“Let go or be dragged.” — Zen proverb
Inspired by the Japanese who streamline their homes before the start of a new year, I recently did the same by sorting through all my worldly belongings.
I remove dresses that feel heavy on the hanger and heavy on my soul. Dresses I like the idea of yet always put back in the wardrobe and choose something else instead. Dresses I would not wear on a date, at brunch with friends, or if I’m visiting Paris.
Trousers that pinch or skirts that bunch. Shapeless tops that make me look as if I had a tussle with life, and life won. Purses with uncomfortable straps or not enough space. The wedge sandals I bought with enthusiasm yet never wore once.
I find my favourite set of matt gold bangles that I’d spent a fortune on ten years ago but had stopped wearing. I put them on for New Year’s Eve and the next morning remember why I’d hidden them in my drawer – there are raised red welts up and down my arm. I give the bangles to a dear friend.
I also give this friend various items I’d bought when I was delayed in London and stress shopped. I wish I had prettier offerings but they are things like nose strips, eyebrow stencils and red nail polish, because the only colour I wear is Rouge Noir and I’ve stopped pretending otherwise. (Yes, I hope one day to be emotionally evolved enough to not resort to numbing tactics like unnecessary shopping but I’m not there yet. Hence – nose strips.)
I remove extra bed sheets and pillowcases with mascara stains that won’t come out despite countless washes. Excessively tattered hand and tea towels.
I take away notebooks that don’t lie flat when opened, pages slapping my hand as I write. Pens that don’t give a fine enough line. Markers that bleed through or are, simply, purple (I never ever use purple). My stationery, my rules.
For decades I had dozens of earrings. In a decluttering session several years ago, I realised I only really wore four pairs with love; the others were worn out of some weird self-imposed duty, so I got rid of all but the four. I look at my shelf of cookbooks and see a similar situation: all serviceably fine cookery writers but only one that makes my heart sing. I keep my beloved Amelia Freer – whose books taught me to cook and still contain over a hundred recipes I haven’t yet tried – and get rid of the rest.
I gather up dozens of dry goods that have barely been opened – almond flour, flaxmeal, coconut flour, baking powder, vanilla essence – and put them in my “donate” pile. When I first started cooking, I imagined I would start making my own bread and things, but I actually don’t like baked goods. Also, I hate the taste of coconut in anything that’s not actually a coconut.
On my spice shelf, cumin seeds in a jar have become a solid mass with mould. I hack at it with the handle of a spoon until they come out in chunks. I do the same with more expired spices and condiments. I wash out the glass jars and sterilise them the way I’ve seen my mother do before ordering fresh supplies.
I find pouches of various unopened powders – rose clay, white kaolin clay, ground rose petals, ground orange peel. When did I buy these? Why did I get these? I mix them together, add a teaspoon of honey and a bit of water, and it becomes my favourite facemask. Okay, so it’s my only facemask but perhaps it’s time I tended to my skin a little more. Hey, maybe I can use up those baking ingredients for a homemade body scrub. It’s good to repurpose the unwanted into the wanted.
I go through files on my computer, discarding all that are no longer relevant. After getting numerous alerts of “suspicious activity” from various websites, I close a bunch of my accounts and change my passwords across the rest. I go through my address book and delete names I no longer recognise.
I’m still getting messages from the stalker on Facebook as he opens new accounts when I block his old ones. I decide I never want to see another message from him again, so I disable my account. Bam! Just like that, I’m off Facebook. The relief.
Years of ruthless pruning have shown me that even sentimental items don’t need to be kept forever. That my attachment to the person or memory I associate with them lives in my heart and not in the objects I can touch.
I wash and iron my remaining clothes. I try on neglected lipsticks and decide that, yes, I’d like to wear colour on my face again. I put a bracelet that needs mending in my purse to take to the jewellers.
I find film posters I’d bought for a new office a year back but never used them as I decided to give in my notice a month later. I get the posters framed and put them up at home instead.
I am not Zen. I multitask like a m@£!#%f^$&*r. I watch stand-up comedians on Netflix when I’m in the kitchen – blazing through Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation, Judd Apatow: The Return, Sarah Silverman’s A Speck of Dust. I laugh as I cook, I cook as I laugh. I clean out the fridge and freezer as the jokes carry on behind me.
I store quilts made of my mother’s old saris in cloth bags. I put winter clothing in one carry-on suitcase, and travel paraphernalia in another – 100ml bottles, combination locks, packing cubes, toiletry bags, shoe bags, plug adaptors, travel pouches, sleep mask, airplane socks, bank notes and coins in various currencies.
Even after I go to bed, I leap up several times when I remember something else to add to my donation bag – workout pants that are too loose, mugs (I’m drowning in mugs) that I don’t like to drink from any more. I get up again to rearrange things as I think of them – all food items in one cupboard, just so.
