Warning: The following article describes a brutal act of clutter-clearing in which a number of inanimate objects are heartlessly disposed of. It may not be suitable for sensitive readers. Proceed at your own risk.
I’ve never been a packrat. By most people’s standards, I live quite simply and don’t have a lot of “stuff.” I have learned, though, that a lot of the material I do accumulate is like sea wrack, washed up against the shores of my living space by the waves of projects I’ve started and not completed.
Oh, I’ve tried to complete them—most of them, anyway. Usually by organizing the heck out of them first. I’ve kept lists of projects. I’ve whittled those projects down to bite-sized tasks, devised methods to streamline and schedule those tasks, and created whole systems to track my progress so that I could have the joy of crossing things off my to-do list. I’ve spent hours, days and weeks blasting through those to-do lists like dynamite in an all-out effort to finish as many projects and tasks as quickly I could, so that I could have the simple, uncluttered life I crave.
It never, ever occurred to me that I could simplify my life by eliminating things without finishing them.
In late 2001 I fulfilled a long-held dream and began to learn to play the Indian tabla drums. I took lessons for five years from one of the world’s acknowledged best tabla players, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri. I adored the classes, and Swapanji is a wonderful, patient and gently humorous teacher whom I miss deeply . . . because I haven’t taken lessons now for over two years.
It broke my heart, but I had to stop for my own benefit. I took the classes far too seriously, and I felt such a sense of obligation that the lessons became more of a chore than anything else. I was feeling enormous stress over the fact that I couldn’t practice as much as I wanted to, and I thought I wasn’t doing justice to either the money I was spending on the classes or, even more important to me, the beautiful musical tradition of the tablas.
At the end of it all (and I still choke up just writing that), I was left with five years’ worth of cassette tapes. Tapes? Yes, because we learned so much so quickly each week that Swapanji allowed us to record the classes. I would come home from class, play through the tape, write down the new composition we’d learned, and refer to it as I practiced throughout the week or refreshed my memory of it later.
These tapes held pure gold. They contained the teachings of a living legend, instructing very small groups of students in a tiny room. Swapanji played each new composition for us. He gave us individual attention and advice. He gave encouragement, sometimes talked about the history of the tablas, and often told funny stories.
But 90% of the tapes were filled with us students, ineptly tapping and pounding away as we attempted to stuff each new kaida, rela, tukra and chakradhar into our short-term memories. This was nothing I would ever want to listen to again.
Once I’d finish transcribing each week’s tape into my permanent notes, I’d save it with the intention of extracting the 10% of the material with real value for future reference. So when I stopped taking classes, I had a gigantic box filled with five years’ worth of cassettes. I consoled myself with the thought that since I was (*sniffle*) no longer learning anything new, I would finally have time to deal with them all.
It was an Enormous Project. Just getting the (sometimes undated) tapes into chronological order took me a long time. The next step was to listen to roughly 200-250 hours of class tapes through an analog-to-digital converter, and sift through the dirt of the vast, useless majority of the recordings to find the tiny nuggets of gold where Swapanji was actually talking and teaching. I would then need to save those smaller files, date-label them, catalog their contents, and burn them to CD for safekeeping.
I really thought I could do it. In my spare time, outside of my full-time job and my many other projects and commitments. I expected myself to. This unfinished project weighed on my consciousness for two full years. All unfinished things have an oppressive weight to them, but this one was extra-heavy. After all, those tapes were priceless! They deserved to be saved, if not for me, then for posterity!
But slowly I realized that posterity didn’t much care. That other people took these classes, too. That I wasn’t personally responsible for being the caretaker of the material I’d learned. That Swapanji had been recorded—professionally—hundreds of times over the decades.
That I really, truly didn’t have to do this project at all. Ever.
So . . . I threw away the box.
Then I cried.
And then I was swept with the most profound feeling of relief I’d felt in years.
How odd that my biggest lesson came when I stopped taking classes.