Seriously, It’s Time to Take Care of Stuff

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Last year my daughter Sarah lived with us for several months, and during that time she got me thinking about the stuff I hold onto. She’s into minimalist living, and she really believes in the mental clarity and inner peace that open clear surfaces and orderliness – filling your personal space with only what you really need and use – can bring to one’s state of mind.

One morning she attacked me over my bathroom. Opening the cabinets under the sinks, she said, “Mom, why do you have all of this stuff in here?” Multiple bottles of skin lotion, types of soap, duplicate cosmetics, brushes and combs long unused, a spare hairdryer, half-used bottles of shampoo. “I don’t know, I haven’t used them up yet,” I said. “But look at this,” she said, holding up an old shampoo bottle. “Do you like this brand? Do you use it ever? Look how old it is!” She started pulling everything out and placing it on the floor. It became a minefield of out-of-date lotions, faded containers of half-used cleansers, lipsticks used a few times and stored away because I didn’t like their colors, and duplicates of things I already had. “Why don’t you use this?” she asked, holding up a bottle of lotion. I opened it. “I don’t really like the smell of it,” I said. “Then why do you keep it? Why not just throw it away?” She asked the same about the spare hair dryer I had. It wasn’t as nice as my regular dryer; I remembered that it had a really ear-piercing high-pitched whine. That’s why I had bought a new one years ago. But I kept it there in case my regular one broke one day. “If your hair dryer broke, though,” my logical daughter asked, “wouldn’t you go buy a new one rather than use this one that was so bad you bought a replacement for it?” Well, yes…

Suddenly I felt that I had discovered a logical thought process that somehow gave me permission to throw all of this junk away. I hadn’t been able to before, I think, because I have always lived by a twisted version of that depression-era thinking that the World War II generation passed on to us in one form or another: “Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do, or do without.” I held onto stuff that in all honesty I was never going to use again, because I felt that I should use it up – someday. If I didn’t, I was being wasteful – throwing away “perfectly good stuff.” But the actual result hasn’t been anything other than an accumulation of things I would never use. I haven’t saved any money by hoarding this stuff. What I’ve done is set myself up for bad feelings every time I open those cabinets – over the money I spent unwisely, over the crowded disorganization behind the doors, over the faded, worn, off-color, or unpleasant smelling stuff that I know lurks there.

Sarah and I emptied all of the cabinets together, and, bolstered by her “permission” to throw away (It helps a lot when someone you respect and trust says “go ahead – toss it!”), I filled a garbage bag with the expired, the bad-smelling, the old and faded, and the guilt. I can’t tell you how pleased I feel now every time I enter my bathroom. This space is my space, and it has in it only what I like and want and use. It feels good.

A few months later, after Sarah moved to New Orleans, I emptied out my entire pantry and went through the same process. Now I know where everything is, I know what I do and don’t have, and there are no ugly surprises waiting to be discovered, like an old bag of flour with weevils, or ridiculous duplications like the four cans of baking powder I found during the overhaul.

I would like to carry this progress forward to my nightmare of a garage, but here is where I am stymied. My garage is a monster. I have furniture from the home I left when I divorced my husband, sets of dishes, flatware, glassware, records of marketing campaigns from clients twelve years back, boxes of my childrens’ toys and their most precious baby and toddler clothes, suits from my days as Director of Communications for a school district, camping gear from our Adirondack summers, my own old school records, and on and on – and then all the stuff my husband has kept from his earlier life too – camping gear, lamps, tools, hardware, dishes, photos, record albums, boogie boards, surfboards. Literally, all this stuff fills the garage even to the point of being stored up in the rafters. We don’t own that space. It owns us.

And because so much of what’s in our garage is tied to old memories and times gone by, it’s especially hard to dig in. Where do I start? Here’s an example: I have my old hiking backpack, still. I remember when I bought it, I remember the times I packed it up and carried it up the San Jacinto Mountain trails, hiking with my father. I remember using it on backpacking trips with my college boyfriend, and again hiking with my husband and children in the Adirondacks. I’d invested a good amount of money in that piece of survival equipment – one of my earliest serious adult purchases. That thing represents so much to me. But now the fabric is so old and weak that I think you could poke a hole in it with your finger. The frame and the fittings too are way out of date; much better designs are out there now. The thing has gotta go. But as I was talking with my husband recently about giving my backpack the heave-ho, my eyes filled with tears and I couldn’t go on. It was deeply upsetting to me to think of saying goodbye to that symbol of my independence and strength and my relationship with my father and my memories of the exhilaration of being out in nature with those I loved, far away from all machinery and artificial lighting and structures and noise. So it still sits in my garage, a derelict. It’s stupid for me to keep it. But it’s hard for me to let go of it. There it is. Keeping stuff you don’t need anymore is really all about grief, loss, and guilt, isn’t it?

When Janet Neal sent me the title of the workshop she’ll be teaching at all three of our Women At Woodstock retreats in October, it spoke to me loud and clear. Her workshop is called “STUFF – Releasing Your Stuff – Loving Your Stuff – and Letting It Go.” Janet will be working with us not on “how to organize,” but rather how to identify the stuff we’re hanging on to and the real reasons we’re doing so. And then she’ll work with us on creating a commitment and plan for releasing that which does not support us any longer.

I cannot wait.

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