I have had my fair share of inner struggles with Stuff…
I don’t know about you, but I have a pretty complex relationship with some of the stuff in my life. This seems to be an inherited condition shared by family members. The animist ideas of Shinto, in which belongings have a spiritual force makes a lot of sense to me. Otherwise why is it so difficult to get rid of some things? Perhaps there are demons attached to my stuff? Certainly cleaning can feel like slaying dragons.
If you know me personally you might have heard about my studio. It is a wonderful work space with great northern light in the above ground basement of our house. It is set up as a fiber artist’s dream. Two sinks, a sewing space, two looms and a four burner commercial gas stove. We finished construction on it in late 2002 – just in time for our sweet baby M to be born in the cozy southern portion we call the Starlight Lounge. The studio had a brief period of glory as a professional creative space, and then descended into a truly hellish mess of epic proportions.
From the fall of 2003 till spring of 2006 the basement studio housed my business making baby slings and producing natural dyed silk scarves and custom textiles. A business interrupted for the bakery project, interrupted and never returned to. Stopping my fiber arts business and starting the bakery also coincided with the end of the fiber arts program up at Clatsop College where I had taught weaving for eight years. So 2004-2006 was a period of intense changes around my creative outlets. This was the point, as we worked night and day to get the bakery up and going, that the detritus of our too busy life began to fill the basement to the gills.
Between 2008-2013 we had two different roommates who lived in the Starlight Lounge, that cozy south end space where M was born. Both roommates were wonderful additions to our household, but made working in the doorless expanse of the studio an invasion of their privacy. Hence more untended detritus piling up. At one point there was a 8′ cube of boxes – all filled with papers – stacked floor to ceiling in one of the basement rooms.
Dealing with reclaiming the studio space has therefor never been simply about tiding up. Add to the equation that from 2001-2011 ten people close to me died. From those losses came more stuff. Stuff from dead people is really like encapsulated guilt and grief made manifest. Much of that inherited stuff ended up in the basement.
In 2012 we began work on renovating the house we hoped to move to out in Svensen – all while both Joe and I continued working full time at the bakery. There was suddenly even less slack time available to address the horrible basement mess, and zero time to do creative work in the studio anyway. The festering mess of stuff continued to ferment in the basement.
At the end of 2013 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. One of my more horrifying thoughts was that if I died someone else was going to have to deal with all of my studio mess. All of it. Especially frightening was the 8′ cube of bakery and studio business papers. The immense inventory of fabrics for the now defunct sling business also weighed heavily on my mind. The thought of all of it was horribly embarrassing.
“You can’t leave until you finish cleaning up all that chaos.” God
Suffice it to say cleaning up my mess in the studio became one of my reasons to live. Not joking. Right up there with sticking around with my family, was sparing them the horror of dealing with my mess. If this does not point to the immense power of our stuff I don’t know what does. So in one way I can say that my mess may have saved my life.
Many friends offered to help with the cleaning effort over the years. Unfortunately my shame, combined with my innate desire to cling to items representing my creative self, manifested as fears that non fiber artists and just naturally more neat people, would be unable to help me without judging me. Which all translates to more shame, and an inability to receive help.
Help that is from any one other than my friend Betsy. Who unfortunately lives in Utah, not to mention having five children and a fiber arts business of her own. Because she is pretty much the rock star of my world, she has come twice to help over the years, bless her.
But a brief intervention is not enough to truly transform. If at times over the years we made progress towards order, it just as quickly backslid into chaos. This is where the wisdom of Marie Kondo comes into play. You have to finish the tidy-up job in order for it to stick. A big part of that is figuring out what thoughts or feelings are holding you back, and what positive outcome can motivate you.
After my diagnosis we managed to clear out the Starlight Lounge, and to transform it into what became a Healing Bower. It was my retreat space during my treatments and we used curtains to insulate me from the mess filling the rest of the basement. In that little oasis of clarity and order I was able to do the hard physical work of assimilating poisons and shrinking tumors. To inhabit a beautiful clear space was very hopeful.
When I responded well to cancer treatments, one of my puppet thoughts was, “What if I get it all clean – will my cancering resume?” Seriously I am not making this up. My little superstitious puppet remembers how mortified I was by my mess, and translated that to somehow God spared me because I hadn’t cleaned up my mess. Sort of like, God saying “You can’t leave until you finish cleaning up all that chaos.” So if I do succeed in getting it clean, that little puppet fears the word from God might become. “Well that took you long enough. Now say your goodbyes, it is time to leave this Earth party.”
