Internal chaos manifest itself in many different external forms: an unhealthy diet, insomnia, addictive behaviors, chronic indecision or stagnation. For many of us, it takes shape in the form of messiness. And just like with a fast-food habit or a lack of sleep, the toxins can start to build up.
Just in time for spring cleaning season, let’s talk about a subject I feel I’m a tenured-professor-level expert in: clutter. Internal and external.
The way we compartmentalize our messiness is very telling. Not all of us thrive in a completely sterile environment – on the contrary; most of us feel the most at-home when there’s just a smidge of organized chaos in our lives. Whether it’s a closet filled with knick-knacks or a wallet littered with receipts, we all have our beautiful messes that give us a sense of comfort and ease.
For me personally, it’s my purse. Sure, I probably don’t “need” to carry around half of what I keep in there, but it gives me a sense of preparedness. I’ve tried to clean out my bag again and again, but gradually, my life finds its way back into that black bag. Maybe I like that visual reminder that “I already have everything I need.”
Clutter is one thing – complete disarray is another.
Clutter represents a very specific part of your psyche, the part that knows exactly who she is.
Disarray, in contrast, is a red flag for something deeper you’re not tending to.
Maybe it’s your relationship. Maybe it’s your health. Your apartment is in shambles, laundry everywhere and old mail scattered about the table; maybe you’re afraid to commit to the life you know you want to lead. And just like we detox with sweat or a bowl full o’ greens – when you start to clear away the toxins, you start to have breakthroughs in what formerly seemed like completely unrelated aspects of your life.
Spring cleaning isn’t just about picking up our crap, it’s about picking up the pieces we’ve let fall away. Spring cleaning isn’t just about scrubbing the floors, it’s about shining our souls.
A couple years back, I learned a lot about the difference between clutter and disarray: I moved into a loft with no closets. Instead of a closet, I got two studio-like clothing racks that literally brought everything out into the open. Even in my teeny-weeny NYC apartment now, there are spaces to stash and store. In the loft? It was all on display. Carrie Bradshaw would be horrified.
But something interesting happened when I moved into my nook-less nook: I got rid of the things that didn’t serve me, and I found places for the things that did.
Not coincidentally, I became a lot more clear about what I really wanted in my life.
Wouldn’t you know it, I still keep my stuff where I can see it.
Honestly, my giant black bag is still just as heavy as an eight month old – and because I’m commuting across the city on a train underground, I usually need to wear my backpack to hold my laptop et al (ps, you haven’t experienced clutter ’til you’ve been on the M at 7pm).
But as far as my apartment goes, when I wake up in the morning and come home at the end of the day, my space is filled with just the essentials. Beautifully organized in a way that suits my personality (think vintage catchalls and necklaces hanging on rods like wind chimes). I’m more easily pleased. I’m drawn to spend much more time at home. I can’t get enough of my space because it’s an extension of who I am.
If, like me, you keep your day bag more stuffed-up than Mary Poppins…if you have a drawer in your desk filled with eclectic knick-knacks and love notes…it doesn’t mean you’re untidy as much as it means that you’re human.
Allow your own little bit of organized chaos to exist – the chaos that serves you and reminds you of all you are.
The bits of disarray that remind you of all you are not? Do away with what no longer reflects who you are, and keep everything that does.
Make your beautiful mess. Clear the clutter. It’s spring cleaning for your soul.
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When I was little, there was a woman who would come over and help take care of me. Her name was Yvette.
Yvette was short in comparison to my mother, but to me, she was just the perfect height for my death-grip hugs. Her short brown hair fell in soft waves that skimmed her kind, present face and almond eyes that sparkled with mischief. Her skin was flawless, her makeup enhancing everything about her feisty, fun-loving, soft yet unmistakably pronounced features. She smelled like florals and Calvin Klein Obsession and adventure. Her chin was clefted just like mine.
