Decluttering Quest: the impending move

Decluttering Quest: the impending move

Lately, the good things in my life have intensified; unfortunately, so has my internal screaming.

Most of the screaming is just stress from one thing: an unexpected upcoming move. I was suddenly linked up with a friend of a friend who was looking for a new apartment and a roommate, and less than a week after contacting them I had visited, applied to, and been approved for an apartment with them. Which is great, but now I have just three weeks to finish my Decluttering Quest and pack up whatever’s left of my stuff for the move.

Trust me, I am not complaining about this situation at all. The prospect of finally moving out of my parents’ place, gaining independence, and becoming a Real Adult is amazing (especially now that I finally have the income to comfortably support myself). But avoiding this kind of deadline-induced stress was half the reason I started the Decluttering Quest when I did.

Then again, had I finished it in a timely manner, I wouldn’t be in this mess at all. Literally. So it’s time to quit screaming and get to work.

Surprise! More books!

Remember how I began my Decluttering Quest by sorting through all my books? Well, joke’s on me, because I completely missed half a shelf’s worth of (mostly children’s) books. Luckily, they were pretty easy to sort through, because I’ve gotten soft as this process has gone on; it was mostly a matter of taking out the ones that have a place on another shelf and rearranging what was left.

I broke one of the self-imposed rules I made when arranging my other bookshelves: “put all the knick-knacks elsewhere.” Since almost all the knick-knacks on this shelf were directly related to the books there, I felt it was okay to leave them there, albeit arranged in a much more attractive way.

The result: a cute little corner dedicated to some of the books that played an important part in my life as a young reader, including the entire Harry Potter series, Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books, some beaten-up copies of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz books handed down to me by my brother, and a handful of books and boxed kits related to my early obsession with Ancient Egypt. (An adult Kemetic who was obsessed with Ancient Egypt as a child? Shocking, I know.)

Bathroom cleanout adventure

Even though I’ve made several efforts to organize my bathroom – some of them rather recently – it turns out I hadn’t thoroughly gone through my medications and products in a long time. And by “a long time,” I mean nine years, apparently.

See, when I went off to college back in 2008 I took a small bin of beauty products and medicines with me, and I guess instead of going through them at the end of each year to weed out whatever was expired (or simply too old), I just kept adding to it and lugging it around with me, eventually just shoving the whole thing into the cabinet under my sink when I moved home two years ago and forgetting about it.

When I finally opened it up again the interior had acquired a strange witch-hazel-y smell from some long-forgotten beauty product which had permeated absolutely everything inside the bin, right down to the pills inside the bottles. This would’ve been enough excuse to throw almost everything away, but as I carefully went through I also discovered that not only were most of the medications expired, they had been expired for years – one as far back as 2009.

stupudding“Why on earth do you have meds from 2009?” – “Because I’ve lost control of my life.”

While there were a couple things I kept (which I may regret if they carry the smell into the now Clorox-wiped bin through their new sealed bags) I ended up dumping everything else. It was hard to ignore the internal “you’re wasting perfectly useful things” voice but frankly, if I haven’t used a tube of lotion in the past nine years, I’m never going to use it and there’s no way it’s still good anyway.

After that I gradually moved through everything else in the bathroom, trying to apply the same logic I had with the bin. The plastic drawers were easy, because I use their contents every day and thus keep better tabs on what’s in there. The wall cupboard, on the other hand, was a completely different story. Pretty much the newest products in there dated back to when I was in high school, and most of the medications had expired ten or more years ago.

It also, inexplicably, held a stash of mini shampoo, conditioner, and lotion bottles taken from hotels many years ago – you know, just in case I used up the other two-dozen-hotel-bottle stash that I’d been keeping in the bin. Honestly, you’d think I’d lived through the Great Depression or something.

Starting the final push

With those two areas done, I’m basically on the home stretch when it comes to my decluttering process. All I have to deal with now are a couple display shelves, the craft supplies, and the floor of my bedroom. And although the floor of my bedroom is still a nightmare, it’s a doable nightmare. It may be a large amount of stuff, but it’s a finite amount of stuff. I can do this.