So how hard is it to engage in the life changing magic of tiding up? How long does it take to sift through twenty some years of papers from two businesses and a household? How about the minutia of childhood from our two well loved, though somewhat neglected boys? How difficult is it to disentangle from the inherited belongings of the dearly departed? What about the studio space that was usurped by the storage needs of an over busy family with neither garage nor attic?
I tell you, it is Damn Hard.
In the last three years since my diagnosis I have made huge progress. Sifting through it enough to create space to sew and make art. These small creative acts have buoyed my desire for a fully functioning studio. The return to doing creative work has been an important aspect of my healing, and my impetus to create more space to make art in. So corners of order have been slowly expanding. But like the tide the effort has ebbed and flowed in direct relationship with my emotional reserves on any given weekend. Whether or not I can face the mess is variable.
In the fall, when my nephew moved in with us, Joe and I relocated our bedroom to the Starlight Lounge . Being in the basement full time, including sleeping in the space I slept in during my treatments, stirred up angst and created more mess. Luckily at the same time being in the basement daily has inspired me to step up the heroic clean-up effort.
A limiting factor is that I can usually only face it in small increments before I become overwhelmed. Two weeks ago Joe played hooky from the bakery and helped me for like three hours. It was a watershed event. It helped me to feel like it is possible to really finish. As Joe pointed out, we have The Mess cornered. There are no more huge regions of disorder in the rest of the house just waiting to ooze into any tiny bit of floor space freed up in the basement. When we finish this time it has a chance of sticking.
What I have learned from that session is that when it comes to wrangling “Stuff” one is best served by getting help. The ability to have another person take a look, and say- “Well this is pretty bad, but we can handle it.” is akin to their saying “I love you even though you have a big mess.”
I have also learned that shame is not a good motivator for me. Shame and guilt actually make the whole process really much much harder. I have come to realize that cleaning up a huge disordered area involves two very different and distinct tasks:
- Task #1 – The emotional work of sifting through the feelings that are stirred up- and facing all the embedded meanings of our stuff.
- Task #2 – The much easier task of simply tiding up. Physically moving things, getting rid of things and organizing what is left.
Having another person step in and help, who isn’t facing the same emotional work, but recognizes that I am, has been really helpful. This is why having Betsy and Joe help was so instrumental. Talk about trust building. Just being in the presence of someone who is expressing unconditional love in the form of helping me clean up my mess is pretty big.
Once I accepted that stuff represents all kinds of things, suddenly my resistance to cleaning was understandable. As long as I was ignoring that cleaning is actually a lot of emotional work, not cleaning represented being Lazy, Careless, or Incompetent. I also finally recognize that those others who lovingly offered to help me over the years, may or may not have been feeling judgement, but until I could be less judgmental of myself I didn’t feel safe risking their potential scorn. I could not imagine how they could possibly not judge me while I was judging myself so harshly. Shame is isolating.
Right now obtaining order and beauty seems so close – It seems so possible. Now I just need to calm down my inner puppet show enough to get through the last few boxes, and all the random loose ends. It has been a decade in coming and I really am ready. I can see that having a messy creative space does not make me a reprehensible person. I am finding that when I focus on what is inspiring me it feels like God just might not be judging me so harshly after all.
I am inspired by the thought of getting an indigo vat started. I am inspired by the the two looms and being able to weave with the boys. I am inspired by my plans to venture into making some big paintings, something I have never done before. I am inspired by the workbook project I am working on. I am inspired by the thought of dying silk again, and trading some with Betsy for one of her paintings. I am inspired by the thought of making soap with the herbal oils I have infused. I am inspired by the thought of making cattail paper this summer. I am inspired by the idea of having a safe location to put my art supplies, where my thief of a three legged cat can’t steal them and drag them all over the house. (She is particularly fond of hunting paint brushes and balls of yarn, though lately she has been relocating pens as well.) Giving myself the gift of a clean work space will have all kinds of positive outcomes.
“Close” may not mean today, but I think it will be very soon. I’m really looking forward to having a space to nurture my tender creative self in. Cleaning it turns out is an exercise in learning to be gentle with myself. Mostly I no longer think about my mess as somehow saving me from death, nor as a sign that I ought to be condemned to eternal damnation. By admitting that a mess is both “just stuff” and the embodiment of unresolved emotional baggage, and by asking for and receiving help with both parts, I think I have at long last found a means to address it.
If you have any stuff that needs wrangling I truly wish you well.