As the story would go, Yvette would take me out to run errands with her and people would think I was hers. We shared the same high cheekbones, the same almond eyes, the same clefted chin and curious nature. Even as a small child, I could tell Yvette and I were so much alike. She’d babysit my brother and I but was never a “babysitter” – she was more like extended family coming over to hang. At night, she’d change into “fancy” clothes and I’d watch her do her makeup in the vanity’s mirror. “Are you going on a hot date?” I used to tease. “You’re such a party animal.” We’d laugh and I’d watch her curl her eyelashes and spray her hair into a defined shape on top of her head. My parents would get home, I’d hug her goodbye, and she was off to her mystery evening out in the world way beyond my little West Valley cul-de-sac. She smelled like florals and Calvin Klein Obsession and adventure. If I hugged her long enough, sometimes it would linger on my nightgown. We were so much alike. I never knew where she really went.
When I was twelve years old, I got my period for the first time. It was the day of the seventh grade Disneyland trip, a once-a-year opportunity they gave to the kids at school who had been accepted into the honors program. I learned how to use a pad on the spot (no pun intended) and had a blast at Disneyland with the added bonus of knowing I was 2% more mature and “adult” than I had been the night before. This period thing is no big deal, I thought. Why do people make such a big deal of it?
Well, I found out the next day why people made such a big deal of it. On the bus ride home, I was doubled over in pain from the debilitating cramps I was experiencing for the very first time ever. I slouched down and buried myself in fetal position between my seat and the seat in front of me, the girls around me rubbing my back and looking on in concern. None of us knew what was going on. None of us had dealt with this before.
A friend of mine, bless her soul, walked me home through the rain, except I needed to tie my rain coat over my waist as I’d made the rookie mistake of not accounting for “second day flow.” As I turned my key into the door, drenched in rain and my own tears, I prayed someone would be home…
The door opened before I could get the key through. It was Yvette. Mortified, I showed her my jeans. She looked at me with the kind of empathy that only older, wiser women who have “been there” possess, and she hugged me tight as I replayed my quintessential seventh-grade-female horror story over and over in my brain. She smelled of flowers and Calvin Klein and adventure, and somehow her hugs made my foreign cramps begin to ease. Nothing could hurt that much for that long while she was around.
She was at my sixth grade graduation. She was at my first theatre performance. I remember the exact moment of Princess Diana’s car crash and how traumatic it was to the world, and it’s all because Yvette turned on the TV and let me watch with her, like two sisters sitting side by side watching history happen. When I came home from college one winter, after not seeing her for quite some time, she was lounging on the couch laughing and drinking wine with my mom just like they’d always done. It was close to Christmas. She gave me a necklace. She was dressed up to go somewhere, except that “somewhere” was here and the adventure was now. Yvette was there for everything.
Until one day, she wasn’t. We know she’d moved to live near her sister, and we know at some point she was out of the country to help a sick family member. But that’s all we know. Or what we think we know. It all blurs together now. We used to talk on the phone every few months, then every few months became holidays and birthdays, then holidays and birthdays became every year at some point in time.
And then one day, the calls stopped. The phone number we’d been using had been disconnected. That’s it. One day, just gone.
I never knew where she really went.
Loss is a funny thing. Not funny ha-ha, but funny as in it gives you that sour feeling in your stomach and aching feeling in your heart that you hate you can place.
With death, it’s finite. It’s devastating and in some of the worst cases unexpected. It leaves you with dark blank space and a piece of the puzzle that is your heart ripped out and gone forever. Death is obvious and brutal.
But what about the kind of loss that isn’t so finite? What about the characters that come into our lives, making a profound impact, then vanish without so much as a heads up or warning sign?
I think about loss every day. I’ve come to learn this a blessing and a curse when you’re a highly sensitive and self-aware soul. On one hand, I’m constantly reminding myself of the fleeting nature of things. This couch. This room. This kiss. This look. This street. This weather. This moment. On the other hand, I’m filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the littlest and biggest and even the most mediocre middlest-of-the-road things.
From the outside, to people who don’t really know me, I can see how my ever-present gratitude might come off as overly-consistent enthusiasm or doe-eyed naiveté about how the world really works. But I know better. I know the high highs don’t come without the low lows, and every brightest light has a darkest dark. I walk through life constantly balancing the two; I celebrate and mourn simultaneously.
So how does it work, then? When you want to see someone so badly but don’t even know where to start? When you miss something so fiercely, but can barely describe what you’re missing anymore? It’s not a thing, it’s not an action. I miss the feelings. I miss the presence. I miss her being there.
