by Debra Landwehr Engle
When I was writing Twenty, I thought about what I’d do if I were Meg, the main character. How would I spend my next twenty days if I thought they might be my last twenty days?
One of the first things that came to mind? Clean my closets.
Well, not just my closets. My drawers. My office. The storage room. The garage. The attic. The kitchen. The laundry room. The glove compartment in my SUV.
And not just clean, but clear out. De-clutter. Let go.
I’m definitely not the only one to think this way. In fact, as I finished writing Twenty, I Googled this question: What would you do if you only had a few days to live? Almost every respondent mentioned getting rid of stuff.
Bag it all up and take it to Goodwill. Donate it to a local shelter. Set up a bonfire in the backyard and burn it. Somehow, some way, release the attachments to physical things.
I’d like to think I could do that without an ultimate deadline. Maybe I could use the same technique my older sister and I employed when we were little. When our bedroom needed cleaning (which was all the time), we played a game of Concentration.
We’d lay out 52 cards face down and then turn over two at a time to see if they matched. If they did, we had to put away the same number of items as the number on the cards. If we turned over two sixes, we had to put away six items. (Notice we didn’t add the two cards together and put away twelve items. The games went on for a looong time.)
Since my sister and I loved playing cards and didn’t love cleaning, this was a creative solution. But, of course, by the next day, we were stepping over tennis shoes and Tiger Beat magazines all over again.
Today, when I look around at the stacks of books, folders and notes in my office, I remember that I’ve never been a “place for everything and everything in its place” kind of person. That’s why I’m summoning help.
In a couple of weeks, a young woman who has started a de-cluttering business will come to our house with a single goal: To companion me out of the chaos and into a new world of clean surfaces and streamlined shelves.
When I see her car turn into our driveway, I may run to meet her and roll out a red carpet for her to walk on. She’s that much of a celebrity to me.
It’s not that I can’t get organized. The sweaters and blouses in our bedroom closet are arranged in color groupings. The spices in my kitchen cupboard line up alphabetically. Boxes of tissue, paper towels and toilet paper share a dedicated shelf in the hall closet.
But in the lower level of our home, where my desk drawers and storeroom reside, the problem is simple. Too. Much. Stuff.
Actually, though, it’s more than that.
Too. Many. Decisions.
It’s easy to shelve paper products together and throw out the empty boxes when the tissues are gone. There’s no emotional attachment to those consumable goods.
But that’s not the case with the greeting cards from friends, family and readers that spill out of a basket on my desk. And the basket itself? I carried it home from a trip to Africa. How could I part with that?
Almost everything in my office and storeroom carries emotion, memories, potential. If I pick up any random item and ask the excellent Marie Kondo question, “Does this bring me joy?” the answer is almost always yes.
So that’s why Madison, my celebrity of an organizer, will soon become my BFF. She will be my ultimate deadline.
Like Meg, I will go through every piece of paper, every outdated skirt and blouse, every Halloween decoration that sits in my office even though we just celebrated the New Year. Unlike Meg, I will have a different motivation—not the possibility that I’m living my last days, but that I could live all my days better.
How much do I need to do this? The answer showed up in a dream I had last night, in which a man was interviewing me over the phone. He asked me the most essential question: “What’s your name?”
In the dream, I told him my first name. But I couldn’t for the life of me remember my last. So I went flying around my office, searching for one of my books so I could see the name on the cover.
I couldn’t find one. Why?
Too. Much. Stuff.
I figure when stuff gets in the way of your identity, it’s time to make a change. Lighten the load. Remove the stacks of resistance.
I know this will make space for new possibilities, just as it did for my friend Diane, who believes that de-cluttering her home paved the way for her to meet the man who is now her husband. Old energy out. New energy in.
Madison may think she’ll be teaching me new techniques for tossing and storing my stuff. But there’s more to it than that.
She’ll be showing me a better way to live. No card game required.
At age fifty-five, Meg’s life is too filled with loss for her to remember what magic feels like. All she has left is a yard brimming with plants that are wilting in the scorching Iowa summer—and a bone-deep feeling that she’s through with living.
Meg has something else too: a bottle of mysterious pills, given to her years ago by an empathetic doctor. He promised that they would offer her dying mother a quick, painless end in exactly twenty days. Though her mother never needed them, Meg does. But a strange thing happens after Meg swallows the little green pearls . . .
Now that she’s decided to leave this world, Meg is rediscovering the joy in it. She sheds everything she no longer needs—possessions, regrets, guilt—and reconnects with those she cares for. Finally confronting the depth of her grief, she’s learning that love runs deeper still. But is it too late to choose to stay?