Clearing Clutter

From the medicine cabinet to the meditation cushion, Anne Cushman organizes her home and gains insight into her mind.

Anne Cushman

Or what do I do with dozens of sheets of paper with Skye’s colored handprints on them, where our cat tore at them, relics of yesterday’s rainy-afternoon fingerpainting? Do I keep all of them? None of them? One sheet, to be stuffed in a box and pulled out when Skye is a grown man and I am an old woman and the cat is long dead?

My grandmother saved—and passed down to my mother—all of the dresses she had made for her in Paris when her husband was stationed there just after World War I. My mother saved a few of them, and passed down one to me. It hangs in my closet—old-fashioned eyelet lace, exquisitely beautiful. I wore it once, to a friend’s wedding eight years ago. Will I give it away?

My office closet is stuffed with things I would carry out of a burning building: a lifetime captured in photo albums and journals that I will carry around with me from home to home until I die—and that, as soon as I die, I want destroyed.

In India, I used to meet sadhus, wandering ascetics in orange robes who had given away everything that bound them to their past, even their names. I heard of a Taoist master in Santa Cruz who, every ten years, gave away everything he owned and started afresh. Is this what the spiritual life demands?

Bringing order to clutter, I begin to see, is not just about putting my spices in alphabetical order. On a deeper level, it’s about balancing the twin poles of spiritual life: cherishing life and holding it sacred, while knowing that it will pass away. It’s about learning to care for the things and people that are precious to me— and, when it’s time, freely letting them go. As Zen teacher Gary Thorp writes in his extended meditation on housekeeping, Sweeping Changes, “The joy comes not from trying to keep things forever, but from keeping them well.”

Learning to bring order to chaos entails, for me, really getting comfortable with the uncontrollable, ever-changing nature of life. It’s about living gracefully and at ease in an imperfect world in which buttons fall off, bath toys get mildewed, socks get holes in them and disappear in the laundry, dresses don’t fit any more. It’s about getting comfortable with a mind that wanders and a body that gets old, in a world of misspelled words and backwards p’s where nothing—from laundry to love relationships—is ever really completed, and where nothing—old photographs, the past, my loved ones, my own memories, my own body—can ever be held onto forever.

I’ve been consciously clearing clutter for over a year now, and I’m still not done. But I am making progress. Every shelf in my pantry is labeled. I only own shirts that I actually wear. I’m writing this at a clean, clear desk in my newly organized office.

Last night, after Skye was in bed, I sat on the floor of my office, sorting through a box of photographs: Skye at six weeks old, fiercely trying to crawl. Me in pajamas on my third birthday, a paper crown on my head. My mother at nine years old, dancing the hula in a grass skirt in Hawaii in the 1930s. My father in his cadet’s uniform at West Point in 1942

I’m not a sadhu or a nun, at least not in this lifetime. I’m not yet ready to let go entirely of my personal identity—not just a disembodied spirit, but the daughter of an Army general and a New England mystic who used to gallop a horse through a Kansas field. So I don’t toss the whole heap of photos into the trash. Instead, I sort through the piles, slipping the most evocative into albums, and letting the rest go.

Someday I’ll know where to put my wedding dress. In the meantime, all around my home, I pick things up, one at a time. I see them for what they are: Saltshaker. Baby photo. Dental floss. Love letter. And I help each one find its true home.

Anne Cushman, Tricycle's West Coast editor, is the author of From Here to Nirvana, a guide to spiritual India. She writes and teaches in Marin County, California.

Image 1: My Mother's Chest of Drawers # 2, 1995, Chronmogenic dye coupler print, 23.25 × 18.5 inches; © 1995 by Fumiko Nozawa, courtesy of Sepia International Inc.
Image 2: My Mother's Chest of Drawers # 14, 1995, Chromogenic dye coupler print, 23.25 × 18.5 inches; © 1995 by Fumiko Nozawa, courtesy of Sepia International Inc.
Image 3: My Mother's Chest of Drawers # 5, 1995 Chromogenic dye coupler print, 23.25 × 18.5 inches; © 1995 by Fumiko Nozawa, courtesy of Sepia International Inc.

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