I found Yvette a while ago on Facebook. At least I think it was her. I recognized her sister’s name on her “Friends” list, and her nephew too. There was no profile picture.
I wrote her a message with shaky hands. I used the nickname I’d made for her as a child.
“Ya-Ya? Is this you?”
I waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, six months later, I saw a notification under my message.
My message had been read…two weeks prior. I hated the thought that entered my mind, and I hated that it could be right.
What if she doesn’t want to be found?
Loss happens in so many ways. In death, in relationships, in friendships, in people disappearing. But we also lose parts of ourselves along our journey. We lose who we were, become who we are.
That kind of loss usually happens in three ways. In Option A, we go through metamorphosis – those old parts informing the new-and-improved version of us we’re presenting to the world. The old parts of us are still there, just in different forms. The butterfly still has the eyes of the caterpillar; the bird still the same beak of the fuzzy chick.
But if we’re not self-aware, Option B comes in. The old us simply…vanishes. In Option B, we wake up one day and have become unrecognizable to ourselves. Option B terrifies me to the core.
And then sometimes, there’s a third option. In Option C, we lose ourselves intentionally in order to create the new someone we know we need to be.
I vote for Option A. I will always be Team Option A. But that doesn’t mean I have the right to force it on others and pretend like I know their story.
Is Option C necessary for some, I wonder? Is my intense self-awareness blinding me to the fact that some people NEED to consciously wipe the slate clean to get a fresh new start? I’d like to think that we are handed our good times AND bad all for a reason, and each moment is a learning opportunity and chance to grow into the person we know we’re meant to be, and that Option A is the rightest option there is, plain and simple…
But some people aren’t there. Some people need to forget to let go. And we cannot fault them for it. We are all on our unique journeys through this lifetime, and learn the same exact lessons, just not at the same exact times. We don’t even learn them in the same exact WAYS. Sometimes we lose people in our lives because they need to go find themselves in theirs.
There’s not a week that goes by I don’t miss Yvette. I wish I could call her, I wish I could tell her about New York. I wish I could joke about us going out and hitting the town, but really just have her visit and come over and drink wine and laugh on my couch. I wish we could reminisce about the time she was there for me when I walked home in the rain, I wish we could remember about when big history-making happenings happened, I wish she could remind me of things I said or did that I’ve long forgotten about now. I wish she could meet my husband, I wish she could learn my life. I wish I could see that she’s happy.
But I can’t. All the above is me thinking of myself, of my own journey and the way I do things. And my journey is my own to be accountable for, just like Yvette’s is all her own. We cannot create opinions about someone else’s story based on how we want them to fit into ours.
Who knows what seeing my Facebook message might have brought up for her, if that was in fact her? I will never know. I never knew where she went after leaving my cul-de-sac, and I never knew where she went after that last voicemail I remember receiving around the time of my 19th birthday over a decade ago. I need to be at peace knowing that the time we spent together was beautiful and funny and warm and it served its purpose to show us off onto our separate ways.
I do know that wherever she is, she is discovering her own journey and learning who she is meant to be, and has been all along. I am able to both mourn the loss of her in my life, and hope that there’s cause to celebrate the presence of her own self in hers. Because she was lightness personified. I always saw it. I’m not sure she did. I can only hope her eyes have been opened to her brilliance. She sparkled with mischief. Her chin was clefted just like mine.
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I make lists like it’s my job. And for a while there, it was: I’ve gone down the personal assistant route, I’ve written round-ups of everything from the best protein bars to “7 bike shorts that don’t suck.” My methods for getting to-dos to-DONE are impressive at best, neurotic at worst. Bubbles, arrows, brackets – my lists are more like living breathing flow chat entities than items to be checked off (don’t even get me started on my Google Cal notifications).
My professional-life-enthusiast status does not come without its pitfalls, though. I have a tendency to become dependent on strategizing, and therefore a little addicted to a steady stream of outcomes. Which isn’t really a problem, until it is.
Sometimes life gets in the way of plans, but sometimes it also feels like life is that one super-late party guest who keeps texting you that she’s “ten minutes away” and then just ends up saying she’ll catch you next time. As much as I’d LOVE to be able to To-Do List my life, usually the universe has stuff in store that doesn’t quite line up with the algorithmic vision I have of causes and effects.
