The Essential Chore

the disciplined pursuit of less

The floor is a sprawling desert of sentimentality, perfumed with the gentle smell of storage. Monumental walls of clothing emerge like remnants from a forgotten era, and pillars of archived birthday cards tilt precariously as items increasingly surface from the dusty depths of some wayward drawer.

This is the site of an excavation, spearheaded by efficiency and practicality (but subconsciously sponsored by the emotive self).

This is, in less metaphorical terms, the familiar scene of a half-cleaned room.

Warning: those who encounter such disarray may experience tired sighs, waves of panic, and an immense feeling of obligation—or, alternatively, an inspired mind.

Decluttering is difficult because it often involves the process of removal. Items have a certain weight, composed of both their matter and their mattering, so it is undeniably scary to let something go—to forget, so to say. What is this idea of forgetting, and why does it present itself as something so threatening, so calamitous?

Room-cleaning has traditionally been vilified as an annoyance, a chore. It is a task usually put off until that terrifying, soul-stopping moment when the garage yawns cavernously and the sound of crackling mechanisms signals the return of a parental authority.

The process of upending and rearranging a room’s contents (just to repeat the dreaded cycle in a few weeks or so) is understandably frustrating. This frustration usually occurs when there exists a trap of habit, birthed by a devilish and iconic pair: clutter and excess. However, isn’t that an alluring idea? To have an inventory of every object ever encountered, every thought ever conceived, every memory ever committed?

Humanity has many symptoms, one of which is a steadfast desire to hold on—with an anxious steely grip—to the past, in a way that is not as discriminatory as it often could or should be. But the tragedy is that a space can only hold so much at once, and when presented with limited resources, efficiency is essential.

A dusty old letter that sits in the back of a household junk drawer, with yellowing paper and yellowing meaning, offers very little to a person. But its saving grace is one brief criminal moment: In the middle of organizing and/or purging the local inventory, a folded edge surfaces from the domestic debris for the first time in months or even years, inviting the distracted mind’s attention and inspiring a pitied nostalgia (a likely situation, if the cleaning process is approached without intentionality).

Archived items do indeed have a self-interested sirenic charm. The letter survives, like others of its sort, on the two minutes of attention it receives during the course of countless routine room-cleanings. These items are sentimental squatters, festering in the corners of physical and mental spaces.

The process of cleaning is thus closely tied to time and value. As time weaves on, the meaning of a possession inevitably changes with each shift in context. The same applies to memories and thoughts—the idea of any person, place, or thing is in constant flux.

Experiences build on other experiences, eventually giving rise to civilizations of sentiment that rule the mind. But even the most established civilizations are subject to death and forgetting, to ruins and rubble—and that’s okay. Empires fall, forests burn, and lobsters molt, in the natural interest of clearing the waste and making room for growth.

So, perhaps this chore should be given some more credit in the grand scheme of self-realization. Perhaps cleaning isn’t as meaningless as it might feel, and forgetting isn’t as scary as it seems. Perhaps that handwritten card, from that a person that now exists in a toxic past, isn’t something meant to be kept.

Clearing a physical space is an exercise in mindfulness, minimalism, and meditation. On microcosmic and macrocosmic scales, there exists a constantly renewing cycle of discovery, meaning, forgetting, and release (yes, even in the seemingly mundane task of tidying-up). By prioritizing the most necessary and personally compelling possessions, the path toward efficiency—that is, one attuned to the mindful soul—opens up.

When everything is kept with a distinct intentionality, there is room for the inhale and exhale of existence. There is room for the flow of Qi as a vital and dynamic energy. Stagnation (found in still water, messy junk drawers, etc.) is its adversary. Letting go of the past and its excesses frees up temporal and emotional space, allowing for the creative breath of life to trickle and gush and cascade through.

Once clutter is evicted and forgotten, it becomes easier to discover and remember what is most essential.