Minus the ghosts, there are some common images that suggest a haunted house, and you can spot them in any neighborhood. An overgrown yard with a dead lawn choked with weeds. Chipped and peeling paint. Windows with constantly closed curtains, blinds, or shutters. Nothing about such a home says Welcome, friends and neighbors! But a house doesn’t have to be haunted to look like that.
Houses are much more likely to be haunted by bad memories and a feeling of being trapped in the past.
Houses can also be haunted by power struggles, shame, constant fights, or occupants who have nothing to say to one another.
Myself, I wouldn’t mind a ghost so much. What’s it going to do, whisper in my ear at night or write on a foggy mirror? Leave my cabinets open? Pfft. I had student loans for twelve years so nothing scares me now. I’d much rather live in a house that WAS haunted or LOOKED haunted than in one that merely felt that way.
We do it to ourselves as often as not.
When I do clutter work during home visits, I almost always come across haunted relics. A sheaf of love letters, never mind the terrible breakups that followed. Random junk left behind by that roommate who left without paying the rent. Swag from every former job, especially the worst ones. Paperwork from...from everything:
Benefits folders from a decade ago
Collections letters from three years ago
Credit card statements from *gulp* today
Negative performance reviews
Scary medical reports
One of my very first space clearing jobs included an entire box of parking tickets, paid long ago, but there they were. An adult career woman carrying the guilt of a busy college student’s ancient mistakes.
We punish ourselves by keeping constant reminders of the worst moments of our lives. We don’t usually even realize we’re doing it. Either we’ve completely forgotten this stuff is hanging around, we have no memory of it, we’ve buried it in harmless junk mail, or we are avoiding it.
We know it’s there, we think about it constantly, and yet we can’t bear to face it or deal with it.
That right there. That’s the feeling of being haunted by your own stuff.
There is another category of stuff that haunts us, and that is the category of grief clutter. This is the hardest clutter of all to clear, and in fact I’ve failed at it every time. When the subject comes up, I tell people that I have no idea what to do about it. I have no suggestions. I don’t know what to say because nothing I have said has ever done any good.
In the worst example of this that I have yet seen, the surviving daughter sat on one couch cushion every night, because the rest of the couch had boxes on it. Both her parents had passed away, and she had ALL of their worldly goods packed in boxes, stacked four feet high, completely packing her home. Only a narrow goat path was available from the front door to the bathroom, the bedroom door, and the kitchen. You had to turn sideways. The bedroom was full, too.
She lived in a monument to the dead.
This impulse is universal. Death turns the survivors crazy, at least temporarily. Siblings will cut each other off for life. Entire extended families will disintegrate, just when they need each other the most. All that’s left is the stuff.
Hairbrushes with hair still in them
Prescription bottles on the nightstand
Old worn-out slippers
Every single stupid pot-holder and fridge magnet
We believe that these objects hold our memories, and so we turn them into horcruxes. It’s not a baking dish, it’s my childhood! We’ll drive ourselves to penury paying for storage units to hold stuff we don’t need, because we have no appropriate ceremony for letting it go.
It’s harder when it’s the residue of multiple lives. I know someone who moved into a family home hoarded up with at least two generations of grief clutter. The grandparents died, and the parents never dealt with it their entire lives, and then they died, and guess what. Pass the buck.
What I’d like when I go is a park bench, or ideally an entire park. I want my memorial to be a place where friends sit and talk together, where young people fall in love (or old people for that matter), where kids climb on and off their parents’ laps. I do NOT, for the love of all that is holy, want my memorial to be a bunch of boxes filled with my old clothes and dishes. Ugh.
One of my biggest fears is that this will happen, that nobody will throw out my old socks or my toothbrush and my spirit will be caught in purgatory for an extra generation.
It’s the time of the year to think about this stuff, how there is a time for every purpose and how the seasons come and go. We’re here for just a little minute, and then we’re gone. Why, then, does our old stuff hang around for so long?
Thinking of grief clutter, we can use that energy for some positive procrastination. We simply pretend that it’s finally time to deal with all those boxes, and then instead we find ourselves sorting through our own haunted junk. The clothes that we quit wearing because they remind us of a bad incident. The broken ornament or decoration that we can’t make ourselves throw out. The dead houseplants. The papers!
Unhaunting your house is getting rid of anything that serves only to hold bad memories. If even thinking about it makes you feel sad, guilty, or depressed, why do you have it? Because you’d have to look at it again as you were trashing it?
Unhaunt your house and do it soon. Maybe there’s a bonfire coming up and you can burn a bunch of your old papers and photos, like I did with my old wedding album. What if your house was clear, and only for the living, and facing toward the future rather than the past?
It’s my birthday, a time I like to think about what I’ve done over the past year and what I want to be doing by this time next year. Typically this includes asking myself why I keep trying to plan something special, because somehow or other I always seem to manage to mess it up.
Classic birthday fun: Discovering stinging nettle the hard way, getting a second-degree sunburn in a weird pattern that didn’t fade for two years, stepping barefoot in puppy leavings, and now, sitting around for forty minutes at a bus station in Aberdeen because nobody updated the website with the school holiday schedule.
In a way, I think of it as good luck. If whatever dumb and annoying thing that’s going to happen to me through my own ineptitude is going to happen on my birthday, then maybe I can avoid that sort of thing the rest of the year?
Also, it’s raining, something else I try to see as a sign of good luck. It rained on our wedding day (Northern Hemisphere in August) and there is a superstition that this brings prosperity. After ten years I can tentatively say that this seems to have been borne out.
At some point in the last year, I made a list of “43 for 43” - things that I wanted to do for fun, to make the year special. I can only claim to have completed a dozen of the 43 items. That’s because this thing called “fun” doesn’t come all that naturally to me. I tend to be an intense, driven, restless sort of person and if I don’t plan and calculate, all the fun tends to get left off the list.
Sixteen of the items are fitness-related and I didn’t do any of them.
One thing I can say I’m proud of crossing off that list: I helped celebrate my brother’s fortieth birthday. If I hadn’t started nagging everyone about it almost five months in advance I think it probably would have been a last-minute family dinner, rather than a memorable vacation weekend.
