It is said that when you know something “by heart” it means you have it memorized. You also know it so well that you can play or recite it with minimal effort, but perhaps more emotion.
The flip side of knowing something by heart is being unable to recall anything about a song, a poem or a business speech for that matter.
In between there lies a zone where most of us operate day to day. We are organized enough to function and know enough things “by heart” to get along and get our work done. We know the path to our jobs or other obligations.
Keeping up appearances and being organized can become a job in itself. When life interrupts with multiple demands, our organizational systems can fall apart. Or, we accumulate stuff by habit. We promise to go through and sort it all out someday. Often that someday never comes or the need arises much sooner than we’d like.
My late wife pulled me close to her a few weeks before she died and said to me, “Chris, I’m sorry about all the junk.” We’d been so preoccupied with all the health care issues and making finances work that talking about our broader needs was just not possible. “I wanted to clear it out,” she told me. It was true. We’d accumulated some layers of stuff in 28 years of marriage. It was sweet that she was concerned how much work it would take to go through.
Doing the hard work of sorting through keepsakes versus clutter can be challenging. That sometimes emotional task is only compounded when grief is woven through the choices. I found welcome homes with women friends for much of my wife’s clothing. Same went with her jewelry. We held a nice party at which friends could choose from the jewelry pieces she’d collected, many of them hand-crafted by her talented sister.
The process of de-cluttering the house and moving forward has taken more than a year. There is still much to do.
In the meantime it was time to fix a broken shower in the master bedroom. We’d jury-rigged that thing for years because it was always inconvenient to get it fixed with everything else going on. Plus it required knocking out some shelves to gain access to the plumbing inside the wall. I tore down the old blue tile and carefully chose a new look. My daughter’s boyfriend climbed into the space between the walls and installed new plumbing. No more leaks or creaky shower handles.
The whole operation took six months but it is finished. That let me organize things all over again in the bathroom. During the process there were tile boxes and hammers and drills, nails and screws and grout bags. It was a mess, and it spilled into the organization of other things in life. The bedroom was a cluttered mess. Too much other stuff was always in the way. Plus there was the mental process of wanting that bathroom finished.
There was grief mixed in with that as well. For years my wife had put up with that creaky bathroom where the hot water would sometimes come shooting out at you like a fire hose. I felt some guilt in never having completed that while she was living.
I’m also very forward-looking in all these matters. To be emotionally healthy we need to organize things. We also need to be organizing things by heart. There is something about a cluttered mess that prevents real and healthy grieving. It also prevents you from moving on and finding that place where memories are not so much cluttered as they are appreciated. More can be shared in this world if we don’t allow things to remain or become a mess.
Sock drawer of the soul
That’s not to say that getting messy emotions out where you can see them is a bad thing. Quite the opposite. For a casual example, sorting through daily ideas or a lifetime of memories is quite akin to organizing a sock drawer. There’s an understanding and a peace that comes with things paired up as they should be. It happens the same way with photo albums and other keepsakes. We really need to sort through it all to appreciate their significance.
Ultimately, some of it needs to be given or thrown away. We can’t keep everything. Nor should we try.
Yet I decided after a year of experimenting that the appropriate way to encase our wedding rings was to place them on a bed of corks saved from years of wine we shared together. I used to buy “Wine for a Year” and it was a fun gift to open one of those bottles each month.
It’s also a fact that in these matters of the heart, no one else can do the work for you. Yet it is also important to share. I have not shied away from talking about my late wife with my current companion. Even my wife’s best friend turned to me recently and said, “Did you know that Linda told me that she knew you would date after she was gone?”
Statements like those are gifts to be shared when it is time to open them. This entire process of organizing things by heart does not happen all at once. We process. We grieve. We celebrate. We share.
It is not perfect. I am not perfectly organized and never will be. But the commitment to live well actually honors all those whose lives impact you, and whose lives you impact. And thank God for that.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and facing life challenges in a positive way. It is available on Amazon.com.