With Lydia, my college-age child whose winter break coincides with mine, I am cleaning out our Little Closet of Horrors. It is a home storage area that makes me shudder and mentally throw up a brick wall of denial every time I open it or think about it. Too many bath towels, three aerobeds (why three?), out-of-use curtains, and boxes and boxes of family photos fill this closet.
What most terrifies me is the archive of photos. Although boxed, they have not been organized — it’s clutter! — and they may prompt memories, both happy and sad, that I’d rather keep in deep brain storage.
So, Lydia is helping me. The photo at left is of her in the first minutes of our multi-day project, which started last Monday. We brought all the boxes down from the second floor closet, stacked them, and began.
I originally thought of calling this post, “The benefits of not writing.” In the past several months, I have deliberately set aside Writing — and by that I mean my writing, not the writing I do for work or keeping in touch with people — in order to make extra money through freelancing, fulfill the responsibilities of my primary occupation as writing teacher, and tackle a long mental list of broken or disorganized things around the house that needed fixing or organizing. About a week ago I scrolled through all my iPhone photos from 2015, and I saw evidence of all I had done in the second half of the year:
- cleaned closet and drawers ruthlessly, even giving away a 10 year-old seersucker suit from Talbots I had been hanging onto for the day I needed to bring jaunty and preppy back into my life;
- donated most of the books leftover from both college and grad school because if I need to read Scarlet Letter or Wide Sargasso Sea again, they’re in the library;
- removed and junked the toilet in my first floor bathroom and installed a brand new toilet ALL BY MYSELF;
- earned about $19,000 this summer in freelance income from four projects;
- emptied the attic and basement of both trash and unused items;
- organized the garage;
- replaced the shower diverter in our tub’s spout;
- repaired my garage door; and
- ran and skated hundreds of miles, thereby keeping the body itself in good repair.
I was only able to do these things because I had deliberately set aside writing. Really, I said to myself, “I am not writing now.” In doing so, I put aside the constant anxiety and distraction that a skilled writer feels when she imagines that, by doing a normal thing like raking leaves or making beds, she is wasting her talent. In not thinking about my wasted talent, I accomplished a lot, and Writing was not hanging around my ankles, pulling at my skirt, asking for attention. Let’s say it had been sent away to summer camp or boarding school, and it was having a good time without me.
As of now there are just a few items remaining on the household mental To Do list, and the scariest one has been the Little Closet of Horrors. What a gift that Lydia agreed to work on it with me! That is something to do in life: when terrified of a task, get someone to join you or at least sit with you as you confront it. In this case, a collaborator.
Our process is simple. Because most of the photos are still in their original envelopes from the film processor, we go through one envelope at a time, immediately discarding all the duplicates (remember when you got photos printed and received two of each for sharing?) and negatives. We also throw away the bad finger-over-the-lens or over-exposed photos. Finally, I date and label the envelope and put it in a photo box chronologically.
Today is the final day of the project, and I may finish it myself or with Jimmy’s help. Although there are two shoe boxes of photos to go, we are down from about 18 to six or seven boxes. Two kitchen-sized garbage bags are full of the discarded prints and negatives, set aside for shredding. I will install an additional shelf or two for the towels, and give the old curtains to a charity store.
What did I learn? Most compellingly, I realized that my memory is selective, and I have often thought back on events from a limited perspective, characterizing them as either happy or sad or stressful or peaceful based on how useful those events and characterizations were to the narrative I was constructing in my mind. For example, I remembered one family vacation, when Grace was six months old, to be entirely stressful, when photos show that we had a lot of fun at the rustic New Hampshire resort. In my mind, I highlighted the awful car ride and first few hours there and let them stand in for the entire vacation. The artifacts, a kind of data, show that we enjoyed boating, fishing, a water slide I had completely forgotten, and the outdoor eating. True, no one takes pictures of a miserable car ride, with children incessantly begging to know, “When will we get there?,” but the full set of photographs show that the experience was much more varied than one or two mental images depict.
I also was reminded how important it is to me to set the physical world straight. As I am sorting, selecting, and sequencing items, which includes the vital activity of leaving out/getting rid of the unneeded, I feel emotionally and intellectually better. It is as if I am externalizing a need for order and, by doing so, the internal feels more orderly in a way that gives me peace of mind. In short, by facing the Little Closet of Horrors — or broken toilet or burgeoning clothes closet or rotting door — and restoring order and coherence, I am actually restoring order and coherence to my mind.
This may be a neurosis, as a friend once laughingly suggested. If so, it is not one of the worse to have.