likely to eliminate more.

canstockphoto22009649Easiest to eliminate are scenery photos. There are always better quality pictures on the internet. A pedestrian camera, combined with my weak photography skills meant that many are fuzzy. Now when I travel, I tend to buy postcards. Those are usually professional photos if I need to remind myself where I’ve been.

Old flames. I have some couple pictures from the past, hesitating to let them go for the sake of my memory. There’s one with the very first person I was engaged to. We were young and so damned perky. But I freaked over too many hints from him, involving hordes of children and white picket fences. I wasn’t ready. But our romance was sweet and we both have our own families now. Those photos make me smile, so I’ll scan them in.

canstockphoto8098470There are pictures from a serious relationship where the dude was a drunk and abusive and I hadn’t quite cottoned on to the fact that I might have daddy issues. Most of the pictures are of us at bars, parties and beer fests. Might have been a hint. I don’t get a good feeling from those pictures. He wasn’t as attractive as I remembered and each picture has a story. Oh, that was the night he punched a wall and broke his hand. Look here, on a beach in the Mediterranean, where he refused to speak to me for half the trip because of a jealous rage. Why would I give five more minutes of my life, scanning in my shit history? Shredded.

In some ways, it feels like I’m sanitizing my past, but I’ve already learned the lessons. I don’t need a reminder that I made bad choices. It just feels like bad juju to hold onto that stuff, even in digital form. I’m not good at forgiving myself for mistakes, so it feels ritualistic – all that shredding and destroying of things that remind me.

Joy, or a Facsimile Thereof

The book that helped kick off this decluttering bender was Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. She’s a little extreme for me. Since I’m someone who prefers deadpan delivery over hyperbole, the word “joy” seems over the top. Still, if I translated into my language “muted pleasure” or “benign contentment”, it’s a concept that works. We should derive pleasure out of the things we possess. Not surface satisfaction, but a real acknowledgement that we want this particular thing in our lives and if it’s not exactly pleasure, then it must serve a current, useful purpose.

canstockphoto9987395The environment in my study is now a little uncomfortable. Everywhere there are books I like, things I’m currently working on and items that bring me aesthetic pleasure. The psychological weight of stuff – the bad memories, the shoulds, these things no longer deliver a mental flick every time I turn around. There is space physically and mentally, that I did not have before. I am loathe to refill it and am determined to keep reminding myself I have everything I need. Maybe the joy is en route and I just need to sit in this awkward room and listen for its arrival. Now that I’ve got the space.

Room for Imagination

canstockphoto7052527I’ve been spending the last week doing a typical new year task – clearing my house of things. Most people who know me will tell you I’m an organized person and when I say my house is a mess, it’s not as visible to others. I’m one of those people.

Most of my cleaning and organizational habits evolved from my childhood, where cleanliness meant control and control meant less anxiety. It was, I thought, in my nature to be a creative slob, but between an OCD parent and years in the Army, my nature was suppressed, mutated and is now clearly unrecognizable from the kid who lost everything. Gone is the child who cleaned by shoving things under the bed, until the pile crept across the floor, like a slow-spreading moss.

Something was lost, even as I learned to keep track of everything. I spend a lot of time keeping things under control. De-cluttering is treatment of the symptoms, but not a cure. The cure is bringing less into one’s home in the first place. The cure is asking yourself what things represent to you and learning that they are not you. The cure is asking yourself, what problem am I trying to solve?

There’s a level of shame and fear associated with my possessions. Many things I bought so that I would never run out, a consistent fear birthed by growing up in poverty. Other canstockphoto41129839things are bought as a magic pill – looking to an outside source to fix a problem when I don’t trust myself to solve it. There are some things that bring me undiluted pleasure – books, pretty stationery, and good pens. But even then, too much of a good thing waters down one’s appreciation.

I’ve read books by a few of the gurus of organization and minimalism – Peter Walsh, Leo Babauta, and Julie Morgenstern. Now, I’m listening to the latest popular organizing book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. I downloaded it from my local library, so thankfully, not another acquisition.

canstockphoto10368894Yesterday it took several hours to go through all my clothes and to put back the ones I liked and wore. I folded the KonMari way, modifying methods to fit the space I have. I have to admit, my wardrobe looks good. The real test will be maintenance. I have a couple of bags of clothes to take to a nonprofit thrift store that benefits people with differing abilities.

Seeing what I am getting rid of will remain a stark reminder in my head moving forward. Aspirational shopping. Shopping to feel better about one’s self. Shopping because someone made a comment about what colors look good on you or hearing some offhanded, disdainful comment about casual dress. Decisions based on trying to solve a problem that might not have been a problem at all.

What I have left are the things I’ve always worn, always felt comfortable in, always appreciated – jeans, sweaters, t-shirts, blouses, and of course, fuzzy socks. I am easily seduced by color, with same items in different colors, but my wardrobe reflects my life now – not a life imagined, not a life envied, not a life to impress.

Consumerism poisons the well. Things get marketed to us to fix our flaws, including products that tell us we have too much stuff. There is an irony in the number of books and websites and products that promote minimalism. It’s as twisted as the green movement – convincing us to throw away items for more environmentally friendly wares.

I’m embarrassed to say that I’m still learning to resist the game. When we suffocate and drain this planet of its resources, I won’t be able to stand on principle, but I would be able to stand on the mountain of stuff I’ve purchased and discarded over a lifetime.

