Sunday, October 15, 2006

Cast Away

I've been trying to get organized lately. This mainly involves throwing out a bunch of crap that I don't need to make room for a bunch of new crap that I probably don't need either. When you live in an apartment as "cozy" as mine, you can't let the clutter pile up. Of course that is easier said than done, because new items are periodically introduced into the environment that appear to be necessary or useful in some way. And unless an equal amount of items is removed from the environment at the same rate, an imbalance will naturally ensue.

Obviously, taking out the garbage at regular intervals provides some relief. However, garbage is only part of the problem and the least difficult to address since it is fairly easy to identify. Garbage is by definition the stuff you don't want or need. But what about the stuff that you might need? Or the stuff you once needed and have yet to identify as no-longer-needed? Or the stuff you don't really need but reminds you of people or places or events that you hold dear? Or the stuff that has been sitting around so long that you don't even notice it anymore, stuff that has taken on the status of furniture or art or landscape?

This is where true clutter comes from. Not the old pizza boxes, magazines, shopping bags and completed crossword puzzles that seem to grow in mysterious abundance on every flat surface in the apartment. Clearly that is just plain garbage and can be dispensed with easily given the proper application of manpower. It is rather the drawer stuffed with plastic grocery bags, the shelf piled with unopened mail, the closet filled with boxes that once contained electronic devices (some of which may no longer actually function) but now merely house pieces of styrofoam packing material. It's clutter, yes, but is it garbage?

Sadly the answer requires analysis. You can't just throw it all out. O.K. maybe you can throw out the grocery bags (or better yet, recycle them) but what if you need some of them to bag up all of the other clutter you're getting rid of? Better save some. And what about the mail? There might be something important in there. That means at the very least looking through it and in some cases actually opening it. And what about all those boxes? What if you move someday? You're going to need the box your computer monitor came in. Or are you? See: Analysis!

And the problem with analysis is that it takes time. Fortunately, time happens to be a commodity I possess in adequate supply. (Maybe even too much.) So, after putting it off for the whole summer, I finally began the process of decision making that will render my apartment clutter-free -- for at least the next month or two.

First, the fun part: shopping. I went to the thrift store and got a glass-fronted cabinet made for audio and video equipment to store my video camera and accessories, my harmonicas and patch-cords and other guitar-related junk and all of the tapes, DVDs, CDs and whatnot that have overflowed from my existing cabinet. Then I got some of those nifty stacked plastic drawers to house all of the "business casual" clothes that I no longer wear. Finally I got some filing boxes with hanging folders to organize all of the piles of mail and paper that have been piling up for (apparently) the past several years.

Yes, I found bank statements from accounts I closed when I left New York. I found packing boxes for appliances I don't even remember buying. I found two moth-eaten Brooks Brothers suits, each worn only once. I found two tins of smoked oysters that my sister sent me for my birthday last year. (I really don't know why.) I found a lot of junk and threw most of it away. It felt good.

According to my health guru, Dr. Schulze, you need to throw or give away one third of what you own as part of his 20 steps to a healthier life. It always sounded like a good idea, but I never actually took him up on it before. Too much of a hassle. But now that I am into it, I am finding that he's really not kidding. Getting rid of the clutter is extremely therapeutic. And its not just the extra space, it's the process. It's like when I cook myself a good meal: not only is the food better for me, but the process of cooking helps my digestion and puts me in a better frame of mind. And the food tastes better too.

Perhaps by sheer coincidence, as I was sitting in front of the TV sorting through the piles of junk mail, screenplay notes and old Buzzards set lists, the movie Cast Away came on. Now I've seen Cast Away before and always been impressed by the economy of the story telling, the brilliance of Tom Hanks's performance (and Wilson's) and the universality of the themes. (And thankfully the annoying Helen Hunt is only in it for a little while at the beginning and the end.)

But for some reason this time the movie really resonated deeply with me. For the first half of the second act, when he is first marooned on the island, Hanks is stripped of everything he holds dear. He loses human contact, material possessions and ultimately, a purpose for living. Not only has he been 'cast away' from the world, but he has cast the world away as well. What he ends up with is simply the belief that he "had to keep breathing. Even though there was no reason to hope. And all my logic said that I would never see [home] again."

Living in the world attaches a lot of excess baggage to us and we attach ourselves to the world in ways we are not even aware of. So it is necessary every now and then to cast away those things that serve no purpose. Even those things we think we hold most dear (like smoked oysters) may be simply dragging us down just a little bit.

So I'm getting rid of as much as I can. What started out as an exercise in space management has become a quest to find out what it is I truly need in this life. Even as I am writing this, I smell smoke and hear the sounds of fire engines drawing near. I step out front to see where they are going and see the flashing lights in front of a store around the corner. Whenever I hear a fire engine's siren, it makes me think, "if I had to leave right now, what would I keep?" The only thing I can think of is my scripts and my guitars. And even the guitars are replaceable. I guess the scripts are too. Maybe not replaceable, but I can always write a new one. And when it comes right down to it, that's all I really need: faith. If I lost everything, I would still be O.K. because I still have everything I've learned and all I've become.

A lot of the time that doesn't seem like very much. I feel like I really have nothing. Nothing to show for all my years in this world. Just a disc full of scripts and a couple of guitars. There are days, like today, when I have literally no contact with any other human being. I feel cast away. No part of the world.

But that feeling in itself is just another piece of junk that I need to discard. It is useless, born of needs and attachments that serve no purpose. Time to throw out the garbage. And keep the faith. Because, as Tom Hanks says near the end of Cast Away, "tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?"