I am good at recognizing spontaneous opportunities when they come along. That’s why I can claim to have done a bunch of random fun things in spite of myself. For instance, since we came to the U.K. I have taken serious advantage of the widespread availability of vegan food. I’ve had a sausage roll, a Magnum bar, and a Jaffa cake, and I even tracked down a bag of Starburst! (With blackcurrant!) We’ve walked fifty miles in five days, including days when we spent 9-10 hours on a plane or a train, and I’ve spotted twenty species of birds for my life list so far.
Eat, walk, look at birds, repeat. That’s sort of me all over.
If there’s one thing to do on a birthday, it’s to think about your favorite people, favorite places, and favorite things. Are you spending time with your loved ones and doing what really matters to you?
I realized when camping last month that I hadn’t been in a forest in two years. It took five minutes to commit that that should never happen again. I had forgotten who I was.
That brought up a series of thoughts about things that are “really me” that I haven’t been doing much lately, if at all. Traveling, cooking and having dinner parties, distance running, spending time in the woods, heck, even doing cryptograms. Too much focus on goals and self-improvement can eventually crowd out everything else.
Then I remember that it’s been a tough year. I spent a lot of time ill for about eight months, started having the occasional episode of migraine or night terrors after a four-year hiatus, and then rounded it out with a bunch of oral surgery. Whee. I can forgive myself for not having some kind of “perfect year” or hitting every single benchmark.
Of course I can also say that I feel like I deserve better from my physical vessel and that I’m hoping for better health, vitality, and well-being in the coming year. I want to get back to running again. I miss hills for breakfast. Also I can hardly wait until our lease is up and we can move to a place that doesn’t have loud, early-rising upstairs neighbors. I’d prefer to be thinking about more interesting things than why my neighbor feels the need to do her vacuuming at 8:00 AM.
When she was a little girl, did she dream about being the world’s most meticulous housekeeper?
When I was a little girl, I wanted to read every book in the world and I wanted my own parrot. One down, one to go.
Incidentally, Noelie just had her 21st hatch day. I owe her a berry.
I’ve been nodding off in the middle of writing this, on a bus with the heater on, having slept poorly in a sleeper car on a train last night. Snapping awake made me feel like a doddering elderly person. If I’m lucky that will happen one day! One day I’ll be quite old and I can tell patient young people what it was like in the Eighties, when phones had cords, VHS tapes cost $99, and you had to go to your friend’s house to play games or watch music videos.
I might be halfway through my life, I might go tomorrow, and maybe I’ve got another 65 years. Who knows? Who knows what sorts of dramatic changes and technological innovations I’ll see in my time? What will become of me?
All I know is what I’ve learned, which is that it’s good to be grateful for what you have, it’s good to stay in touch with your values, your family, and your old friends, it’s good to see the world, it’s good to save money, and it’s good to take care of your health and your teeth.
Now I’m off to start my personal new year with some travel, some time in the woods, some more intensive journaling, some birdwatching, and the absurdly early bedtime suitable to a lady of my age and station.
If I had it all to do over again, I’m not sure I would. That would mean having to live through my teens and twenties again. If I woke up in the body I had at age 29, I’d burst into tears. Give me middle age any time. I can beat Young Me in every respect. I have more skills, more discipline, more patience, better credit, and definitely more physical stamina. Today Me could basically lift Past Me off the ground and toss us across the room. When I think back on all of the bad, short-sighted, selfish decisions that Past Me made for our life, I want to kick her lazy butt. It all starts with Past Self’s schedule.
I wake up at 7 AM without an alarm. Past Me stays up as late as 3 AM, sleeps until noon on the weekend, and sometimes oversleeps the alarm.
I’m fit, strong, and active. Past Me is almost 100% sedentary.
I stay in one clothing size year in, year out. Past Me has no fewer than six sizes of clothing in her closet. At her most tired and ill, she’s seven sizes bigger than Today Me.
I drink water. Past Me doesn’t; she drinks cola.
I eat 2-4 cups of cruciferous vegetables every day. Past Me eats more volume than that in breakfast cereal, snacks, treats, chips, cookies, chocolate bars, and other baked goods and dessert foods.
I follow the two-minute rule of GTD (Getting Things Done). Past Me is a chronic procrastinator.
I eat four meals a day. Past Me eats whenever food is present and especially right before bed.
I’m in the gym four hours a week. Past Me spends four hours a day lounging on her bed.
I have a bedtime. Past Me has a parasomnia disorder.
I’m a minimalist. Past Me is sentimental and she saves everything.
I’m basically post-money. Past Me often cries herself to sleep about bills, debt, and cash flow.
I’m a world traveler. Past Me spends our vacation money on restaurant food, soda, junk food, movies, books, clothes, trivial physical objects, and fines, fees, and finance charges.
I’m an investor. Past Me can’t be bothered to learn how to set up an IRA, even though it only takes about 20 minutes, for which I will never forgive her.
I’m a good cook. Past Me seems to think that cooking is something like an astrological sign, or the shape of one’s earlobes; in other words, an inherited genetic trait.
I take the initiative. Past Me has not yet figured out that it’s up to us to chase down our own results.
It’s not that Past Me set out to be irresponsible or sloppy. Past Me had the same desire I do, to do a good job and be a good person. It would have crushed her to be perceived as unreliable. She would not have agreed with my retrospective analysis. I judge her for being a spendthrift and for lacking self-discipline. She reminds me that she was young and operating on the best information she had at the time. A young person can never compete with a mature person on the basis of self-discipline or life skills. All of that is true.
It’s true that I have Past Me to thank for being able to pass a background check, for getting us a passport and a drivers license and a bachelor’s degree and a FICO score over 800. Past Me took care of our teeth and made sure we had no substance abuse problems. Good job, honey, good job.
It’s also true that Past Me wasted a lot of time and missed a lot of opportunities. If we had learned to cook years earlier, we could have enjoyed hundreds more nice meals. If we had started investing a few years earlier, we’d have tens of thousands of dollars more in our portfolio. If we had started on foreign language study years earlier, we’d be fluent today. If we had believed it was possible, we could have gone back to school years earlier, saving thousands of dollars in tuition, and we could have lived overseas, too. Past Me just accepted that certain things were “impossible” for us, that certain things were out of our league or not for our kind of person. That’s the biggest difference between us: a lack of vision.
