The Space Available

Stuff expands to fit the space available – plus two boxes.

That’s what my cousin says.

I have lived in my condo for over 20 years. When I first looked at the place, it was empty. One of the things that sold me, in addition to the location and the large patio with space to garden, was the closet space.

Lots of closet space – large closets in each of the two bedrooms, two hall closets, a linen closet in the bathroom, and a walk-in closet off the living room.

All those closets are full now. My stuff has expanded to fit the space available, and then some.

This is why I periodically go into decluttering mode. My available space, all 860 square feet of it, would be a lot more livable if I didn’t have so much stuff.

Getting a larger place, with the cost of real estate in the Bay Area, is not an option. Besides, as I get older, I’m not sure I want to take care of a larger place. It’s all I can do to keep up with this one.

Besides, it’s just me and a bunch of cats. How much space do I need?

Well, it’s more than that. There are the books, the papers, the collections, the furniture. I’m not a hoarder. Believe me, I’ve seen hoarders and I don’t belong in that group. But I will admit to some pack rat tendencies.

I’m a writer, a paper magnet. If I ever had an idea for a novel or story and wrote it down, I have that piece of paper. Who knows, I might use that idea some day. That’s not like saving yogurt containers because I might use them again. At least I don’t think so.

There are fewer books than there used to be, but still a lot. I go through the books regularly. I’ve even shed several bookcases.

Sometimes it’s hard to part with books, but I ask myself: Will I read this again? Do I need it for research? Do I keep this for sentimental or emotional reasons? Depending on those answers, the book goes into the box that’s destined for the Friends of the Library book sale. I tell myself, I read that book, I enjoyed it, and now it’s time to pass it on to another reader.

The latest iteration of my decluttering derby involves clothing and shoes. It’s been two years since I retired. I don’t dress up to work outside my home any more. I never dressed up that much anyway, since my day jobs were on the casual side when it came to work attire. But since I retired, I can work at my computer in anything I please.

I’ve been meaning to tackle my overstuffed clothes closet for months. I finally got to it this weekend. After several hours’ work, I have three large shopping bags full of clothing, ready to be donated. Much of what is going hasn’t been worn for quite a while. Many items no longer fit my body, or my lifestyle.

So it’s time to pass that clothing on to someone else who will enjoy it.

Next up, the coat closet and the chest of drawers. At the end of my labors, my available space will be much more livable.

Clearing Away the Clutter

My condominium is 859 square feet, according to the various bits and pieces of paper I have in my files. When I first looked at the place 20-plus years ago, it seemed quite large. Well, it was empty when my real estate agent and I unlocked the door. I remember thinking, wow, all that closet space!

Of course, all the rooms, and the closets, are now full. As my cousin Susan says, stuff expands to fit the space available, plus two boxes.

So the condo feels small now. But it really should be adequate space for me and a bunch of cats. After all, the cats don’t take up that much room (unless they all decide to sleep on the bed with me).

It’s the stuff. Too much stuff.

I’ve been cleaning my office as long as I’ve lived here. At least that’s what it feels like. I have a lifetime accumulation of books and assorted knick-knacks. Some of these have sentimental value, such as books that have been signed and personalized to me. As for the knick-knacks, they have sentimental value, too, such as that vase that belonged to my Great Aunt Flora.

Then there are those files of newspaper clippings, saved because they that might possibly find their way into a book. They sometimes do. I once clipped a small article from the San Francisco Chronicle and kept it tacked up on my work station, vowing that I would use it, some day. And I did. It wound up as an important plot point in Bit Player.

I’m such a paper magnet. Through the years I’ve written down story ideas and notes for plots. I still have all those pieces of paper. If I ever get writer’s block, I’ll know which file folders to mine for material.

At least I got rid of the old bank statements that went back years. The old contracts for books that are no longer in print? I think I’ll scan those and shred the paper.

Letters, remember those? Missives written before the advent of email? I save letters. The ones from my grandmother are tucked away in a folder, and they are important to me. So are letters from my mother.

What do I save? And what do I throw away? That’s a question Jeri Howard asks in Bit Player, as she sorts through old letters written by her grandmother to solve a decades-old mystery.

