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A few months back I attended a benefit luncheon at the home of a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley whose art collection adorned nearly every vertical surface of her Bauhaus house. While freshening up, I was amused to see she had artwork even in her bathroom and, as I then saw, her vault-size closet. I stepped in, ostensibly to examine the painting, and there I experienced a life-changing revelation.
At first glance the interior of the closet and its cabinetry of bird's-eye maple were merely impressive. An Eames bench sat in the center, where one might sit as if resting among exhibits at a costume museum. Cashmere sweaters and scarves, arranged by tonality, were aligned on sliding trays. Segregated sections contained jackets, black-tie gowns, cocktail-party dresses, business suits, and golfing attire-phalanxes of fashion organized by function, color, and texture, all of it hanging on the erect shoulders of identical mahogany hangers, a precision team at the ready for any occasion.
And then there was this: four banks of shelves housing four dozen shoe boxes, which had been wrapped in rough hemp mesh and coated with a thin layer of gouache. Affixed to the front of each was a small stainless-steel nameplate, on which appeared the names of the various conceptual artists: Giorgio Armani, Manolo Blahnik, and Jimmy Choo. In smaller type were notes with numbers and letters; those, I discerned through similar coding found in other parts of her closet, referred to the black-tie, cocktail, and business attire that coordinated with the shoes. This was the temple into which the woman entered to consider the existential question we all face each day: I am what I wear, I wear what I am. Who am I today?
You don't have to be a psychiatrist to recognize that the matching hangers and labeled shoe boxes were clinical signs of a mental-health disorder. Obsessive-compulsive sprang to mind. Although she was only in her 30s, I knew she would never marry. This was clearly someone who was so inflexible she allowed no wrinkles in her life, certainly no man with uncoded shoe boxes.
As I made this smug assessment, I had a sudden and terrible realization that my own closet had served for others as an amusing window into my psyche. I could picture it: the overflowing drawers of socks and stockings, long dresses mingling with old blouses and skirts, winter clothes with summer, many of the outfits dangling by one shoulder off skewed plastic and wire hangers. My rack of clothes was far from looking like a precision team; it was the unruly lineup of people waiting to deplane after a red-eye flight. Under the clothes rack and pushed against the wall were various bags from my latest round of travels, half packed with clean and dirty clothes as well as items I had thought were necessities and turned out not to be. Clearly, anyone would conclude that my life was a mess, that I had no concept of boundaries and often did not know if I was coming or going. My closet was a repository of foibles and fetishes, an archive of my personality and life history.
It occurred to me that closet analysis should be part of any psychotherapy sessions with a Freudian. The ego: That would be the clothes representing the private side–say, the comfort clothes a woman wears when she is alone and sick at home with the flu, when she is her essential miserable self. In my case, that would be the oversize fleecewear and the babydoll dress I bought a dozen years ago that reminded me of the babydoll dress I wore when I was 14 and questioned almost nothing told to me. Among the comfort clothes I wear–and I know this will sound sick–are the pink pajamas my mother wore the last week of her life. In that vein, there are also the wool Bavarian slipper socks that were a Christmas present from a friend who died too young, the nightgown I wore the night after my father died, and the six sweaters my mother knitted the following year and gave me when I gladly escaped her clutches and started college a year early. Those were the sweaters I never wore again until my 30s, when I found them stuffed in a cardboard box of old clothes.
As for the superego, those are the clean clothes a person wears in public as an adaptation to a social setting, situation, or purpose-the fashions that make a woman look sexy to a suitor, younger at a reunion, or sensibly boring to a future mother-in-law. They are the suits that have already proven their worth during successful interviews and speeches, the clingy top that led to a pleasantly consummated dalliance, the pants that fit after six months of exercise. Often those outfits are advanced front and center. But they are always subject to demotion; once they fail at their intended purpose, they're shoved to the back, along with impulse items never worn, whose price tags had once made them irresistible and now remind us how little we value our intelligence. To throw them away only magnifies the stupidity. At the farthest reaches of the closet-in the corners of the topmost shelves, squeezed behind uncoded shoe boxes, crammed at the back of drawers, or hidden under a pile of flip-flops and unused running shoes–resides the id. This is the underwear you will have on when you wake up in the ambulance, the permanently stained clothing, and other ghastly things you would disclose only under hypnosis.
I tried to rationalize the untidy personality within my closet as complex and not twisted like the wire hangers I got for free from the dry cleaner's.
If my personality lies in my closet, I further justified, then it is disorganized because I find it impossible to live an orderly life when it is chaos and confusion that serve me best as a writer. Messiness is the impetus, the disarray is the wellspring, even the shameful parts–especially those. I dredge them up and salvage them over and over again. I cannot discard clothes if they were gifts, no matter how hideous. To do so would make me feel ungrateful for friendship. The clutter within a closet is fond memories, hard-learned mistakes, comfort for future cold nights. That was my excuse, anyway. Until recently.
Today, if you were to open my closet door, you would see blouses hung in one section, jackets in another. Long skirts are partitioned from long dresses. One shelf is labeled "long-sleeved tops," another "short-sleeved tops," and a third "no sleeves." The shoes are in shoe caddies or on wire racks, and they are separated by season and function. The drawers contain socks and underwear, even the old ones, folded as nicely as those in fine lingerie stores. The nightgowns are placed in two drawers according to fabric weight.
How did I come to see the light? It was really quite simple and unexpected. My old housekeeper retired and recommended a new one, a woman with common sense and a way to apply it to the interior life of other people. When I returned from one of my travels, I saw that my closet had been transformed. When she presented me with the receipts for storage containers and other equipment, I was amazed to see how little matching hangers cost. For so little money, a girl can have a precision team at her beck and call.
Through such objective orderliness, I saw some of my foibles exposed: six skirts that were almost identical in fabric, color, and length. Why do I buy the same thing over and over again? What ingrained insecurity or needless pattern does that signify? I began to pare down and wound up with a dozen bagfuls–the useless jean jackets of my youth, the meaningless impulse buys, the excess of unused baseball caps and T-shirts emblazoned with the names of bookstores, book festivals, writers' conferences, annual events, cities visited, and tour attractions toured. My housekeeper gladly took those clothes, and for this, I too was grateful.
In reducing the chaos, I found what I had misplaced and buried. Among them were my mother's wedding jacket, a favorite blouse that I wrongfully assumed a girl at a party had stolen, the velveteen vest that was the first expensive present my then boyfriend and now husband gave me more than 30 years ago. And that, I realized, is also the kind of discovery I make when writing stories. In wading through the mess, I gradually put aside what is no longer meaningful, what is overused, what is overly sentimental. And what is left is the essentials: both a sense of who I am and memories of what helped me become that way.