Creative disruption: A great sort & purge

This weekend we are moving out of our home of 13 years – albeit partially, and temporarily. We are remodeling 2 bathrooms that are falling apart, and creating a laundry room, and since we work from home and also do some at-home days of meditation – and since we can afford to rent another place – we are moving out for 3-4 months. And, since we are moving out, we are adding a number of other moderately-disruptive repairs and spiffing-up components to the project (window replacement, painting, and adding a circulating water pipe to make up for the strangely routed plumbing, so we don’t have to waste gallons and gallons of water every time we want hot water to wash dishes).

The incredible privilege that this entails is not lost on me, especially in this week of massive flooding in the Southwest US, South Asia, and West Africa. While the unusually wet summer also took a toll on our home (and I discovered some water damage I didn’t know about while clearing out my studio for part of the construction Thursday night), we know we have the resources to repair the damage, and will not be homeless during the work.

We are taking the move as an opportunity to sort and purge – we took a carload of books to donate to the library, a trunk-load of old financial papers to a shredding facility, 4 bins of old electronics to “Re-Machine,” and are on our second carload of clothes and other items for Goodwill. We have a typical amount of stuff for well-off Americans – that is, a ridiculous amount (I’m reminded of that photo essay book, Material World). So there’s plenty more we could purge if we had more time – but we’re happy with how much we’ve gotten done.

Sorting is an inherently empowering act, I think. This process has felt a bit like the one stress-free-productivity guru David Allen recommends in his famous “Getting Things Done” method. Allen says he starts coaching people by having them put literally everything in their space that isn’t in the location it belongs into a giant pile in the middle of the floor!! (Don, who is usually less into organization on a day-to-day basis than I am, turns out to be much better than I am at this kind of cough-it-all-up-onto-the-table-and-pitch-much-of-it game!)  We bought organizing bins and labeled them with our labeler which we bought back when we adopted other aspects of David Allen’s strategy a number of years ago. In addition to having greater ease in finding things, this will, hopefully, enable us to be more mindful consumers; in the past, when we needed an item that we might have somewhere in the hopeless clutter in our “occasionally used medicines cabinet,” we’d often end up just buying more of it.

On Friday I began tackling my clothing. We’d learned on Wednesday when we did the final preparatory walk-through with the contractor that our bedroom closet and dressers will be completely inaccessible during the project in order to cordon off the dust from the master bathroom re-do. My second closet of clothing, in my office, will also be difficult to access. So, though we’re only going to be living a mile and a quarter away from home, we will not be able to easily grab something we wish we had from that category of things on our visits to the house to water plants, pick up mail, and check on the construction progress.

My mother, as you may know, was a serious clotheshorse (“a person whose chief interest and pleasure is dressing fashionably,” according to Though she did have other interests too, she loved to shop for new clothes, for herself and for other people. Though she frequently gave my sister and me clothing she had “outgrown,” when she died unexpectedly at the age of 66, she had—and I do not exaggerate—FIVE (or was it six?) closets entirely full of clothing (and at least 2 of these closets were the double-wide variety). My sister, sister-in-law, and aunts and I had a sad but sweet sorting party where we tried them all on and tried to take as many of them as we thought we could wear.

Many of those clothes are still in my closets – along with a bunch of clothes my mother bought for me. She loved to take me shopping, but our tastes were pretty different.  I’d often end up letting her buy me stuff that I would never have bought for myself, and would feel uncomfortable wearing it sometimes. But since I didn’t like shopping much, and didn’t have a lot of money, I rarely shopped for clothing without her, and was completely dependent on her for many years for my supply of “respectable” clothing for job interviews and dress clothing for special occasions. (One time in a store my mom brought a sweater to the dressing room that I loved, and I said, how did you find that?! She said, “I just picked the thing I hated most!” We both laughed, and she bought it for me, and I wore it for many years.

As I began sorting clothing, my push-pull of feelings about being like and unlike my mother was very much in my mind. I was trying to sort into 3 or 4 categories – pack to take to the temporary abode, leave in the completely inaccessible closet, leave in the somewhat accessible closet, and give to Goodwill. I tried to be ruthless – if I haven’t worn it the last couple of years, or more than a few times in the last decade, it should definitely go! This is especially true now that I’ve changed size & shape pretty drastically due to my bilateral mastectomy and ultra-low-fat diet cancer treatments. As the work proceeded I became aware of other categories that were swimming in my head: Newer clothes vs. old favorites vs. old and boring. Colorful clothes vs. black & white or earth tones. Everyday clothes vs. dress-up clothes vs. once-in-a-blue-moon clothes. Clothes that I used to like because they made my previously curvy figure slightly more masculine, vs. clothes that I like now that make my more masculine figure slightly more feminine. Clothes that feel like a part of me, vs. ones that feel like costumes, vs. ones that feel like they’re still a part of my mother.