And when I find myself without a next step – or anything to show for my time and work, really – I deflate.
My friend Diane calls it being “down in the slumps.” Nope, not down in the dumps – down in the slumps. Her slumpy catchphrase was originally born out of a misunderstood idiom, but I’ve now found it’s actually pretty accurate when it comes to describing that lame feeling of defeat. It’s not just sad or depressed: when you’re down in the slumps, you feel like all the air that’s been keeping you buoyantly afloat has been drained out of your spirit. You try and try to hoist yourself back up into the air, but it’s nearly impossible to get even a few inches off the ground without slumping down over yourself more and more just a few seconds later.
I’ve seen my share of slumpy slumps. Heck, I just uprooted my entire life and moved across the country – don’t you think for one second that that sort of acclimatization process doesn’t come with its fair share of slump feelings. My slumps have almost exclusively been a result of (unintentionally) going cold-turkey on my “habit addiction,” not even leaving me with a set of vague rules or roads to use as guideposts. It’s why I’m historically not chummy with change, and whytransitions are such a challenge for me. What have you even been doing? an unfamiliar judgmental voice inside me nags. You’re a smart woman; you’re wasting your potential. You have nothing to show for the days/weeks/months that have passed you by.
You’re not trying hard enough.
You’re not doing nearly enough.
Enough enough enough. You’re definitely not enough.
Hey, inner voice, here’s a newsflash: sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you try. Sometimes what’s necessary is exactly what you dislike the most. Sometimes you need to explore your full range of emotions to find out where the key is to get back out into the sunlight. Sometimes the challenge is necessary for the change.
When I was in high school, my theater teacher used to tell us that instead of saying we were nervous before a show, we should tell ourselves that we were actually excited. Both nervous and excited are “aroused emotions,” meaning they trigger a response in the body that prepares you for action. Studies are now showing what theatre kids have known for their entire lives: Turning your words around in a tense situation can turn your emotions around, too.
But what about when the emotions you’re feeling are a response to inaction? How do you flip a shitty feeling without sounding like freaking Mary Poppins or your well-meaning great aunt who passive-aggressively reminds you about ticking clocks and when-I-was-your-age and your super successful third cousin and what-not?
What happens when doing everything you can just never feels like enough?
Did you ever think about why exactly it is that you’re down in the slumps? Why is it that you’re able to feel as discouraged as you do?
Think of it this way: if you were actually an unmotivated, untalented, no-passion loser, discouragement wouldn’t be an option, right? You’d be living in blissful ambivalence, not caring about anyone or anything – CERTAINLY not giving a crap about moving forward fearlessly.
But you’re NOT any of those things, because you’re not someone who doesn’t care. Your discouragement is a reminder that you care, and care deeply.
The OG of motivational speakers, Zig Ziglar, once said It’s not about how far you fall, it’s about how high you bounce.
Did you ever think that the reason your lows are so low…is because you’re fearless enough to go chase the high highs?
Did you ever think that we’re all just getting the wording wrong?
We say we’re stuck and discouraged when really, we should be saying we’re ambitious and driven.
The great thing about ambitious and driven people is that they’re always seeking growth and expansion. Whether that’s personal growth (relationships, health, spirituality), career-related growth (new jobs, new projects, new ideas), or something else, the ambitious person is a professional possibility seeker. It’s part of them. It’s in their bones.
The flip is that possibility is subjective. One person’s vision is another person’s dead-end. So what happens when there’s no possibility to be found? The ambitious person shrinks. She deflates herself to fit the perceived space around her, one she sees as too small and narrow to hold her drive and desires.
How many times have we altered who we are in our core just to fit in? When possibility is scarce, we start to think “it’s us.” So we lower our intensity, mute our opinions, and become a shell of who we are in order to survive and thrive in the elements of where we are. Ambition and drive seem like negative qualities, not positive, when you’re buying into the belief that the world isn’t big enough to receive what you have to offer.