Past Me has the same twenty-four hours a day that I do. We just use them differently. Most of the things that I do today don’t seem to fit into a schedule as such; it’s a difference of policy, philosophy, and perspective. Past Me spends more time shopping, eating, and being entertained. She isn’t deciding not to go to the gym; she just isn’t deciding TO go, and thus she doesn’t realize how much gym time she is burning. She finds it an unacceptable tradeoff for reading time, not knowing that Today Me reads about triple as many books as she does. Everything that Today Me does just sounds like a lot of work. Too much effort.
Future Me, y u so mean??
Future Me wants even more out of me. She wants me to earn and save more money. She wants me to hit it harder at the gym. She wants me to make more friends, to make sure that we still have people to hang out with when we’re old. It wouldn’t do for us to grow up to be a bitter, grumpy, querulous, annoying old codger. Above all, she wants to make sure that I go out and get us some adventure, some material to dream on, some stories to tell to our fun young friends.
A funny coincidence came up the other day. Someone I’ve known socially for about a year asked what gym I go to, and then told me that he went to the same place for three years. Wow, really? It’s a martial arts school with a couple hundred students, not exactly a huge 24-hour commodity gym. He said he was in the best shape of his life at that time, and then added ruefully that he should get back on that. I paid attention to that, because he is at least ten years older than I am, and the older I get, the more I realize that matters.
Then I thought: What exactly does “best shape of my life” mean? When would that be?
Am I already there, was I there at some point in childhood, or is there still a “better” “shape” somewhere in my future?
I should throw in there that using the term “shape” is a bit ambiguous. It seems to refer to externalities like physical appearance, and that inevitably touches on What Other People Think. It’s much harder to discuss an internal sensation or overall experience of... what? Strength, agility, speed, power, peace of mind, potentiality...? Harder still when trying to get our heads around internal physical feelings that we may never have felt, like trying to explain a flavor or a musical genre without comparing it to other things.
I can easily imagine a few time periods that could compete for “worst” shape of my life. Crawling on the floor with the flu. Walking around during finals with my eyelid twitching from stress. The first time I ran down a flight of stairs and suddenly felt my back jiggle. The first time I walked up a flight of stairs and my vision started to go black. Swallowing radioactive iodine for my thyroid scan, and then struggling not to cough for an hour even though the enlarged gland caused a constant tickle in my throat. Being strapped to the table for my first nerve conductivity study. Et cetera. Hard times, scary times, sad times.
It’s because of this background of chronic pain, illness, and fatigue, though, that I’m so ready to embrace anything better. This is why I can’t give a care whether other people approve of my external physical appearance. Go ahead and fit-shame me; you won’t be the first. My health is somewhat fragile and I can’t live a conventional lifestyle in a conventionally relaxed, standard physique. I do what I have to do and that tends to result in certain external physical signs.
The body changes tend to be a mix of good, bad, and neutral.
When I was training for my marathon, my feet looked kinda terrible. They wound up growing a half size bigger and I had to get rid of every. Single. Last. Pair. Of shoes I had owned before.
Then I got more into backpacking and I wound up losing the nails on my two big toes. Took six months to heal.
As a cyclist, I learned that I always sweat out the crotch of my clothes first.
Now I’m boxing and doing martial arts, and I’ve had at least one visible bruise at all times since January. I’ve also scraped off my knuckles and broken off a chunk of toenail. Sexy stuff. I get teased because I have yet to find a successful method of controlling my frizzy hair during class, and I’ve resorted to wearing a dorky bandanna as a sweatband.
Athletic me: Frizzy, sweaty, bruised, muddy, looking like a laundry basket.
Ah, but then there’s the inner experience. It starts when the scary stuff gradually fades away. My thyroid nodule disappears and never comes back. I realize I haven’t had a migraine in a year, then two years, then three years, then four years. My shoulder quits spasming. I stop feeling like a human trainwreck.
Then I start to be able to keep up. I can keep up with the other students in class, I can do moves that would have left me quivering on the floor a month earlier, I can ride my bike or run at the same pace as my friend.
Then I start to notice that I’m doing weird things, like opening the pickle jar in one try, or running up a flight of stairs two at a time without losing my breath.
Then I start feeling very, very strange feelings, such as the desire to do core exercises. I read that an Olympian athlete does 700 sit-ups a day and I feel curiosity. Oh? How long does that take? All in one set or throughout the day? What else does she do?
In spite of all the evidence that my body is changing, because my experience of being in my body is undeniably different, it still surprises me when these changes show up on the outside. Brushing my teeth, I suddenly see the new definition in my triceps. Leaning forward, I’m surprised by the roll of my trapezius muscles. Getting dressed, I see the shadow marking my hamstrings. Whoa, what’s going on there?
Arguably, I’m in the best shape of my life right now. I’m about to turn 43. I can do stupid human tricks today that I couldn’t manage as an 8-year-old child. I still feel slow and ungainly in class, and I work out next to women and men who are as many as 35 years older than I am now. I can only assume that I’ll continue to improve, especially because I’m due to switch to advanced classes this summer. This makes me feel about 10% scared, 25% excited, and the rest just nonchalant, because it’s inevitable. What’s going to happen, though?
What will the best shape of my life look like, and when will it happen? How will I know?
Nostalgia is a mystery to me. What’s so great about the past? I say this while waving my history degree over my head. There is no past era that I’d prefer to live in. There is no time, not even the 2000s, that I’d prefer to today. Throwback Thursday is wasted on me; I liked the music of the 1980s but not much else. From my perspective, every year that I’ve lived has involved more innovation, more books and music and movies, and better-quality food. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve benefited from getting my head straight and being less susceptible to emotional drama. I have more skills and I’m a better cook. These things are also true about my family and friends. Life is harder in most ways when you’re young. The future seems like an extremely exciting place to me and I can’t wait to see it unfold. This is a basic optimism that is the key to a happier life.
Optimism is a learned trait.
What is there to look forward to? Don’t you read the news? Oh, it’s awful, it’s awful.
I agree, there is all sorts of truly terrible stuff in the news every day. There always has been, because it’s much simpler to tell stories about terrible events day by day. The photographs are much more dramatic. How do you tell a story about the decline in extreme poverty with a photo? Take a picture of an ordinary, well-fed child who is studying in a classroom? How do you tell a story about the incredible decline in casualties from war? Take a picture of an ordinary town where people are working at their jobs?