The only question is: can I get it done before the move?

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Decluttering Quest: cataloging a personal library

Decluttering Quest: cataloging a personal library

I’ve started and stopped writing several new posts in the past couple weeks, about style and color and my recent doubts about the decluttering quest – mainly doubts about whether it would ever get done and if I should have even started it to begin with. I suspect such doubts would appear in any undertaking that goes on for six months, especially when it requires sorting through your entire life in such a tangible way.

But I’m going to put those subjects on hold for today, because my newest obsession has been something else entirely: cataloging and organizing my books and movies.

A personal library

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been working in a public library setting for a few months now. This is part of what slowed my decluttering process down for a while – I was using up all my energy at work, and even on my days off I felt too unmotivated to do anything, too blah to even play video games. But then I finally started getting the medication I needed to treat a problem I’ve struggled with my whole life, which frankly deserves its own blog post.

Long story short, after that everything became doable again and my new work environment (plus a number of librarian friends) began to influence my resumed decluttering process. One friend in particular shared an interesting post about cataloging personal book collections, which intrigued me.

While many of my books had been loosely organized by subject (thanks to my mother’s help) before the purge, a not-insignificant portion had escaped organization. And, as the purge indicated, for the most part I’d lost track of what I had and ended up buying duplicates of a few titles. There had to be a better way, but until I read that post I had no idea where to even start taking stock of my books.

To the internet!

Enter LibraryThing, a website that lets you easily catalog your media – not only books, but also DVDs/Blu-rays and (I think) more. I have no connection to the site whatsoever, and I’m not shilling for it or anything, but I’ve found it to be a pretty nifty little website so far.

I decided to try it out by using the site to catalog my DVD/Blu-ray collection, which up until that point had been residing in multiple floor-stacks scattered around my home. As you can imagine, this made it nearly impossible to know what I had, and every annual Criterion Collection sale at Barnes & Noble put me at risk of buying a second copy of Modern Times. So I gathered up all my discs, pulled the website up and plugged in my CueCat (The Little Cat-Shaped Barcode Scanner That Couldn’t), which I had obtained through LibraryThing’s store, and scanned each item.

At this point I shouldn’t be surprised when the results of a decluttering mini-process are staggering (you could practically make a drinking game out of every time I’ve been shocked in this series), but I still was. Since my obsession with movies began nine years ago, I’d bought more than a hundred DVDs and Blu-rays of everything from pretentious films in the Criterion Collection to wonderfully trashy John Waters films (plus that one John Waters film that ended up in the Criterion Collection).

20170704_165013Does having this make me pretentious trash?

 

Afterwards I gave them all a new home on some shelves I’d recently cleared off, neatly arranging them first by media type, then alphabetically by title. It was good to know I could easily look up what I had, either in person or online. And seeing them all together in one place where I could easily find them helped motivate me to start something that I knew would be much harder: cataloging and reorganizing my books.

Too Many Books, Part 2

I’m not gonna lie to you: cataloging my books took a few days. It was more physically taxing than I’d anticipated, too – I had to lift and move massive stacks of books from the shelves to my bed (the main work-area for all the sorting I’ve done for the past several months), then to the floor of an adjacent room where I’d roughly divided them into fiction and nonfiction, then back to the shelves after they’d been reorganized.

Back during the book purge that kicked off this decluttering process, I estimated that I’d “probably eliminated at least a third of my books;” by the final count, it was much closer to a quarter. As of now I have over 600 books, including a dozen zines and chapbooks. I won’t bore you with all the little stats, but I will say that the entire top shelf of my largest bookcase is filled with manga, comics, and graphic novels, and the entire bottom shelf is just books on the American Revolution – which is what I’d initially gone to college to study, not literature. One and a half of the remaining bookshelves are filled with fiction, including a lot of Bradbury, Bulgakov, Kesey, and Snicket.

Clearly this means my next project should be a comic about the American Revolution that’s full of bizarre/fantastical occurrences, unreliable narration, and dark humor. (…Actually, let me jot that idea down.)

