Everywhere I go women are talking about “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo. Apparently Kondo’s advice is to pick up items one by one and ask, “Does this spark joy?” If there is no joy, it’s cluttering up your life, and away it goes.
I haven’t read the book, and won’t, because I was born with a freakish inner compass for organization. Neatness is my true north. If I had a motto it would be – less stuff, more peace. Minimalism is my preferred aesthetic. Therefore, I need no expert help purging, shelving, tidying, or storing.
When I was young, my mother would drop off freshly folded laundry and expected me to put it away. I did so obediently, after refolding most items so they would best fit the confines of each drawer’s particular width and depth. 20+ years later and Mom still shares that anecdote, always with the same bemusement. She’s sure she was handed someone else’s baby at birth. How could a child of hers be so concerned with drawer efficiency that she would refold socks, even underwear!?
If I wasn’t my mother’s spitting image, I’m sure I’d have the same question. The woman is notorious for having stacks of paper laying around. She claims she has “a system” and that though – to the untrained eye – the piles seem like they belong in the recycle bin, in reality they are full of essential household documents. Any rifling through or dusting near her stacks brings wild exclamations and dire warnings. Trespassers have been known to wonder if IRS agents are about to plunge through the front door. Years ago, to legitimize her “system” and to save herself some grief, mom camouflaged the teetering stacks by placing them in decorative baskets.
I’m exaggerating a bit on both our parts, you understand. (Except, not about the underwear refolding. Or the decorative baskets; they’re all Longaberger.) My organizational freakishness and mom’s basketed stacks are running jokes between us. We love each other even when we look at the other like she’s a rare bird on display at the zoo. Mom concedes that she benefits from my wizardry when I reorganize her pantry every winter. It’s an odd and wonderful Christmas gift. I have the deep satisfaction of bringing order to a jungle of canned goods, dad is saved from being poisoned by expired olives, and mom has the joy of knowing she had five cans of tomato paste after all. It’s a win-win-win.
As amusing as all this is, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m sharing with such vulnerability. Well, this week I went through a box that I haven’t opened in five years. If a stranger opened this particular box, she might think she’s stumbled on an odd cache of…junk.
Ok…fine – it’s clutter. The contents are random and ajumble – but none of it is junk. Inside this box are mementos of my life, most of no monetary value. Many items are discolored, rumpled, or cracked, but all are cherished for some reason. After five years, lifting the lid and combing through the contents was like stepping into a biopic of my life. Here’s what I discovered:
- My kindergarten tote-bag. My name is written in the lining with permanent marker.
- A clutch purse my mother made with my name stitched on the front
- My first book, “Snow White and the Seven Giants” written and hand-illustrated by yours truly, circa 1990. I should hurry to copyright. It’s a gem of a story complete with giants, a 20 story house with 5,000 sets of stairs, and the first giant-human hybrid child.
- A small, paisley dog purchased in 1992 in London, England – a souvenir from my first overseas trip.
- Several scripts from my years on stage.
- A card from my father when he had to miss opening night of one of those plays. The message – “I may not see the opening, but I will close down the place next week. Break both legs you actor you. Love, Dad.”
- My junior and senior prom photos. Those make me thank God for puberty, my orthodontist, and my seamstress mother who could make any dress I dreamed up.
- A polaroid of me wearing a giant sombrero. (My friends knew that I hate being sung to in public, so out of their deep affection for me, they told our waiter that it was my birthday. I got the full mariachi tribute in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Ole!)
- A letter from one of my college roommates. We were good friends, but horribly matched roommates. We had an epic falling out and she wrote me two years later asking for forgiveness. It’s the most healing piece of paper I own.
- A birthday card from my parents. Mom said, “What a joy you are to me.” Dad said, “So, you are the best daughter a man could want.”
- A set of napkins, given to me by my senior year college roommates. I threw them both bridal showers and these napkins are a symbolic promise to return the favor. Plus, they would be very humorous as shower napkins for a pastor, right?
- A card from my dear friend Emily. We both attended a little Baptist church when the “women in ministry” debate was raging through the congregation. She wrote, “I don’t want you to feel that your gifts in leadership and preaching go unrecognized. God is in control – he hears the cry of the marginalized, he will bring about something wonderful to those who listen for his voice…Your worth is not by man’s standards but our Great God.” This is why I call Em my Canadian Treasure. I got to officiate her wedding a few years later.
- A bunch of handmade cards littered with inside jokes and picture collages from my college student staff.
- A letter from another former student. She struggled with depression for years. One night her senior year she called me when she was sitting with a large bottle of Aspirin, ready to take her life. Her letter contains the words, “You literally saved my life.” This item is a powerful reminder that simple things like listening and being available can save lives. Every human being is capable of these things, but we many need to unplug more.
There’s a bunch more we could comb through, but you’ve got the gist. This box is the sum total of clutter in my home (honestly, you can check my closets) but what joyful clutter!
I’m hanging on to stuff others might discard because this “stuff” can make me laugh, or cry, or transport me to another time and place. These items are markers of my development from child to adult, actress to pastor and writer. They tell of a life overflowing with rich friendship and the unconditional support of family. They are stones of remembrance of loss and forgiveness, and the healing God can bring when you think the statute of limitations has long since past.
I’ve realized that this box of clutter tells my story. You’d need me to sit beside you to fill in the gaps, but my story is here in every keychain and photo, script and stuffed animal. All of the words stuffed into these letters and cards – and all the people who held those pens – shaped me into the confident, people-centered woman that I am today.
Days after sifting through this box, I discovered some sadness mixed in with my gratitude. I hate that the letter is no longer a valued and common method of communication. So I marched to my local Hallmark store, bought some stationary, came home and started writing. Three hours and 28 letters later, I felt refreshingly human. And absurdly thankful for an untidy box of stuff.
There may have even been some sparks of joy.