That’s the thing about having a degree in history. I know too much. Our chances of dying from almost everything were much higher at any point in the past. Most people, statistically, would have died as infants. Epidemic disease, lack of sanitation, malnutrition, constant warfare, sieges, an extremely high murder rate, brigands, even attacks by various wild animals. We can only possibly feel glum about the present day if we try to compare our conditions with some imagined glory days from the twentieth century.
I grew up in a tenement apartment and I still had a lot of things that the Emperor Charlemagne did not have, that he could not buy at any price. Central heat. Ice cubes on demand. Legible penmanship. A public library and a fire department. Paved sidewalks. Electricity, including lightbulbs, a stove, and a refrigerator. Potable water flowing out of the faucet. A telephone and a television. My mattress and pillow undoubtedly kicked butt over his. Granted, I didn’t feel anywhere near as grateful for these modern comforts as Charlemagne would have. That’s because historical progress is driven by envy and dissatisfaction.
I say this is great. There’s no reason to envy someone if you can study what they’re doing and imitate it. This is obvious if you have a growth mindset! Assume that the envied person had to acquire that trait somehow. Also, you have to envy the complete package, not one thing in isolation. That means you can’t envy a celebrity without including the paparazzi and the haters. You can’t envy any individual person without including their entire personal history, their relationships, and their behaviors. Maybe their fitness level, financial success, or emotional intelligence would come easier to you than it did for them. Observing someone else means you can skip anything they tried that didn’t work. Let envy make you a better person.
We seem to be allergic to thinking about the future. Research shows that we think of our own future selves in the same way we think about total strangers. I think a lot of us are mean to Future Us. We set ourselves up in ways we wouldn’t treat our worst enemies. Hey, Future Me! Have fun trying to survive on the tiny fixed income I’m sending you. I hope you enjoy paying off our debts. Oh, and good luck burning off this slab of cake I’m eating. Maybe you can get rid of some of those calories while you clean out this garage I’m piling with stuff. And by the way, wash my dishes.
The most commonly procrastinated goals are planning for the future and dealing with health issues. In both cases, it would be easy for us if we realized that Future Me is the same person as Today Me.
Unfortunately, most of us are captivated by Past Self. We just see ourselves as cuter when we were younger. We think we had more fun and that life was better. We don’t like looking forward, because it seems depressing, but when we do, we’re oppressed by the idea that we “should” be planning, saving money, eating better, and being more active. Walking backward, facing the past, we’re going to bump into the future and feel it as a frustrating obstacle.
This is part of why people hang on to clutter. We haven’t spent any time thinking about what we’ll want or need just a few years into the future. We have this anxious sense of What If, while never spending any time gaming it out. Get specific about those What Ifs and plan around them! What If I turn into a bag lady? Well, what would need to happen to avoid that sad destiny? (Build relationships, build career skills, learn about financial planning, save money). What If my house burns down? (Get insurance, test your smoke detectors, make an emergency response plan). What If I need this later? Well, that decision is up to you. You’re creating your response to your stuff and your home. You’re creating your response to your money. You’re creating your response to food and to how it feels to live in your body. You’re creating your friendships and conversations. What your personal future looks like depends almost entirely on how you think and what you do about it, today.
The future is an opportunity. Even an hour from now: later today is the future! There’s always still time to call someone and say the things you haven’t said, like “I miss you” and “I’m sorry” and “I love you.” There’s always still time to learn new things, to travel, to try new foods and dance to new music. There’s always still time to try to be a better person, a better listener, more patient and forgiving. There’s even time to clean out the garage. Pick any single goal or any single square foot in your personal space, and do something today that will make it more awesome for Tomorrow You. The future can be whatever you wish it to be.
Where is the dividing line between our responsibilities and the tidal wave of fate? Where does self-forgiveness meet abdication or rejection of accountability? When we aren’t able to follow through on something for one reason or another, when is it understandable and when is it a lapse of duty? In other words, when are we excused, when are we let off the hook, when can we blame others, and when is it really just our problem? A life of integrity absolutely demands strong policy choices around these matters.
The decision to accept total accountability is a radical and extremely powerful act. It’s scary and demanding. It requires a humble spirit to rip the dirty old bandages off our psychic wounds and look at them with a discerning eye. Like all decisions, though, it’s freeing. Accepting total responsibility for your life means an end to all manner of squirming and equivocating and waffling and whining. All that is left is clarity and resolute purpose.
What does total accountability mean?
It’s often said that we are supposedly 100% responsible for everything that happens in our lives. This is a wrong thought and a dumb one. Is an entire country responsible for a natural disaster like a typhoon? Are parents responsible for a murderer killing their child? If you say yes to either of those questions, you are a terrible person. I’ll look you straight in the eye and tell you that. Fate brings us completely unfair, unpredictable, unpreventable burdens. It’s destiny that we control. We’re not responsible for the volcanos or tornados or earthquakes or murders or mudslides. Where our responsibility becomes relevant is in our response to the terrible vagaries of fate.
Now that I’ve clarified this, I can in good conscience talk about where we are 100% responsible for what happens to us, and that’s when we are living out the results of our own choices and behaviors. Almost every time, when we’re deep in struggle, it’s the completely unintentional result of something we’ve done, sometimes for years on end, not truly realizing that this would be the result. These are the problems we encounter in our relationships, in our careers, in our finances, and in our health. The degree to which we resist accepting our responsibility in these areas reflects the degree to which we continue to live in struggle.
Accepting total responsibility is the only way out.
The year my divorce was finalized, I paid 80% of my earnings to legal and medical bills. It sucked. I’ve earned more in one freelance check than I earned in the entire year of 2000. Not only did I have to deal with the divorce, a lawsuit, and some extremely frustrating medical problems, not only did I have no income until the case was settled, but I was also erroneously hit up for taxes on someone else’s income. It felt like all I did the entire year was write letters and make phone calls trying to resolve one Category Five problem or another. Not my fault, still my problem.
