Once a year, I try to get my act together. Enough is enough. The centre cannot hold. Status quo is just not sustainable and serious thoughts need to be thunk, profound depths need to be explored. Life changes must happen before it’s too late.
Yes, I try to clean up the basement. It’s not a New Year’s resolution, though they usually coincide on the calendar. It’s me stuck in the house, with a little time off, after ignoring the basement for many months while I focus on cottage tasks. This includes bringing home from the cottage the perishable stuff – food, paints, cleaning supplies and cordless tool batteries – in large bins, which find their way down the cellar stairs, to be stored until the snows melt and the river rises. I need to find some space while bringing order to the chaos.
Look, we all know it’s a foolish endeavour that will eventually beat me. It’s just too much. And yet, like Sir Edmund Hillary, I know it’s there and I resolve to conquer it. I set up a south base camp near the bottom step, and tentatively set out.
I do make some progress. My collection of suitable plastic bins improves each year, shelves are built or modified, shiny steel hooks hang from floor joists above. Stuff gets closely studied and sorted into keep/discard/recycle/donate bins back at the base camp. Odds and ends, orphaned hardware and parts, are kept on hand – just in case – only slightly more accessible than before. Some items get offered up to the kids in the slow, incremental inheritance that is win-win, or so I choose to believe. I even sell a few things online, so other long-suffering basement cleaners continue to have work for years to come.
I like to think I get more skilled in each attempt. I’ve become a guy who truly appreciates the beauty of a well-stored extension cord. Power tool accessories in good quality plastic organizers really make me feel like all is right in the world. Pegboard hooks were obviously invented by a genius who saw far into the future a world that desperately needed order. Old-timey mailing labels, combined with black marker and bits of string, provide a degree of memory retention elephants would surely envy.
Each year, things are going well for a time. I’m making more progress than in my previous exploits; still the summit seems barely closer. Suddenly, without warning, I hit a wall and decide I’m just not going to make it.
It’s too simple to say that one thing defeats me. I’m sure Hillary managed to overcome nasty weather and damaged equipment. Maybe some days he just didn’t feel like climbing and chose to read a good book in the relative comfort of his tent. If he was climbing in current days, he may have chosen to binge-watch The Crown with his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay. Going higher would just mess with their signal quality and he has to know how the Diana plotline ends. (Spoiler alert: It ends badly.)
Perhaps a loyal Sherpa to sort through the seasonal decorations and mementos of younger years is what I need. Ruthlessly, without sentimentality or consideration of cost. Instead of a pile at base camp, where the discarded remains would be a constant temptation for reconsideration, non-crucial supplies would be gone. I’m sure Norgay might have said, “Look Edmund, I am not carrying 11 decorative wreaths, your stamp collection and several unused flowerpots up that friggin’ slope.” If only it were that easy to relinquish the responsibility of decision-making.
Stinging with defeat, failing yet again to reach the second-round of the playoffs, I turn my mind to other disorganized places in my life. Maybe I need to turn my efforts in a different direction. Perhaps mountain-climbing isn’t my thing after all?
What about my photos, haphazardly stored on multiple hard drives? Oh boy, I’ve tried this direction before. Many times. The guy who built this path did not plan ahead. (Why do we keep letting him continue path-building? Can we offer him a buyout?)
I literally have hundreds of thousands of image files on those hard drives. I have tens of thousands of unique images. How can these two sentences co-exist? This photographer gave no thought to the redundancy he was creating, storing the same photos in multiple drives and directories with nothing labeled properly. The path zigs and zags and splits into seemingly countless intersections. Good luck with that, faithful Sherpa. Sure, you’ve got some electronic tools to assist you, but even then, you will need steely resolve and ability to focus for weeks on end, while staring at the results of too long burst shots that create dozens of almost identical images. Blame the photographer. He can be a lot of work.
Case in point: My wife asked me this week about a photograph on my laptop’s screensaver. Tulips in the spring sunlight, yellow and white, looking just lovely on this cold winter’s day. Could she have the photo for her business website? Sure. That seems simple, but it turns out the photo is a heavily edited image, good enough to capture the moment, but not of sufficient quality to send to her web developer. I needed the original.
The image’s file information told me I took it on May 28, 2018. I found it after a search for all photos taken on that date. The search took close to an hour, the laptop chugging slowly through the past 15 years of my digital photography journey. This is what I’m up against. It’s daunting.
So maybe it’s me. Maybe what I need to organize lies within me. My mind, my routines, my bad habits that regularly overwhelm my good ones.
However, trying to sort out my mind has challenges that might make my basement, or my photos, look like easy work. It’s a mess in there right now. My daughter gave me a book for Christmas about the art of being still. I couldn’t read it. I literally need to learn to be still to read a book to teach me to be still.
I used to think that, as you get older, it just gets harder to access bits of your brain. I now realize that there’s much more than science at work here. My brain needs a good spring cleaning. I didn’t give enough thought to how I needed to store things in there! Every day I throw something else in. Memories, facts, names, grocery lists, plans for dinner, plans for dinners next week, plans for work, plans for retirement, internet memes. 1970’s Oscar winners. The mind boggles. Seriously, I needed to take a moment to be certain that “boggles” is what the mind actually does. Did you know that boggling is both bewildering and overwhelming? I looked it up. And now I need to find room for that in my mind too.
Organizing my mind doesn’t benefit from the few meagre tricks I’ve slowly learned with the basement. I can’t recycle thoughts, although that might be what I’m doing right now. Nope, now we both have them. Donating to a local charity, selling them at a yard sale, chucking them in the garbage? No progress. I still have them.
I also can’t choose what to keep close at hand. The names of work contacts that I will be speaking to in a month? Beats me. I’ll need to look them up, right before the meeting. Walking into the edge of a classroom door after an oral presentation in grade 8? Sure, that memory is available any time, whether I want it, or not.
Therapy is an option, but not an easy solution. Unlike the Sherpa, the therapist would expect me to actually still do the work. They won’t make the decisions for me, deciding what memories are not productive or valuable or just kinda fun to keep handy. It makes me wonder – what would a mind Sherpa actually leave behind? Imagine the barren landscape resulting from that kind of process. No mountain left to conquer. No bad habits, no lessons learned from all the mistakes you’ve made in the past, no laughing at the many misadventures that you survived. No collection of bits and bobs that mean nothing to anyone but you, kept handy, just in case you need them someday.
So, maybe messy minds, and basements, are ok after all. I will learn to live with mine. My annual journey into the depths keeps the chaos in check and that may be just enough. There’s always a surprise – something I kept and forgot about – that sidetracks the process for a few minutes. And my mind, like my messy hard drives, is where I unexpectedly find memories of places and people that bring a smile to my face.
In that spirit, I’m going to forget about climbing that mountain, at least for today. I have laundry to fold and put away. Perhaps I’ll organize my socks and underwear drawer. It’s only a small hill to climb and I won’t need a guide. While it might not help my state of mind much, it’s a start.
Dad to daughters. Makes his wife laugh. Chief cook and bottle tilter. Proud owner of two sheds. Prefers looking through a lens, reading off paper, music over silence, movement over meditation. If there’s a hereafter, he hopes it has a waterfront view, nice lineup of cordless tools and a well-stocked workshop.