And that’s just the office we’re discussing. The dresser drawers? The closet of clothes I haven’t worn since I retired? Well, I’ve started a donation bag. That’s a step in the right direction.

I have reached the stage of life where I want to downsize. All that stuff I have feels like it’s dragging me down. I want to have less stuff.

However, getting rid of stuff is not a matter of opening a large garbage bag and sweeping the offending stuff into the bag. For me, at least, clearing away the clutter is a very personal thing. It involves going through the stuff to decide what to keep and what to throw away. Sometimes the answer to that conundrum varies, depending on the mood I’m in at the time. It could be, “Why am I keeping this?” Or it could be, “Maybe I’ll need this someday.”

I’m not at the “Hoarder” stage yet but sometimes I wonder. At least I got a short story out of the subject. It’s a cautionary tale, called “Pack Rat.”

Setting and Reaching My Goals – Or Not

Earlier this summer I set a goal for myself – to write a thousand words a day on my work-in-progress, Death Deals a Hand.

So far it’s working.

Each writing day I note the word count when I start, and then again when I stop for the day. As the word counter in the corner of my computer monitor increases, I resolve to keep at it until I see the magic number. Sometimes I keep going until I’ve produced even more words – got to two thousand words one day.

As a result, I’m making a lot of progress on this second novel in the California Zephyr series. And that’s a good thing.

I’ve set another goal, to exercise each day. Most days that involves riding my spiffy blue bicycle. Walking, check. Trying out that tai chi class, check. I certainly feel better when I exercise.

I wish I could say that goal-setting works in other aspects of my life. Cleaning out closets, not so good. Shedding that ten pounds I’d like to lose, also not so good.

I have a walk-in closet off my living room that is the de facto catch-all space. If I want to hide something and don’t know where else to put it, the object, or objects, get shoved into that closet. No wonder I can’t find anything! It’s hidden behind all that stuff.

And the closet in my office? Forget it. When I open it, I’m afraid something is going to fall on my head.

Beyond the obvious problem of too little storage space in my small condo, there are reasons, I suppose for the failure of goal-setting to solve the problem of closet clutter.

I enjoy writing, so the time spent in producing those thousand words is pleasurable. Once I get into my plot and my characters’ heads, the time goes by quickly.

I also enjoy riding my bike and walking, so that helps in reaching my exercise goal.

But cleaning out closets? Who likes cleaning out closets? It’s not enjoyable. It’s not fun. Although there is that bonus of finding a wearable piece of clothing I forgot I had.

Ah, well. At least I’m meeting two of my goals.

Thinning Out The Books

The workers are coming later this week to begin repairs that need to be done in the bedrooms. In preparation for this, I must empty out the bookcases closest to the area where they’ll be working, so the furniture can be moved out of the way.

It’s a good opportunity for my periodic exercise in thinning out the books.

As a writer and avid reader, I find it difficult to part with books. It has been an effort to get to the point where I do thin out the books from time to time.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. My mother was forever telling me to get my nose out of that book and go outside and play.

When I was a youngster living in Lamar, a small town in southeastern Colorado, I would pedal my bicycle down to the old Carnegie library on Main Street (unfortunately torn down in the 1970s). I remember that old building with the creaky wooden floors and all those books, there for the taking. I’d come out with an armful of books, six or seven at a time, and stash them in my bike basket for the ride home. A couple of days later, I would have read all those books, and it was back on the bike to return them and check out another armful.

Old Carnegie Library, Lamar, Colorado. Unfortunately torn down for an ugly modern building.

Old Carnegie Library, Lamar, Colorado.

When we moved to Broomfield, Colorado, the library was an easy walk away. It’s the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Public Library. Mrs. Eisenhower grew up in the Denver area, and she and President Dwight Eisenhower were there in July 1963 to dedicate the building. I was there, too, along with a big crowd. I shook hands with Mamie and Ike!

As I got older, in my college days and after, I started buying books. I still have some of those musty old paperbacks. My interests widened and my disposable income increased. I bought still more books, many of them hardcover.

Once I became a published writer, I bought even more books, by people I knew or had met at conventions. The books were double- and triple-shelved and I solved the problem of more space by buying more bookcases. I got out of the habit of going to the library, and bought the book instead.

