Yesterday there were 11,603 emails in my gmail inbox, 5,081 of them unread, of which 72 are from Brooks Brothers, who have been sending me increasingly hysterical, now twice-daily, notifications about their sale. Usually it is more trouble to delete an email than to skim past it, but clearly this has to change. It is a kind of passive digital hoarding. Yesterday, the younger daughter kept me company and offered opinions as I emptied out dresser drawers and purged clothes. I let her have my Beached at Bellevue’s t-shirt from our friends’ party at a Hell’s Kitchen restaurant in the fun 90s. And now I am diving into the wreck, with you and my old cat to keep me company, to declutter my inbox.
The oldest emails are from December 2008. We have advertised for a nanny on The Gumtree. Each response tells a story. One of the women who responded was a French national champion boxer. One applicant writes, “Need to inform that i have 2 years son, and will be having him with me while serving at your house/home.” The applicant pool always reveals little data points about what the current scene was in terms of who was coming from where (then Turkey, South America); and I am reminded of the incredible stress of assessing the sanity and trustworthiness of a parade of strangers to whom you would be handing over essentially your entire life: the wellbeing of your children, the keys to your house, the cats, and most of my salary. Mostly it worked out well, but this round is on the heels of a disaster, which means I am doubting my judgement.
Some candidates had fantastic qualifications, some wrote really personable letters. Some people never turned up for the interview. One person wrote afterwards: “hi dear are u still interested in appointing me pls let me know and i m sorrry i was not available on the said day bcoz of some personal reason.” I find that I am unable to revisit this correspondence. I do a search for all Gumtree emails, more than 100, and hit delete. I don’t want to go back to that time.
What is the purpose of saving anything? What wisdom can I pull out of this in retrospect? What did I find amidst all of the logistics emails, those short exchanges about arrival times and birthday presents and tennis and kids’ activities that pile up like so much powdery snow that caves in windows.
The beauty of the unsubscribe option
If you haven’t been opening those newsletter emails, unsubscribe. Stop worrying that you will miss a sale or a great recipe. Unsubscribe. Get less. Go seek.
The forgotten detail
From a letter I sent to friends in London and family in America about our initial repatriation, a sign in front of a church: “Will your eternal home be smoking or non-smoking?”
The good friend
A friend wrote to say goodbye when we left London. She states that she is not good with goodbyes but that our friendship has been important and we will be missed. I love that she wrote it.
The prophetic detail
My older daughter, describing her state of mind five years ago, had said, “I feel that I am stuck in a bramble of worries,” poetic and also upsetting; we haven’t been able to free her from the thicket yet and we had no idea at the time how apt her words were though they were part of what had prompted us to seek help.
Learn to be ruthless
By the end of the day I have chipped away at this accumulation and gotten the number down to 5,452, which is still horrific, it’s still stacks of newspaper in the hallway, folded milk carton crazy, and I know that I have to keep at it and also put some rules in place to keep this stuff from piling up, like just delete the junk when it comes in, don’t save the stuff that you can find elsewhere, like amazon order emails, but what else? What about the letters that matter, from your parents and your friends? What do you do? I heard some grisly story about hoarders trapped under the rubble of their own hoardings. Softly falls the snow. Each request to rate this or that, each 5kb of thanks, thought you would enjoy this, great to see you, adds up although you are not constructing a narrative that will amount to anything. There will never be time to follow each trail to the truth of a person or a situation by these slight wisps that will just weigh you down without any substance. But to delete the email is to erase some part of the person, it feels unkind, though of course that is just the kind of thinking that turns you into a person with thousands of emails and no time or reason to tunnel back into them.
As I scrolled through the last five years, observing the rise and fall of friendships and affiliations, the pool newsletters, the team sign-ups, the volunteer rotas, the footprints of our family, my husband had been watching a wilderness survival show. At the end of the episode, the host delivers the epilogue. Quoting the gospel of home organizers and capsule wardrobe bloggers everywhere, he says, “When you strip away the clutter it allows you to focus on the things that are really important.”
To quote the poem I referenced at the start of the post, let me leave you with a few lines:
And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
you breathe differently down here.
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
—from “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich
So, happy new year, readers, friends, family, people whose emails I have been re-reading today. Thanks for sharing the journey; for keeping me company; for existing, for reading and writing. I have tarried in the murky deep all day and look forward to the clear light of tomorrow, a little more focused and able to hack away at the brambles in 2015.