What the experience of living through a year of constant bitchslaps from fate can teach us is that we have the power and the fortitude to deal with stuff. I’m no longer afraid of the IRS; their customer service is fantastic. For nearly twenty years I’ve carried the bone-deep certainty that I must always prioritize my savings account and keep my insurance payments in good standing. I’ve been through worse than a series of bills, injuries, illness, and relationship collapse. I know I can carry myself through the vale of tears and come out alive on the other side. Problems that I used to rate a 10 I now consider more like a 3 or 4. The year 2000 was hardly the last time I endured a bad breakup, an injury, a series of bills, a stretch of unemployment, or the urgent need to move to a new home. It’s not even the last time I got an erroneous tax bill in the $8000 range. Bad things are going to happen in life, over and over and over again, fair or unfair, to us and to our friends and loved ones. We just have to knuckle down and deal with them.
It’s possible to forgive gross unfairness. All forgiveness means is that you come to an emotional agreement with yourself and a storyline about past events that makes sense to you. It does not mean that you excuse someone else’s unjust or cruel or selfish behavior. It does not mean you endorse systemic injustice. It just means you understand what happened and how the same thing could have happened to someone else in the same situation.
Like this: I married a man when we were both young, nobody told me he was mentally ill, and when my life got too challenging, he asked for a divorce. It makes total sense that someone with serious problems of his own would not be ready, willing, or able to stand by me while life threw me simultaneous health, legal, financial, and career problems. I forgive him. I don’t really even think about it anymore; really it only comes up when I think about forgiveness. When I think about him now, like on his birthday, I just hope he’s okay. I can almost even forgive myself for ever being so young and dumb that I thought marriage at 22 was a good idea.
All this being said, if we can forgive unfairness and injustice wrought upon us by others, can we forgive ourselves for being screwups? Can we let go of the guilt and shame of our worst mistakes? I think we can only do it when we know we have accepted the complete burden of responsibility and cleaned up our end of whatever happened. For instance, if my roommates bounced their rent check, it’s not my fault but it’s still my problem. It certainly isn’t the landlord’s fault! If I get into a fender bender and the other party lies about what happened, (which has happened to several people in my acquaintance), it may be wrong, but it’s still up to me to pay whatever the insurer refuses, or my credit will take the hit. I owe what I owe. I have my part to play in all of my relationships, including those of a familial, romantic, business, or financial nature. Just because I walked in blindly and trusted other entities to be scrupulously fair and honest does not absolve me of the responsibility of looking out for my interests.
Past Self had a lot of expensive problems. Past Me spent a lot of time crying herself to sleep over unpaid bills and working side hustles when other people were having fun at music festivals or traveling through Europe. Some of those same specific individuals are now in struggle, not having had to learn the same lessons about financial peril at such a comparatively young age.
When I was young, I was clueless and naive and sometimes irresponsible and unreliable. I hurt people’s feelings unintentionally. I associated with people whose values did not match mine. I often expected other people to pay my way and solve my problems. These are pretty much universal failings of young people throughout time. Now that I’m a mature adult, I pull my weight. I try to stay in constant remembrance of all the times my behavior has unfairly burdened other people, so I can balance my accounts and be the giver instead of the taker. I’m allowed to forgive Past Me for being something of a loser because I’ve paid my debts and made amends where I could.
Integrity means your word is your bond. You keep your promises and follow through. No excuses, no complaints. It’s better to say no 99.999999998% of the time than to say ‘yes’ and bail at the last minute. You show up and do what you said you would do. You fulfill your end of a contract. People can depend on you. If this has not always been true Because of Reasons, you can forgive yourself for this by accepting accountability. Make amends, but more importantly, stop giving your word out like Halloween candy. Stop making commitments until you’re sure you are rock solid and you can keep them. Taking on the burden of total accountability is a clean life, not an easy one but an acceptable one.
The decision to clean up a cluttered or squalid house is a big one. It requires waking up to the situational blindness that has developed. We can stop seeing it, and after a long enough time, we can even stop smelling it. It takes real courage to pinch ourselves and say, WAKE UP. The trouble is that everything gets worse for a while after this decision. The shame seeps in. The magnitude of the task starts to become clear. It’s so tempting to quit. Roll over and go back to sleep. Sit and cry, feeling helpless to carry on. Find the anger, let it boil up, and affix it to the straw man of societal pressure or some specific judgmental critic. What’s so interesting is that after a concentrated period of intense effort, all those emotions can simply vaporize in fresh air and sunlight. Here is a secret:
After it’s cleaned up, there’s no record. It can be as though it never happened.
Nobody can tell, looking at a dining table, that it ever had a single pile or stack on it. If the surface is scratched, throw a tablecloth on it. Sand it and refinish it. Get a new table. Throw a blanket on the grass and have a picnic instead.
Nobody can tell that a tub was black with grime, once it’s scoured clean again. The grout can be replaced for a few dollars and a couple of hours of effort.
Nobody can tell that there was a puddle of brown ooze in a refrigerator crisper once it’s hosed out.
Nobody could ever guess what was in a filing cabinet once it’s purged and everything is recycled or shredded.
Nobody will ever have to know how much was spent on a storage unit, or two, or more than two. Once it’s emptied and broom clean, someone else will come along and rent it. Let them spend their vacation money storing stuff they never use or look at.
I snapped my closet rod once because there were too many clothes weighing it down. I was alone when it happened and the noise was terrifying. I already had a wooden rod of the right diameter, so I used my saw and my Dremel to cut it to length and replace it. I threw the old one away. My landlord never knew. I actually threw the broken one away as soon as I was done! It was like it never happened.
(Except that it only took me 20 minutes to replace the closet rod, but two hours to sort and hang up all the clothes…)
The thing about clutter is that it belongs to the past. We bring it home because we think we’re going to want it in the future. We hang on to it because we start to forget it’s even there. The minute it’s held up to our awareness again, whatever emotions and intentions we had attached to it shine forth, like an aura that only we can see. It’s like we just got our wisdom teeth out and we’re seeing colors and talking random nonsense, and anyone else would giggle at us, knowing we were out of our minds at the moment. Why do we have such strong emotional attachments to things we keep hidden away in boxes, drawers, cupboards, closets, garages, and storage units?
So many of the things we keep refer to rough spots in the past. We don’t want to look at them or make decisions about them because we don’t know how to shut the door on the waves of stale old emotion that come wafting out. Musty, mildewed memories. The interesting thing about this is that the past isn’t here. The only remnants we have are the stories we tell ourselves about it. Otherwise, it’s like the past never happened.
