On Clutter

Pack Rat by davedillonphoto

Today, I return to my manuscripts. I’ve got both an essay and a book that I abandoned unceremoniously some four months ago. I can’t wait to get back to them.

But there were good reasons for my break from writing: there was our house in Gozo to pack up, our life to get back in order upon our return to Montreal, and Sebastian to entertain before day camp started up. Finally, I had paying work to finish and a new book to promote.

Before leaving on our 8-month Maltese adventure, I sifted through every belonging in our house and did a huge purge. Upon returning, we de-cluttered again, considering the use, value and necessity of each object as it emerged from its box. (Time and distance really do give you a good perspective on the things you own and drag around.)

Keeping clutter down in our house is tough for me. I’m a pack rat by nature, having descended from a long line of war babies whose instinct was to keep things just in case. For example, though my maternal grandmother’s house was spotless and tidy, its cupboards and closets were lined with neat little labelled packages of thread, photographs, letters, wedding shoes, fishing lures…you name it. She was a secret pack rat — literally, a closeted one.

My mother’s house, on the other hand, was just packed – totally randomly and without labels or order or pretence. When she moved out of her condo and into a nursing home (when her Multiple Sclerosis made 24-hour care necessary), I spent days shredding decades-worth of papers, among which I found several envelopes of cash and caches of family letters (I kept both). I sorted through broken furniture, piles of books, nonfunctional stereos, old records, dusty silk flowers, jars of pennies and foreign currency, dishes, and vases galore. I managed to get rid of most of the clutter, fighting my impulse to keep this or that just in case, but I shipped home the boxes and boxes of family photographs that had filled my mother’s living room wall unit. None of the photos are organized or in books. They are in envelopes or tossed loose into cartons. Most aren’t even labelled.

The idea of going through them now overwhelms me.

When we returned from Gozo, instead of putting these boxes back in our basement closet where they sat undisturbed for years since I’d moved them out of the condo, I left them out in a pile. Seeing them every day would mean I couldn’t ignore them, and I vowed to triage and order the images into some sort of family narrative. But even as I resolved to do so, I confessed to Sean that I couldn’t see how. I hadn’t even started, and already I felt resentful of the tedium that would stall my writing even longer.

“You’ve been saying you need a frame for the book, so write about it. Use the process,” he answered.

And a light went on. Sean had given me the key to finishing the book about my paternal grandmother and her life in Siberia.

I start this new phase of sorting and de-cluttering (and research) today.

I’ll let you know what I find.

[Photo: Pack Rat by davedillonphoto]

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4 Replies to “On Clutter”

  1. When we went away for a sabbatical year we rented our house, so went through and packed up every drawer, every closet… I cringe when I tell you that it has been 5 years since we returned and there are still boxes tucked in that back room in the basement that I’ve yet to reopen–and they are the ones that survived the purge so presumably are things we “need”! I too have photos which came from my mother that also remain boxed and unopened.

    Maybe I’m a bad example, but I say seize your writing time and your family time… and deal with the rest as time allows.

    Curious what your next book is about…

  2. I am quite clutter free these days, but I do admit sometimes these clutter filled houses can hold a fascination for their secrets they hide

  3. Sage advice, Tracey! Thanks. I’m going to try and find a balance. Goodness knows, I’m unhappiest when I feel oppressed by domestic tasks. That said, I need to feed my writing and my imagination. For me, material traces of lives are a source of great inspiration. I’m going to try to keep my ambitions with regard to order in the photos modest, and those regarding the writing project audacious! Aim high, I always say. Write for the New Yorker (in your imagination), and make peace with what you produce. Take pride, even if the New Yorker ignores you…

  4. Today’s finds include: a photograph of my grandmother tending sheep in Siberia in 1949; a photo of my grandfather’s war medal from 1919; him looking super dapper in 1932; a pic of my grandmother glowing with happiness on the day before leaving Lithuania to reunite with her children in Canada after a separation of 25 years; a lovely photo of my father reading as a university student.

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