Monday, January 16, 2012

Cutting to the Crux of Clutter

Our old bookshelf we brought over from the capital has been bending down for two years too many — it's a matter of time before it goes the way of the London Bridge of the rhyme: breaking down altogether.

It has been burdened with too many books. Many more than it should hold.

Yes. Guilty as charged.

Last year, we sought to relieve the bookshelf of its burden. We rescued three lovely old bookcases from the place where shabby, second-hand vintage furniture goes to be reborn in Calcutta: Judges Court Road. Amit loved the glass fronts, which meant minimal dusting. Me, I believe books should breathe... but I hate dusting and dust mites hate me — so I gave in and consoled myself with the glass sides.

We were set to skim and separate — but first we had to unpack the still-packed boxes from our move...

By the time we were done with 5 of the 11 waiting patiently in the alcove for over a year, the three new cabinets were nearly full. The old bookcase was still double-stacked and top-heavy.

We had to admit it. We have more books than we know what to do with.

So, maybe I should be taking a leaf out of the very inspiring Minimalist Mom's book? But as I read her page (and mused, delurked and commented), I realized that... I can't be shed my paper cocoon and fly away a lightweight butterfly when it comes to my reading; I remain at best a minimal-ish bookworm, taking comfort in paper.

At first, this recognition caused consternation: Oh dear! the dusting will never be done and I will never be free of too-full shelves, never quite caught up!

Then, I felt miffed: Even if I did dare to make a clean cut (and we all know how painful a paper cut can be), how could I do without the sheer pleasure of paper?

Yes, I could borrow from the library... But I already do!

But then, why did I need my own home library? Because some books are so comforting, I like them near. Sometimes it is the story; sometimes the facts (as with my cookbooks); and sometimes it is the when and why and how of the book, its physical form and its possession of me. Sometimes it is the beauty of the book — its type, its textured and fragrant pages, its tooled or otherwise thoughtfully crafted cover, its heft — that comforts my senses, like a crisp winter morning or a good cup of tea.

No, I am not identifying myself with my books. Unlike most minimalist mavens, that has never been at the root of my hoarding problem. But I needed to know: What has? Why do I have excess fat even in my cookbook cupboard?

The more I thought, the more my reply seemed paradoxical. I had too many because I feared I might not have any — which means that now, a guardian of too many, I have every reason to shed my fear.

And indeed, it is this 'might not have many' that has for years fuelled the hoarding habit. In the closet, I would have (say) three perfect outfits. In my teens, my mum would complain that I wore the same outfits so often that I wore them out. I said it was fine — they were my best dresses, and I wanted to look my best. If I wore them out, then... well, there was a closetful of clothes I wasn't wearing, featuring miles of dad's sewing! But this changed. Sometime in my twenties — after our family had taken quite a lot of hard knocks in the wallet, after I had moved out to a new city and a new job that paid barely enough to make my rent and send a sustenance home to my folks, after I made the choice to get married or go study further one year — I woke up one day and found it had all changed.

Suddenly, I had become my father. I still had three perfect outfits in my closet — but now I wore anything but those three!

Like my partner, my dad had known the anxiety of lack, and had known it long and early in life. Unlike my partner, the lack was a real one of necessity, and not a matter of thrifting by choice (what my mother-in-law practised, and it has paid her well in later life, say what people and self-help gurus may).

Both my father and my partner are anxious about lack, about the possibility of not having enough. My partner dealt with it by swinging like a pendulum between self-denial and a desperate self-indulgence: He is the one who has dessert first, because what if in 10 minutes there is no dessert? My father dealt with it by saving for tomorrow — not his money, but the things money could buy! He failed to see that three dinner sets today would keep depreciating, even if mint-new; while actual money could grow in his savings account if left alone — enough to cover the cost of seven sets of plates, should the need for an extra one really arise!

My father's concern is 'running out'; my partner's is 'being denied'. And I had become my father. What if I can never afford a really perfect dress again? I'd better buy three, just to make sure I had one — and I'd better never wear them either, to make sure I didn't wear them out.

So while I carefully lined my nest, my closet, I had 'nothing to wear' — because I wouldn't wear what I had. And then I had to spend to rectify that situation and make second-best purchases on a budget — which made me all the more anxious about running out of money, which meant I wouldn't have any to pay for tomorrow. Meanwhile, I grew, I changed — and the 'perfect dress' ceased to fit. It even started to fade, to fall apart. So I soon had nothing wearable for today or for tomorrow!

It took a while to see the problem with this picture — for a long time, I was standing too close to make sense of it. It took another while for Amit and I to take courage into our hands and talk about our own patterns of consumption, as well as each other's — and to pick out the common thread of being taken with the sensual pleasure of a potential purchase: the perfect ivory salad bowl in the just-so fineness of ceramic (that just happened to be the same exact size as the utilitarian glass bowl we had got last year, which we never used because it was a pain to handle, being wobbly and heavy and slippery... and just plain awkward); the perfect grey sweater that cost more than my purse held today, minus the plastic (but which would make up for all the twenty awkward assorted emergency purchases and sentimental gifts that I either wore but felt wrong in, or hoarded and did not wear); the bag that cost more than we thought any piece of canvas could and which meant we couldn't buy the shoes we wanted that month (but which turned out to be the handiest bag he owned, despite my dire predictions about taking it out into rain and snow; and which means I no longer have to tote a tote to tuck his things into; and which makes him worry hours less than me when travelling because his gear is already figured out)!

It took us seven years to own up to the facts.

And to see the patterns in the picture: That we are birds of a feather, fearful of a windblown and unkempt nest — and the answer was not to line it with feathers, but to build it better to begin with. That we are consumer worms on the turn — and we aren't going far without our security blanket of beauty. That we would never be comfortable in debt or while living out of a suitcase (except when travelling) — and that we could spend less and own less by being pickier in what we bring home and making sure to enjoy it while we had it.

Which brings me back to the bookshelves. Yes, there's a spineless few that need to be shown the door; there are generic students' editions I can find online and let go. No, I cannot go clutter-free digital — not yet anyway.

I am still anxious, you see.

About the effect seven hours' of leisure screen time (after eight hours of working at one) has on me. About whether I would want that for my children, or theirs.

About spending on another expensive reading device which needs another clutter of wires, chargers, batteries, warranties... while being less then the perfect reading experience and needing safekeeping from water, tomato sauce and garden dirt (yes, yet again!).

About the issue of books available for only limited download, so that we pay again and again for the same book we've already bought — about the 'rightness' and 'fairness' of that retail model that commodifies the new reading experience of the 21st century.

About losing the comfort of a sensual read (no, I'm not thinking of a bodice ripper).

My anxiety is now about loss of experience and faculties, not possessions. And so this time, I feel comfortable listening. Most of my books, I'm keeping. Even more, I'm borrowing from our library (they even deliver to my doorstep overnight). Several others, I'm downloading.

Because I've decided to declutter the anxiety from my life, first of all, you see. I don't need to deny my senses. I don't need to give up comfort to have security (the idea!).

What I do need to do is make the optimal choice for me, maybe even the maximal — which may not jive with someone else's minimal.

I'm happy to be minimal-ish, rather than minimalist, if I can shelve the hoarding habit for good — downsize old habits and ditch tomorrow's baggage so that I can enjoy today and plan for a future. Save, not hoard. And not throw away the books with the bathwater!

Like my perfect dress, I hope to take comfort in them again and againuntil I can let them go for a finer edition, or because they lose their meaning (whichever happens first, and let's hope my vision's decluttered enough to see that when it happens!).

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