Catalog all the things

All that said, would I recommend this process? Yes – at least, to someone who hasn’t already organized their media (and kept it organized). Having a better idea of where a certain book or movie might be – outside of a vague notion of “it should be in this room somewhere” – is reassuring. It means you won’t waste time looking through your shelves for The Crying of Lot 49 only to discover that you don’t have it anymore, and you won’t waste money re-buying expensive Blu-rays of films you already have.

Also, I feel more content now, at least to some degree. I’m sure I’ll never stop buying books and movies completely, but knowing that I still have plenty to experience and re-experience makes me feel less like going out and getting a whole bunch more for no reason.

Moving is going to be hell, though.

 

More in the Decluttering Quest series:

Part 1: The Quest Begins
Part 2: Staying Motivated
Part 3: School Paper Trail
Part 4: Tackling Collections
Part 5: The First Roadblock
Part 6: Letting Go of Old Writing
Part 7: Sacred Spaces
Part 8: Breaking the Rules
Part 9: A Matter of Life, Not Death

Decluttering Quest: a matter of life, not death

Decluttering Quest: a matter of life, not death

Recently I checked out a popular decluttering book that all the decluttering bloggers couldn’t seem to shut up about: Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Admittedly, I was a little annoyed and hostile about the book going in. Everyone seemed to talk about it like it was the only valid decluttering method around, and that Marie Kondo was completely infallible. Also, her method sounded a little suspect to me; yes, ideally we should only be surrounded by things that make us happy (or in her words, “spark joy”), but what about the less-inspiring but necessary things that everyone needs to survive: bathroom items, cooking equipment, household tools? Okay, admittedly I do have an interchangeable-head screwdriver made to look like a sonic screwdriver which does indeed make me happy, but one cannot live on Doctor Who novelty items alone.

But I read the book anyway, out of a combination of curiosity and the hope that I could maybe get some good ideas from it – or, if not, that I would get some ideas for what not to do.

Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it

To my surprise, I actually liked the book – so much so that I also read Kondo’s follow-up book Spark Joy, which goes more in-depth into sorting and organizing. I think one reason was that I liked the respect Kondo showed for people’s possessions, an aspect which seems to be lacking in the “THROW EVERYTHING OUT YOU DON’T NEED IT” school of thought that I’ve seen in a lot of other decluttering writing. Yes, Kondo does recommend getting rid of a lot of stuff, but her goal isn’t to live with as little as possible; it’s to live with the things that bring us happiness. She also treats these things as if they have a spirit or life of their own, and I’ve always loved that idea even if I don’t fully believe it.

Perhaps the most important effect the book had on me (aside from giving me some great storage ideas) was that it made me reconsider my motivations in this whole Decluttering Quest. Up until I read these books, I’d been thinking of this process largely in terms of death rather than life. If that was the case, was I really decluttering for myself or just for my family? Shouldn’t I be focused on doing this in a way that makes me happy, rather than getting rid of stuff just for its own sake?

With those thoughts in mind, I decided to sort through and organize the clothing in my dresser using Kondo’s criteria and see how the results made me feel. And in the end, I felt good. I liked the new layout of my clothes drawers and felt confident that their contents really were important to me. And, surprisingly, I found that the items I loved most were my socks, especially all my Halloween socks.

20170620_160258Do fifty-some pairs of socks really make me happy? Yes. Yes they do.

The thing that was most different about my new approach to decluttering is how much consideration I’m giving now to proper storage and display – treating my things with the respect they deserve. I know the general rule (and certainly Kondo’s rule) is to save organization for after you’ve sorted through absolutely everything, but instead I’ve been approaching it group by group, organizing an area once I’m done sorting through and cleaning it.

Up until now I’ve been strictly focused on sorting, and frankly it was making me kind of miserable. Everything just ended up in stacks and piles elsewhere and it began to feel like I hadn’t accomplished anything at all – if anything, it made me feel like I’d just made things worse. Waiting to store and arrange things once you’re completely done is a good idea, but I think for people like me it’s better to see more immediate results. It makes me feel like I’ve actually accomplished something, like I really am putting things in order. That’s a good feeling.

