A Clean Slate

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“We are always getting ready to live but never living.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

I

I’ve spent a week being pissed off. Like, at the world. 

When I don’t know what else to do, I travel. Except now I can’t because air travel is banned where I am. So I do the next best thing when I don’t know what else to do: I declutter.

In preparation to eventually move, I think of what I’ll take with me and the list isn’t long: clothes, sandals, basic toiletries. Laptop, phone, kindle. Wallet, notebook, pen. Swimsuit, body brush, sunglasses. 

I think of the sentimental items I’ll store: hand-sewn quilts made up of layers of my mother’s saris (when I got divorced, I gave my ex all he wanted from our home – which was basically everything – but when he asked for these quilts, I said, nuh-uh because they’re like my mother hugging me). A few handmade gifts from friends. Some items are bulky but this list too is short. 

Everything else I own can be sold or donated. Even though the time for me to pack up my life and move on is not on the immediate horizon, I enjoy the idea of it. In large part because it gives me some semblance of being in control over my life right now. 

II

We’re in week 11 of the lockdown. I’m not allowed to step out the gates of my building. So, instead, I open my closet to make piles of clothes I know I don’t want to wear again. I see outfits that belonged to another era of my life – one that attended film premieres, for example – and find it easy to let them all go. I fling them into bags ready to donate once it becomes possible. I do the same with my kitchen. 

I miss what feels now like an unspeakable luxury of eating out and ordering in. After months of trying, I finally get a delivery slot from a supermarket, and I order things like chips, pasta and sliced bread, just so I can have a breather from the never-ending cooking and cleaning. I want dinner to be something I can dunk into a pot of boiling water (or toast) and eat in minutes. But I bloat up (from the gluten?) and feel like shit. 

So I start to pull out all the physical books on my shelf that I no longer need for work, or will re-read for pleasure, or (honestly) even actually start to read in the first place. I’m left with exactly four books: a coffee-table hardcover on handmade interiors, a book about drawing, a biography of a Bangladeshi artist I’m obsessed with, and a replica my cousin found of my favourite childhood book of Bengali poems by Sukumar Ray.

(The mark of a true Bengali, in my opinion, is how readily they can quote from this collection. I bonded with strangers once when a friend and I began to jokingly recite one in unison at an office in Bombay, only for other (previously unbeknownst) Bengalis to start standing up from their respective seats across the open office and join us in our recitation – it was like something out of a (very geeky, Bengali) movie, maybe our version of Dead Poets Society.)

III

My upstairs neighbours have been given notice by their landlord for being generally shitty tenants but they can’t move out until the lockdown ends. Where previously my complaints would at least temporarily stop them from grinding spices and moving furniture above my head at 2am, now they don’t care because they already have one foot out. 

This building has an odd design where things they throw out their windows can land in my space, in what is a semi-balcony. Now, usually people are not cretins who throw shit out their windows. But my upstairs neighbours are cretins who do exactly that. Not just cigarettes and matches but also rubbish like plastic bottles, a chair leg, soiled clothing, metal spoons (inexplicably, several of them). 

So I focus on organising my home office. I had custom designed a small wooden storage cabinet to have a shelf for my hanging files, another shelf for a paper tray, and a small drawer for office supplies. My printer-scanner-copier sits on top of the unit. I was so thrilled with this, my all-in-one self-contained mini office on wheels. 

During the lockdown, I learn how to add electronic signatures to my documents (which I previously managed by printing, signing then scanning the documents). I realise too that now the countries where I file taxes accept everything digitally. I search but can’t find one reason why I still need to keep physical hard copy papers of anything any more. 

I decide to go paper-free. This means I don’t need a printer-scanner, or the realms of printer paper, or printer cartridges. I don’t need the metal trays and hanging files I’d painstakingly sourced to store documents. I don’t need a stapler, staple pins, hole punch, paperclips, glue stick, plastic folders, envelopes or any other stationery. I don’t, in fact, require this neatly designed, self-contained home office unit on wheels at all. 

The only thing I really need is my fountain pen and ink bottle. I was inspired by my brother-in-law last year to switch to a fountain pen (preferable to throwing away countless disposable pens into a landfill over a lifetime). I tried out dozens of pens before finding one that felt as if it was an extension of my hand. (I remember in my childhood that gifting fountain pens used to be A Thing; while I applaud the sustainability aspect of it, I feel it would be like choosing someone else’s hiking boots for them, it’s that unique to each person.) I further personalised the writing process by choosing a bottle of chocolate brown ink (my favourite). Along with a notebook, this is all the stationery I need now. Who would’ve thunk it?

