For the Week of October 11, 2015: Tidying Up a Life

Like my grandmother now, I save teabags for a second
cup.  String, stamps without postmarks, aluminum foil.
Wrapping paper, paper bags, bags of scrap fabric,
blue rubber bands, clothes hangers.  I save newspaper
clippings, recipes, bits of yarn, photographs in
shoeboxes, tins of buttons.  I save cancelled checks,
instruction manuals, warranties for appliances
long since thrown away.  Feathers, shells, pebbles,

(From “What I Save,” by Cheryl Savageau, In:  Dirt Road Home, 1995)

Like many of you, I save things, but it’s not string, stamps or tins of buttons I keep.  It’s mementos from the past, old notebooks filled with writing, prints and paintings, and books—lots and lots of books—all things I love.  Don’t get me wrong, my house is neat, but the walls are covered in artwork, books.  What isn’t displayed or used is stored in the multiple boxes occupying the garage shelves.  Here’s the embarrassing truth:  I hadn’t realized just how much I’d accumulated until last week, when the painters arrived to applying a fresh paint and color on several of our interior walls.  It meant everything had to be removed from walls, shelves and desktops..  Small towers of my favorite belongings formed and stood on the floors of the two rooms not being re-painted.  As the house felt more “undone,” so did I.  Worse, another heat wave arrived, making it nearly intolerable to be inside or out.  My mind felt as cluttered as my house had become.

“I’m held hostage by heat and household repairs,” I complained to my husband.  He shrugged his shoulders and sighed.  There was little to do but endure; he was much less bothered by the temporary upheaval.  But surprisingly, once the walls were painted, I held back, hesitating to return the rooms to their prior state.  I hung fewer pictures; began to list the books to donate to the library or give away.  I even resisted sending another box out to the garage, realizing how our garage storage masks our years of household accumulation.  “Putting things away,” Marie Kondo writes in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, (Ten Speed Press, 2014) creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved.”

John and I began downsizing our living space a few years ago, but we haven’t been as successful in downsizing our lives, not really. Now that he has retired, we’re faced with a significant shift in lifestyle, and I am much more aware of what “letting go” means. Beloved things or not, I simply have too much stuff.

I’ve begun a task that will take several weeks,  a process of tidying up.  This is no casual process of dusting and straightening.  It’s a change of life and habit.  Acknowledging a life change is not without its emotional challenges.  I know I will be tempted time and again to hang onto things I’ve loved, yet no longer have a place or a purpose in my daily life.  Kondo writes, “Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination.”  My final destination is a change of habit and lifestyle.

Yesterday a postcard arrived in the mail.  It was from AMVETS, a nonprofit seeking household donations for veterans’ assistance.  “We will be in your neighborhood next week,” it stated.  “Call to schedule a pick-up.”  Perfect timing.   I will donate more than once.  I know tidying up will take time; clearing out old, unused items often about overcoming the urge to hang onto them.  “But I might use that next year…”  Clearing out is also about reminiscence and discovery.  “Remember when she drew this picture in first grade?” or “I wondered where that went….”

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.

Clean the place as if the pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

(From:  “Advice to Writers,” by Billy Collins, In:  The Apple That Astonished Paris, 1988)

I’m tidying up, it’s also a process of getting ready to write a new chapter of life.  It requires letting go, making those necessary changes or choices as we age, experience loss, illness, or a change in circumstance.  I hear evidence of those difficult life choices in my writing groups every week.  It’s not easy.

As our lives change, the story we tell about ourselves changes too. Clinging to a past that no longer applies to our present only seeds regret.   Letting go is a necessary process, like tidying up, choosing what to discard, what to retain and what to carry as we discover the new possibilities our lives now.

So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go

(From:  “Security,” by William Stafford, In:  Passswords, 1991)
Writing Suggestion:  This week, write about holding on and letting go, about cleaning out the old to embrace the new, about new beginnings that could alter the story of your life you’ve told before.

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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