Still, recriminations are not useful. What has been useful to me is to think about the psychological impact of having this stuff around me. Thinking about where I got my ideas about possession and ownership, imagining what it would be like to not have things – what would I feel?

So much of what I own is about intent and failure to follow through. I intended to really get into Japanese ink painting. I took a class, bought the supplies, got a couple of books. Now those things sit, sulkily staring back at me everyday, reminding me of yet one more thing I will likely not master, or even practice.

The weight is there and it takes up space not just in my office closet, but in my mind. Every time I see it, I think I should…maybe when…why didn’t I… such a dilettante. It reminds me of a flaw to fix, a problem to solve, and the shame of not completing yet another task. Except it’s not the only thing. Boxes of photos unsorted. Books unread. Materials for projects never completed. So much head space filled with regret, disappointment, disgust – with all the physical reminders to prod me every day.

canstockphoto19779919I write this, as I struggle with the next phase. My books. My many, many, many books. I love books. I love reading them, touching them, being surrounded by them. I love the library and bookstores and online perusing. The presence of books makes me feel wealthy, smart, and full of potential. Their purposes, to impart information, to comfort, to entertain have been outweighed by my pathology of never-ending hunger.

I intend to read all of my books. Someday. And the weight of that intent has filled my space. There is little room for much else. For new ideas. For imagination. For the creativity borne out of time and space not filled with entertainment, impulses easily met, stuff yelling at me to stop ignoring it.

As I sort through them, I see myself bared open – all my wishes and dreams and struggles. Fitness books and cookbooks. Self-help books and books on meditation and depression. Reference books for any subject that caught my interest over the years. So many writing books, many in pristine condition.

Sending them off to the library, secondhand bookstores and Books for Africa will take the edge off. But I know this process is less about the stuff, and more about making room for my life now, making room for that creative slob.

Drifting Towards Center

canstockphoto13501949I’m wound pretty tightly. Lately, I’m having weeks where my schedule is so full, there is barely time to think. It means that I’m going to Sproing! at any moment. It finally happened yesterday – the unraveling, the unwinding, gears off track, springs shooting wildly off in every direction. I imagine myself to be like a cartoon, ending haplessly in a disassembled pile of parts.

I began to drift mentally. I flopped down in the middle of a productive day to be decidedly useless. I perused the books on my shelves, listened to Keb’ Mo’ on repeat and said “no” to everything else. We got hit with a huge snowstorm last week, so primal urges to be out and in the dirt gardening were squashed. There’s nothing to be done but wait it out.

Drifting can be an uncomfortable state for me. I have calendars and lists and reminders popping up on my phone and on my computer. I have sticky notes and files and some days I’m organized down to the millisecond. It makes me efficient, prepared, a “together” kind of person, able to juggle work and volunteering and parenting and domesticity in a single bound. Until I hit that wall.

I begin to absentmindedly dismiss all the electronic reminders and start to lose things. I laugh erratically when I realize I’ve walked out the door with an unmatched pair of running shoes on (true story). A sticky note is stuck to my elbow (also true). I can’t remember where I was supposed to go first and start muttering out loud. A little panic sets in. The sense that I’ve forgotten something overwhelms me and I’m paralyzed by anxiety.

There is a feeling that it will all come crashing down on me. That I will soon be revealed for the disheveled heap of forgetfulness and irresponsibility that resides at my core. I sit down. I’m exhausted. As my heartbeat slows, the noose loosens, I pick up a book or ten. I don’t really read, just flipping through words, words, words. My mind opens and thoughts of where I have to be and what I need to do dissipate, clearing the way for random, disorganized and unfocused thoughts.

The meaning of time begins to change. It stops being measured by the clock and starts drifting. I start to think about all the writers throughout the centuries, all of us grasping for meaning or notoriety or to get it all out. It’s really an amazing pursuit. I’ve missed writing the last couple of weeks. I caught up on correspondence, doing that time-consuming old-fashioned task of writing longhand letters, some illegible as hastily scrawled notations on a prescription pad. Writing longhand sets me back in time, when I filled pages trying to find meaning.

Sometimes, when I look at my books, mournful thoughts emerge. I will never live long enough to learn all that I want to learn. My books, some unread, sit hopefully on a side table. They remind me that I have a lifetime of intention that must be fit, if I’m fortunate, into a limit of decades. Sad thoughts follow quickly, as I thought about the many lives lost this week. There was Boston, then Texas, Iraq and an earthquake in China. Lost potential, lost years to grief. My thoughts are petty in comparison.

I took my time vacuuming and folding laundry – physical, but neither demanding nor mentally taxing. I took care of my possessions, dusting mementos and books and picture frames. Possessions are both important and not. It is the care that we take with them that imbue them with value, not ownership. It is the reminder of friends or times long past, but held dear. I hung a new piece of artwork, sent by one of my blogging buddies, a reminder of whimsy and new friendship and the value of something handmade or drawn.

I helped my daughter do some crafting projects, ate dinner with family, talked to the cats who have been repeatedly ignored and tripped over this last week. I touched base with all those people and things that put my “to do” lists into perspective. They are the reason that I do.

canstockphoto3520841Today, I plan more of the same. Unfocused thinking, book browsing, another walk on a snowy, gray day, writing here and there. And when tonight comes, my breathing finally full and natural again, my love of books and writing reignited, and gratitude for being alive refreshed, then I will sit down and write my list for Monday.