Then I ran out of places to put bookcases.

My home is small. I’ve reached an age where I want less stuff.

Several years ago I did a major culling of the bookshelves. At first I thought, I can’t do this. I slept on it for a night, thinking, I have to do something. There are books I want to keep for various reasons, including sentimental attachments to some of those musty paperbacks. Or the fact that I can’t or don’t wish to replace the paperback with a hardcover. There are books I want to keep for research, or my interest in the subject.

I devised a mantra that serves me well when it’s time to thin out the books. I’ve read this, I’m not going to read it again (yes, I do reread books), so it’s time to let go of this book and let someone else enjoy it. Saying that to myself as I go through the bookshelves helps me do the necessary pruning.

Over the years, the Friends of the Library have benefitted from my thinning out those bookshelves. I have reduced the number of bookcases, and it’s great to reclaim that space for other things I’m interested in, like sewing. I have gone back to the library. In fact, I check books out from several. If Alameda doesn’t have the book I seek, Oakland, Berkeley and the University of California usually do. Now that I have a Kindle, I buy digital versions.

Still, getting rid of books is hard. I was heartened to read a recent New York Times interview with Walter Mosley that touched on this subject. Here’s what the author of the Easy Rawlins series had to say in response to a question about his personal book collection:

“I am proud to say that I give away or sell at little to no profit almost all of my books. I have mentioned a few favorites earlier, but as a rule I don’t believe in keeping books. After I have read, reread and reread a book it seems sinful to keep such a reservoir of fun and knowledge fallow on a shelf. Books are meant to be read, and if I’m not reading them then someone else should get the opportunity.”

Thanks, Walter. I feel a whole lot better about thinning out the books.

What We Keep, What We Throw Away

In January 2012, I wrote a post for this blog wondering if this would be the year I finally cleaned my office.

As I suspected at the time, I’m still cleaning it, going through files and papers, tossing and sorting.

Making slow progress, emphasis on slow. But progress nonetheless. Once again the Friends of the Library book sale benefits from my periodic forays through the bookshelves.

In some respects, parting with books is easier that going through the accumulated paper.

In the earlier blog post, I mentioned keeping letters, and how glad I was that I have a packet of letters written by my long-departed grandmother. Now I rarely get letters, in this era of e-mail communication. I get e-mails, and periodically I go through and delete those.

I read an article recently that talked about how much electronic data people have stored up there in the cloud, the 21st century equivalent of the storage locker.

That got me to thinking about my writing process. Used to be I’d print out the book as I wrote it. The journey of writing my most recent published book, What You Wish For, was long, with many twists and turns and revisions. As a result, I have multiple versions of the book, enough to fill a couple of banker’s boxes. Those versions are also on the computer. Now that the book is in print, it’s time for those papers to go, so I can free up some space in the closet.

I’ve noticed that I no longer print out the books as I go. Where I used to edit and revise with a pile of manuscript pages and a pencil, I’m doing it on the computer. The pile of paper for Bit Player and the recently completed Death Rides The Zephyr is much smaller, although the latter, the train book, has a file box of research material accompanying the manuscript.

The impetus for this most recent spurt of decluttering, in addition to freeing up some real estate in my office, is a yearly trip, with a friend, to the commercial shredder. Together we collect our boxes of paper and haul them to the place with the industrial-strength machines that will chew up old tax records, statements from various accounts, and other things I wouldn’t want to toss in the recycle bin.

Much of the paper I used to receive now comes to me electronically. My bank statement is posted online. I access it by logging onto my account and then I print it out to reconcile it. The bills come via e-mail notification and the money is drawn automatically from my account. I deposit checks by endorsing them, then photographing them with my smart phone. All of this is convenient, but it still clutters up that data cloud I mentioned.

Then there’s clutter of another sort. Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads – and blogs. Keeping up with all of this eats up time, a precious commodity that would be better spent writing the next book. But the marketing aspect of writing has always been a double-edged sword. We write the books and then we must let people know the books are out there.

I find as I get older I’m saying “no” more often.

Enough rumination. Back to my piles of paper, deciding what to keep and what to throw away.


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