Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Great Flood

The Great Flood entered our basement last July.  Having spent the day in Longmont, I was completely unaware of how severe a rainstorm we had gotten in Boulder.  A beautiful day awaited my return, sunny and warm as you please.  As soon as I pulled into the driveway, that beautiful day came to an end.  My neighbor was outside, looking frantic as she sometimes does, so I didn’t think much about it.  She came immediately over and said, “Fiona, you might want to go look in your basement.”  “Oh!” I replied, wondering why.  “What happened?”  Only then did I learn about the torrential rain that had passed through earlier that afternoon.

As I descended the stairwell, my heart sank in tune with each step.  When I reached the bottom, the destruction came into focus.  After a really loud, “Oh, shit!” I started wading.  Standing water a foot high awaited me, and a weird smell to go with it.  Everything on the floor was saturated.  Once-rigid boxes had become soft and soggy, sometimes spilling their contents into the water.  What first came to sight was all the granola, energy bars, packaging material, marketing material, t-shirts, and sundry other business items that were quickly getting ruined.  “I gotta save this granola!” I thought.  Never mind the photos, the generations of family history, my daughter Natalie’s artwork, papers, school projects, slides, books, life mementos, Guatemalan textiles, letters, postcards, Spanish teaching materials, travel memoirs, and other items of significance.  All these things were also drowning.  But in my reactive mode, I did not act rationally.  Whatever I laid my eyes on next, I decided must be the most important thing to haul out of there.  
Through the loss that became apparent as the days went by, the sadness deepened.  I dried out as many photos and pieces of Natalie’s artwork I could, but the defeat set in.  Not only did I have the material losses to deal with, but the emotional ones were what really wiped me out.  

The rationale for not addressing these material goods has always been, “I’m too busy.”  Too busy raising a child, too busy running a company, too busy going to school, too busy moving around the country or around the world.  So I found a simple solution: pile all my belongings into boxes.  On a good day I’d remember to label them, but not all days were good days.  When The Great Flood struck, I had more mystery boxes in the basement than I could imagine, some labeled, some not.  Some I had not opened for decades.

As it came to pass, one flood unleashed another.  Stuffed away in the basement, dark and concealed, it’s easy to forget one’s life accumulations.  But when they rise to the surface, and even float, they cannot be ignored.  They must be dealt with, one way or another.  And so, I’ve decided there’s no time like the present.  The basement now dry, it is me who is currently drowning in clutter.  Considering that I do not consider myself a materialist, I am in awe at how much stuff I have accumulated.  I owned my last car for 15 years until I didn’t feel safe driving it anymore.  I have purposely lived in third-world countries with families who had no hot water, a diet consisting mostly of beans and rice, rudimentary plumbing, and few of the “creature comforts” that many of us take for granted.  I do not want THINGS - in fact I beg people to not buy or give me THINGS.  I am constantly assembling THINGS to give away - clothes, jewelry, books, food, knickknacks, chatchkies, and “happies,” as my mother-in-law Gege calls them.  “Happies” are all the Valentine’s goodies, St. Patrick’s Day schwag, Easter paraphernalia, Thanksgiving frollies, birthday mementos, Christmas ornaments, and all kinds of things in between, that Gege somehow can’t resist sending us for every possible occasion.
The truth is, I do finally have time to go through all this clutter.  That was one of the benefits I knew could be realized by taking time off.  “I’ll finally have time to clear out all this stuff!”  But who thought It would be so difficult?  Who thought It would be so emotionally taxing?  “It” has become it’s own entity in my household, a presence I find easier to avoid than face.  I have learned that being sentimental is a sharp, double-edged sword. 

When I look for something I can’t find it.  When I find it I don’t know what to do with it.  The frustration sets in, my body heats up with stress, and I leave the room.  Put it out of my sight and try to put it out of my mind.

I even found old love letters from my first husband.  Now why would I keep those?  Is there some sentimental value there?  It was a painful divorce, and he certainly doesn’t feel this way about me now.  Should I save them for Natalie?  Would she find some sort of comfort knowing first-hand that we were truly happy for a lot of years?  Or would reading those letters make her even angrier that we split up?  I don’t know if reading those letters would help her or hurt her, so until I think I know the answer, I choose to keep them.  Sigh.

Just last week, I got rid of all the National Geographics that have been sitting on my bookshelf since 1994.  I found parts of eight years worth of these beloved magazines.  Always thinking I’d get back to them, always thinking I’d find time to read them.  Not that I actually got rid of them.  I am certainly not capable of that.  After all, my decades-old dream of being a writer for National Geographic stays with me.  But they did go into plastic bins and down to, yes, the basement.  That opened up room for more of my beloved cookbooks that I had stuffed on top of all my other cookbooks.  Not that I’ll ever get to those either!  But my love of cooking and baking is so fierce, those cookbooks are not going anywhere.  And some of them are heirlooms.  Both my grandmother MM and my great aunt Leni were magnificent chefs, and I like to think their culinary talents live on through me.

Clearing my clutter goes way beyond the basement.  There’s my office, replete with business paraphernalia from the last 11 years.  There’s Leni’s old hutch in the hallway, its little drawers so stuffed with things I can hardly tell what’s there.  There are my music CD’s, which I’m slowly getting onto my iPod and my computer, so that the mountains of disks can go away.  Kitchen cabinets, bathroom cabinets, file cabinets, the garage, and just about every closet in the house - they all beckon to me.  