I know I was a baby once because, hello, that’s how babies work. Now I’m 5’4” and I have gray hair, a driver’s license, a credit score, and a university degree. Where is that baby? There’s certainly no baby putting away laundry or cooking dinner tonight. Looks like an adult woman to me. The only evidence I have that I was ever a new baby is biology, the testimony of people who knew me then, and my baby album – but technically that could be a forgery. Just because there’s a lock of fine hair and a set of hospital bracelets in there doesn’t mean they’re mine. Right? Stay with me here.
Where is the evidence of the bad years?
I was divorced in my 20s, and it made a ding on my credit report. I won’t go into it other than to say that I have always taken my credit and my financial obligations very seriously. Years passed. Whatever note was on there is no longer there, and my credit score is something like 830. No evidence. It’s like it never happened.
I don’t usually think about my divorce unless I need an example for something I’m writing, and I’d rather throw my own past self under the bus than tell stories about someone else. I was divorced 16 years ago and I’ve been with my current husband for a decade. I threw my old wedding ring in the river, changed my name, my physique, and my hairstyle (not to mention my credit…) It’s like my first marriage never happened.
There are times when bureaucratic or physical evidence tends to hang around. I’m no longer obese, but I still have stretch marks from my hips to my calves. They’re there, although they’re hard to see unless you’re looking for them. I’m proud of them at this point. I saw another woman in athletic gear – I would describe her as ‘sturdy’ – and noticed her calves had stretch marks, too. It made me want to ask her to train with me. It’s like another version of the ’26.2’ tattoo. Guess what? This isn’t genetic, honey.
There are only two things that don’t go away, and those are a criminal record and the grudges of those we’ve hurt. Whether the first one defines your life or not is a personal choice. What we’ve done in the past isn’t really who we are in the present, or who we’ll be in the future, unless we refuse to take accountability and continue to act in the same way. As for grudges, we often find that the other person has forgiven us long ago. When the grudge is still there, it’s either because we’ve never made amends and the person doesn’t feel heard, or because this is a person who clings to resentment. Making amends can be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry I hurt you and I wish I hadn’t.” I have done this on a few occasions in which the other person had no hard feelings and didn’t even remember what I was talking about. Better safe than sorry, though, I say. Saying ‘sorry’ should come as naturally as saying ‘thank you.’
How much of the stuff we keep reminds us of apologies we’re still waiting to hear? I have an inkling of an idea that a lot of people hang on to family heirlooms because they’re attached to a vision of happy family life that isn’t represented by their actual memories. The teacup or ring or whatnot is our true family legacy, because we have a birthright to dignity, respect, loyalty, and gracious living. I think it’s in the back of the china hutch under the souvenir spoon case. Oh, but surely there are happy people living with family heirlooms? Of course there are, but happy people don’t live in messy or smelly homes. We’re not worried about them.
The question is whether we’re totally satisfied and content with the present, and whether we want something better for the future.
Something better than not being able to find things? Something better than a secret box of grief clutter we can’t bear to sort, or even handle? Something better than a feeling of defensiveness about our surroundings?
Sometimes we contemplate a change and worry over “being the same person.” This has always puzzled me. Isn’t the purpose of life to change and grow? Why on earth would making a positive change have any negative impact on my identity? I used to be fat, which is hardly a moral issue, but in my case it came with a lot of migraines. When I got rid of the excess body fat, the headaches accidentally went in the bag and got thrown out, too. I used to carry a bit of credit card debt, and after I paid it off, I found that I felt more generous and gave more to charity. I used to have boxes and boxes of stuff I didn’t need. I got rid of it, made some money off some of it, and now it takes less time to clean my house. That’s all. Now nobody can tell that any of that used to be true about my life. It’s like it never happened.
I was 37 when I bought my first (and current) laptop. I bought it with money from my first freelance gig, and I was so proud! It paid for itself with work I’ve done on it since. Now it’s not really keeping up with the demands I put on it, and I’m ready to go big. I’ll use it until I wear the letters off the keyboard. I’ll spend several hours a day interacting with it. It will be my spare brain. I’m using what could be a fairly ordinary consumer purchase as an organizing point in my life. If this upcoming fantasy purchase really has the potential to be a spare brain and transform the way I work, how can I use this time to create a watershed in my timeline?
Fantasy visions have a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ We tend to get caught up in just the ‘after.’ Wouldn’t it be nice if I could fly? Yes, probably! We’ll have to spend some time figuring out all the steps that come before “I’m flying” before we can make that happen. Same thing with any other dream that wants to become reality. If my ‘after’ is “I am changing the world with my keyboard every day,” where am I starting? If I pull up my map app and I want walking directions, I need both a starting location and an end destination.
The truth is that I’m currently caught between two worlds, the analog and the digital. I went paper-free as much as possible several years ago, and we’re pretty good about dealing with mail and incoming paper every day. The trouble is that I still have notebooks and paper files from the past that I haven’t integrated into my digital world yet. There is never a “good time” to deal with archival material; if it’s sitting there and it hasn’t been handled, that’s a 100% reliable sign that it hasn’t been needed. If I haven’t needed it yet, I may never need it. Still, when I’ve gone through these old notebooks in the past, I’ve felt that I wanted to keep the information. It happens that right now, I’m keeping it in a completely vulnerable, perishable, inaccessible format.
My paper files are irreplaceable. That means there aren’t any backups. If anything happens to them, they’re gone. I haven’t exactly memorized this stuff. We’ve had professional movers a couple of times, and for whatever reason, one of them took it upon himself to dismantle my file boxes and put all my paper notes in a moving box. In the process, a lot of papers got bent, crumpled, and smeared. The indignity of it all! Digitizing my notes is one way to protect what I see as their sacrosanct integrity. It will also make them accessible from the road.
We have another problem that goes beyond this full box of vulnerable papers. Photographs. It’s easy to see the point on the timeline when we got camera phones, because the hard copy photographs simply stop happening. What I’ve learned from dealing with old photos is that they have a lot of problems. Our old albums from the 70s and 80s lose their adhesiveness and the plastic page protectors get brittle and discolored. Whenever we pick them up, loose photos cascade out the bottom. I have an aluminum box with old photos and memorabilia in it. If these photos are damaged, that’s it. I once did a very sad clutter job that involved throwing away several years’ worth of photos. They had been left in a paper shopping bag in a garage and were pancaked together with damp and mold. We tried, but they proved impossible to peel apart without tearing. The irony of keeping things because we want to preserve them is that we often guarantee their ruin instead.
