Sorting Out My Stuff
This week I’ve been preparing to move out of my home for about three months so that it can be remodelled in order to ‘future proof’ my life. I thought this was starting in December, but a call last week told me that I’d better get my skates on because the builders are now arriving next week. Every room apart from my sitting room will be affected as the wall between the two bedrooms is being moved, and the one between the kitchen and bathroom is being removed. So, every cupboard will have to be emptied and every room cleared before they can swing their first hammer at those redundant walls.
Knowing me as you do, what state would you imagine my cupboards to be in? Clothes hanging in serried ranks of colour-coordinated perfection? Drawers and shelves organised with dividers so that tights, gloves, scarves, bras and knickers each have their own allotted space? Shoes arranged in a dedicated ‘shoe’ cupboard with clever taller sections for my many pairs of boots? And do you also imagine that my bathroom and kitchen are likewise hymns of Kondo-esque clutter free nirvana?
I do hope that I won't shatter too many of your illusions if I confess to being the kind of person whose home is superficially tidy, but a horror of muddle and chaos just below the surface. I realise that Freudian analysis may have a field day with this, but my excuse is, in the immortal words of Shirley Conran in ‘Superwoman’: ‘Life is too short to stuff a mushroom’. In other words I am generally busy and when I have any down time I prefer to find more creative ways to use it than by practising origami on my underpants and then filing them under ‘k’ in a drawer labelled ‘underwear’.
All of which means that clearing the accumulated clutter of nearly twenty years from my flat fills me with dread. I do actually possess an unread copy of Marie Kondo’s book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’ which is, according to the cover ‘A Japanese Art’ and ‘an ‘international sensation which has sold over 3 million copies’. I very much suspect that people with borderline OCD will have bought it to feel smug, people like me will have bought it to feel a kind of lofty disdain, and very untidy people will have been given it as a present and then tossed it onto a vertiginous pile of unread books at the edge of their overflowing bookcase. In other words the people who need this book most are the ones who are the least likely to have ever actually read it.
The majority of my house is 'superficially tidy', with the exception of my spare bedroom
So, where to start? I checked with Marie who says very firmly that you must proceed thematically rather than by area. So, if you’re tidying paperwork, you go around gathering this from all corners of your home and then sort it in one go, and then proceed to the next category and so on. However, not being Japanese, my mind works differently, so I decided to start at the top left hand corner of my furthest bedroom cupboard, and gradually work backwards until I reached the door of my sitting room. So, first clear my bedroom, followed by the spare bedroom, then the kitchen and finally the bathroom.
The next decision was what categories I’d have for sorting the mountainous piles of ‘stuff’ which would take on a life of its own once released from years of captivity. The first category was obviously ‘Rubbish’ which would include the mouldy lipsticks festering with used train tickets and low value foreign currency at the bottom of all my old handbags. The handbag itself would be on a pile of either ‘Charity Shop’ or ‘Might Be Worth Something’ or ‘Definitely Keep’. I loathe hoarding (!) so the ‘Definitely Keep’ pile is mercifully small. I am also fortunate in not having a helpful partner to interfere with my ruthless process by moving favourite moth-eaten jumpers from the ‘Rubbish’ pile to the ‘Definitely Keep’ pile once my back is turned.
My bedroom was fairly quick and easy to clear, once I had disentangled around 15 pairs of opaque black tights from about 30 assorted scarves, discovered and discarded an amazing number of odd socks and also found several pairs of new and unworn M&S pants right at the back of a shelf containing an interesting amount of black ‘torture’ underwear. Not, perhaps disappointingly, because I am secretly into S&M, but because these Spanx-like garments were purchased and worn once with a particular outfit that required ‘a sleek’ silhouette. Suffice it to say that these ‘corsets’ ended up on the Charity Shop pile because nowadays my body is more tempted by the concept of comfort than control.
At this point I was feeling rather pleased with myself, but then I moved onto the spare bedroom which is the repository of my most slatternly habits (see image above). It has no bed as I have few overnight visitors and has been vaguely designated as an office. It contains one wardrobe bursting at the seams with both very ancient paperwork and clothes I haven’t been able to part with, a mahogany desk with drawers full of current paperwork and about 300 very random photographs dating all the way back to my parents’ marriage in 1940. It also contains open shelves of a great many books and about 50 jigsaw puzzles, my lockdown obsession. And finally it houses laundry with a drying rack, a basket for clothes awaiting ironing, an ironing board and several boxes of items brought back from my French house which I couldn’t bear to part with. Basically it’s a junk room, the door of which I keep firmly closed.
I hit the first problem when sorting the ancient paperwork. I quickly realised that the trouble with the Marie Kondo approach is that her method may be simple but life is complicated and messy and objects assume a significance way beyond their physical manifestation. Amongst the thirty year old bank statements and Vat returns, I unearthed my long lost birth certificate, a school report for Suzy dated 1994, a yellow newspaper cutting from 1964 of me being crowned Mildenhall Carnival Queen, some old love letters and several diaries with fascinating and long forgotten details of my life at that time. Each discovery led me down a rabbit hole where I completely lost track of time. And then I chanced upon a single letter from my mother. Just seeing her handwriting was difficult enough but the content was heart-stopping.
I'll be staying with my daughter, Anna, while my house is being renovated
The letter had been written in early December 1988, just after I had been to stay with her for the weekend with my teenage daughter Anna. Mum wasn’t at all well but her (useless) GP was recommending treatment for depression. Mum had self-diagnosed ‘lumbago’ because of severe lower back pain and was self medicating with four-hourly over the counter analgesics. I had apparently given her some kind of ‘pep talk’ to stir her out of her lethargy and (reading between the lines) precious little sympathy. It was the last letter she ever wrote to me. Four months later on March 19th 1989, aged 67, she died of melanoma which had spread to her liver. Fortunately I was able to spend the final three weeks of her life at her bedside, so I could ask her to forgive my heartlessness. Her letter and all the other long-forgotten treasures joined a new pile which, with a nod to Marcel Proust, I decided to call ‘Remembrance of Precious Times Past’.
It’s been a challenging week. But now that I have cleared the last item from the back of the last cupboard, I feel a great sense of release. I truly hope that it’s the last time I will have to edit my life down so drastically, having also completely cleared my house in France last year. When I eventually return to my flat to reclaim my enlarged bedroom, brand new bathroom and newly fitted and larger kitchen, I intend to keep to the mantra ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. However, before that I will actually need to read Marie Kondo’s book because she promises that “putting your house in order will help you to find the mission that speaks to your heart. Life truly begins after you have put your house in order.” I can’t wait!
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Friday 11th November
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