Initially, I was so excited about clearing my clutter, sometimes I got jittery.  “I can’t wait!” I fooled myself.  “It’ll be fun and just think of all the goodies I’ll unearth.”  Now that I’ve started, “fun” is about the last word to come to mind.  Interesting, yes.  Revealing, yes.  Heart-warming, yes.  But fun?  That is no longer a word I use to describe going through my clutter.  Most days I feel heavy, like I’m being burdened.  It has occurred to me that I could hire someone to help me clear my clutter.  But why should I give someone else the power to decide what’s important to keep and what isn’t?  How would someone else understand the sentimental value I attach to so much of what’s down there?  What will I ever do with MM’s old ski outfit from the 1920’s?  Or Leni’s tapes from her German Radio Hour?  Or Papa’s wooden stamp organizer?  Hired professionals won’t know that MM managed to get that ski suit out of Nazi Germany during a time she was lucky to be alive.  Or that Leni had enjoyed a flourishing acting career, often landing leading roles, and that her German Radio Hour on WBUR Boston was her way of holding onto some of that glorious past.  Or that my grandfather had been a respected professor at the University of Berlin, teaching Physics, Math, and Chemistry, and that he had amassed an amazing stamp collection.  Seeing these mementos reminds me of how miraculous their escape was, and how rich my heritage is.  To let these things go is to let go of a very important part of my past.  Somehow, I just can’t do it.
Truth is, I’m finding wonderful treasures in all my rubble, even in my office.  Adorable cards and notes and letters Natalie has written to me over the years, together with precious photos that for some reason were stashed away with my business documents.  And hey, the other day I found an old beat-up envelope I almost tossed.  So glad I didn’t, because inside I found a stash of cash left over from farmer’s market, $535 to be exact.  Not a bad day for cleaning out the Tower of Power, my tattered but beloved office cabinet.
Some days I feel stronger than others.  Some days seem to set me back more than allow me to move forward.  One day, just when I felt a great strength come on that I really could toss so many of my old business materials from the last decade, the idea popped into my head that perhaps I should  listen to what so many people have told me over the years: that I ought to write a book about my experience starting and running a granola company.  Oh brother.  I guess that means I do need to save those years of daytimer fillers and farmers market notebooks I just found.  Sigh.

Through all this pondering, I’ve discovered if I am going to get through this, I need an attitude adjustment.  Hence, I have instigated one.  I’ve decided it’s not healthy to dub my belongings “stuff” or “clutter” or “junk.”  So I am renaming.  My THINGS are now called “Family History,” “School Projects,” “Travel Memoirs,” “Biz Materials,” “Personal Treasures,” “Life Mementos,” etc.  I’ve also realized that just getting all these items organized lends a tremendous sense of relief.  Plastic bins of varying colors have replaced boxes, and every one will have a label.  I remind myself that many of these objects evoke precious memories.  How can I complain about that?  The items that bring forth heartache and pain, well, I can either get rid of those, or write about them as a healing mechanism.  Perhaps one of my bins will be titled “Items for Healing.”  I will also start rewarding myself when I finish little projects.  I recently downloaded 2,234 photos off my camera.  Wow!  They are now in folders on my computer, and some of them even made their way to DVDs.  I’m not saying the folders are organized or the disks make logical sense.  But they are off the camera and in a safe place, so I need to give myself credit for that. 

Sharing this dilemma has netted sound advice.  One suggestion was to scan items such as artwork and family documents onto a computer, instead of stuffing them into bins.  Then let them go.  Another suggestion was to integrate my “clearings”  into my daily or weekly schedule, even if that only amounts to a few hours a week.  “You will appreciate every little bit of progress, and that progress will fuel you to keep going,” one friend told me.  As it turns out, she is absolutely right.  Filling up the recycling bin, topping off bags for Goodwill or EFAA, organizing bookshelves, and clearing out filing cabinets brings me more joy than I ever thought possible.  And seeing “empty space” - wow, that “emptiness” allows me to breathe more deeply and brings its own sense of fulfillment.  Another piece of advice: “If it has no sentimental value, out it goes.”  Taking this statement to heart allowed me to get rid of odd pieces of furniture, old utensils, books I’ll never read, games I’ll never play, obsolete electronic items, baskets I have no use for, replicate plant holders, and other sundry items.  Upon discussing my clothes with someone, she said, “If you haven’t worn it for a year, you probably won’t wear it for another year, so get rid of it.”  That piece of advice has been harder to implement, but I cannot deny it’s probably true.  Another friend told me, “We think there is value in the things we hold onto, and so that’s why we hold onto them.  But these things only have value if they are put to use.  If we don’t use the things we own, then what value do they really have?  We might as well give these things to someone who will use them, and then they will have value.”  What I’ve learned from these pieces of advice is that they are actually nuggets of wisdom born of personal experiences.  I’m not alone in my quest to lighten my load, and just knowing that others are going through this process provides a sense of bonding and connection that gives me strength to keep going.  Others find that fortitude, so can I!

Perhaps most of all, putting a positive spin on this process is proving to be invaluable.  Days when I just can’t face going through my belongings, I let it go.  I remind myself that I am making progress, that I’ll be happier moving through life with a lighter load, and that sifting through one’s possessions isn’t easy for anyone.  I take a deep breath, make a decision, and go about my day.

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