Some people come to moments of decision and shifts in consciousness after near-death experiences or piercing experiences of beauty. Me, I decided to change my life after cleaning out my closet one summer four years ago. Not as picturesque or cinematic as I’d like life to be, I admit, but everything good happening in my life right now has its roots in deciding to clean out my overstuffed, overflowing Manhattan closet.
I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to clean it out, because, after all, it wasn’t a very big closet. Plus, it was the only closet I had. Yet I had failed to tend to it during my first three relentlessly grueling years of grad school. I let things pile up, stuffed clothes in nooks and crannies, stored luggage within luggage, and generally crammed with everything that didn’t quite fit in my life, on my body, or with my identity into the space. It was just a mess, one I barely paid attention to because I was too busy paying attention to other things.
But then those other things became less pressing. Classes ended in my program, and so did the intensively focused work pace. The semester ended in May, and through most of June I slept deeply. I went home for a long vacation, where I slept some more. It was the life equivalent of a deep, deep breath. When I came back to New York in July, I walked into my apartment, opened the door of my closet to put my luggage away and realized, Wow, I should really clean this up. This is a freaking mess.
Being ever the optimist, I thought cleaning out my closet would take hours, maybe a long afternoon. It didn’t. It took weeks. Embarrassing, but true. It wasn’t even that I had a hoarder’s store of things, since my closet was pretty tiny, after all. It took so long because I was constantly paralyzed throughout the whole process. I started with putting things into the piles that everyone tells you to make when sorting out clothes: Keep, Discard, Fix. But I found that sorting itself was an agonizing process. I would pick up something, stare at it for a moment, get sucked into a vortex of reverie and, lo and behold, ten minutes passed. What do I keep? Why do I want to keep it? Do I want to get rid of it? Can’t this work for me still? How can I get this to work? I just didn’t know sometimes. It was agonizing. I started on a warm July afternoon, and by the time midnight rolled around, I was still freaking sorting.
What was going on here? I felt like a crazy person. I felt like my possessions had possessed me, and not the other way around. I looked down at the Discard pile at my feet — at clothes that didn’t fit me, that didn’t work for me for one reason or another — and I realized I had moved these items many, many times over, bouncing them between Keep, Fix and Discard. Why was this so hard?
I picked up the items in the Discard pile. There wasn’t a lot, but what was there was quite nice. They were things that felt slightly insane to let go of. Things I had spent money on. Things that I had bought for certain dream scenarios. Things that were just beautiful and lovely in their own right, that I found pleasurable to look at and touch. I picked up a beautiful Ann Demeulemeester dress I had a hard time placing in the Discard pile: it had been particularly to let go of. It was a red silk dress, really lovely to behold and yet I never wore it. Why? It was gorgeous. My fingers lingering over the fine material’s softness, admiring the rich hue, the lovely drape — I was so tempted, once again, to place it back into the Keep pile. But then I stopped myself because suddenly — in a flash — I finally realized I was holding much more than an Ann Demeulemeester dress.
I was holding guilt.
I looked at the Discard pile, and it was like I was suddenly staring at the physical embodiment of guilt. Of shame, of waste, of failed or foolish dreams, of self-delusions. Of projects or resolutions or whims I never followed through on. No wonder it took forever. Try handling the physical embodiment of a few years’ worth of unexamined life and see if you can do it within three hours.
I could’ve just stuffed everything back, stuffed it all in a trash bag or back in my closet. Instead, something in me twisted and clicked: I swore to myself that I would never get into this situation again, one where I was paralyzed by my possessions. I swore that even if I got rid of everything in my Discard pile, I’d recoup its value in self-knowledge and enlightenment. It wouldn’t be just a bunch of stuff I’d try to resell or get rid of, only to fall into the same patterns that got me into the mess to begin with. I was going to fucking learn something from this.
And so I did. Little did I know, I would embark on a much larger inquiry, not only into the usual avenues of style and fashion, but one that touched on where I wanted to be in life, how I wanted to live, what kind of person I had been and wanted to be — and what I wanted to become. And those conversations led to other, connected conversations about money, about love, about all the things flourishing in my life right now. My life has radically changed from that summer after grad school, and it began when I opened my closet.