Every organizational system – for clothing, clutter, files, tasks, personal relationships – can be reduced to one rule: separate the living from the dead, and keep the dead in check. Recognize the living: what the person you are right now values and needs to achieve her goals. Pare down, organize, and store the relics that deserve honored burial (tax returns and financial statements of the last seven years, photographs and journals, four-leaf clovers your grandmother found, a Hard Rock Café matchbook from a trip with a long-ago boyfriend, a short-story seed scribbled on the lid.) Toss the rest. Give it permission to leave.
Because the dead will overwhelm you if you let them. Sometimes they’ll insinuate themselves between you and your current loves, like sweet Michael Furey. More often, like Cathy Earnshaw’s ghost at the window, they’ll crash into your current state of mind and wreck it, bending it back toward themselves. Organizing your physical space helps you get the dead in check. Because holding onto whatever that does not serve your current goals can be a way of holding onto dead selves. And you’ll never make real progress as long as they’re still hanging around in your space, singing, in their tiny voices, their little dead songs.
Last weekend I did a massive cleanout of my writing room at home (and my school office, but that’s another story). Seven hours and two recycling bins full of paper later, I felt physically and mentally lighter, having re-examined and revamped the contents of each file and my whole filing system. I knew this change would open up all sorts of channels, but the difference is even more dramatic and positive – and my writing-room time now so much more effective – than I knew. What had I been keeping that filled two bins? Why had I been keeping it? And who was the person who thought this would be useful, who was afraid to let this go?
For years, my top drawer would barely close, because it was stuffed full of – information: articles, clippings, book reviews, interviews with writers I tore out and saved during graduate school. I loved this time, but – like any overachiever – I feared I’d never know enough to run with the professors I idolized. Why didn’t I just look this stuff up online? Because if I had it, I would know it, and it would be mine. Similarly, I saved a million drafts of everything I wrote, even after the pieces got published. Stockpiling stokes fear, admits the whisper of not enough. Not enough money, time, food, creativity, insight, knowledge, love. To feed this fear, we overspend. We hoard. We “reorganize” without ever really throwing away, smothering the little green shoots of the living under the dusty weight of the dead.
After my grandmother’s death we found rattling heaps of margarine tubs and yogurt containers, washed and stashed in her bottom cabinet, the tag end of Depression-era thrift. I save these containers too – store seeds in them, or pack dried beans from my garden to send to friends – but now I keep only what fits in one paper bag. The habits of a good woman can pile up on you, mutating from logical thrift to spirit-choking anxiety. Shore up your home and your family against want and confusion. Save what might be useful. Make do. Use what’s old and worn out when you can and probably should get something better. Buy a couple cheap things instead of one good thing, telling yourself that you are being thrifty and you don’t really deserve anything better. Too much of this curves your spirit back on itself like Martin Luther’s model of the sinful soul, incurvatus: ingrown, like a hair burrowing into the tender skin, creating a wound to huddle inside, in what feels like shelter. And that wound, kept open by constant burrowing fear, will never heal unless you shine a light on the things that signify that fear, and clear them away.
I believe what Julie Morgenstern says: that getting rid of things you don’t really want anymore opens the way for new things to flow into your life. Making a conscious decision to keep – then creating a clear, marked place for what you do keep – honors that object. And when you see your stuff clearly, you don’t attach too much to it, you don’t want more. You can make clear plans to save and buy more if you need to, but you won’t overspend. You have the right to clean, beautiful spaces. And – fundamentally – you have enough.
This is Abundance 101. I have enough, and can find what I need when I need it, so I don’t have to hold onto forms of information that can be replaced or re-accessed. Keeping stuff I don’t really care about blocks the flow of new stuff into my life. Knowing what I have, and why I’m keeping it, makes me a happy Cheapskate Intellectual. A dear friend of mine helps her daughter sort through toys and clothes every Christmas to give to what they call “the children who have nothing.” What a precious gift to give your child: a decoupling of self and object, the spiritual freedom to enjoy your blessings and to pass them on.
So after I dropped off my recycling bins of paper, I went by the thrift store to pass on some more stuff. A cute top I loved that now hangs on me. Jewelry I haven’t worn for years, like a coral-colored necklace and earrings bought to go with a summer outfit I wore fifteen pounds ago. These things are still cute. Someone will love them. I laid the drapey top on a coffee table in the open donation area, coiling the jewelry on top like an offering. Maybe someone drawn by the bright colors and chunky shapes would take it, right from where it sat. And that would be just fine.