The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Dusting my Junk

My apartment landlord decided to replace the ancient steam heating system with a new fangled (or at least cheap) forced air one. This involved putting new duct work and pipes all through the apartment. I came home one day to find that everything I owned was covered with a thick layer of plaster and paint dust. I was horrified.

While it is probably mostly plaster, the inner layers of paint are no doubt leaded as this building is about 100 years old. The thought of curling up on my couch breathing in leaded paint dust was too much. And the cleaning job that lay ahead was epic.

We're not just talking about sweeping the floors and dusting the furniture. No, the heating system was installed into my closets, so upon request I had previously taken mountains of junk out of the closets and lined the center of my rooms. I have a lot of stuff. So the dust did not just cover bare tabletops and wood floors--it was in the cracks and crevices of all my papers, souvenirs, nostalgic items, family heirlooms, Christmas decorations, boxes and boxes of bills, scraps of paper and just assorted junk I have kept because I have never known what to do with it. It wasn't in neat, covered boxes, either, but open and loose and ready to suck in all sorts of construction dust. Even worse: Clean laundry was not put away in a dresser but rather strewn across the bed and hanging on a drying rack, so it was all covered, as well. The dust was in and through everything.

So I tried to find the rainbow. These things often happen for a reason, or at least, they bring with them opportunity as well as obstacle. But with working full time and taking more than full time coursework, this was not the challenge I wanted. [This also isn't the time to detail the atrocious job these people did, who must have been drunk as they left some implements and a shirt, for crying out loud, in my apartment, as well as large holes in the wall. Nor is it time to talk about the dust that got into my exposed piano, computer, printer and other electronics. No, not right now.]

Base of Operations

Erin came over and helped me establish a beachhead--we got the bedroom in order so there was a place that was "clean" from where I could mount an assault on the rest.

It was time to purge. I want to live lighter. I don't want to hold on. Dragging all this stuff around was just sabotaging what I could be doing right now. I was annoyed as I was going through papers deciding to keep them or not. It was taking too much time--time I could be using to make new memories.

I also approached this from a perspective of sharing. I keep lots of stuff because I may someday find it useful in the future, such as the Handbook of Medical Spanish. I got it from my cousin before I went to Honduras for a brief trip as an interpreter. That was 10 years ago and I barely cracked the book then or since. While I can theorize that I may find such a book useful one day possibly in the future maybe, it occurred to me that I am hording things that may be directly useful to other people. I haven't used them yet, what makes me think I'll use them in the future? Knowing that this stuff may help others helps me let go. [But HELLO we're investigating opening up a medical clinic with the Columbus Catholic Worker, so I'm gonna hold onto this one for a minute!]

I found a copy of Chesterton's Orthodoxy. You know, the book I just bought a few weeks ago and posted about. It was another copy--yes, I bought a book I already had. I found Alison's book that Jackie dropped off about a year ago which I've been meaning to send back. Maybe it was two years ago. I should just lie and say it got destroyed in the construction.

There's loads and loads of books--many I've never read. I realize it is an injustice to keep something and not use it when someone else may benefit from it. I should send them forth like so many seeds. I know how to get them if I ever want to read them, and that's the key idea. Some of these books been lining my shelf since childhood, so they cross the line between stuff and nostalgia, which makes it harder to part with them--whether I've read them or not!

My big weakness is nostalgic items. Few things leave my hands if they have a personal attachment. It is nice going through stuff and remembering the events that they remind me of. But I can't help but wonder that every time I hold onto stuff from the past I may be holding myself back in the present. There is so much in life you just can't hold onto: Conversations come and go. If I have no record of my daily conversations, why is it so important to keep every scrap of email I receive? No one is following you around with a video camera catching every moment of your life, and even if they did, you wouldn't want to spend half your life watching it! You'd rather live the 2nd half of your life! Life is meant to be lived in the here and now. We don't have any opportunity to go into the past or reach into the future, everything we have is right now. Letters, videos and tapes make us think we still have direct access to the past, but I wonder if that is always such a blessing.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with keeping boxes of stuff in a closet. Just tuck it away, and it's there if you ever want it. In reality, I feel congested and cluttered and want to purge. Even though this stuff has been in a closet, I still feel like I drag it around with me every day. Baggage is baggage. The more stuff you are carrying around, the less strength and attention you can give to what is going on right now--even if you are not consciously aware of this stuff you are keeping! If you are cluttered in your mind and spirit, then there isn't much room for new growth. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: You tell yourself that it was good to hold onto that stuff because nothing has happened to exceed it. But you weren't really open to anything new either, not really, because you were too busy dragging the past with you--or trying to. The problem is that you can't have the past again. Mementos are great, but they are only a slice of the past, not the real thing. Sacrificing the present in favor of a partial past is a losing deal.

Don't get me wrong: Mementos and memorabilia are important--but not every scrap of paper or record of every conversation.

Until the "plaster and paint dust incident," I had every bill I have ever paid--except for the stuff I pay online, which got me thinking: If I don't keep my online records, why do I keep anything else? Do I need my entire billing history from all three landline phone companies I had in 1999? Of course, since my bills are not neatly organized but rather in overflowing boxes and stacks, intermingled with personal letters, I had to go through every last blessed one to figure out what to throw out and what not to. It was an immensely time-consuming but satisfying process dumping these mounds of paper into the recycling bin. I was saving a tree, baby, and maybe saving my life.

Much of this stuff wasn't even difficult to part with. In my haste, I often just shove stacks into the closet just to get them off the table. So I had piles of papers from job searches in 2001 or a house search in 2005. None of these leads were even remotely relevant anymore. I had thick folders from medical insurance plans I don't have anymore and stacks of magazines I've never read.

Habitual purgers like Erin would probably be disappointed with the amount of stuff I still kept. Heck, she throws bags and boxes away without even looking to see what's inside! I can't even pretend to wrap my mind around that. But for me, this was a big deal. The amazing thing was that so much of it went into the recycling bin easy as pie. There were few hard feelings. I was ready to get rid of it. In fact, it didn't even feel like purging--much of it was just junk that was in the way.


  1. That's okay, I'm still holding on to your book too. I guess now would be a good time to send it back.

    I've read that if you're having trouble letting go of old memorabilia, you should take digital pictures of whatever it is, because it's the memory you want to keep, not the thing itself.

  2. Somebody (Erin?) said that a good thing to do with my holy mission trip T-shirts (pun intended) would be to cut them up and put them in a quilt or a wall hanging. Not a bad idea.