When I tell my bestie Hilary that I decluttered all my belongings because it was driving me a little crazy, she says that that’s like her saying she needs to lose weight. (Hilary never needs to lose weight. I always say that if I had her body I would go to office in a bikini, a large hat and nothing else.)
Some people say my standards are excessive. It’s true I have become so accustomed to living a certain way that when I returned home after being out of the country for several weeks and my cousin had arrived before me, I rearranged the living room before I removed my shoes, put my bag down or even closed the front door behind me. Order, serenity. Serenity = order.
There’s a communal art project called Post Secret where people anonymously send in postcards with their most private thoughts – some funny, some sad. My favourite has a picture of a fork and the words: I left because you wouldn’t stop putting the silverware upside down in the drainer. And below, in smaller letters, it says: I’m going to die alone.
I tell myself: my home is one of the few areas of my life where I have control. I’m going to die alone. I’m doing this now so my nieces won’t have to sort out my shit after I’m gone. I’m going to die alone. I’m removing distractions so I can focus on the things that really matter. I don’t want to die alone.
Then I remember: oh yeah, I don’t need to feel guilty or apologise. I live like this because I choose to.
I stay in a colourful, hectic and noisy city so when I close the door to the outside world I get to step into a sanctuary. I have a low threshold for visual noise and it would be fatiguing to be surrounded by things crying for my attention. Instead, plain white walls and blank surfaces allow my mind to rest.
And after all this activity my mind does indeed settle – on yet more clutter. This time on things I can’t see or touch.
I think each of us has a go-to emotion, whatever the provocation. For some it’s anger, or righteous outrage, or sadness (even if all are ultimately outlets for fear). For me it’s shame. Brené Brown defines it thus: when we feel guilty we believe we’ve made a mistake. When we feel shame, we believe we are a mistake.
In my case, I can feel broken, defeated, unlovable. I am also currently creatively blocked because I don’t know how to get out of my own way. And I have so much terror and anxiety that it can feel at times as if I’m going to choke.
If only it was as easy as picking up a dress and seeing with a detached eye how it doesn’t help me look or feel my best so I’m better off letting it go.
The way I might have adored certain books with a fervour bordering on the devotional yet can now give them away when they longer serve me.
Or how I can objectively recognise my brief London shopping spree was a means of soothing myself, so I’d rather donate the uncomfortable and sad reminders for peace of mind.
No, my clutter is not physical. My angst does not reside in a drawer, or in a cupboard under the stove, or shoved at the back of my wardrobe. My neuroses and fears feel insidious and all the more stuck.
Perhaps I do these intense, comprehensive material clear-outs in order to give myself courage to do the same with mental cobwebs. To show myself that sometimes things may appear comforting only because they’re familiar and not necessarily because they’re healthy. How fretting about the hole it may leave in my life almost immediately becomes relief, with a lightness that feels something like magic.
To remind myself I never ever regret giving something away and that it’s always safe to let go. And that letting go is as simple as a decision, and one that doesn’t require a clenched jaw to do it.
The universe will tilt to keep its balance. So if I clutch and cling, it will pull back in order to stay centred. When I let go, things flow more freely.
So that’s my real mission. Getting rid of books, clothing and even photographs is easy. But the paralysing anxiety, the stuck emotions and that deep reservoir of shame? I hope I may be ready to start letting these go too.
“They lived and laughed and loved and left.” — James Joyce
*Please note! Although I am no longer on Facebook, I’m always more than happy (thrilled!) if you share this or any other of my blog posts on social media – so please do!
“What kind of dining set defines me as a person?” Fight Club, David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s cult novel, is a young man’s wake-up call to the soporific addiction of consumerism. It has plenty of memorable lines, of which the most famous is: “You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.” Ed and Brad and Helena rock.
I have given friends more copies of Karen Kingston’s Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui than any other book (I’ve written more about it here). Thrillingly, their lives have changed dramatically as a result – moving countries, leaving outdated relationships, even becoming super big cheese at one of the biggest media companies in the world! I re-read it every year or two myself and it continues to empower me.
I’ve been obsessed with death for most of my life. Every essay I wrote at university – whether about the physics of light, Renaissance painting techniques, or African cinema – I linked to death. I even took self-portraits of death for my major in photography. Everyone always said I was morbid but now death is at long last fashionable. There’s a new book about a Swedish ritual called döstädning, (loose translation: “death cleaning”) where old people clear away and organise their things so as not to put the burden of this task on their surviving relatives. Read this Guardian article by Marisa Meltzer: How Death Got Cool.
One of my most favourite songs ever is Ain’t Got No, I Got Life by Nina Simone. She may not have wine, perfume, culture, shoes, sweaters, aunts or children, but damn it, Nina’s got life and she’s got freedom. I love the slower tempo of this live version that she sang in London in 1968:
Stay with me!