Intellivision-induced reorganization

As part of this new focus on organization, I’ve been starting to look carefully at how I treat the things I claim to love most. This started in a corner of the basement where I had a small bookshelf dedicated to my entire video game collection – consoles, games, and collectables. This collection had gotten so large and chaotic that it was all jumbled – figures all crammed together, consoles stacked on top of consoles, wires everywhere.

It wasn’t until I got another old console that I realized how out-of-control it had gotten. I was trying to cram an Intellivision on top of an Xbox 360, thinking that I wouldn’t have a place for my Gamecube now, when it occurred to me that I could clear all the games and figures off the top shelf and put them somewhere else where I could actually spread them all out.

So I bought a cheap but attractive shelf and carefully planned out how to display it all – with the help of a clear acrylic display riser my mom gave me. Now everything looks nice and is easily accessible; I also found a couple boxes to give some added protection to my cartridge games. The new setup looked so nice that I decided to put up some of my video game posters on the wall behind it, and now instead of a single cluttered shelf I have a nice little video game corner.

20170615_165125A small but colorful section of my video game corner

The posters were an especially nice addition, as I have a whole cache of them that I’ve been meaning to display ever since I moved home but haven’t found a place for. There’s a Majora’s Mask poster, for instance, which hung in my room from when I was ten until I was sixteen. Then it was replaced by an album and photo signed by Benny Andersson from ABBA, which I recently took down and stored elsewhere as I noticed the signatures were beginning to fade. Taking them down was sad, but it gave me the chance to start rethinking everything that had accumulated on my walls over the years.

The walls are made of nostalgia

I keep failing to take before-pictures of everything I’ve been doing, but my room’s decorations had basically stayed the same since I was seventeen. Posters and drawings covered the walls, with framed awards hanging over the desk as well. The only additions in the years since were a framed poster signed by John Waters and a photo of me from my time in the Revolutionary War reenactment group in college. (An odd combination which show that I’m not just trash, I’m nerdy trash.)

In the past few days, a lot has changed. Much of what was on the walls has been replaced by artwork that I’d had for months or years but couldn’t find a place for. The change has been dramatic; I’d expected the removal of so much stuff to make the room look bare, but instead it looks much more lively and colorful. It’s given me a much better idea of what I actually want in a home.

And that should have been my decluttering goal all along: to make a living space focused on the present, not on the past. There’s nothing wrong with remembering and respecting the past, but my bedroom was more like a time capsule than a place to live in. It feels like I’ve given it the first chance it’s had in ten years to breathe and change. Maybe that will help give me the space I need to do the same.

More in the Decluttering Quest series:

Part 1: The Quest Begins
Part 2: Staying Motivated
Part 3: School Paper Trail
Part 4: Tackling Collections
Part 5: The First Roadblock
Part 6: Letting Go of Old Writing
Part 7: Sacred Spaces
Part 8: Breaking the Rules
Part 10: Cataloging a Personal Library

Decluttering Quest: breaking the rules

Decluttering Quest: breaking the rules

Today I committed one of decluttering’s cardinal sins: I packed away an entire collection without sorting through it first to see what was worth keeping.

See, in one corner of my bedroom, right between the door and the desk, there’s a stack of three pink plastic milk crates. They’ve occupied that spot ever since I was fourteen, when I bought them to accommodate my growing ABBA collection. At the time, my love of ABBA was an all-consuming obsession. Honestly, “obsession” isn’t a strong enough word to convey my love of ABBA when I was a teenager, and hearing it used to describe my intense interest in anything since then is laughable. If you didn’t know me when I was in high school, you have not seen me truly obsessed.

As you can imagine, I expressed this obsession the way many people do: I bought a lot of stuff. Soon those three crates were packed with records, CDs, DVDs, pins, necklaces, paper ephemera, and all kinds of merchandise – including a complete set of the rare ABBA dolls. But my obsession abruptly came to an end following my fiancé’s death when I was nineteen; ABBA was what first brought us together, and soon the memories I’d associated with the band became so painful that I couldn’t even listen to their music anymore.

Condensing chaos

But the collection remained where it had always been, greeting me from under and increasingly thick layer of dust every time I entered my bedroom. I felt a small twinge of pain every time I saw it all, but I couldn’t just get rid of it. So everything sat there completely untouched for eight years.

