My aunt, Kelly Parker Palace, wrote today's guest post. I write in my minimalism books about how the true power of a belonging lies in the memories and stories you attach to it, not the actual possession itself. I think this dramatic story illustrates that point perfectly. Once you realize that the memories are the treasure, you can let go of the old and let the new in. Enjoy. -- Genevieve
I often fantasize about how nice it would be to have an uncluttered organized closet. My clothes lined up by color or purpose, everything in its place. The huge dose of inspiration I needed for this came to me from reading my niece’s book, Minimalist Living. I felt I was ready, normally I am a purger-not a collector. Most of our home qualifies as minimalist. My closet was the last untouched area. I thought I was ready to conquer it, but when I went to take action, I froze like a statue standing in the doorway. Lucky for me I had access to Genevieve a world traveling, minimalist expert-author, who I knew could assist me. I whipped off the following email to her, asking for help.
I am reading your book on minimalism (and loving it) and it is inspiring me to de-clutter my clothing/closet. But I am having trouble getting rid of my "winter" wardrobe. Having moved here from NY and DC, I have a great collection of wonderful winter-wear: coats, expensive business suits, and all the accessories that go with these items.
Though we have now lived in hot Florida for 9 years, I still have all my winter coats, suits and clothes hanging in my closet. I keep thinking that "one day" I may move north again and would need them. Also, of course, I do travel to cold climates, so I may need a few cold weather items.
I know part of getting rid of the suits is saying goodbye to my fun and successful career with Pfizer. It makes me sad. Also some sadness is involved in the winter coat goodbyes. Any advice you can give me in letting these go?
I love you!
Though Genevieve is time zones away on the other side of the world, she picked up the phone and called me when she read my email. After a quick check-in, she cut to my plea for help. Who knew what followed would be like one of the best, most cathartic “counseling” sessions of my life? That I would be shedding tears of deep emotion related to clothing in my closet?!
In our phone conversation Genevieve asked me to think about the feelings I got when I evaluated various pieces of my clothing. She recommended that I take a picture of items with which I carry powerful memories. Maybe write a story about the most important ones. She reminded me that by taking old things out of my closet/life I would make room for new/exciting things. She asked me important questions in my search for the reasons why I had held onto items for decades, without using them, even once. I answered. She listened. I cried. I thought about things more deeply than I had in a long time. After the call and this writing exercise, I felt ten times lighter! And I’m ready to really take action towards my fantasy closet. What follows is just one story of a “Power Suit” that was holding power over me, hanging in my closet untouched for the last 14 years. I hope by photographing this suit and writing its story I will be able to get rid of it and invite something new into my life that serves me better.
The day was September 11, 2001 and I felt extra good as I walked to work in my freshly dry cleaned, chartreuse, Liz Claiborne suit, pearls, tan pumps and hose.
It was also a “good hair” day, I noted with pleasure. I was living and working in New York City. Like many people in NYC that day, I had a spring in my step on what started as an exceptionally beautiful, crisp, clear morning. Additionally, I was happily anticipating September 12th, my 40th birthday, and was looking forward to celebrating the big 4-0 with friends during the upcoming weekend.
The route I covered daily from my apartment to my office took me by a charming old firehouse with an open truck bay and handsome, friendly firefighters that waved and smiled at me every morning while sitting at a round table and drinking coffee, as they started their shift. Seeing these men in uniform was of the highlights of my morning walk/commute. My office was located on 42nd Street on the 36th floor of one of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals buildings, our global headquarters in the heart of Midtown Manhattan.
I had a job I loved at Pfizer, great co-workers and thrived on the energy of the amazing city and all it had to offer. Life was good. In fact, in my “Power Suit” on the streets of NYC, I felt deep gratitude to be living one version of my dream life. I was smiling at people on the way to work, not always a common practice in NYC, but I did it anyway on this gorgeous day. Little did I know, in just a couple of hours I would be carrying my pumps and wearing holes in the bottom of my stockings as I ran down 36 flights of stairs in a terror filled exit from my office. That would be the beginning of a 16-hour saga of escaping the war zone New York City became that day.
I often feel guilty about mentioning any of my own sadness, grief, anxiety, confusion or pain which I experienced on 9/11. It feels as though it should be insignificant compared to the many that had worked at the twin towers or lost their life or a loved one. Yet, my experiences, memories and emotions of that day run so deep that to this day if I see the images of the planes hitting the towers, I am rocked with immediate tears and flashes of feelings that still haunt me.
As I sat at my desk around 8:45 am on 9/11, a co-worker popped their head into my office and said, “Hey, come to the back window. A plane just hit one of the twin towers and you can see it perfectly.” Initially my mind conjured up a two-person “piper cub” plane just scratching the facade of the mighty tower. When I turned the corner of the hall to our big picture window facing south and looked at the towers, I was not prepared for what I saw. The clear day with low humidity provided a direct, flawless view of the towers from our 36th floor sight-line. There were no buildings tall enough to interfere with our view. What we saw made the TV images look meek. The plumes of red, orange and yellow flames and thick black smoke pouring from a gaping hole in the tower was huge and horrific against the brilliant blue sky. This was no piper cub. A giant aircraft had hit the tower and the tragedy and loss of life was obvious. BAM! Oh my god! Just as we watched the first tower burning, it was surreal to see a second plane slam into the other tower directly in our view. Not on TV, but live before my very eyes. This could not be real. Was I having a nightmare? Were we at war?