If you care enough to keep it at all, take steps to make sure it’s truly preserved. Water damage, mold, mildew, smoke, sawdust, paint, vermin, insects… Anything in storage that is not climate controlled and accessed regularly absolutely will show the effects of entropy and neglect.
We have tons of digital photographs, of course, and that’s part of what makes it easier to see the hard copies as less desirable. I can and do enjoy looking at photos of everyone in my extended family on a regular basis. We have hundreds of pictures of our pets. We don’t spend much time looking at older photos because the current ones are so fresh and available. The problem is that our photo folders are only organized by date, not content. I often find myself looking for a specific photo as an illustration, and I have no idea what year it was taken, much less which month. Part of this fantasy ‘spare brain’ project will be to consolidate the photos and tag them in a way that makes them more useful.
I have this fantasy project of making slide shows of the peak moments from different years and then watching it at the New Year. Maybe I’ll do it after I get the new laptop.
There are other digital things I would like to consolidate. It turns out that I have files on our shared desktop, my laptop, various thumb drives, a couple of formats of flash memory cards, a stack of data CDs and DVDs, my Dropbox, Evernote, and my phone. The stack of physical media has more mass than the equipment itself. A lot of it probably contains redundant or obsolete stuff. When I look at it, I’m sure I’ll wonder why I was keeping it, and maybe even where I got it.
Our office represents more than just a room. (It’s our pets’ bedroom, so a chunk of it is dedicated to a birdcage and a dog crate). What we wanted was a place where we could both work. What we have is more of a place where we store stuff we don’t want to look at in the living room. We both do most of our personal bureaucratic work and our side projects either in the living room or at a café on the weekend. Sometimes when the weather is nice I work on the back patio. Excavating some of the funky old electronic clutter could be a way of energizing the space.
Why am I keeping old paper notes? Because I think they’re relevant for some reason? If there are projects I intend to complete, I need to schedule time to work on them and set some deadlines for when they’ll happen. The longer I have them around, the less likely Future Me will even be able to decipher them. The more time that goes by, the worse I’ll feel if anything happens and they are destroyed. Why didn’t I protect and preserve them when I had the chance?? I could diligently sit and scan them all in a couple of hours.
Why are we keeping old CDs and electronic files? Because we think we’ll need them at some point? What’s on them besides photos? If it’s nothing more than a bunch of old backups, they’re probably redundant. If it’s something important, we’d better figure that out in case they get scuffed or cracked or the file formats become obsolete and unreadable.
Why do I have so many thumb drives? They aren’t labeled. I don’t have a system for keeping separate data on separate drives. Why do I have so many?
Looking at a stack of undifferentiated, unlabeled, untagged stuff is exactly like walking around in a confused stupor. It’s like a plastic sculpture of a disoriented, possibly hungover human brain. If my waking mind was that poorly organized, I’d be walking around in circles with my shirt on backward and my shoes on the wrong feet, babbling and playing with my lip. I should just put it all in a box labeled HERP DE DERP and then send it to the landfill.
The fantasy of a new laptop is the fantasy of mental clarity. It’s the fantasy of being current and not having old projects hanging over my head. It’s not necessarily procrastinating to choose not to spend time sorting old, probably irrelevant materials; at least 80% of that stuff I’ll most likely never need. Keeping it, though, is like keeping apple cores or empty cans. It represents the leftovers of time I spent, things I did, thoughts I had, and time that has passed. I’m setting myself the intention of liberation from these stale old calcified thoughts. ‘Decision’ means ‘to cut off.’ I’m cutting off the fuzz that clouds my workspace. I’m creating a space where I can feel fully confident that I’m working on the most important thing every day, that all my important data are readily accessible, and that there are no ancient tasks lingering around to distract me. That new laptop will be like a space shuttle to the future.
We talk ourselves out of making changes because we are pretty sure they aren’t really all they’re cracked up to be. There is a certain pride to be found in taking a contrarian position. For instance, I think Pop Tarts are gross. I didn’t like The Fifth Element, and I wasn’t all that impressed by Firefly, either. Yeah, yeah, go ahead and quit reading. Obviously I have nothing else worthwhile to say! All I was going to talk about was that the insight almost always comes after the experience. We sit around waiting to “feel like” doing certain things, and guess what? We never “feel like it” because that isn’t how it works. What happens is that we try stuff, realize things about it that we wouldn’t have guessed, and then we see what all the fuss is about. Or not. I mean, Pop Tarts? Whatevs.
My resistance to something is usually proportionate to how important that thing later becomes in my life. I used to openly mock runners who jogged in place at intersections. I used to go off on lengthy rants about how people on dating sites always talk about how much they love hiking, but I actually hated hiking and thought they were lying to make themselves look good. I used to talk about LA and how it was a cesspit that symbolized everything bad about humanity. Now I live in that region, which I find delightful, and running and backpacking are two of my favorite things. I used to loathe mornings and considered myself a total night owl. Now I wake up around 7 AM, even on weekends, and it’s one of my favorite times of day. Past Self would think we had completely lost our mind.
Many of the positive changes in my life have come about completely by accident. Part of this is because historically I have moved a lot. The next time I move will be my 29th time since 1993. What happens is that all the patterns of my life get shaken up. How I arrange my house, where I buy groceries, what I do for exercise, how often I go to the library or park or movie theater, and how much I sleep have a surprising amount to do with where I am living at the time. (Upstairs Crackhead Neighbor from 2007, you suck. Get help). I’ve been able to look back at different times in my life and whatever random distribution of habits I was following, and spot patterns that were positive, negative, or turned out not to matter as much as I would have guessed. Of course, I can also compare my results to whatever results other people seem to be getting, but the only way I can get solid information about that is by asking. My assessment of other people’s motivations is probably about as poor as my assessment of my own.
