Frequently I’ve fantasized about living differently. A few years ago, while following a guided imagery offered by my Zen teacher, I visualized my home as a light-filled and spare dwelling, furnished with carefully chosen items and sleek storage to reduce visual clutter. Imagining myself in such a pristine environment felt peaceful and spacious. When I opened my eyes, I lost heart upon seeing my smallish apartment crammed with books, stacks of papers, compact discs, knickknacks and art. Someday, I told myself, I will live with very little around me.
Two months ago, I dreamt that I stood in front of my closet and confidently chose what to give away and what to keep. I didn’t hesitate or feel apologetic for no longer wearing clothing that had been gifted to me. I acted with clarity and alacrity and sent what I didn’t want “downstream”, to my nieces or Goodwill. Next, the dream switched venues and I found myself astride a motorbike, bopping around a small city and then climbing a steep mountain road. That road turned from asphalt to dirt to mud. As I ascended, snow melt gushed on either side of the ever narrowing and precipitous path that rose higher and higher; to where, I had no idea. I didn’t think I’d have enough engine power or emotional stamina to continue. I worried I would backslide if not capsize. I gripped the handle bars and pressed the accelerator even though I was barely moving forward, even though my heart pounded and my breath caught in my throat. Somehow I stayed upright, and then the dream ended. I awoke happy and light, as if a weight had been lifted.
In recent years, I’ve been steadily chipping away at my possessions. As time passes, things become irrelevant, wear out or fail to keep my interest. I’m more delighted by quality than quantity or even variety, more enamored of simplicity than complexity. Yet, each time, I’ve shied away from doing a thorough purge. Fear interfered: Who would I be without items I kept religiously for years? Would I recognize myself? And if my stuff was filling a void, would I be forced to confront a sense of emptiness more directly? Those thoughts, plus the sheer effort of evaluating so many objects, stopped me in my tracks again and again. I told myself that I had purged enough for that moment, rather than working through my resistance. Each time, I failed to achieve the liberation I suspected would be available if I had done a thorough, top to bottom, inside out, back and forth purge.
A few weeks ago, recalling my dream, I stood in front of my closet. At first I made quick progress and easily gathered items for my nieces and Goodwill. Then, my pace slowed, as if I were teetering on that motorbike. To keep myself going, I switched focus to boxes of mementos and souvenirs that I had not opened in a while. To my surprise, I discovered they no longer spoke to me. After emptying a few more boxes and dispassionately surveying the contents, I assembled a large haul for a consignment store. I next poked my nose into my books. I shipped some specialty Hungarian volumes from my time in Budapest to an acquaintance from that era who, in the last six months, had found me on Facebook. Emboldened, I unpacked even more to see what else I could give away. Like a hummingbird, I darted from box to box, extracting sips from each, gradually lessening the volume but without feeling like I had made a transformational dent.
Staring at my accumulated things reminded me of the feeling of overwhelm while trekking El Camino de Santiago. It’s exciting to get started, but difficult to maintain energy and enthusiasm as the days and kilometers wear on, aches and pains develop, and as doubts about the wisdom of the undertaking accumulate like storm clouds. The only thing to do when such resistance arises is to focus completely on the present moment and not let one’s thoughts get ahead of, or behind, the body. Yet, I forgot that and promptly sunk into the quicksand of nostalgic melancholy when I popped open a plastic storage bin and retrieved a stack of letters from a former love interest. This man had written prolifically, the envelopes following me from address to address and country to country. He wrote honestly and occasionally without flattery, creating a fairly accurate portrait of who I was at that time. His distinctive inky script on thick paper, worthy of aesthetic appreciation, recalled a slower and more thoughtful era. The collection of letters was less of an ego boost than a personalized I. Ching: I reached for the envelopes and their contents at points of transition, as if his observations and reflections of who I had once been would help me orient my compass anew. Then I’d put the letters away, often for years on end, forgetting the contents.
Still, at times the past has exerted a pull so strong as to be destabilizing, threatening to knock me off that motorbike as I struggle to move ahead. I knew that reading those letters had been a mistake in terms of maintaining momentum. To get back on track, I purchased The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (she calls her approach the KonMari method). I had heard that this Japanese organizer encouraged people to only keep things that sparked joy. But her method goes beyond that. She has clients begin with clothing, typically the least emotionally complicated possessions. She suggests touching each item to see if one’s body reacts joyfully or not. For those items that do not spark joy, she recommends thanking them for their service or lesson learned and giving them away. Once a person has practiced finding the spark of joy and expressing gratitude with clothing, it’s easier to approach the remaining categories (books, papers, miscellany, mementos), with which we might have more complicated relationships. She recommends putting everything of a single category into one pile and then choosing what to keep from there, rather than working room by room, closet by closet, or bookshelf by bookshelf. Her method is akin to a spiritual practice in that it helps calibrate our divining rod for joy. Which is why she suggests reviewing mementos and letters at the end of the process. By then a person will trust themselves more, and be more clear about what gives them joy, making it easier to part with beautifully written letters, expensive gifts, or other objects that the ego, which can’t exist in the present, will always find reasons to grasp. She says it’s the shock of discarding many things at once that creates the magic of her method and facilitates personal change.
Her emphasis on joy is brilliant if not radical. Joy can only be experienced in the present. Joy is highly and deeply personal. What lights up one person may not excite another, so we can’t declutter by committee or rely on others’ opinions. The joy sparked by an object may not correspond with its monetary, historical, familial or societal value. Tidying, she writes, is a dialogue with one’s self. For this reason Ms. Kondo advises not allowing family members to see what one is discarding. Parents, especially, are often attached to objects that remind them of the past. They might interfere with the process of reclaiming one’s joy.
In my hummingbird way, I had purged many things, made several trips to Goodwill and sold multiple items on eBay. But I’m going to start from the beginning, standing again in front of my now emptier closet, but this time I’ll take all the clothing from it and my hall closet, place them in a single pile and deliberately follow the KonMari method. I suspect that by using her technique and suggested order I will find even more to shed, even if it hurts at first to see so much go so quickly. Perhaps by the time I work my way through the process and again arrive at those gorgeously penned letters, I will be able to thank them, joyfully insert them in the shredder, get back on my imaginary motorbike and speed up the mountain.