It’s a simple, borderline-positive-affirmation-esque shift. But what makes the discouraged-to-driven shift different than any old affirmation (or any BS click-baity strategy that ultimately just tells you to look on the bright side) is that with affirmations you need to talk yourself into believing the phrase. The discouraged-to-driven shift is easier to recognize as truth right off the bat. You’ve got PROOF from your life to support this fact. Times you’ve succeeded. Times you’ve soared. It’s just that it’s a whole lot easier to praise ambition and drive when things are actually going your way. So in frustrating or deflating times, it’s essential to remind yourself of your true nature.
When you’re feeing discouraged, remind yourself that there is a big world out there that’s more than big enough to fit your unique level of ambition, intensity, and courage. All people have that electric drive in them. But not all people are brave enough to explore where it can lead them. It’s easier to give into the slump than it is to slowly-but-surely soar. You choose to go for the “soar” even though it requires you to show up, both physically and emotionally. You fall down and have to improvise at times, and if you’re like me and would rather have a list of to-dos to get to-DONE, it’s never going to be comfortable. But you’ll get there. That drive is part of what makes you extraordinary.
Side note – don’t you think I’ve stopped making lists in my life. It’s just not an *addiction* anymore. There was a time I thought my lists were what kept me motivated…but now I realize that it’s just the opposite. My lists are just byproducts of the motivation that sets everything in motion in the first place. There’s a whole lot in my life I’m just not able to list out and check off in sequence. Like what happens after you move across the country. Or what happens when youleave a job. But I know I’m a doer, and I know whatever the slump, I’ll find a way through.
There are unknowns and there are pivots, and there are times when it feels like you don’t even know where to start getting started. I get it. But the small step of identifying and trusting who you are at your core is the perfect small step to get the ball rolling. It’s not about how far you fall, it’s about how high you bounce. It’s not about how low you slump, it’s about how high you soar.
There isn’t much more of an emotional experience for me than driving through Downtown Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley then back again; a route I know all too well yet still find so much nuance and newness in.
It’s the path from the place I live now back to the place I grew up in, from the future to back to the past and all the moments in between – both places that hold so much of my history but so much of my current hustle as well. The appointments. The auditions. The schools. The snacks. The boyfriends, the best friends, the strip malls where I learned to drive and the high rises I still look up at with awe. I cross “over the hill” into “The Val” and I’m instantly transported into the person I’ve always been. It’s all there, the same yet so different. My heart caves at the “For Lease” signs and expands with the familiar neon lights. Each block holds a memory, each zip code a sense of déjà vu.
The nostalgia eats me alive.
You know those dreams you have where you’re in a place, but it seems slightly “off?” Maybe it’s supposed to be your middle school homeroom, but your cousins are there and the blackboard is white. Or you’re walking down the grocery aisle, then suddenly it morphs into a pet shop where the Fuji apples used to be.
Having lived in the city I grew up in for my entire existence, that’s what my life has always seemed like to me – and the feeling I get when I drive down Ventura Boulevard. Morphing without warning, shifting without reason. I cannot tell if yesterday was yesterday or if it was two decades ago. If the block to my right has always been there or if it’s reconstructed out of an old orange grove. The past seems more like last night’s dream than a distant memory: it’s all where I left it, yet things are just…different.
As I prepare for a move across the country to a city I adore, I cannot help but sit and stare out the window a little bit longer than usual and breathe a bit deeper (when the city smog lets me). I think about change, I think about transitions, I think about how our lives are nothing more than a story playing itself out – which is really something, if you think about it hard enough.
This “City Of Angles” is my safety blanket in a way I can’t express. Sure, the space is familiar, but it’s more of the energy within that space that keeps me feeling safe. The feeling she, L.A, brings me…it’s less of a “home” feeling and more of an extension of myself. The twisted freeways, the blue and green signs and the busy off-ramps. The movie theater I got my first kiss, the beach where I fell in love. This city tells the story that made me…well…ME.
Why is it that our biggest moments on the inside are sometimes the smallest on the outside – and vice versa? Why is it we’re told it’s the opposite that must be true? We make movies and build holidays around this stuff, but the people who know better can see the meat is really within the minutia. Yes, our turning points sometimes come in the I Dos and the contracts and the big old forks in the road – but more often than not, those are just an external manifestation of a hundred huge micro-moments when we made a shift or stood our ground for the first time over and over again.
