Cleaning Up, Cleaning Out: or, The Quick and the Dead

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.


Top drawer = inspirations, in every form: strange clippings from newspapers in my hometown (a big file), the story of Owen and Mzee, future color schemes for my bedroom, places I want to travel. Second drawer = “cold” writing project artifacts, files for stories and essays I’ve published or otherwise gotten done with. Third drawer, right at a level with my chair = “live” writing projects, so I can lean over, bring the file to my desk, open it up and spread it out while I work, then put it all away when I’m done. Fourth drawer = all the financial and household management files, similarly grouped not only by type but by “living and dead” (accounts still open near the front, accounts paid off and closed at the back.) Fifth and bottom drawer = some graduate-school and job-search stuff that will soon join the rest of the grad-school files in an archival box in the basement. Then I can expand the household- and money-management files into that bottom drawer, separating them out further by type.



5 thoughts on “Cleaning Up, Cleaning Out: or, The Quick and the Dead

  1. Hi there- Just wanted to let you know you have a reader 🙂 I found out about the blog through Sejal’s post on Facebook. I’m another nonfiction writer, from the upper Midwest and now in the south. Seems like we changed places! I also write about social class, so I’m very interested in what you have here. Any other places I can read your work?
    Thanks for writing and sharing about a lot of stuff I can relate to.

  2. I enjoyed this post immensely. There’s a fine line between rituals (or habits of thought) that make our lives more meaningful and rituals that keep us from living as fully as we might. Two thoughts: first, of my grandmother, who was the “good woman” you describe with a basement full of “Just In Case.” For years, every summer I’d visit and “help” her organize and clean out her basement. Sometimes she’d asked me to clean out a drawer or two (I now realize this was probably intended as a decoy to distract me from the basement!), but when I’d finally make my way to the basement, she’d look on in horror—and dig her feet in like a mule! Eventually, I realized that by trying to clean and organize her life, I was actually calling her identity into question, so I switched from cleaning to asking questions—why, WHY do you have a coffee canister that is rusted and 25 years old; why WHY do you have all these scraps of negligible fabric? The answers were often eye-opening, as much as an old photograph can be, and really a window into another time—and another woman. I agree that holding on to things can be a form of anxiety, but I wonder if it’s always been this way, or if this is more true for women today (and perhaps our mothers) than it was for our grandmothers? For my grandmother, it wasn’t a choice. For me, it is a choice—and for some reason, I find that it’s the choice itself and the idea that I need to make the “right” decision about whether to keep or to throw away that is also anxiety-provoking. Hence, I suppose why your advice really speaks to me!

    Second, as the title of your post seems to indicate, this essay goes way beyond economics and really gets to the heart of the problem of memory—and the fine line between memory and being stuck in the past. It seems as though the self is a composite of dual impulses—letting go and holding on—and that ultimately it’s important to do both. It also seems like the older I get, the more memories I have, the more I need “memory banks”—that is, objects that will store the weight of memories that I can’t carry around all by myself on a daily basis. I love that your “lesson in abundance” would seem to teach us how to discern the difference between the stuff that we should hold onto—physically and emotionally—and the stuff that’s just getting in the way of living and is better off shared with others.

  3. Thanks so much for these wonderful, thoughtful comments, y’all — I agree, Melissa, that we do need memory banks. It’s taken me a long time to work out what objects are actually repositories of living memories — that still carry a “charge” — and what are just sitting around because they’ve been sitting around for a while. And it is interesting, too, that economic circumstances at the personal and national level play so heavily into this. Ultimately, I can go and buy something else if I need it badly enough; our Depression-era grandmothers didn’t necessarily have this option, right? But a “go buy a new one” attitude isn’t necessarily that great either. I have been reading (and am about to teach in my Honors 130 class a chapter from) a wonderful book by James Farrell called THE NATURE OF COLLEGE — — and it makes the point that very few college students patch clothes, sew on buttons, do clothing maintenance. I remember my mother teaching me to put Scotch-guard on new canvas sneakers and neatsfoot oil on leather things to keep them nice. Thanks for such a thoughtful response!

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