Packing up the Past: Clearing the Way for a Better Today
Author: Linda S. Hopkins
It was just a comb…until it wasn’t. When my husband passed away in 2001, as I began the torturous task of sorting out his personal items, suddenly, “things” took on a new meaning: a sliver of soap, the reading glasses on the nightstand, a well-worn canoe paddle, a collection of used golf balls, and a life-size rubber alligator, peeking out from the partially open trunk of his white Eldorado (always an attention getter during tourist season).
It took me several years of talking to myself, often choking on tears, to decide what and how to let go of the many personal effects he left behind. As I contemplated each item, I would say (out loud), “This is just a shirt…or a toothbrush…or a coffee cup.” If I could think of it that way, it went into the giveaway bag or throwaway pile. If there was any doubt, I saved it. What I had to get past was the guilt—the thought that I was somehow discarding him or something that was meaningful to him. Through it all, I learned some important lessons about what matters.
In the book, Breathing Room, psychiatrist Melva Green said, “You came into this world with nothing. You will leave with nothing. In the period in between, you will amass possessions and stories and emotions around your possessions. But none of it is actually you.”
My late husband’s possessions were no more him than my current house, furniture, car, clothes and jewelry are me. And I don’t want anyone fretting over it when I’m gone. But the associations are undeniable, and what we choose to hold onto is certainly telling.
If you are grieving the loss of a loved one, I encourage you to take your time. A meandering trip down memory lane and a good cry into a shirt that still carries that person’s scent may be the best therapy you can get. But don’t stay stuck there. Give yourself permission to experience the full range of emotions as you take baby steps towards clearing space for today. Over time, you will begin to discern what you truly value and what is potentially holding you back.
In 2005, I remarried. After living a couple of years in a two-bedroom condo, my husband Tom and I moved into a house with many closets, a garage and an attic. Further consolidating our lives, we got rid of some duplicate items and boxed up the rest. Still, it didn’t take long for our new space to fill up.
While no one has died, and we are not planning to move, I recently got the urge to purge. Digging my way through clothing, dishes, books and assorted what-nots, the message came to me once again: Letting go is never about the stuff; it’s about what the stuff represents.
Even what’s shoved under the bed or into the back of a dark cabinet isn’t really a secret. It may be out of sight, but it’s not out of mind. For example, more than a hundred cookbooks were stored away in my attic—some dog-eared and food-splattered, others brand new. My hidden stash lingered like a cheat sheet for a test (just in case I were to be asked to fill in for Giada). Giving these books away meant admitting that cooking, which was once an integral part of my routine and role, is no longer a source of joy for me or even a way of life.
Meanwhile, my beloved shoe collection has held my closet hostage since my first of four foot surgeries in 2012—sexy stilettos, stylish sandals and sky-high wedges stabbing me in the heart while overruled by my feet, which demand a more sensible shoe these days. At the same time, my office had become a virtual shrine to a business I closed two years ago—bookshelves overrun by study guides and a file drawer bursting with conference notes.
Clearly, my life has changed, so why is it so difficult to shed items that are no longer useful to me? Because they symbolize something from my past that I have been clinging to like an inner tube in a riptide. At some point, we have to relax our grip and let go. Otherwise, we allow useless things to drown out our happiness, swallow up our space, weigh down our hearts, and, by default, become someone else’s burden down the road.
Clutter is the enemy of peaceful living, and, like a mirror, our homes reflect back who we are. According to Green, rooms are an outward manifestation of our emotional and spiritual life. This is true for me and certainly for everyone else I know who has hesitated to get rid of a faded T-shirt, broken candy dish, stained baby bib, mate-less sock, or moldy jar of Grandma’s jam. Our reluctance to discard them is often born of guilt, fear, or worry that we will “need” or “miss” the thing itself, when what we may need or miss is often something quite different.
If you are moving or have decided to tidy up, begin clearing with compassion and gratitude. Acknowledge objects that have been useful or valuable to you in the past. Thank them for their service, and let them go. If an item was a gift or inheritance, renew its worth by consigning it, donating it to a charitable organization, or giving it to someone who has a genuine need or use for it. Say goodbye to anything that’s purpose is a mere placeholder in your home and heart.
Green said, “Nothing—no matter how much you paid for it, or who gave it to you, or how long it has been in your family—is truly valuable if it is eating up space in your heart that can be used for love, happiness, and freedom. That breathing room is more meaningful than any gift, and it creates a better future than anything you inherited.”
Did I mention talking to yourself? The process of letting go is much more powerful when you bid your gracious adieus out loud.
Some say that a messy desk is a sign of genius. Apparently, I’m not smart enough to work in chaos. For me, disorganization is a distraction. Most of the books and files of my past business are gone now, making way for creative thought and efficient work flow. This is not to say that my desk will forever remain clear or that my house looks like an advertisement for the Container Store. It doesn’t. It looks like I live here—with a man and a fluffy white cat.
None of us can expect to have a mess-free environment. What I’m aiming for is not perfect order, but a simplified life—one in which I know where the flashlight is, can put my hands on a favorite black skirt, have a place for my appliance warranties, and can lay my head on a fresh pillow without tripping over a shoe. Establishing this way of life requires attention and ongoing diligence, but it ultimately yields more time and energy for people and activities that matter more.
Deciding to toss a mascara sample, shred a file or consign a dress is not the same as discarding my late husband’s razor, yet releasing ordinary things can still cut me to the core. I recently donated five bags of clothes, four boxes of cookbooks and dozens of shoes to charity. I took some evening wear to a consignment store and threw away some ratty old socks.
A look at what I chose to keep not only hints at what I currently value, but reveals a few hopes and fears. For example, I suspect the drawer full of age-defying lotions and potions might point to some last gasp of my youth. The closet bursting with dresses is more than a testament to my vanity. It can be traced back to the hand-me-downs of my childhood and the desire to rise above the life I knew growing up. So deeply rooted is the psychological drive to escape poverty, somehow, too much is still never enough. Knowing and understanding this about myself is the first step toward decluttering the down-deep closet of my soul. The physical closet cleaning will come when I am ready to release the grip these emotions hold over me—which may be tomorrow or may be never.
On display in my home are a number of prized objects: a porcelain cat-shaped cookie jar, a dollar bill folded into an elf boot, a tiny felt fairy doll, a framed jigsaw puzzle, a collection of music boxes, and a handmade shell necklace—all of little monetary value but great personal significance.
The rubber alligator lived in my broom closet for several more years, (because when is a rubber alligator just a rubber alligator?). I ultimately took it to the recycle center, but I won’t lie to you; it was a sad day. A used bar of soap, terry cloth cap and driver’s license reside in a neat box along with pictures, letters, greeting cards and other pieces of my past; a voice recording my late husband made for me is carefully preserved on its original cassette tape in my safe deposit box and now as a CD and an MP3 file. While it’s comforting to know these things are there, as the years go by, I rarely revisit them. They are not the person I loved, nor are they who I am. The real treasure is tucked safely inside my heart and mind—the sum total of experiences and memories that make up the person I have become and the life I live today, where new love has room to breathe.
What does your clutter say about you or your life?
Is that a keepsake…or just a comb?
For an in-depth understanding of how decluttering can change your life, read Breathing Room, by Melva Green and Lauren Rosenfield, available on amazon.com or at your local bookstore. For practical advice on how to get started, see The Ridiculously Thorough Guide to Decluttering Your Home at budgetdumpster.com/resources/how-to-declutter-your-home.php.