I have a guilty pleasure that includes watching absolute mindless television when life gets tough. The more stress, the worse the show. I got hooked on the series Hoarders during a particularly rough patch a year ago. I finally had to stop watching it after the initial shock value wore off, and I realized how incredibly sad the lives of the people featured on the show are.
Our stuff holds all kinds of meaning. For some, it is the fear that they will lose a memory if the item that triggers it disappears. For others, they worry that they won’t have something handy when they need it. There are those who collect animals because it makes them feel loved and needed, and some who save scraps of paper because, on some level, it makes them feel noticed.
Personally, I am not much of a “saver”. I don’t have any problem throwing away or donating something that doesn’t have an immediate place in our lives. I try to donate it with love, hoping that it will find its way to someone who really needs it rather than cluttering up my closets and counters.
My family might argue that I am overzealous at times. Sometimes papers go missing, shoes can’t be found, the stuffed animal pile magically dwindles. I have always prided myself on a fairly organized home.
And then I started packing.
For the past two and a half weeks, I have been knee deep in piles of “stuff”. Every item I have touched has been put to the test. Is this something that we need? Will we have a place for it in our new home? Is it worth the hassle of packing and unpacking it?
It has not been easy.
I have a newfound empathy for those who hoard. What I realized last weekend is that evaluating our items takes a tremendous amount of emotional energy. I started with the easy stuff – who needs 6 winter coats? I practiced letting go of what we didn’t need so that there would be open spaces for the new energy of a fresh space.
Old clothes? Easy. Kids’ artwork? Harder. Journals? Impossible.
It dawned on me while sitting in a pile of old photographs why it is so hard. I was staring at a picture of my thirty year old self, right after we moved into this house. In the photo, I held my son who was a year old on one hip and my two-year-old daughter’s hand on the other side. My cheeks were flushed from the sunlight, and behind me were the pine trees that still stand in the corner of our backyard.
That moment, captured in a split second with an obsolete camera and printed on actual paper, will never come again. It was gone as soon as it happened. I will never be thirty, my children will never be toddlers, and those scruffy trees will forever more reach the sky and block that corner of the yard.
Every item in this house – especially those tucked into the backs of closets and cabinets – holds a moment in time. Letting go of those requires more than an evaluation of usefulness. It requires a trip back in time to see if the memory will be anchored with or without the trigger. Will I remember my daughter’s adoption ceremony without the dress she was wearing? What about my son’s first steps without his baby shoes?
Among the memories are the wisps of dreams captured through collections of stuff. A stack of inspirational journals will not make me a writer, unopened craft kits will not make me crafty, and size 4 jeans will not make me a size 4. I am not red lipstick and short skirts, anti-aging cream will not make me younger if I don’t use it, and perfume gives me a headache no matter how pretty the bottle. Each of these reflects a time in my life when I thought I could – or should – be those things and more. Letting the items go means letting the expectation of who I am, who I want to be, and who I will become go with them.
I am slowly making progress. I have let go of many things that I think someone else will benefit from more than I will. The craft cupboard is empty, the photographs are boxed for storing, and the size 4 jeans have already been dropped off at Goodwill. I sold my sofa, donated a chair, and have promised some other items to my mom.
Buoyed by the lightness of less “stuff”, each closet gets a little easier. Letting go of what was opens the door for what is, and leaves room for what will be. And in the meantime, living every moment as it comes helps too.