If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I’m on a serious quest to clear clutter from my life. One plodding step after another, starting and halting and starting again, I’m getting through it. I started last fall by making one big trip to an organization that helps young disadvantaged women enter the workforce, the deck of my SUV loaded with a rather enormous collection of suits and other professional wear I’ve held onto for years from my “in-office” days. Since then I’ve made at least 12 trips to the Salvation Army, and through the social site NextDoor, I’ve given away some electronic equipment to some neighbors – a Wii, a set of speakers, a big heavy receiver, and a DVD player. Doing that was pleasant; I met a few new people and saw tiny bits of their lives; there was the man who collected the speakers to send to his son who’d just moved to Hawaii, and the very happy woman who came and got the Wii for her kids and promised me a pie on-call.
These were successes, but in ridding my life of old possessions, I’m struggling with many hurdles. The suit collection, for example – that was not easy, and what I gave away constituted only half of what I’ve been keeping in a wardrobe in my garage for ten years. In the many months since that big donation trip, I have not tackled the other half. Why? Well, it’s the Depression Hurdle. It was hard going through that first half of the collection. I couldn’t just lift the whole lot in giant armfuls and dump them in the back of the car. When my husband asked why I didn’t do just that, and then he looked at my face, he nodded his head – I won’t say knowingly, because I know what I was doing was irrational – but I’ll say sympathetically. He knows I’m crazy, for sure. But he left me alone to it and didn’t say another word about it.
Even though I knew that I would not wear these clothes again, I couldn’t just toss them like loads of garbage. I had to look at each piece. Individually. And as I regarded each jacket, pattern, skirt, blouse, and pair of heels, I remembered stuff. As the clothing stacked up so did the emotional burden of years of memories. The memories were good and bad, but regardless, remembering them made me sad. Sad that time has passed. Sad that I no longer have occasion to feel those bursts of battle readiness when, as Director of PR & Communications for the Board of Education in a school district wracked by controversy, I strode down the hallway wearing that slate blue suit or that brown and gold houndstooth or the classic charcoal, to meet the reporters and camera crews that had just arrived unannounced, while the Superintendent hid in her office. At those times – and there were many – I was, for the moment, C.J., the Press Secretary in “The West Wing,” going to engage with the media with confidence and wit. My assistant and I joked about our West Wing-esque life all the time. He was a handsome, smart young man who did whatever I asked, whenever I asked, who practiced impeccable, almost military courtesy. (He always stood up quickly whenever I emerged from my office, ready and willing to do whatever I wanted – instructions, a request, laugh at my quips.) Sad that I no longer have those moments. And sad for other lost times – lunch with long-ago colleagues to share ideas, complain, and gossip. Sad that I’m older. It’s not that I’m not unhappy with my life now. Far from it. But I’m sad that so much life has slipped by already and is gone.
The second half of that wardrobe collection will be the Final Half, and I still can’t face it. I’m waiting for a particularly stable emotional day, or a strong burst of motivation, for the strength of will to tackle it. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of other stuff that I can weed through and give away.
Several weekends ago I successfully cleared a couple of square feet of space in the currently defunct office in our home (defunct because there’s too much junk piled in there to use it), and I netted 4 smart phones in the process. Great – except that I put them on one of the couches in the living room to remind me to figure out how to wipe them of all my personal data prior to getting rid of them, and, you guessed it, they were still there weeks later. They became difficult to part with not because I have any emotional attachment to them, but because they’re the embodiment of a different kind of hurdle, the paralyzing I Don’t Know What To Do With This hurdle. These were perfectly good phones that should be made available to someone less fortunate, not thrown away – but each one of them had all of my data, emails, contacts, photos, apps, and other stuff stored on it. I knew there was a way to wipe all this info. I just didn’t know exactly how. And so there they sat. And the longer those phones sat, the more permanent they once again became in my environment. My mind was cascading inexorably down the mental waterfall of “I’m getting rid of those” to “I’ve got to get rid of those” to “I really should get rid of those” to “I need to find out how to remove the data from those phones and then get rid of them” to “I don’t know what to do with those” to finally no conscious thought, just a vague out-of-sorts feeling every time my eye passed over them, until the sight of them would become a wordless, self-loathing, internal “ugh.” The phones were once again going to become fossils, embedded in another room of my life.
