This post is part of the #Purge365 series about a midlife journey through a year of purging a house – and a life – of unnecessary things. Click here to see all previous posts.
It is January 2nd and Day 2 of Project #Purge365.
I decide to tackle my vanity drawer. The plan is simple: If I haven’t used an eyeliner in a year, I’ll chuck it. This sounds easy enough. And yet I have an unexpectedly hard time throwing something away that still looks and works just fine. I come from a long line of women who cannot part with even the tiniest item that might still prove useful. I blame this on two wars, the Great Depression, and a hyperinflation. Those events so indelibly marked my German mother and grandmother that in my childhood we had kitchen cabinets full of old mustard jars converted into drinking glasses, a long list of past-due expiration dates to be found in our fridge, and a goodwill pile that never quite made it to goodwill because my grandmother would spot one of my old sweaters, take a look at it, and say “Looks like it still works perfectly fine so I’ll put it in my closet,” embarrassing me to no end when I’d later spot her wearing my old clothes.
I once read a fascinating book about a woman who went to the Kingdom of Bhutan for a year to work as a teacher. And one of the first things she noticed was the absence of trash. Not just trash in the streets, but trash period. The concept of trash didn’t exist, because people threw nothing away. In a country that until recently was very secluded from the rest of the world, and very poor, every item you could think of had value. An old plastic bag was extremely useful to carry things, and since you’d only come across one once in a blue moon, you guarded it very carefully. I’d like to think that my mother and grandmother would have made very good Bhutanese citizens.
I realize that Project #Purge365 runs somewhat counter to this notion. Here I am creating more trash, not less, in my quest to get rid of things. I hope that in the long term it will pay off, in that I’ll be more thoughtful about making new acquisitions. I also hope that some of what we no longer use will still prove useful to someone else, much like we have helped find a second life for used baseball equipment in an African township.
Back to my vanity drawer. In it I do indeed find a handful of eyeliners that I haven’t used in much longer than a year. I find dried-up mascara and eye shadow from circa 1987. I find nail polish that can no longer be opened. In the back corners I find stuff that is completely baffling if not disgusting. And how does all that hair always end up among all your toiletries?
Let me just say that this is nothing compared to what I know I’ll find in the equivalent drawers of the girls’ bathroom. Every once in a while I’ll step in there and marvel at how messy two people who color code their school assignments can be in other areas of their lives. Take the trash can, for instance. Their usual excuse, when I reprimand them for never emptying the trash, is that I always empty it before it is truly full. The question begs: How full is truly full? It turns out there is a wide range of interpretation.
The girls’ bathroom, I decide, will have to wait. I need to ease into this thing with a few simple tasks, or I’ll give up before Valentine’s Day.
So the next day, I take on my sock drawer. I realize that I’m not the first one to get satisfaction from tidying up socks. Marie Kondo, though I’ve never actually read her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, promises a state of bliss that comes with not just organizing your sock drawer, but from folding those pesky suckers the proper way. I forgo the lesson in sock-folding (remember that German mother and grandmother of mine? Well, they knew a thing or two about folding socks that I suspect even a Japanese best-selling self-help guru can’t top) and dig straight in.
My sock drawer is like a cross-section of my life. The entire back row is taken up by the cushy hiking socks I wore to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. As I’ve said elsewhere, I adore those socks. When the scope of your life shrinks to ensuring warm feet, a dry sleeping bag, and a steady supply of chlorinated water, woolen socks go a very long way to making you happy. But I didn’t need a dozen of them even for a week on Kili, and I certainly won’t need more than at most two pairs for the rest of my life. On the goodwill pile they go.
Tucked to the side in the same drawer I find a garter belt and sheer white stockings – the kind you attach to, well, the garter belt – as well as a corset-type bra, also white lace. I had worn these to my wedding, which happened in 1993. To think that since then they got packed up no less than seven times and made five ocean voyages, just to end up in yet another sock drawer, is mind-boggling. I get that you don’t want to part with anything you wore on such a momentous day as your wedding, which is why I’ve faithfully carried them with me around the world. But I haven’t felt compelled to wear them in over 25 years. Maybe we all take ourselves a little too seriously. We think that one day these items are going to have intrinsic value to someone, when they probably won’t. The Queen of England gets to have her garter belt enshrined and put on display for future generations to see. I don’t.
A friend, finding herself an empty-nester, recently went through some downsizing. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to match her enthusiasm, considering that she donated their entire Lego collection. Our son has already let it be known that none of it is to be touched. Our stash includes my husband’s first Legos from the 1970s, easy to identify because the little people have no arms like they do now. We have close to ten large bins full of bricks, and another 20 or 30 toolbox-like cases sorted by color and theme. If we ever do downsize, we’ll have to rent storage just for the Legos.
This friend had a useful downsizing tip. For all that artwork you’ve collected of each of your kids over the years, you simply take pictures and then you part with it. My garter belt would be a perfect candidate for this technique. I won’t wear it again, and let’s face it, no one else will either. If my Mom had handed me hers for my wedding, I would have lifted it with stiff fingers and let it disappear at the first opportunity. I doubt my girls will feel differently. And yet. I cannot bring myself to part with it entirely. I do, however, banish it from the sock drawer and I do chuck the hose. The belt now has a new home inside a labeled Ziploc bag in another bin in the basement along with the boys’ first Lederhosen.
It’s clear that I pretty much suck at this. At some point I will have to actually tackle the basement if this is to be meaningful. For the moment, I seem to be adding to the basement, not subtracting from it.
And yet, going through this exercise has already had a positive effect. It’s almost like going through some kind of cleanse, like a liquid diet to flush toxins from your body. My step gets lighter just a bit with each corner of the house I tackle. When I come across a cupboard or drawer I’ve already cleaned out, it gives me inordinate joy. I gaze lovingly at all that space, much as I lovingly gazed at it as a younger version of myself still hoping to fill it up one day. Such is the arc of a life: You spend the first half amassing possessions, and you begin the second half by trying to get rid of them again. How futile it all seems. How much wasted effort.
And yet it couldn’t be any other way. My kids will follow the same path, full of enthusiasm, and my only hope is that they will enjoy every step of the way.