I want to lead the Victorian life, surrounded by exquisite clutter. —Freddie Mercury
Grant me the treasure of sublime poverty. —Saint Francis of Assisi
Allow me to paint you a picture:
Take a one bedroom apartment—vintage—that is to say, not rehabbed and fancy with a subway tiled bathroom and stainless appliances but cozy and cute with perhaps a little rust on the white, metal kitchen cabinets, some peeling paint on the window sills—let’s just call it patina. Add a mishmash of furniture dragged from alleys or selected at your finer Chicagoland thrift stores and one beautiful couch purchased brand spanking new from a real furniture emporium. Live in aforementioned apartment for eleven years. Enjoy the companionship of several four-legged creatures who make the sorts of messes four legged creatures are wont to do. Buy books until your shelves overflow. Buy holiday dresses, bathing suits and birthday candles. Make a Halloween costume every year; save them all because you might want to be Aphrodite, an owl or a ‘50s diner waitress again. Attend to living your life. Don’t get rid of any of the thrift store jeans you keep buying without trying on that don’t quite fit.
Now, fall in love and ask your girlfriend and her dog to move in with you. Your girlfriend has a substantial collection of DVDs. She owns five spatulas and a juicer. (Yay for the juicer!) She has novelty throw pillows and a small collection of baseball hats and better towels than you. (Yay for the towels!) Her dog has a giant tub of stuffed toys and an enormous letter N that hangs on the wall so he will know where his food bowl is located. (His name is Newton.)
This is the current state of affairs. Suffice it to say that at the moment, things are in pretty significant disarray.
I’ve come to accept that I’m a messy person. (Here’s where I wrote about that and why maybe it’s not such a terrible thing.) When I was a kid, my mother often bewailed the fact that my room was in her words, a pigsty. If I wasn’t going to clean it, she would beg, could I at least shut the door? I don’t remember it bothering me too much back then. On the spectrum of fantastically cluttered to spare and austere, I’m somewhere to the right of Freddie Mercury and considerably left of a Franciscan monk. I try to keep things contained, but it feels like an uphill battle. Dirty dishes and socks mysteriously multiply; disarray leads to more disarray.
To make space for Erin, she and I tackled a purge of the massive walk-in closet in my hallway. Found objects: Mermaid wig made out of unraveled cotton sweaters, cardboard boxes of old diaries and letters, tax returns dating back to the ‘90s, a parasol, some pussy willow branches, ball peen hammers in assorted sizes, vintage suitcases full of collage materials, a ballet costume bought at a Lyric Opera garage sale that looks like something Ophelia floated down the river in. It made me think about how our stuff creates our identity. Our stuff tells the world: I am this person, with these interests and tastes. I’m unconventional or I adhere to tradition; I make things or I buy them; I care about appearances or I don’t.
The massive hall closet clean out led to massive chaos. I discussed the situation with my friend Lindsay—how it’s mind-boggling to me how much stuff one person can accumulate; how I have to figure out what to do with every single thing.
“Yeah, you know that book everyone was reading?” said Lindsay, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up?”
“It’s in my bathroom,” I said. “She says you’re supposed to hold each object in your hands and ask if it brings you joy.”
“Well I was looking for it this week,” Lindsay said. “Because my house is an unmitigated disaster. I found it in a pile of leaves on the back porch.”
Clearing space and letting go of stuff is a reckoning of sorts. It stirs things up. Old anxieties rise like dust from a long-neglected surface. There’s an imagining and holding of my past self who acquired the object and my future self who might regret its absence. It’s strangely hard to get rid of stuff. Even stuff I don’t use or need. I like continuity—I want to be the person who liked that jacket even though I don’t like that jacket anymore. Moreover, I don’t like making trash. I think about the plastic island in the Pacific, dying baby albatrosses. I think, What if I need object X in the future? I think, Object Y might come in handy—which according to clutter experts is a red flag that the item in question is superfluous. When a friend cleaned out her grandma’s apartment they found meticulously labeled boxes: Rubber Bands, Newspapers, and one marked Pieces of String Too Small To Be Useful.
After my grandmother died, my aunts found cookies in the pockets of her sweaters, statues of the Virgin Mary on every free surface. Humans need stuff. We may have it to greater and lesser degrees, but we all need it—tools and clothes and shelter, snacks and religious paraphernalia. Maybe in clearing out, I’m fighting evolution, and that’s why it’s hard. Or maybe, as a friend suggested when I asked him about it at his daughter’s 21st birthday party, it’s about mortality. Loss. All the little deaths that foreshadow the big one.
There’s a twice-a-month antique auction near my house, and Erin and I poked our noses in a few weeks ago. It felt a little haunted—the aisles of furniture somebody once purchased brand new, toys from various decades in various states of disrepair, cardboard boxes of photographs and letters tagged with lot numbers scrawled in Sharpie. Despite my current project of weeding all my own stuff, I couldn’t resist bidding on a box of letters that looked interesting. It’s probably for the best I lost by five dollars. The auction reminded me that the things I think of as mine will be out in the world again someday—on their own, untethered. Or broken. The things we love are on their way to being lost again. The other day, Erin came to me, chagrined, because she’d accidentally broken my favorite bowl. I had a moment of sadness. I bought it eleven years ago at another estate sale, along with my dining room table. The man who sold them to me asked me to take good care of the table because it had been his mother’s.
It’s okay, I told Erin. The teacup (or bowl) is already broken. The things we love, everything we love is fleeting, is past.
Meanwhile, as this seismic shift in my household is underway, I’m doing another revision on my memoir. (For those who are keeping track, this brings me to draft #1,314 or something thereabouts.) I thought I’d never be able to tolerate the length of this process, not having a book published already, going back, reworking the material, adding new stuff, but I’m feeling okay about it. Good, even.
The week after I made the decision to rework the manuscript, we started the hall closet clean out.
I found a box of old journals dating back to the ’80s. It was the perfect time to stumble across them. They are research into my younger self—I’d forgotten I christened my journal Prince in 1984—the facts and feelings of my life that I can mine for the memoir.
You know when you’re walking through woods and come to a clearing, there’s that breath, that shift in energy, that opening of space and possibility? The same thing happens when you look at an expanse of water. That’s what this clearing out feels like to me—looking back on where I’ve been as I look ahead to where I’m going. I take item after item out of closets, cabinets, bookshelves and drawers; I hold each thing in my hands, weigh its beauty, its utility. I struggle to decipher the messy pages of my journals, written on buses, in laundromats, in the string of apartments I lived in before this one. I sift through, identify what needs to stay and what I can afford to lose. I do my best to put everything in the place where it belongs.