Fear and confusion struck many of us when the second plane hit . A wave of nausea came over me. One of my male co-workers, whom I particularly admired for his strong leadership, vomited in the nearest trash can. I felt like doing that too, but didn’t have enough breakfast in me to produce it. At this point time was both fast and slow. Several of us stood in silence watching ghastly clouds of blackness and flames rise into the sky. What we thought was debris falling from the towers, we later realized were people jumping from their offices. We were shaken out of our disbelief when emergency sirens to evacuate our building began to boom loudly through the halls. Panic mode was now in full swing for all of us. We were instructed to quickly grab our personal items and “walk” down 36th flights of stairs. I ran. So did many others.
A War Zone
Though I never saw the media cover it from this angle, several of us in the tall buildings of NYC had our thoughts race to Pearl Harbor. We felt like we were in a war zone. Would there be more planes flying into tall buildings in the city? I wasn’t going to stick around to find out. I needed to get to the place where I felt the most protected, safe and loved on earth--my parents home in Richmond, Virginia. I needed to sit on Mom and Dad’s couch and sip tea and have them tell me things would be OK. Even though I was 39 years old, I felt like a small child, lost in the grocery store, panicked. But I was lost in NYC which was now a very scary place and I wanted out.
The rest of that day is a blur. I ran all the way back to my apartment in bare feet. Sirens were blaring everywhere and the streets were filled with a parade of fire trucks. The sidewalks were crowded as people rushed to safety. At my apartment I tossed off my power suit and got into comfy traveling clothes and running shoes. My plan was to catch a train to Richmond. I packed a backpack of stuff and went to find my roommate Barb to say goodbye. She was on the roof of our apartment watching the sliver-view of the towers, with other residents. I found her shiny blonde hair among the crowd and told her my plan. That is when we heard a massive sound and felt the ground tremble. One of the towers was falling to the ground. My heart rate had almost returned to normal from the morning and my plan to get out of the city had calmed me a bit, but the tremor beneath me now was like another blow. As the first tower was falling to the ground, we watched what felt like slow motion. The storm cloud of dust was rising in the sky and I thought it would engulf us, even though we were a safe distance away. We all knew the death toll was rising as we watched. Panic struck me again. I began to run once more. Yes, real sub-8-minute per mile running. I was scared and wanted out.
I headed south to Penn Station to catch a train. I passed people covered in white dust heading north. People crying everywhere. Strong, handsome men in $3,000 power suits crying on their cell phones. Strangers hugging one another. Emergency vehicles were abundant. The streets were crowded. Taxis weren’t stopping. The amazing, powerful positive energy of the city was different. People were scared. When I arrived at Penn Station, I was met by a gruff policeman and barricades. The officer informed me that Penn Station was closed. No trains were running. In fact, he told me that “the island” (Manhattan) was being closed down. No entry nor exit. This made me crazy! “What?!” I screamed at him, “I have to get off the island!” Then he mumbled that one of the north bridges might be open. I felt trapped. Rumors were flying about the corpses piling up and how the city might become a health hazard. Now I was heading north hoping to find an open bridge. Again, I began to run, my anxiety still high, for the next few miles until I took a rest in Central Park. My heart rate was high, even though I was a competitive runner. Running with heavy back pack while scared can do that. I needed a rest.
In Central Park I found a bench with only one person on it and plenty of room for me to stop and drink one of the water bottles I had packed. I sat down and got control of my breathing. That is when I noticed, in detail, the well dressed young man sitting next to me, his shoulders heaving with each crying sob he made. At first I noticed just the movement of his body, then I heard his waling. Maybe me sitting there with him allowed him to release his emotions. Or maybe the reality of the day had just hit him, but he was in pain. I put my hand on top of one of his and I gently asked, “Are you OK?” “No, no,” he quietly gurgled through tears. “My best friend was in tower two on the 101st floor. He was above the crash. I know he’s dead”, he continued. “I’m so sorry”, I said and began to cry with him. As each hour passed my emotions were getting more raw. It felt good to let out some of the pressure. My shock and anxiety was now grief for this young man and his friend. I couldn’t think about the other massive loss of life that day, or I never would have stopped crying. I felt stuck to the bench, drained of energy now. But again, as if on cue, I was jolted out of an emotional nightmare by a loud rumbling in the sky.
The rumbling rocked us. Hard to identify at first, but then clearly, it was the sound of a fleet of fighter jets zooming over Central Park and NYC. Everyone in the Park looked up, visibly shaken by another assault on our already damaged senses. Fear and adrenaline filled me and my fellow bench dweller. We speculated. Were we being attacked? Were those US jets or enemies’? Now my negative imagination was in over-drive. I needed to run again. After a quick farewell to my sad friend, I was off. I walked-ran many miles over the Triborough Bridge until I strained a hamstring. Finally I reached LaGuardia Airport by foot, where all planes were grounded.
The Last Car
At the Budget Rental Car desk I got their last vehicle to drive to Richmond. The trip should have taken 8 hours in normal circumstances but with the required detour around the city and the traffic it took 13 hours. Going south on I-95 I passed hundreds of fire trucks heading north to assist NYC in her hour of need. The fire trucks all had their lights flashing which helped keep me alert as I made the long drive. The processional of endless flashing fire trucks is a unique visual which I will always remember. I arrived at my parents at 2am. Mom and Dad were waiting up for me. I had forgotten to eat all day. Mom wrapped me in a blanket on the couch, brought me a bowl of cereal and both parents said, “Happy Birthday Honey, we’re so glad you are home safely.”
A New World
As I crawled into bed at my parents’ in the wee hours of the morning, I thought of my NYC apartment and what it would be like to be going back there. At that point, I didn’t know when I would be returning to NYC. I would learn many things had changed in this great city. My friendly morning firefighting crew lost some members from their shift in the towers. One thing I knew I would find upon my return was my chartreuse, Liz Claiborne power suit crumpled on the floor of my room where I had thrown it in my hasty escape on 9/11.
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2nd photo credit: Kelly Parker Palace