I wish I could say deciding to finally pack the collection away was some grand gesture signaling that I’d finally moved on, but it was motivated by simple practicality. While reading a popular decluttering book today it occurred to me that the main reason that stuff accumulated on my bedroom floor was simply because I didn’t have a place to put my purse when I came home. I always set it on the floor leaning against the crates. Soon stuff began to accumulate in front of the purse, then beside it, then spread until it had taken over the whole floor.

I needed to keep my purse and work bag close to the door, but leaving them on the floor was causing all kinds of chaos and putting them on the desk would only move the chaos up there. But if I emptied the crates, I could move my purse, work bag, and other little I’ll-need-it-soon items in there, leaving the floor clear. If there wasn’t anything there to encourage leaving more things there, maybe my floor could be a floor again.

Dusting off the past

I’ve written in this series before about my method for sorting through collections but what I said wasn’t applicable to this particular collection, which is so emotionally charged that it’s much more like a set of mementos. I also wrote before about what happened when I hit my first emotional roadblock while going through my boxes of keepsakes, but the lesson I’d learned then wasn’t practical; letting myself “feel the feels” about this particular part of my life always leads to a small-scale breakdown which renders me useless for at least a couple days. But I needed to do something with the stuff.

I decided that I couldn’t sort through the collection right now – I don’t have either the time or the strength to do it properly. So, going against both my own experience and the advice of every other declutterer, I just thoroughly dusted everything off and put it straight into a plastic storage bin. Even this simple process brought up difficult emotions; I almost burst into tears when I found a set of small photographs, long assumed lost, which my late fiancé had carried in his wallet. But finally everything was packed up, the crates were dusted off, and I had a new place to put my purse and work bag.

Someday when I’m stronger I’ll sort through that bin, if only to figure out which things I should sell or give to other ABBA fans. But for now, I feel better knowing that everything’s still there, even if I can’t see it. (Frankly, not seeing it might be the best thing for me right now.) I’m being ruthless with everything else; I think this is one thing I can afford to put off for a little while.

More in the Decluttering Quest series:

Part 1: The Quest Begins
Part 2: Staying Motivated
Part 3: School Paper Trail
Part 4: Tackling Collections
Part 5: The First Roadblock
Part 6: Letting Go of Old Writing
Part 7: Sacred Spaces
Part 9: A Matter of Life, Not Death
Part 10: Cataloging a Personal Library

Decluttering Quest: sacred spaces

Decluttering Quest: sacred spaces

It’s been a long time since I last talked bout my “Decluttering Quest,” or my attempt to sort out the massive amount of stuff that’s accumulated in my life over the years. In the time since my last post about it, I finally finished going through all the keepsake boxes in the basement (which I’ll try to revisit in a future post) and moved on to the final stage: cleaning out my bedroom.

I had a plan for how I was going to go about it. First I’d tackle the piles of stuff taking over the floor, then I’d dust everything off (which I haven’t done since the last time I tried to clean my room, and if the stuff on the floor is any indication, that was two MAGFests ago), then I’d rearrange the books and reconsider everything else on the shelves and side table.

But then I got stuck. Every time I tried to clean the floor, more stuff would accumulate there. Even worse, stuff started spilling over into the space I’d been specifically trying to keep clear so I could access my main altar and akhu shrine. “I’ll start doing ritual again once I clean the stuff off the floor,” I kept saying, but the weeks dragged on and suddenly it was time for a holiday I wanted to celebrate: the Beautiful Festival of the Valley. I wrote about my preparations for this holiday in my last blog post, but when the day actually came I still couldn’t access my akhu shrine.

Let’s clean everything

Even though I managed to reach the offering plate to place the little vase full of roses I’d gotten for the occasion, I felt frustrated that I couldn’t do more. So I took all the dirty clothing that had accumulated in the cleared floor space by the shrine and threw it in the hamper, then washed my hands and grabbed the feather duster.

For the first time since setting it up the previous year I cleaned the akhu shrine from top to bottom, carefully dusting each item and setting it aside, then shook out the altar cloth and dusted the whole area underneath. After putting everything back I lit all the candles (both battery-powered and real) and set down the vase of flowers again.

