The catalyst was a book I was translating, referred to by my friends simply as that book, since I don’t divulge the titles of jobs I hate.  Luckily, although not all the books I’ve translated so far have always captured my heart and imagination, most have made a tolerable if not pleasant day’s work.  But, after a few pages, I began to hate that book with every fibre of my being.  I hated the plot, I hated the characters so much that I kept hoping against hope that they’d meet a swift, painless demise over the page. I prayed for a deus ex machina to kick that book out of my life with a bend that would make David Beckham envious.  As the weeks dragged by and no supernatural force came to deliver me from it, that book slithered deeper and deeper under my skin and began spreading its venom through my veins.  I felt as though I was trudging through a dense, sticky, malodorous fog, my legs weighed down by thick, gluey mud, and my very life force ebbing away.

So, when I finally sent off the translation of that book, I did something that goes against the grain of any thinking individual.  I burnt that book.  As a matter of fact, the prospect of annihilating the thick volume was what kept me afloat for the last couple of weeks of the job.  I planned the act in its minutest detail to ensure there would be no danger to anyone or anything.  I went to the hardware store and purchased a metal incinerator manufactured in accordance with health and safety.  I waited for a day when I knew a couple of my immediate neighbours would be away, warned the others that I would be burning “some old papers” and apologised in advance for the smell of smoke.  I made sure the area in the courtyard was clear and placed the incinerator away from any potential gust of wind.

I tore the pages out a couple at a time and pushed them down the funnel as the flames glowed through the air vents.  In my mind it wasn’t just that book I was burning but all the physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, all the anger and resentment, all the fear and despair of the past few years.  Moreover, I was willing the dancing flames to clear away the old and no longer needed so that a Firebird might rise from the ashes, with the plumage all glossy and so bright не в сказке сказать, не пером описать*.

Three hours later, I poured the cold ashes into a bag and gave them to a neighbour who said they’d make a good fertiliser for her allotment of fruit and vegetables.

Burning that book triggered an overwhelming desire to do some major cleansing and clearing.  Outside and in.  And so I’ve begun…

*   *   *

I pull out from under my desk boxes that were packed two house moves ago and haven’t been opened since.  Papers from when I used to teach English as a Foreign Language.  Lesson plans, newspaper articles, colour and animal idioms, vocabulary of interest to journalists, doctors, MEPs, politicians, bankers and miscellaneous.  Why keep all that? I don’t want to teach again. I fill large black bin liners.

Out with the old, the stale, to make room for the new and fresh to flow in!

I drag a box of cassettes from under the bed.  Treasures of radio plays, music and inspiring interviews.  Treasures I have not listened to for at least five years.  I keep a few.  The rest is thrown away.

Out with the old, the stale, to make room for the new and fresh to flow in!

It’s the turn of our small, cluttered kitchen.  The shelves in the wall cupboard H. calls “the pantry” are crammed with foodstuffs we can’t see because they’ve fallen behind other foodstuffs under the shelves.  I discover enough packets of spaghetti to open an Italian restaurant and, unnoticed on the floor, several boxes of fennel teabags I kept buying because I thought I’d run out.  I decant all my infusion herbs from their scrunched up plastic packaging into glass jars which I label.  Vervain.  Rose Petals.  Skullcap.  Lemon Balm.  Plantain.  

I can’t bring order into my mind unless I bring order to my surroundings.

I sift through my clothes.  Elegant shoes that pinch so I never wear them, comfortable shoes that are so old they’ve lost their original colour and shape.  Skirts I’ve kept on the off-chance I might regain the figure I had in my thirties.  My misplaced optimism makes me laugh.  The smart black coat I’ve never really liked but bought all those years ago because it was a bargain in a charity shop in Notting Hill.  I shove it all into bag destined for a local charity shop, then peruse the online catalogue of a ladies clothes shop I rather like.   I set my sights on a coat to dazzle all coats, russet, with a wide collar, generous and warm, a coat for an entrance worthy of a Jerry Herman musical.  A coat that requires a cameo appearance by my credit card.  They don’t have this coat in the Norwich branch of the store.  “We won’t be getting it,” the sales assistant says glumly.  “That’s a Chelsea or Kensington branch kind of coat.”

So much the better, I think, that I will be the only woman in Norwich wearing such a coat! And I ring Kensington and get them to send the coat over here.  The sales assistant smiles when I try it on.  “It’s my only opportunity see this coat in the flesh,” she says.

Under the coffee table, there’s my fat, black Filofax, bursting with loose bits of paper.  Names and addresses of people I’m no longer in touch with, of people who have passed away, of theatre, film and TV contacts I had when I was a theatrical agent.  Why keep them? I don’t want to be a theatrical agent again.  Business cards with names I don’t recognise.  Contact details of friends from whom I’ve drifted apart but which I keep in case… in case of what? It’s time to let go of some people, and to make room for new friends to make their entrance.  I copy about 10% of my original address book onto a small, light turquoise organiser, and feed the rest into the shredder.

Out with the old, the stale, to make room for the new and fresh to flow in!

My dear new friend, the sunny Bernie Strachan says that, actually, I should be grateful to that book, since it’s been the trigger for all this much needed, long-awaited clearing.  I hadn’t thought of it this way, so I’m grateful to Bernie for this creative perspective.

