Thursday, February 25, 2010

Letting Go

You Are What You Know, Not What You Own

We burden ourselves, sometimes more than we know. The burdens can be real or imagined. They can weigh tons or be as light as the ether. They are a curse that greed, envy and insecurity have given us. Learning how to free ourselves of the burdens we bare should be the most important lesson in our lives. Alas, some people never even pick up the textbook.

If you own, or ever owned, a pickup truck, you suddenly find yourself with a whole bunch of new friends. When you have the ability to haul a lot of stuff, you find that there are a lot of folks out there with a lot of stuff to haul. When my mother-in-law (M-I-L) moved in with us at the beginning of February, all the able bodied relatives were called into help her move from her retirement community to our home.

I knew from the get go, that this would not be an easy task. My M-I-L is one of those people that defines her life based on the objects that she has collected. Material wealth is the gauge that let her know where she had been and what she had done in her life. So even though she had invited her grand-daughters over to her apartment to 'go through' her stuff to see which grand daughter wanted to be 'bestowed' certain family heirlooms, I knew there would still be a lot of stuff left over to move.

Prior to the move, the grand-daughters expressed their surprise at exactly how much 'junk' their grandmother had accumulated. They wanted little of her possessions, but took those things that were offered to make her move easier. Never the less, when the son-in-laws arrived with their pickup trucks on the weekend of the move, we found 95% of the contents of her life still stuffed into closets and dresser drawers...untouched.

She hadn't packed anything, nor had she thrown anything away. She was content to have us move it one more time, into an even smaller living area. The inanimate objects that held the memories of her life needed to go where she went....even if they never saw the light of day, or where hidden in boxes in the back of closets.

I really can't point a finger at my M-I-L. Once upon a time, I was a pack rat. Collecting things at thrift stores and garage sales. Trinkets or projects that I thought would bring me happiness or would somehow enrich my life. Then, one day, something snapped. I don't recall what it was, but something made me realize that I was a sucker and I needed stop believing what the television and billboards kept telling me.

That weekend, I walked through my entire house and touched everything I owned. I physically laid my hands on every single possession and made a mental note:

1) Have I touched this item in the last 6 months?

2) Am I likely to touch this item in the next 30 days?

If both answers were "no", I threw it away. The only exceptions were photographs and correspondence. Everything else went into a huge garage sale, and what didn't sell, went to the dump. I reasoned that if I made a mistake, and I really did need something that I threw away, I could just buy another one. As it turns out, I ended up buying very little when all was said and done.

As a result of 'flushing' all the material baggage out of my life, I had a very clean and organized house, with one very unique feature. It had an empty room. I mean a room with NOTHING in it. No Furniture, no pictures, nothing. It was the envy of all my friends. They all asked if they could store stuff in it. I told them no. It was my shrine. It was a symbol of living without.

The end result of this experiment was not what most people would think. Many people I tell this to have a sense of horror at losing things that have long term significance. But I found the opposite to be true. It was liberating. I hadn't felt that free in years. It was as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

Sadly, my M-I-L will never be able to feel this way. The pot-holder that her husband won for her at the 1955 Nebraska State Fair is woven so deeply into her psyche that removing it would be akin to taking out her kidney. Never mind that it sits at the bottom of a dresser draw, forgotten and unused.

It makes me sad, that so many people could be free and soar to new heights, if they would just let go of the past.


  1. The clutter is one thing but I can imagine what an emotional clutter someone's mind must be at the same time as well.

    Maybe if your M-I-L took a picture of the items before she gives them/gets rid of them? That way in some sense she will always still have them and can always look back at them.

  2. Actually, I just emptied 845 messages from my email inbox. That was hard enough!

    I collect things but I am now careful about how much I collect. Hoarding is a rather nice thing sometimes, but I don't want my stuff to own me.