What surprised me afterwards was how good that simple action made me feel. It felt like I’d finally made an effort to show respect for that long-neglected aspect of my practice, instead of just letting the guilt over doing nothing consume me. Although I still felt nervous about whether I was doing the holiday “right” or not, it finally hit me that in this case, doing it wrong was still better than not doing it at all.

Spiritual decluttering

So when I woke up today, I decided to finally do something about my altar. I wrote before about my altar in my post on “shrine envy,” which for the most part was set up by Seventeen-Year-Old Me while she was “basically stumbling along in a New Age haze trying to figure out what the hell she should be doing, basing most of her answers on what people on Neopagan forums had to say.” As a result, my altar – and my spirituality – didn’t turn out so well:

To put it bluntly, this altar is a mess. So much so that I’m too embarrassed to even post a photo of it. It’s like a visual representation of everything that was wrong with me and my practice at the time: it’s completely unplanned, it mixes things from various areas/traditions that have fuck-all to do with each other, and it puts way too much emphasis on stuff instead of the gods I was supposed to be worshiping.

Because my religious practice slipped off its shaky and materialistic foundation a couple years later, I never really made an effort to fix the mess I’d made. When I finally picked my practice back up a few years ago I was living away from home, so I was able to start from scratch with a nice little shrine box instead. When I moved back home I assumed the stay would only be temporary, but as months turned into years I realized that I couldn’t keep counting on moving away to fix my sacred space.

And as I went about dusting my altar and everything on it today – which was way overdue – I started to think about each piece in terms of decluttering. Only this time, I wasn’t just decluttering my room; I was decluttering my beliefs. Did I still need all these random natural offerings? Would putting them somewhere else really change my relationship to the gods that much? And what about all the little Buddhist items I’d tried to incorporate into my altar all those years ago? Did those have any place in my practice now? Again and again, I answered “no.”

After all the unnecessary stuff was gone, I reorganized everything. Keeping the lotus tealight holders was an obvious “yes” for me (because the lotus is an important symbol in the Kemetic tradition and because they looked prettier than bare electric candles), but the way they’d been arranged on the front of the altar made it almost impossible to place any offerings there. I moved a lot of the smaller natural items and ritual objects into a cedar box and placed my plastic sistrum on top so it was easily accessible, and other items and permanent offerings were arranged in the remaining spaces on the sides of the altar. The icons of the gods were all arranged on the antique butterfly tray so they were the new visual focal point.

Results

My new altar looks a lot more “bare” than the old one, with a lot of open space in the front center than before. But that’s exactly the way I want it: now there’s plenty of room to set down temporary offerings, which are a more important part of the way I practice now.

Maybe it’s not as pretty or coordinated as other people’s altars or shrines. Maybe the icons are smaller and don’t look as cool. Maybe it looks like I couldn’t afford all the fancier ritual items other people can. But it works for me, and that’s the most important part. Although the altar isn’t enough in itself – it’s what you do with it that matters – I feel like the new layout will help my practice a lot. If nothing else, now I can focus on the deities I’m supposed to be connecting with, instead of all the other stuff.

More in the Decluttering Quest series:

Part 1: The Quest Begins
Part 2: Staying Motivated
Part 3: School Paper Trail
Part 4: Tackling Collections
Part 5: The First Roadblock
Part 6: Letting Go of Old Writing
Part 8: Breaking the Rules
Part 9: A Matter of Life, Not Death
Part 10: Cataloging a Personal Library

Decluttering Quest: letting go of old writing

Decluttering Quest: letting go of old writing

They were taking up space. They were draining me emotionally and creatively. They needed to go. There was only one problem: they were my old unfinished manuscripts.

I’ve heard that some writers have no problem culling their own work. After all, ruthlessness is a crucial part of self-editing, and editing is the key to good writing. But in spite of how easily I can cut a sentence or scene or chapter that isn’t working – and how easily I’ve been able to let go of much of the stuff I’ve encountered in this decluttering quest – I tend to hoard my old writing.

