Tackling Tidy

Read “Making a Marriage Magically Tidy” by Hellen Ellis in the NYTimes. It’s delightful and made me laugh out loud several times.

She references Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which was my recent inspiration for the Great Purge of Spring 2017. I read the book a couple of years ago, but could never quite put it into practice. I just wasn’t in the mental space to do it successfully, but after a year of cleaning out the emotional junk in my closet, I finally felt ready to tackle tidy with confidence and grace.

I spent hours trying on every single article of clothing in my possession. I shed many, many tears. It was a cathartic cry, less about the chore of doing the work, but more about the emotional labor I was doing and what I’ve been living with over the last year.

I stared at the scene horrified. It was a physical manifestation of all my body image bullshit that I worked so hard to eradicate.

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This was the purge at its worst. At this point I was on the verge of tears asking myself, “What have I done?! What am I doing?!”

I held onto “someday” clothes, “skinny” clothes, “I’ll get back there one day” clothes. The perfect jacket that would look uh-may-zing, if only I were a size or two smaller. The jeans that would make my backside look great, but put me into forced starvation while wearing them. The clothes I used to wear that served as personal reminders that my body could in fact occupy significantly less space.

On the flip side, I was also holding onto “what if” clothes, “drown me out from the world” clothes, “I just don’t care” clothes. Jeans two sizes too big, an insurance policy should I ever put on any of the weight that I’ve lost. Oversized sweaters to help me retreat within myself rather than conquer the world head on. The clothes that lack a point of view, perfect for when you’re indifferent and want to remain hidden.

I thought about Kondo’s words as I evaluated each item:

“The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.”

“But when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

I parted ways with startup swag from companies I worked at or dreamed of working at one day. I said goodbye to dresses I wore on dates and special occasions that now felt dated and far from special. More importantly, I discarded all of my “fat” and “skinny” clothes because those labels simply do not apply. No more “what if” or “someday” because I’m dressing for now, today, me, here.

What I’m left with are clothes that adorn my healthy, strong, capable body.

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It took me a year of letting go of guilt, stress, weight, and bad habits to survive this tidy tornado. After all was said and done I discarded more than 5 trash bags full of stuff and donated 5 or 6 bags full of clothes. I consider this my final act in my year of radical transformation. And although I’m still very much on a journey, I’ve arrived at a milestone that gives me real pause – clarity, tidiness, and most of all, joy.

Strangers and Shadows

I saw a woman struggling to take a selfie in front of this fountain for a good 5 minutes. As a frequent solo traveler I completely empathized with her plight. I asked her if she wanted me to take her picture and she sighed, “Yes please!” with relief. 

Even with a flash, the light emanating from the background made it impossible to capture her face. After a few failed attempts I got creative. I took my phone’s flashlight and held it up as a spotlight while snapping the photo with her phone in the opposite hand.  That did the trick. 

We laughed at the production of this whole exchange. I asked her to return the favor and she snapped this photo of me. No spotlight necessary, just a silhouette. 


When she handed me back my phone, she gave me a huge hug and exclaimed, “Thank you so much for my picture! I’ll always remember this.” I didn’t get her name, but this little exchange was such a nice way to end an already lovely evening. 

Whether I’m in New York or abroad, I find a ton of joy in asking strangers if they want me to take their picture. Sometimes it’s a mom or dad with their kids and I wind up capturing the first complete family shot of their entire vacation. Other times it’s a couple on their honeymoon. Most of the time it’s a lone traveler like myself, and in that brief moment, we’re not alone at all. 

40 Days of Gratitude

While most people give things up for lent, I decided to add something this year – gratitude.  I polled friends who suggested I train for a race, write daily, or expand my cooking repertoire with 40 new recipes. They were great suggestions, but I landed on gratitude because it was so open-ended. A race would build my endurance, writing would make me more thoughtful, and cooking would just be a fun enhancement to something I already love doing. The ambiguity of gratitude felt like an opportunity to explore and experiment. How could I push myself to practice it in a meaningful way and how would I feel or what would I learn in the process?

The Shallowness of Thank You

When I first started, I jotted down a daily list of things that I was thankful for. I happened to be in Brazil on vacation so it wasn’t hard at all. A beautiful sunrise. The feeling of accomplishment after a grueling hike. The company of people I love. After about a week, I found the exercise tedious. Journaling was like a homework assignment that I treated like filling out a worksheet. Although I was bookending my days with positive thoughts, it wasn’t having a profound impact on how I was experiencing the world around me.

Thankful Pauses 

I decided to rethink my approach and rather than write down what I was thankful for at the beginning or end of a day, I attempted to be more thankful in real-time. I experimented by setting a few alarms for myself throughout the day at random times – Noon. 3:33. 6:27 (these aren’t actually random because I eat lunch at noon, I obsess over the number 3, and my birthday is June 27th). What I found was no matter where I was or what I was doing, I could enhance that moment by working in a little gratitude. Here’s an example:

At 6:27 PM on March 6th, I found myself on the last row of a local bus in Brazil going from the town of Agra dos Reis to Paraty. It was 90+ degrees and the bus smelled awful, the seats were sticky, and there was no room for our luggage so it was piled in the middle of the aisle giving me little to no leg room. I was ready for the ride to be over 10 minutes into our 2 hour trip.

Before spiraling into a negative internal monologue, I paused. I was sitting next to my mom who was cool as a cucumber as she recounted stories about nightmare bus rides in the Philippines (they were so packed her at the time boyfriend would hoist her in via the rear window). With every bump that sent our butts flying 6 inches off the seat, we looked at each other with wide eyes. “Are we really here? Is this really happening?!” I couldn’t help but laugh. I was so thankful to have her in that moment. It’s a shared experience she and I will never forget.

Gratitude as a Protective Shield 

Similar to the bus situation, I used gratitude to reframe how I was feeling at work. Immediately after I came back from vacation, I found myself in an emotional vortex. I felt like I was failing left and right and alienating handfuls of people in the process.  I would have given anything to repeat that 2 hour bus ride a few weeks prior that’s how bad I felt. As draining and painful as the situation was, I pushed myself to think about what I was grateful for in the moment. The colleague who was giving me grief became a teacher. The mistake became a learning lesson. The rain was a sign of spring. The challenge and fatigue an opportunity to grow and get stronger.

As much as gratitude can be a catalyst for joy, it’s equally powerful as a deterrent for negativity. It dissipates feelings of anger, anxiety, and stress in a way that makes me feel in control and calm.

Beyond Lent

I’m coming out on the other side of this feeling like gratitude is a muscle. And similar to our hearts, it gets stronger the more you work it.

Your dreams and ambitions won’t go away, but you’ll want less because you actively acknowledge how much you already have. You’ll turn the mundane into the extraordinary. That cup of coffee you drink daily will taste different because you’re grateful you have it. The dinner you share with a friend will be that much more special because you’re fully present and appreciative of the opportunity to be there. And you won’t just love things in aggregate. You’ll pick up on details in a way that you didn’t before. The thoughtfulness of an email. The stranger who held the door on the train. The bustle of the bus stop below your window, a constant reminder that you live in the city that never sleeps, the greatest city in the world.

Looking back at all of my lists, half-written blog posts, and forty days of Google photos, my heart feels like it could burst. What I’ve always considered to be a beautiful, privileged life has added depth and an element of wonder that I didn’t quite see or feel before. Sadness, joy, challenge, triumph, insecurity, loss, confidence, and love… I’m grateful for it all.


Hat tip: Matt. Thank you for the inspiration you’ve given me over the years and our wonderful friendship that comes with delightful meals, thoughtful conversations, and a world of possibilities.