Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Urge to Purge

Happy New Year, folks! I spent five hours today going through my filing cabinet. It probably wouldn’t have taken me so long to clean out if I hadn’t stopped every time I found something interesting and kicked back to look at it. A program from a variety show I did in high school. Mother’s Day cards from my kids before they could even write “Mom.” A really embarrassingly bad medieval-romance-type story typed up on my parents’ ancient computer when I was a teenager. A really cool comic book series concept that was being co-authored/illustrated by me, my brother Pete, my brother Dan, my friend Mika AND Pete’s friend Kenny. The receipt from Dolby’s very first veterinary appointments (which I just blogged about a few days ago). Copies of federal and state tax forms filed every year since 1993 when Dan and I were first married.

None of these things were purged, of course. Not even the taxes, even though I think the IRS only recommends keeping ten years, or even five, on file. I still managed to create a 6-inch deep pile of papers to shred and another pile of like size to be recycled. Several items got relocated to a big storage bin in the garage (well, to be precise, they will be relocated when it’s warm enough to spend longer than 15 seconds in my garage) including a big stack of letters from my friend Sue dating back to the mid-80s. Now the file cabinet is nice and roomy and ready for another year of pay stubs, bank statements, medical records and the like. Makes me feel all sunny inside.

As a child I was a disorganized disaster. My poor sister had to share a room with me for a significant period of our childhood and I vaguely recall her complaining to my mom that I was a slob and never helped clean up. When I finally got my own room (my parents wound up partitioning the two upstairs bedrooms in our house so we could each have some personal space when we were in High School) it was a mess more than it was neat. Family legend has it that after completely re-organizing and cleaning out my room and showing it off to my mom and sister, I compulsively grabbed a piece of paper, crumpled it, threw it on the floor and said, “Whew. Now I can stand it.”

While this is, in fact, a true story, I can tell you the crumpled paper was only for dramatic effect. By that by that point in my life, I was starting to see the benefits of order. This was not a large room by any standards. With the bunk bed, the desk and the dresser in it, I probably had about 18 square feet of open floor space. I think my master bedroom closet is bigger than that. It was organize or drown.

Still, I accumulated far more than I got rid of in the ensuing decades. It wasn’t until our townhouse started to feel a little cramped when the kids each got their own room and suddenly there was far less space to just store junk that I really started to purge. Part of it was finally grasping the concept of “enough.” That’s another blog entry unto itself. But the combination of completely reframing my idea of how much a person really needs and the reality that the kids were only getting bigger and the house smaller led me to some pretty extreme downsizing. I find it very cleansing.

My husband, on the other hand, finds it a bit stressful. He’s a pack rat. Always has been. Probably always will be? I like to tease him that if I die before him, he’s gonna be one of those old men who lives in a garbage house. I also tease him that he has a terrible case of piles. Truly, there are “Dan-piles” in about eight or ten separate locations in the house. Every so often, I’ll combine all the Dan-piles into one enormous pile in one place and ever-so-sweetly ask him to go through it. Other times, I simply relocate various Dan-piles into a central spot in the closet under the stairs or out in the garage and just don’t say anything. He never seems too worried about where things went. On one recent occasion, I finally took all of his Christmas gifts from 2008 from the pile next to his bed and just put stuff away for him. I’m still not sure he’s noticed. J

It’s good, isn’t it, that we balance each other. I’ve long said this. Without Dan in my life I’d probably have pitched a kid’s birth certificate or maybe even a kid by now. And I suppose it’s not so awful to have boxes of three different types of obsolete recordable media (all un-labeled) under the stairs. At least we can shut the door.

Poor Dan. I tease him an awful lot about this stuff and on the whole, he’s very good-natured about it. It’s thanks to him that some of the treasures unearthed in the file cabinet this morning were saved at all. Among them were several cards from him and various paper representations of twenty years of memories. I’m grateful that he slows me down enough to reflect on the story behind the memorabilia.

But I’m still holding out hope for a massive Dan-pile bonfire on the Fourth of July. I’ll keep you posted.

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