In preparation for summer, I recently did a deep clean and purge of two areas of my apartment that seem to attract the most clutter — my closet, and the bookshelf in my office where I keep all my old notebooks. Though the spring here in Toronto has been mostly gloomy and cold, I can feel the promise of summer lingering just around the corner and wanted to prepare myself.

Evaluating Stuff

Like many writers, I have a bit of a notebook problem. I’ve spent the better part of my life scribbling things down in journals, diaries, notepads, binders, and on computer screens. And, because people in my life know that I like to write, I also have a collection of thoughtfully gifted blank notebooks, that for one reason or another, don’t inspire me to fill them.

I also have a bit of a love-hate relationship with my closet and my clothes — I suspect I’m not alone in this either. Despite the fact that I ran out of available hangers months ago, have shelves and drawers heaped with items, and generally own way too much stuff, I always find myself reaching for the same five or six outfits (count this firmly in the category of “not a real problem,” in the grand scheme of things, but in need of addressing nonetheless).

Identifying Our Clutter Centers

As I worked through these two clutter centers, I started to think about my relationship to stuff. The occasional reevaluation of the things I choose to keep in my life can be a useful exercise for grounding myself, thinking about who I’ve been in the past and who I’d like to become, and clear out some space—both literally and metaphorically—for new possibilities.

For you, maybe it’s not the closet or the bookshelf. Maybe it’s a cabinet full of spices that you never incorporate into your cooking, or some drawers full of old gadgets that you haven’t cleaned out in years, or some other area of your life where stuff is piling up unexamined. If not, feel free to stop reading, and congratulations on what must be a very zen and uncluttered existence. Whatever your spring/summer cleaning project may be, it may be useful to really think about the things you own, and how they impact and reflect the person you have been, and the version of yourself you’d like to become. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about along the way:

Holding On is Easy, Letting Go is Hard

(and worth it)

Tossing out the pair of jeans that hasn’t fit in years was a humbling experience. It was also very freeing. I no longer have this physical reminder of my twenty-year-old body, with its impossible metabolism taunting me, forcing me to compare my past and current selves. I enjoyed the same feeling as I tossed out old notebooks filled with meeting notes from my last job. Clinging to those physical reminders of a part of my life that is now over was easy—pitching them into the recycling and recognizing that I don’t need them anymore was like taking a deep breath of fresh air.

I think that I like and lean on stuff as a substitute or shortcut to memories like I can keep a part of those times alive just by carrying around the stuff. Goodbye impractical pink suede bomber jacket from University, goodbye half-finished to-do list from 2012, goodbye boots that took me dancing but are worn ragged. I can remember those times in my life—through my writing, through conversation with people who shared those memories—without needing to cling to the physical reminder. And make space for new things.

Lean Into Who You Are, Not Who You Think You Want to Be

I have a collection of notebooks that I’ll never fill. For the most part, they are so nice they are intimidating. To even try to write in them, I feel like I’d need to be a different, better person. The kind of person who has perfect handwriting and never scribbles things out. The kind of person that can write something straight through from beginning to end, flawlessly executing a vision, never needing to restructure or reevaluate. I am not that person, and honestly, I think she sounds a bit exhausting like she wouldn’t be fun to grab a beer with.

I’m also not the person who wears heels, silk dresses with large floral prints or impeccably pressed blazers. When I bought those items, I thought I could convince myself to become that person, probably wanted to soothe the part of that was feeling inadequate for not being that person already.

Donating all those things—those symbols of a person I am not, but for a moment in time thought I wanted to become or felt inadequate for not already being—was a good (if expensive) lesson about knowing the difference between who I am, and who I want people to think that I am.

Make a Choice to Keep What Works

I currently have a total of seven active notebooks on the go. Each serves a different purpose — tracking my workouts, working on my novel, a freelance to-do list, a general journal/diary, a work to-do list, tracking my finances, and a random out in the world thought recorder. You could (rightly) argue that this behavior is what led me to a breaking point of paper clutter. But it works for me. And I’d rather have to clear things out from time to time than try to force myself to use a different system.

And I have a few items of clothing that I feel great in and that make me feel like a strong, capable version of myself. Is it a bit superficial or shallow to rely on my clothes to make me feel this way? Probably, but I don’t really care. My personal style has evolved and changed over time, and I suspect it will continue to do so. I think that making an active decision to keep something is just as important as clearing things away. I will probably never part with my ratty old band t-shirts or the bomber jacket that makes me feel like a badass. I’m keeping those things because I love them, not because I’m too lazy to throw them away or replace them. Some things are worth holding on to.

Clearing the Way for Future Selves

At the end of the day, I find being surrounded by stuff comforting. I’m never going to have a clutter-free home—my desk will be dusty and covered in notebooks in progress, my coffee table will be cluttered with pens and books, and my closet will likely remain stuffed with things I don’t strictly need. But every now and then, it feels good to sort things out, clear away space, let myself off the hook for being a bit messy.

And of course, to stuff the winter coats deep into the back of the closet, because it’s going to be an expansive (and hopefully sunny) summer. I’m glad to have a bit more room so that I can stretch toward the sun.

Featured Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Whether our clutter is in a closet or on a bookshelf, Evaluating Stuff is essential. We must think about what we own, and how it impacts who we've been and who we’d like to become.