Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Art of Letting Stuff Go

Over the past few years, I've become slightly obsessed by the amount of possesions I keep in my life. This obsession was triggered by a large number of moves in short succession; over the course of eight years, I moved six times! With each move, I began to take a much closer look at the significance of my belongings. Somehow the act of moving back-breakingly heavy book boxes, makes you ponder the need for so many self-help books. During these moves, I decided that the best way to help myself involved carrying four hefty boxes, instead of ten.

The act of managing my "stuff" has become somewhat of a spiritual practice for me. When we actually stop to think about why we're keeping certain items, we realize how attached we are to the past. How many of us are guilty of holding onto those pre-pregnancy jeans? Or perhaps we're clinging to boxes and boxes of baby clothes. Or maybe we simply can't let go of those old newspapers in our basement.

The fact is, that by the time we fit into those jeans again, they'll probably be out of style. Or worse yet, we'll never fit into them again and they'll stay in our closet taunting us, and subsequently flouting all of our future fitness endeavors. And no matter how cute those baby clothes are, our children will never be babies again. Our time might be better spent enjoying our children at their current age, rather than lamenting a stage that has long past. And while those newspapers may certainly be interesting, they also succeed in distracting us from the present moment.

Let me clarify... I don't suggest that we jettison every physical item that has meaning for us, but we could probably manage on fewer of these precious belongings. There comes a point when we stop owning our possesions and they begin to own us. I ask myself two questions when I'm deciding whether or not to keep an object...
  • Does this item serve a practical purpose, and do I use it regularly?
  • Does this item make me happy when I look at it?
If I can't easily answer "yes" to at least one of those questions, I usually get rid of it. These simple rules allow me to surround myself with only the things that actually have meaning for me.

My urge to purge intensified last year, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. When I received this news, I needed a project, something to distract me from the fear I was battling. I also needed to reaccess what mattered to me in my life. Not surprisingly, most of my things seemed pretty meaningless, when compared with the thought of losing my mother.

This impulse to simplify was exaggerated even further last month, when my mom passed away.

When a loved one dies, one's first inclination is to grasp at every last memory. There's no denying that a shirt isn't just a shirt any longer; all of a sudden, this garment has supreme significance. It holds memories, scents, and history; it feels impossible to let go of. But we must.

I loved my mother more than anything in the world; we had a closer bond that most mothers and daughters could every dream of. When she passed, all of her belongings came into my home. Thankfully, my mother was a good teacher in the art of simplification. She, too, had let go of many unneccesary items. Despite her minimalist efforts; however, there are still many emotionally-charged items in my house. Going through each belonging is a very draining process.

Part of me wants to keep everything, especially the clothing that still holds her scent. It's incredibly painful to let these items go, but I know that I have to. From a practical standpoint, I have to release them, because my mom was a very petite woman, so neither my sister or I can fit in most of her clothes. But I'm also freeing myself of these things, because they won't bring her back; they'll only hold me back.

My mother wants me to live every moment of my life as though it were my last. She wants me to see the sky every morning with a fresh set of eyes. She wants me to run with my children, as if I were a child myself. Her essence is reflected through me and the love I put forth into the world, it's not in her old sports bras.

Over the past month, my siblings, my dad, and I have been dividing up her belongings. A few days after she passed, we all sat on my living room floor surrounded by her pottery. Amazingly, we were all compelled to share and honor these items. In these bowls, she served lovingly prepared food. Her vases held freshly gathered wild flowers. On other occasions, these containers would hold special stones or hand-picked shells. Her pottery was never meant for show, it was meant for holding life. This collection has a purpose: to be shared and enjoyed by those who loved her. I hope to pass this pottery down to her grandchildren someday.

There are other things I will keep, but only if they follow my two golden rules. Her belongings should feel like a gift, not a burden.

So as you manage the clutter in your life, consider this thought... When we die, we can't bring anything with us. It's not as though we're given a checklist of items to carry into the afterlife. There must be a reason for this. Maybe, just maybe, we can let go of some things that have been holding us back. Chances are, this will create some much-needed space for new energy to flow into our lives.

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