IV

I am super discerning about news and other input. But to my horror, people I know as well as podcast hosts I (previously) respected start spewing conspiracy theories about the virus. Oh, like there’s not enough to deal with! Urgh! I’m repulsed by their hostile and unhelpful rhetoric. I needed something significant to counteract this one. 

A week into the lockdown, my beloved laptop swelled up like a pregnant lady. The swelling was due to an expanded battery – which could explode any minute. Yikes. But all stores near me were closed. 

A friend found someone who could do a monthly loan on a laptop. This allowed me to work, blog, record and edit my storytelling videos, and comfortably do video calls.

The loaned laptop didn’t have much storage space so I was counting the days until I could buy my own new computer. Electronic shops finally reopened, and I got my new machine this past week. Oh, to have my life back! It is embarrassing to admit just how ecstatic I was by this.

Hand-labelled jars and colour-coordinated my closet is nothing compared to my beautifully organised digital filing system. It is truly my pride and joy. Over the years, I perfected the categories and sub-categories so I could locate any document I needed in seconds. Transferring it all over to my new machine would feel as if I was, at last, “home”.

When my shiny new laptop arrived some days ago, I was dismayed that Apple changed the ports again. I’m nervous about cloud storage security (sue me), so I back up mostly to a hard drive, but my USB wouldn’t fit the new ports. 

I asked my sister how my niece transferred her data as she too recently got the same laptop. My sister said my niece didn’t transfer anything over.

I had never even considered the possibility of such a thing. I don’t know why, because I’ve given away all my possessions each time I’ve moved continents every few years. I’ve in fact revelled in the opportunity to start the next chapter of my life with just a small carry-on case of personal items, then building whatever I need from there for wherever I am at that moment – literally and metaphorically. 

Yet I dutifully transported my digital life from laptop to laptop, just like that box of Stuff people take with them whenever they move, even if they haven’t actually unpacked it for a decade. 

I spend a few days going through everything I’d accumulated digitally over some 25 years. I used the same criteria for my physical Stuff: do I need this right now? 

Items from the past have to be relevant today. When I feel clutchy, I think of my mother who has zero photos from her childhood, yet the lack of photographic evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. 

Then there are the things I keep for the future in case I need it some day (my problem area). It’s fascinating listening to the inner dialogue of my mind as I let go of things I haven’t actually used in years, yet another part of my brain keeps challenging it – but what if, what if…?

I discard hundreds of photos, keeping only those of my friends and family that make me smile. I release old relationships in the process. I let go of dozens of music albums that I only half listened to; this is the equivalent of that dress that looks great on the hanger but when I put it on, something about it feels “off” and I put it back in favour of what I truly love. 

I expunge old work files. I let go of projects that never happened yet now feel obsolete. For significant projects I still like, I keep the final product but remove the drafts and edits that led up to it, as well as all the supplementary and research material. 

I don’t “migrate” my emails from my old machine, but start with only what is currently in my in-box, a handful waiting for my response.

I delete several hundred names from my address book. I even remove all the titles on my Netflix wishlist and my Amazon kindle list online because I hate feeling as if I’m chasing a horizon, always two steps away from “finally” catching up with myself. 

I give myself the gift of a clean slate. 

I wish I had a deep moral tale to share about this experience. Sadly I don’t. Except that it just feels AMAZING. 

And when I’m under lockdown for so long, missing fresh air and sunshine (not to mention hugging trees and hugging friends), with dreadful upstairs neighbours, feeling trapped in a cycle of never-ending cooking and cleaning, while accidentally hearing vile conspiracy theories – I’ll take what I can get. Which, interestingly, actually means letting it all go. 

“I chipped away all that wasn’t David.” — Michelangelo, on creating the world’s most famous sculpture.

This week on nupupress.com: Three Things I Learnt From Working With a Terrible Boss. And they’re still useful to me today.

Related Recommendations

I adore this charming weekly series on YouTube by filmmaker and actor John Krasinski called Some Good News (SGN) that highlights people doing kind and funny things for each other in these trying times. My favourites include Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and Malala Yousafzai giving advice to students graduating under lockdown. And the cast of Hamilton singing to a young fan who couldn’t see them live. Each episode makes me tear up with the goodness of humanity. 

 Never Have I Ever is a Netflix comedy series set in an American high school. I’m usually not one for teen/high school stories, but I watched this because Mindy Kaling created and co–wrote it, and I always find her funny. Barring a few odd discrepancies, I enjoyed this thoroughly, and the family story thread most of all.

I heard Andra Day’s song, Rise Up, first on this episode of SGN. It’s now my new anthem. “And I’ll rise up / High like the waves / I’ll rise up / In spite of the ache / I’ll rise up / And I’ll do it a thousand times again.” 

Rise with me!

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