Boxing yourself off for a while

an open wooden box of clutter

There's a clutter-reducing trick many people advocate for dealing with the really stubborn, clingy stuff.

You take a box, fill it with the Questionable Clutter, and mark it with a date. Then, over the next weeks or months, if you find yourself truly in need of one of the items, you go back to the box, retrieve it for use, and find a permanent place for it among other like items, kitchen gadgets, the coat closet, what-have-you.

Some versions of the trick have you seal up the box, noting only D-day; some others have you additionally remove it to some hard-to-reach place, like an attic or basement.

The variations matter far less than the act itself: of bringing your attention to something, of cordoning it off and creating distance from it without recklessly, mindlessly tossing it. Because the real lesson in the trick, the exercise, let's call it, is not whether you need this particular hand-juicer or that particular argyle sweater vest: it's to bring your attention to something to create meaning and lasting change. It's to transform yourself through a timed examination of your relationship to objects. And so each of the components of the trick is necessary for the trixercize to work: the cordoning, the distance, and the mindful attention.

This is what sabbaticals are for, I am finally realizing, or at least, what this particular one has been for me. I remove myself from my way of being, set a span of time in which to observe what's needed and what can go, and throughout, do my best to bring my mindful attention to it. How do I feel, not working with clients? Not marketing myself constantly? Or, and much, much more on this to come, marketing myself completely differently? Un-marketing myself.

This is also why, over the course of this sabbatical, I've found it very useful not only to travel a great deal more in general, but to take a couple of extended trips away from Los Angeles, specifically. I was in Ojai for most of August and then, after a two-week turn at home, off to Ojai and the PacNW for a month in September and October. Somewhere in the middle, I felt an insanely strong pull to call it all off, to just stay in L.A. and start working on the various ideas that had begun brewing during my long, daily walks in Ojai. I'd committed to a few things in Portland, though, and am trying to get better about following through on my commitments, so I didn't. And I'm glad I didn't, because the extra four weeks and 2,000 miles of driving distance back and forth from that giant, marked box that is my life here in Los Angeles helped me to see much, much more clearly what I have use for and what can go.

I love my apartment, for example. This surprised me, how much I missed my incredibly modest and even slightly dingy rent-controlled slice of paradise here in an undisclosed sector of Los Angeles. I missed my things a bit, after all, pretty much only the stuff I really love is left. But I missed using those things more: sleeping in my own bed, cooking in my own kitchen, working at my own table, with my own rig set up just as I like it.

I'd go so far as to say that I could dispense with Los Angeles as a location and just have my stuff wherever, but for now, I realized I'd also really miss the incredible light we have here, that for now, I really depend on it. It was far more difficult to stay buoyant in Portland, where, paradoxically (if I'm using that correctly), they were enjoying the sunniest time they've had so far this year. Kill me now.

I realize this is an incredible luxury, being able to take this much time off and away in one chunk. I have definitely relied on the kindness of fine and amazing facilitators to make this happen; I'm blessed with dear and interesting and incredibly generous friends who also happen to jetset it up enough to require housesitting services. Not to mention the staggeringly long list of people who have offered up their spare bedrooms and couches for those in-between times. I'm also in the highly unusual position of having sufficient funds, via savings, investments and dumb luck, to deliberately take time off from pursuing paying work (although sadly, there are a whole lot of people these days with more time off than they'd anticipated having, paying-work-wise.)

Is there a way to do this when one is encumbered by responsibilities? Families, mortgages, debt, local obligations? I think there must be. Not for as long, maybe, and not so dramatic a separation. But I've managed to maneuver myself through other massive transitions, other gigantic lettings-go, by doing it more incrementally. Julia Cameron's tools, the Artist's Date and Morning Pages, are both good for this, as are walks of any length beyond your car to the mall entrance. Walks by water are my main thing, but I'll take a good, long walk anywhere, city streets included, over nothing. In fact, I have been drumming up ways of incorporating more massively long walks into my daily life, like my ingenius friend, Havi, has done.

Maybe the simplest way is this: to set a goal of looking, and some objects or practices to look at, and an end date for the looking. When that date rolls around, you must take some sort of action: a letting-go, a deliberate decision to keep (and an attendant resting time/place for the thing) or, if neither of those are possible, some ideas for concrete help making one of those two things happen.

Something to think about.


Image by Elise Esq via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.