Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Taming the Tentacles of Creeping Clutter

I am cleaning my office. Now is that worthy of a blog post you might wonder? If Marie Kondo can write books about clearing away clutter, surely a blog post on its accumulation is long overdue. 

 I am a genealogist, a historian at heart. That means it is especially difficult for me to get rid of things. I am thus consigned to a life of clutter with occasional nibbles around the edges to keep it at bay. I envy the tidy spaces of those without that pesky preservation gene, but I value the benefits that come from it. None of my genealogy work would exist without it. I think it is in part the residue of a curious mind that branches in so many directions that it can't keep up with them.

Kudzu overtakes a forest*
I come by this honestly. I had two parents who were more keepers than tossers. Having cleaned out my father’s study after his death I know what that preservation gene can do when it runs amok and overpowers you like kudzu. I spoke of genes in jest only to find there might be some truth in that. Apparently chromosome 14 is associated with hoarding and while I hasten to add I am not there yet, I can see the path if I don’t mend my ways. We used to press my father to clean up his study when paper overwhelmed the remaining space. He would reply,”Someday I’m just going to light a match to it.”  I now realize that he was speaking metaphorically and his daughters were to be the match. 

Once you clear out a parent’s accumulation, you vow that you will do a better job with your own. In fact the system by which we tackled that mess was instructive, and I harken back to it as I contemplate my own mess. I first went through his files in search of financial information, family history, personal history and medical history- the fine sort. Then I went through his hard drive for any digital files. My role was to act as a keeper and identify critical things to keep lest an over-zealous tosser got carried away prematurely. After the fine sort, there was a lot of shredding and scanning. Then I sent in the big guns, my sister and niece who were less adverse to disposing of things than I was. A division of labor based on individual aptitude may have been key to our success. My challenge now is serving both of those functions.

Along the way, I read through reams of correspondence and documents. This is a part of decluttering that often goes unrecognized, the review necessary to determining value. It doesn't give you the satisfaction of empty rooms and it can be tedious, but it often unearths gems for those who value information. I am not necessarily talking economic value, but emotional or historic value or usefulness in the future. it is admittedly a subjective assessment which is where keepers often get stuck on the more generous end of the definition.

Some things are simply practical. I put together a summary  on health issues my parents had addressed which may in turn have bearing on me or my siblings.  As a historian, I couldn't bring myself to throw out the letter which invited my father to apply to the university where he found his life-long career. And yes, I kept his tax return from the year I was born when my name first became known to the IRS. When I go through my closet, I try on clothes to assess how they fit and what outfits I can create from them before pitching those leftovers from earlier life periods that look a bit embarrassing today. When going through paper, I read. 

It is both easier and harder to pitch clutter when someone has passed away. The mundane no longer needs to be retained. Did it ever I wonder, as I contemplate my own mundane. 

Ah, but history becomes precious. Once pitched it is gone forever only to be rediscovered if at all, by intense genealogical research. That retained information of my parents, already deeply culled, now occupies my study in addition to my own accumulation over the years. It distracts me from my normal culling of my files as it requires more thought and is more laden with emotion. I had thrown much of my father’s correspondence into a “to shred” pile only to rescue it for a more careful cut. 

As for my own clutter, I realize that there are many psychological components. I can’t recreate my own history so hesitate to pitch it. And yet I find myself thinking of a friend who long ago told me that he kept no correspondence as he didn’t want anyone else reading it if something happened to him. He was in his forties and I was much younger. It was an absurd concept to me at the time, but I must admit it gains in potency as I age.

I also realize I am an out-of-sight, out-of-mind person. I need something to be visible and easily accessible or I forget about it, a tendency that argues against tucking things out of sight.  Each archeological dig though clutter unearths some surprises of long-forgotten information. Did it really matter? At minimum it argues for better organizational systems.

Much clutter is about intention. There is a lot of paper with things I think I’ll take a closer look at someday, but never have. There are clippings for recipes I’ve never made, magazines I’ve never read and bookshelves of books I will never read again.  My attachment to history, my retrieval systems and my follow-through all come into question as I tame the tentacles of creeping clutter. It is indeed a humbling experience.

 *kudzu overtakes a forest. (Robert Michalove Flickr Creative Commons)