Clearing Space for the Real Me

The urge to purge leads Lisa Schwarzbaum to a powerful revelation

by Lisa Schwarzbaum
Photograph: Shout

I think we can agree: Six small silver-plated pâté knives with a ceramic approximation of grapes glued to each handle, nestled in a box the size of a smartphone and stored in a sideboard drawer behind a stash of eco lightbulbs, do not qualify as clutter. In fact, considering their provenance—passed along to me by my mother, who was given them long ago by a glamorous houseguest in a midcentury age of silver-plated hostess gifts—they might even be regarded as heirlooms. Vintage, surely. I’ve thought of them as, well, if not family treasures then at least sweet little objets that connect me to my mother, and the gracious art of home entertaining, and the rich life of social stimulation I will lead when I, too, someday entertain in a manner requiring pâté spreaders.

And so I’ve kept these virgin utensils for, oh, two decades now—until around the time I left a job I had held for just about as long. Home on a weekday (having winnowed my office mementos down to a vase, an inflatable exercise ball, four file folders of funny memos and a perfectly good stash of ibuprofen and contact lens solution), I stood in the middle of my living room, contemplating the options in my new life, and it hit me: I will never be a woman who uses pâté spreaders. Cutlery-based home entertaining is not my interest. And that’s OK! Not only that, but I will never read my paperback copy of Gail Sheehy’s Passages again. And that’s OK, too! Furthermore, I won’t wear seven of the 12 T-shirts I take out each summer from a plastic storage bin under the bed and put on the closet shelf, just as I haven’t worn them for the past six years. Plus, there’s a pillow on my couch I’ve always hated, given to me by an old boyfriend, and a barely used expensive shampoo with a scent that bugs me, and an extra set of measuring spoons, and . . . come to think of it, that vase from the office is nothing much. I’ve got three I like better.

Hooray! I made a big pile in the middle of the living room. I ripped things up—turned T-shirts into rags, yellowed paperbacks into recycling. I took stuff to a thrift shop (good-bye, pâté knives). I tossed gym shoes, a ho-hum 25-year-old bedroom rug and four-year-old boxes of grains I once bought when I planned to cook Very Healthy. And I did all this not so much in a made-for-HGTV purge as in a revelation: I know, better than ever, who I am. Along with which comes an understanding of who I’m not. At least, who I am no longer.

Once I would have kept the silver plate, the pillow and the T-shirt that says Freud Museum/Hampstead (15 years old and an unfaded red) because they connect me to my past, offering a reassuring sense of continuity. (I’m also not without heart: Want to see the clothes my mother sewed for my baby dolls? I’ll never let them go.) But also, once I would have thought, Well, maybe someday I’ll be the kind of woman who ______ , and won’t it be nice, then, to have ______ on hand.

Now I think, How satisfying to feel great in any of the five T-shirts I do keep on my closet shelf. How thrilling to let go of old self-images that no longer reflect the real me. And how exciting to see space in my home—space for more books as I read on into the future, and space for new shoes, yes, if I want them, but also space to see possibility, nothing but possibility, for how I want to live now.

LISA SCHWARZBAUM was a film critic at Entertainment Weekly.

Next: Age of Enlightenment: Reaching a Spiritual Peak

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First published in the February 2014 issue

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During a recent clean-up to get our house ready to go on the market, I unearthed a stash of yarn, knitting needles, crochet hooks and so on. Some of the yarn I had hauled across three states over the course of ten years. That was because I am a Skilled Crafter Who Makes Beautiful Wooly Things. Oh wait, no I'm not. I hate yarn crafts. I bundled everything up and donated it to a senior center where, hopefully, it has already been turned into sweaters and baby blankets.

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