But then last weekend I vowed that I would not let this ossification process continue in its usual fashion. Must. Do. Something. With. Those. Damn. Phones. So – I turned to Google and I found this how-to article on how to scrub your personal information completely from your smart phone. It’s not entirely easy or quick, but it’s doable. And I scrubbed three and turned to the fourth.
That’s when I found Deb in that phone, and I’ve come up against the Depression Hurdle again.
For some odd reason, before starting the erasing process on the last phone, I scrolled through my old text messages – and I came across the only exchange of text messages I’d ever had with my closest and dearest friend, a technology resistor. The texts – there weren’t many of them, actually – spanned half a year, evidence of the lapses and neglect that were the hallmarks of our stretched and torn friendship by that time in our lives. They started in the same tone as the viciously funny letters and emails she’d sent to me over the years.
Write to me, bitch!
Omigod, the Luddite sends a text. When did you learn this? I am stunned. Welcome, my friend, to this century. Welcome.
– 6 months later, when Deb landed in the hospital, yet another episode in a string of various medical mishaps and maladies that had befallen her throughout her entire adult life. –
Hey, old sock, I’m back in Chez Columbia Presbyterian.
I was bored at work.
Ha ha. Really, what is it this time?
Bleeding ulcer. I am lying in bed ALL DAY. Room service. Daytime television. You envy me. Admit it.
Goddamit. This is ridiculous.
– silence –
How are you?
– silence –
How are you?!? What’s happening?
– silence –
Well it seems that during surgy offered a series of mini strokes. I have ad have have renew my resrvztn here for more extend
Oh. My. God. What?!?! What do they do now?
MpyIo I will I
– silence –
Surgr joer ss
– silence –
By this time I was calling her. Sometimes I got her husband, who gave me an update. Sometimes I got Deb, who talked softly, slowly, and increasingly unintelligibly. In the middle of sentences, she would suddenly say she couldn’t talk any more.
I asked my daughter who was living in New York at the time to take the train up and go see her. Hannah looks remarkably like I did at her age, which happened to be when Deb and I both lived in New York, two law school comrades-in-arms, now young lawyers working in our first “lawyer” jobs. Despite or perhaps because of the bad marriages we were both struggling with at the time, we truly reveled in our time together – in our lawyer lives, life in the city, being young and in the money and free to do whatever it was that we wanted to do when we were together. This was the late seventies and eighties – New York at its worst, and us having the time of our lives.
Deb, fading in and out of the haze of drugs and probably brain damage, talked lucidly with Hannah at first. “It’s very dear of you to come up and check on me. Tell your mother it’s very dear of her to ask you.” She closed her eyes, and Hannah thought maybe she was sleeping. Then Deb asked if my ex husband, Hannah’s father, was honestly considering leaving New York and was she actually going go? “You’ll be consigning dear innocent Sarah to a life of midwestern shame, you know. Sarah will become a cornhusker. She’ll say AA-ple. She’ll wear blue eyeshadow. She’ll give you appliqued sweatshirts for Christmas.”
Then Deb regarded Hannah as if trying to recognize her, and apologized. “I’m on the best narcotics,” she said. “You’ll have to forgive me.”
The sun was going down. Deb was looking out the window at the Palisades, deepening with shadows. “Remember when we’d just gotten here and we were taking the subway somewhere, and that awful man stepped out of our car and came back down the platform to stand at the window behind us and I saw his reflection in the opposite window, right over our heads, and he was grinning and hefting both hands up like he was cupping two cantaloupes?” She waited but Hannah didn’t know what to answer. “Big. Breasts.” growled Deb. “HA. I was so glad you were oblivious to your surroundings, as always.”
So three of my old cell phones have now been dropped into the electronics recycling box at Best Buy. But the fourth sits on my desk, beginning to ossify once again. I can’t wipe it yet. It’s all I have of Deb, other than a small pile of photos, a collection of letters, a mountain of memories, and a deep well of grief.
So, the standing in my Conquer-The-Clutter Marathon:
Smartphones: 3 and 1.
That last smartphone -I have to let it be with me longer. Eventually I will wipe it clean and send it out of my life. But just not yet. For this I need just a little more time.