During this process I came across whole drawers and boxes packed full of writing. Much of it was innocuous stuff, multiple copies of poems and short stories – the remnants of years of creative writing classes. In those cases, the solution was clear: keep one or two copies of each thing, or the final class portfolio if there was one, and let the rest go.

False starts and creative drain

But things weren’t so clear when I stumbled on the manuscripts of the first three books I tried to write. (The one I’m working on now, Unlucky Creatures, was the fourth book I attempted and the first one I actually finished.) The first one I decided to keep; it had been fifteen years since I last worked on or even seriously thought about it, and as awful as it is to actually read, I’m as sentimental about it as a parent is about their child’s art projects.

The second and third ones, however, were just depressing for me to even look at. The second book was crappy fanfiction masquerading as historical fiction which, while kind of nerdily adorable, was just embarrassing and didn’t have much material I could salvage for other things. It was both awful and useless. The third was about a mental breakdown I had in my late teens, written while I was still in the midst of the breakdown. (ProTip: don’t write about a major mental upheaval while you’re still in the middle of it. You need at least a little time to process things and get the right perspective.)

Finding the drafts and notes for the third book really depressed me. Part of this was the fact that they were reminders of a really low point in my life, and part of this was guilt over abandoning the book to begin with. It was a project I’d worked obsessively on for a few years – everything I wrote during that time was for this book – and still only half of it was written down. In the end I had to leave it behind for my own sake, which was a hard decision.

As I looked over that manuscript I also realized that even though I’d put that project down almost seven years ago, it was still negatively affecting my writing. Every time I decided to set aside a story or book, even temporarily, a voice in the back of my brain went “Oh great, it’s the third book all over again.” And even though I had no intention of finishing that book, I still found myself withholding ideas from my current writing because part of me felt like I had to “save” them for the third book instead.

Outside help

Even though the negative energy surrounding these manuscripts was clear, I still hesitated to get rid of them – even though I still had all the digital files for the third book. What if I regretted it later? What if I realized I could make them work somehow? It was incredibly unlikely, yes, but still more likely than the idea that someday somebody else would have a strong desire to look at them.

Once I started to consider getting rid of it, I started to feel even guiltier over the third book than I had before – but for different reasons. That book was something that my late fiancé had been a part of, reading through it and encouraging me to continue; would throwing it out be like throwing him out? I knew the idea was absurd, but it still held me back.

So finally I decided I needed somebody neutral to help me decide, somebody who I could explain all my feelings to but who wasn’t invested in these projects – my partner. He agreed to help me out, so I packed it all up and brought it along with me when I went to visit him this past week.

stack-letters-letter-handwriting-family-letters-51191Imagine this, but crammed into a backpack.

After I got there I showed him everything, explained how I was feeling, and asked him what he thought I should do. “Let them go,” he said. I still hesitated, and he continued, “You already know it’s the right thing to do.” He was right, of course. If I hadn’t wanted to get rid of them, I wouldn’t have lugged them along on an eight-hour-long bus trip to hear the answer that, deep down, I already knew he was going to give.

One by one, the packets of paper went into the recycling bin. Once they did I had no desire to retrieve them. In fact, I almost cried with relief. It felt like I’d finally freed up a lot of space – not just in my desk, but in my mind. Finally, I could focus completely on my current work instead of feeling guilty over past work.

Maybe someday I will regret throwing those manuscripts out, but I can’t make all my decisions based on future regret. That writing’s gone. It’s time to make more.

More in the Decluttering Quest series:

Part 1: The Quest Begins
Part 2: Staying Motivated
Part 3: School Paper Trail
Part 4: Tackling Collections
Part 5: The First Roadblock
Part 7: Sacred Spaces
Part 8: Breaking the Rules
Part 9: A Matter of Life, Not Death
Part 10: Cataloging a Personal Library

Decluttering Quest: the first roadblock

Decluttering Quest: the first roadblock

Two days ago – after going at this for a solid month – I hit my first big emotional roadblock in the decluttering process.