And the clearing continues…

Out with the old, the stale, to make room for the new and fresh – and the Firebird.

* “that no fairy tale or quill could describe”: a set phrase in Russian fairy tales to refer to something extraordinarily wonderful.

Scribe Doll

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22 Responses to Clearing

  1. sammee44 says:

    I love your post Katia! In mine, I only purged the “writing” stuff” but am now even more motivated to hit drawers, cupboards and table tops, clearing out unwanted and unneeded stuff. One thing I’ve learned, we are not alone in accumulating “treasures” that have now lost their charm. . .
    Congratulations on your acquiring more space—yay!

    • Scribe Doll says:

      I’ll tell you, throwing away stuff you’ve been keeping “just in case” gives you an exhilarating sense of freedom, new possibilities and purpose :–) Thank you for commenting.

  2. I’m behind in my reading this past week- that pesky hurricane!
    I can feel the energy you gained from purging and burning. It’s the season of our lives- to burn the fields in order to make way for new growth. May you grow and flourish!

  3. Anna Khazan says:

    A nice piece! I also do this kind of clearing from time to time. It’s sometimes necessary to get rid of old things or people who mean nothing in your life or have done something bad to you..

  4. de Chareli says:

    I am glad you did not try to burn those shoes… This said, I fully agree, there is nothing like realizing how much old/useless/unused stuff is piling up over the years. Tangible proof of our inevitable drift towards maetrialism. The remorse of throwing stuff away – it could be of SOME use SOME TIME – is quickly eclipsed by the feeling of regaining OVERSIGHT!

    • Scribe Doll says:

      The shoes went to the charity shop. I don’t feel remorse about throwing things away – I feel elated. The only thing I regretted giving away were several boxes of books, during one particularly difficult house move. Never again. Books and CDs are kept.

  5. Sue Cumisky says:

    What a good result. There is nothing like a clear out for providing great satisfaction. Try not to do what a friend did and went back through all the black bags and rescued nearly everything!

  6. julietashton says:

    I feel renewed just reading this. I love the time you take to set up thoughts and action in your writing.

  7. S VAUGHAN says:

    Love your new post CLEARING… exactly how I feel and what I have been doing over the past weeks, whilst having the whole flat redecorated!!! Turned out masses…. at least I think I have! Love to you both Salx

  8. Wow! I need to clear out once more, especially papers. The last time, 4 years ago, I accumulated more than my body weight, more than I could manage to burn, for a confidential shredding firm.
    But how can you torture yourself with translating a book you just hate? Translating, much more than reading, must be like living in another writer’s mind for weeks on end, or like having a lodger that grinds on one’s nerves, daily. Right, don’t day, I can guess. One tries to survive. I wish you a really enjoyable experience next time. ☼

    • Scribe Doll says:

      I love the way you describe the translator’s job so exactly – it IS like living inside somebody else’s head for a while. Actually, the book in itself wasn’t bad at all, it just happened to come at the right time to trigger all these changes. Besides, I’ve generally been lucky with my jobs in that I’ve loved a few and liked most of the others. And I’ve done some truly enjoyable work since then :–)

  9. Reblogged this on Michael Seidel, writer and commented:
    This makes you wonder…what is THAT book? Has any book you’ve read or edited so moved you?

    • Scribe Doll says:

      Thank you so much for reblogging, Michael. That’s very kind. I think when books are well written they always move someone, whether they trigger the reader’s love or hatred (indifference would mean it’s a truly bad book, maybe?)

  10. I love this post. When my life is too cluttered with items that have lost their use, have become obsolete, or just superfluous, I actually feel as if I’m choking. The relief that comes from shedding them is massive. Here’s to paring down, fresh starts with what matters!

    • Scribe Doll says:

      I can relate to your sense of choking when surrounded by clutter that has served its purpose and is now obsolete. I start pacing up and down, looking at walls, opening drawers, itching to start throwing stuff out.

  11. What a wonderful prescription for beginning your own version of a “vita nuova”! I think the only bit of creative writing I’ve ever burned was a poem of my own, which once I really stopped emoting in it and read it carefully seemed to me to have a bit of the devil in it (and yes, whether there’s really a Satan or not, people are sometimes devilish enough without other help, I think). I burned it in a huge kettle and didn’t keep any other copy that I am aware of. That probably seems minor to you, after the major clearing-out you describe, but overcoming my own ego and leaving no trace I could find of a part of my own work was enough for me at the time. Another time, I burned a check for $100 that a phone company had sent me if I would switch to them, and I did it sheerly out of spite and anger and frustration because that was the way I felt about it, but I nearly got in trouble for it, because I did it in a public parking lot too near to my mom’s car. No real danger, but people like to make a fuss sometimes, or at least that time. Now, I could probably follow your example and have a bit of a clear out, but most of my papers and stuff are in storage, so I would have to start with my messy, clothes-strewn bedroom and then move stuff back up to sort through it, and I lack the umph! right now. But I thoroughly applaud your persistence and your idea; your writing is excellent, as always.

    • Scribe Doll says:

      On the contrary, I think your burning your own writing shows true courage and spirit. It also shows that you have respect for your work since you actually burnt it instead of tearing it up and throwing it in the rubbish. Part of the reason I burnt THAT book is that I wanted to show it some kind of respect, like a valiant enemy (I know it sounds melodramatic but you know what I mean).

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