We feel it’s the big things that are supposed to define us: our extracurriculars, our SATs, our college major, our career choice, the person we marry, the life we have – ergo, the legacy we leave. But in actuality, our legacy is everything in between. It’s the play you saw at five years old that stirred something in your heart. It’s the tears you cried after the SATs but dried three minutes later because you had to show up for a team you couldn’t let down no matter your personal struggles. It’s the teacher that made you think outside of the box or called you out on your shit or was the first one to identify your fearlessness (even before you believed it yourself). It’s the kisses in the movie theatres and the times you said no when the easy option was to say yes. It’s the pivots you made when your heart felt that something wasn’t right, and the beelines you made when it knew everything was. The big moments are easy for others to understand, and they’re clear ways to designate your chapters. But the only person that matters when it comes to actually reading your story is YOU.
Navigating transitions hasn’t ever really been my strong suit. I was born into a sea of nostalgia, a family of collectors and traditions and story upon story told over and over. And they’re all in Los Angeles, all amidst its familiar streets. Those boulevards have been like talismans to me my entire life, signifying good luck or a safety net around the corner.
It’s so easy to blur my story with the ones of my community – it all seems the same sometimes. In the past I’ve felt an obligation to turn the pages for others, to modify my story to fit the narrative that surrounds me. My legacy is easiest to understand when others get it, I’ve thought. It’s where I derive my importance and my worth. In the ease. In the fact that I can live this dream of past moments without ever fully waking. I can know each step of the way.
And so a part of me raises her eyebrow at the fact that I feel so ready. I should be frantic, I should be mourning. I should be soaking in every single moment and wondering/worrying how I will fare. It’s unknown, after all. And I know my relationship with the unknown.
But I do. I feel so ready. And I think it’s because I am always celebrating and mourning simultaneously. I am constantly soaking in each moment like it’s the last, treating what I see as final. Like it’s the last time my eyes ever will transfix on the slow-moving clouds, or the shadows on the buildings, or the way the same hawk lands in the very same place outside my window each season. I notice the little things that remind me of myself, the constants that have painted the backdrop and nuance in my story for so long. I’ve collected moments and made each hour a tradition. It’s not morbid or morose, it’s just this immense gratitude and awareness that it’s all something that will feel like a dream I woke up from not too far off in the future.
I wonder if that’s the secret to navigating transitions. To notice the moments before you realize they were moments. To speak with intention in each sentence you make.
I look around at Los Angeles and I wonder what the future holds for our relationship. Will she still feel like an extension of myself once I come back to visit? Will my memory of her be something I can’t quite pinpoint when I’m trying to describe her to others, decades in the future, ones who might only know a watered-down version in the future, a half-magical version of her greatness? I know my version isn’t her pinnacle of awesomeness per se, but it sure as hell has been a great one to me.
We all have a place we call home, or at least a vision of a place we’ve once called home. And when we stray from that familiar safe haven, it’s easy to succumb to the idea that we SHOULD be thrown for a loop. That we’re about to wake. What happens then, we wonder? Will I fade into the darkness, too? If I am not my surroundings and I am not my talismans…then who am I?
As I sit here now, in the soon-to-be-morning darkness on my soon-to-be-sold couch in my soon-to-be-old home, I know that my present will soon be that dream I woke up from. I cry at the loss that hasn’t even happened, and I cry for the ones who might never know L.A.’s true heart. I wince at the thought of anyone trying to change her, to alter her, to shape her into their idealized Mecca. Because what I see now is perfection, her dirty streets and dilapidated shops, the creatives walking with the corporates and the homeless laughing with the hipsters. I want to save her charm, bottle it up or trap it in a snow globe. It’s where I fell deeply in love over and over again, the place that takes my breath away no matter how shitty the day has been. She is my friend, lover, teacher, mentor. She is family who I don’t always agree with but love down to the core.
But maybe that is the true beauty of it all. We all get to choose the magic we see and the dreams we wake up from. No version is better or worse, we just decide where our incarnation and perception fits into the mix. We can mourn the change and the loss or we can celebrate the ever-evolving dream that’s always in motion. It’s all there, things are just different. We can choose whether our transitions mean hard starts and stops, or if they just mean we’re in the midst of our story – an ever-morphing dream we’ve never really needed to wake up from.
I choose to celebrate. And I choose to keep dreaming.