Working out is a great example of this. All my life, I thought athletes were dumb and mean. I thought going to the gym was for vain people who had nothing better to do. The first inclination I had that there might be more to it was when I bought a bike. My intention was to save money, because I am a tightwad, and perhaps do something positive for the environment as well. I was determined to get the best possible value out of this $400 retroactive pay increase I got at work. That meant I had to skip enough months of bus passes to at least amortize the $400 cost of the bike. I didn’t frame it as exercise. At first I really struggled. I had to push the bike up every hill, and at the top of the bridge I would have to catch my breath for nearly five minutes. But I am FREAKING STUBBORN, so I kept going. I started to notice that I was beating the bus home, and that added to my determination. Within a couple of months, not only was my route easy, but I started having actual fun. Riding my bike became one of my favorite activities, giving me emotions I didn’t know it was possible to feel. I didn’t really even notice what everyone else saw, which was that my body composition had dramatically changed, until one day I realized there was visible muscle definition in my quads. What’s this? Body pride? Then it turned out that my cheapskate bicycle commute may have saved my life. Like I said: unexpected side benefits.
What are some other unexpected side benefits?
Walking: I find a lot of money. I have a jar with all the money I’ve found since 2005, and it has nearly $40 in it, much of it from pennies. Twice, I’ve been first on the scene when someone had a stroke and collapsed in the street, and I was able to help. I see a lot of interesting stuff, much of which I photograph for later enjoyment. My feet are really tough, and I can walk, run, or hike for many miles without getting blisters, which is nice on vacation.
Wearing a small clothing size: My clothes are tiny, which means fewer loads of laundry. I can pack a ridiculous amount of outfits into a suitcase that fits under a plane seat. In stores that carry my size, I’ve been more likely to find awesome stuff on the clearance rack. I can fit comfortably in the middle seat. A backpack with the same days’ worth of supplies weighs less.
Getting married: My husband can pop my back. My wedding ring is like a magical force field that I can use to wave off unwanted male attention. I have someone to talk me out of buying clothes that don’t look good on me. There is someone to watch my stuff and hold our place in line. I only have to cook or wash dishes on alternate nights. He keeps me warm on cold nights, when I used to wear a hat, shawl, and knee socks to bed.
Having a parrot: Someone always notices when you wear new earrings. Surprise cheek kissing, complete with smoochy sound effects. Instant accessory for pirate costume. Always prepared to entertain small children. Makes random fart sounds. Showering is no longer a mundane activity. Someone appreciates your singing, no matter what.
I talk to Past Self a lot. I’m convinced by now that she can actually hear me, if I yell at the screen loud enough. “DON’T GO IN THERE, PAST SELF!” (Maybe if I throw popcorn at her…) The more important certain events are in our timeline, the more often I revisit those scenes, and the more often I reinforce those messages. What if that little voice called the conscience was really mostly just time-traveling reverberations from our know-it-all, hindsight-is-20/20 future selves? It makes me want to listen harder, to find out if I can hear Future Self checking in more often. I shout out to her, “FUTURE SELF, WAS THAT YOU? THIS CONNECTION ISN’T VERY GOOD. CALL ME BACK!” I want to be as good a listener as I wish Past Self would be. Because that girl? Can be a real imp sometimes.
Hey, Past Self. You really need to stop doing that thing.
No I don’t. I DO WHAT I WANT!
No, seriously. Search your heart; you know it to be true.
Shut up, Future Self. You think you know everything.
I DO know everything. I can see your future! You need to listen to me.
Live your own life, Future Self. Don’t you have some retirement plans to worry about or something?
Um, since you mention it… I know you already know about the law of compounding.
AAARGGGH! Go away. I’m trying to live in the now!
All I’m saying is that you’re really going to wish you had paid attention, just a short time from now.
Okay, okay. What do you want me to do?
I want you to quit drinking soda, go on a budget, lose some weight, start tracking your sleep metrics, get rid of your storage unit, and don’t date anyone on this list. [starts unfurling list]
Pffft! [hangs up]
Hello? Hello?? [stares at Future Phone]
The trouble with all the advice I want to give Past Self is that I know it all sounds incredibly boring to her. Everything I know to be a good idea is intrinsically unappealing. Go to bed at 11. Stop reading in bed. Keep a food log. Stop buying books and clearing out the thrift store every month. Follow a housework schedule. NO. THANKS. From my current vantage point, I know the value of getting enough sleep is about 100x more than Past Self would rate it. I know we’re not going to want to keep a single item out of all her thrift shop finds, or that storage unit. I know how many times even an extra $25 in the bank would have saved our poor-planning little butt. I definitely know all the people we shouldn’t have dated. Most of all, though, if I really had only one wish? I wish Past Self would quit that soda habit. The one thing she cared about the most, the thing she was always least willing to consider rationally. Her one true, true vice. (Other than interrupting people and never calling anyone).
Fortunately, I was at least dimly aware of the existence of Future Self from around the age of 19. I read about her in a book. She was hiking a trail a ways ahead of me, and every so often I would be allowed a glimpse of her, smiling at me over her shoulder, just before she disappeared around a bend. Who was she? What did she do for a living? What was she reading? Was she married? Did she ever learn to make decent pancakes? In this way, we start to determine the simple, harmless things we can do to make our daily lives comfortable and interesting. Past Self did a number of nice things for me, here in the present day, and as she got older and more experienced, she did more. She got us our retirement fund and our college degree and our driver’s license (in that order). She taught us to make the pancakes. She wrote hundreds of pages in our journal, working out a few of her issues, so that we could move forward with less baggage. She flossed our teeth and kept up to date on our tetanus shots and our passport. I have to try to be grateful for the favors and forgive her for the f-ups. After all, I can read her mind, but she can’t really read mine.
Talking to Past Self always helps when I want to get ready for a conversation with Future Self. I remind myself of all the times I acted against our self-interest. How many times I fought our intuition and ignored that inner voice. How many times I overindulged in short-term hedonism, like eating cake for breakfast, and regretted it later, usually only an hour later! How many things I refused to submit to scrutiny, clinging to the exact habits that were draining and dissolving our quality of life. It keeps me humble. It makes me more receptive. It turns out that Future Self is pretty smart. She’s never steered me wrong. When I catch up to her, I can see the notes she leaves me on the trail markers, with little smiley faces and cheery notes saying “Well done, Past Self. You finally paid attention.”
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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