To be honest, I’d expected it to happen a lot earlier. It almost happened while going through the box of high school stuff (where awards and old standardized test scores filled me with the fear that I’d wasted my potential) but talking things out with my mom cleared my head and I was back at it within an hour of stopping. But instead it happened while going through something completely unexpected: old greeting cards.

I suspect now that it wasn’t the cards themselves so much as it was two other things. One was a buildup of a lot of thoughts and emotions I’d been suppressing through the whole process, about crushed dreams and past traumas as well as lost friends, pets, and relatives. I also saw clearly for the first time how I’d talked myself into believing that I was terrible at things I was, in reality, good at and used to enjoy – art, drama, music, poetry, math, tech, and science – and wondered if I’d ruined my own life as a result. But did I let myself feel that? Of course not. I had work to do.

Feel the feels

It reminded me of a Lemony Snicket quote I’ve always liked about how refusing to entertain a certain idea is even more dangerous than refusing to entertain a pack of wild hyenas, “because nobody knows what an idea will do when it goes off to entertain itself.” Ignoring all these unpleasant things hadn’t made them go away; it just pushed them to a place in my mind where they could wreak all kinds of havoc until I finally paid attention to them.

I do this over and over yet, somehow, every time I’m surprised that the result is always the same. “What’s happening? Why am I so upset for no reason? WHO PUT ALL THESE TEARS IN MY EYES?”

So for both you and me, I offer this advice: if you’re sorting through old things and find yourself overwhelmed by emotions, stop and let yourself feel them. Take a break and have a good cry. Do whatever you need to do. The important thing is to just sit with these emotions and see that feeling them won’t cause the end of the world. If you think you don’t have time to do that, consider this: how long will you need to walk away from this when your feelings inevitably catch up to you? Trust me, it’s much more efficient to stop and cry for an hour than it is to stop for a whole day so you can recover from a total emotional meltdown.

One size fits none

I mentioned earlier that I suspected two things were at play when I hit that emotional roadblock. The second thing was my reliance thus far on outside advice to get me through this process.

If you’re anything like me, the first places you go when you need specialized advice are either Google or a book on the subject. And when it comes to advice, both sources are probably fine. The only problem is that a lot of decluttering advice seems to use a one-size-fits-all approach. Do this with books. Do that with mementos. Keep just the best example of anything. Reduce everything by a certain amount. If you’ve looked for decluttering advice, you know what I mean.

But every problem is different. You’d think that would be obvious, but it wasn’t something that occurred to me until I was going through that stash of old greeting cards. They already seemed to have been carefully selected – if not by me, then by one of my parents. Unlike almost everything else I had gone through, these hadn’t been kept indiscriminately.

20170208_131835There were only enough cards to fill one shoebox – if that.

All the advice I’d found for dealing with greeting cards hadn’t taken a situation like that into account; they were written as if the person hearing it had never thrown away a single card in their entire life. And yes, that does happen. But when you’re facing a batch of carefully curated cards, “throw everything older than a year away” or “cut them up and reuse them in crafts” doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense.

For some reason, I felt like I had to follow the advice anyway, as if there was some invisible authority waiting to judge my efforts. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not to the school valentines from friends I’d long lost touch with. Not to the “get well soon” card from my late grandmother. Not to the silly birthday card written by my mom as if it had been sent by our two now-dead cats.

I started to get angry at all the bloggers I’d taken advice from. Who the hell did they think they were, anyway? They couldn’t tell me what to do! So I had a mini-meltdown on Facebook for all my friends to see. (The phrase “disgustingly perfect minimalist monsters” entered the fray at some point.) Eventually I calmed down and decided to take a break from the whole project for a day or two until I got things back into perspective.

What I’m getting at is this: apply decluttering advice with caution. Including my own advice. And including the very piece of advice I just gave you. There’s no such thing as a single answer to fit every situation.

Keep the cards if you want to. I know I will.

More in the Decluttering Quest series:

Part 1: The Quest Begins
Part 2: Staying Motivated
Part 3: School Paper Trail
Part 4: Tackling Collections
Part 6: Letting Go of Old Writing
Part 7: Sacred Spaces
Part 8: Breaking the Rules
Part 9: A Matter of Life, Not Death
Part 10: Cataloging a Personal Library