At one point I began to hum “Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold,” only I changed the words in my head to “Buy new clothes, and keep the old…” gently teasing my mother in my head. I was, I notice as I write this, perhaps not-so-gently berating myself for having too many clothes – and for wanting to take too many of them with me. I was conducting an argument in my head, justifying my “need” to take so many – the High Holidays are coming, and there is no predicting what the weather will be like… I am also amused at the running patter my brain kept up to help me sort and purge; this one’s not my color, this one doesn’t do anything for me, except remind me of my mother; and my mother’s voice in my head, saying things like, this one is quite practical (you never know when you’re going to need to dress like a business-woman suddenly).

This last did happen to me once, within the past decade. That time I shopped for a new outfit all by myself, but went to Talbot’s, my mother’s favorite store, where the saleswoman was a good surrogate. I flew to Michigan and back in the same day for a meeting at the Kellogg Foundation (at their expense), which was very unusual for me. Though the suit wasn’t to my mother’s tastes (khaki colored), she would have been proud. On the way home I nearly missed my plane, and in my rush left the thin black belt and the voluminous tiger-striped scarf at security. Though I eventually got them back, it was just as well that I wasn’t wearing them when I arrived back in Madison. I was just in time to put in an appearance for the last few minutes of a small fundraising dinner at Tammy Baldwin’s condo, where I discovered Nancy Pelosi was wearing the same scarf!

I did manage to purge a full black plastic garbage bag’s worth of dress clothing, and narrow down the ones to pack to the 2 available garment bags (2 weeks ago we purged our luggage closet and took two or three additional garment bags to Goodwill, and I was missing them already tonight!) Though the house is far from empty, it is much emptier than usual, with pictures off many of the walls, etc. Some areas are far more organized than they’ve ever been, and the chaos in other parts is a purposeful one.

Getting more organized for a move in this way  means deciding what you care about and what you don’t. While this is pretty mundane when it comes to which pair of jeans do you keep and which do you give to Goodwill, there are deeper identity issues. I’ve also been recycling boxes full of papers from college and grad school, though there are many more of those to go. Which ones will I definitely never access again, e.g. photocopied readers – even from favorite subjects; if I happen to want to revisit a topic, these days I would go to the Internet, not a box in the basement, no matter how well-labeled it could be!

Which ones might I possibly want to re-read, e.g. my own notes and papers about those favorite subjects, the ones that could be an interesting part of a memoir or (I notice the ego stories), an intellectual biography if I ever got famous enough for someone to be curious about what contributed to my early formative years?!  And what projects am I finally clear I’m not going to take further? I recycled a thick folder of papers from more recent years labeled “Fertility,” and I finally destroyed the cassette tapes of interviews from my Masters’ Thesis research (which I promised the Human Subjects Committee, and the interviewees, that I would do long ago), knowing I’m never going back to listen, mine them for more information, and publish something from them!

Then there are the more life-and-death associations to the question of what “stuff” is important, especially given the climate disruption we are all beginning to experience in different ways. In yesterday’s Washington Post there was a heart-wrenching article about what people in Houston grabbed in the 30 seconds or 5 minutes they had before getting on the rescue boat. What would YOU take if you had 5 minutes to evacuate? And do you know where it is? I always think about my great-grandmother’s silver candlesticks, the one irreplaceable family heirloom I have. (But, paradoxically, they don’t seem necessary to bring with me for the 3-4 months of our remodeling exile). In a true emergency, would I have medications I needed? Homeowners’ insurance policy? Passport? And do I want to live my life prepared for disaster?

I’m not going to begin to talk about the stuff that you can’t take with you when you die (and that your kids don’t know what to do with – one of the boxes in the basement that I didn’t purge has my mother’s framed diplomas in it, I think!).  As Don and I settle into our new temporary home (fully furnished and decorated with someone else’s beautiful stuff – a strange, “Trading Places” kind of experience), I wonder, along with letting go of a lot of stuff, and especially of our comfortable, familiar arrangement of it, might we let go also of some of our unchosen habits and unneeded aspects of our identities? Can all of us learn to be more nimble as the old ways stop working? Can we roll with “creative disruption,” like this poet’s little duck who “can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic”? And can we collectively work to keep disruption from being totally destructive chaos?

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