As I was dusting the furniture in my bedroom the other day, I decided it was time to let go of the white roses I had been holding onto since my dad’s memorial service. I was thinking about how the preacher that officiated over that service has passed away, as well as the florist who provided the flowers that my siblings and I had placed on the altar table. They both lived shorter lives than my dad.
I thought back on a story I wrote for a newsletter once. I had recently divorced, for the second time, and I had decided I needed to clear the clutter from my life. Although some of the clutter was in the form of trinkets, much of it was paper — old bills, legal documents, addresses from corners of envelopes, greeting cards and letters, and school work (my kids’ and my own).
As I moved to my first house as a single parent of four children, I decided I would tackle the clutter once and for all. I had a friend support me through the process and he was relentless. I agreed that I would not take anything into my new rental without first determining whether it served a purpose or not. So I moved in the furniture and appliances, as well as clothing, kitchenware and bathroom items. When I had all the basics moved into the house, I placed all of the boxes full of “stuff” on the covered patio. It was stacked floor to ceiling with boxes from the outside wall of the house to the driveway on the larger side.
I was teaching at the time and part of the way through this process was my spring break. So my friend encouraged me to take the week to finish the job I had started. I immediately went into all the reasons I couldn’t do it. I had things I wanted to do during the break. It wasn’t fair to my kids. There’s no way I could complete the task in one week. And besides, I had agreed to finish it by the end of the month. Did I mention my friend was relentless?
He argued that I might as well take the time now, then I would be finished. Yes, I might miss out on spring break, and how good would it feel to have this job complete? No matter my argument he had a logical, compelling rebuttal. Disgruntled, I agreed to do it. I would go through every box left by the end of spring break.
Initially it went well. Although I was angry, the progress I made early on provided momentum and gave me hope. And midweek I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. As the week came to a close, however, I began to feel tired and stuck. It seemed like it was taking longer to go through the boxes. Decisions about little things seemed harder to make. I was losing steam.
As Sunday rolled around, I realized I did not want my whole spring break to be wasted on a goal I did not achieve. So I committed to complete the task, no matter what it took. On a chilly March evening, I sat on the patio in the dark, sorting through the last few boxes. I decided what would be donated, what would go to the dump, and what would go into the house (and where it would go if it did make it inside). By 10:30PM, I had broken down the last cardboard box, thrown the last few items of clothing into the Goodwill box, and tied up the last bag of trash. It felt incredible to have this gargantuan task off my back.
I went back to school with a sense of accomplishment, and to this day do not regret using up my time off in this way. But the real reward came later. During the following week, I made trips to drop off the items that were still too good to trash and then I took everything else to the local solid waste facility. I had never been to a dump before, so I didn’t quite know what to expect.
My son loaned me his pickup truck, which I filled with cardboard boxes. When I checked in at the facility, the attendant informed me that I must empty the boxes first and then break them down and deposit them in the cardboard bin. So I backed the teal S-10 up to the rim of the dumpster I was told to use. I got out and put down the tailgate. I stepped into the bed of the truck, which was level with the top of the immense container. For a brief moment, I didn’t know where to start. Then I simply chose the box closest to me and I opened it.
At first, I felt a pang of guilt for throwing anything away. Then I lifted the box and began pouring out its contents. I noticed that it looked like a waterfall. As I watched the contents of the box cascade into the giant metal box, I felt the box lighten. And I noticed I felt lighter too. I folded the empty box and set it aside so I could empty the next. As I watched its contents flow into the river of garbage, I felt freer than I had felt in a long time — free of two failed marriages, free of past mistakes, free of people who had hurt me, things I didn’t feel good about, and things that didn’t serve me anymore. Free.
I realized in that moment that nobody had been holding me back. The person that had kept me in bondage was me. I was free now, not because I had broken through chains of oppression, or because I had run away from some evil, but because I had let go. Simply let go. A trip to the dump opened my eyes to the fact that I had been holding onto my past so tightly that there wasn’t room for anything new – anything better – to enter into my experience.
Today, I still struggle with clutter and letting go, but now I am aware. When I notice I am letting the mail pile up on the kitchen table, I consciously choose to mindfully attend to the issue. I recently made an agreement with some friends to clear off my kitchen table when I am finished working for the day, and they held me accountable. Letting go is a skill I am continually practicing.
When I am hanging onto an object like dead, dry roses, I ask myself, “How long are you going to hang onto this? Is it useful to hang onto it? What will happen if I let it go? Is there some other way I can hang onto it?” In the case of the roses, they were crumbling and I couldn’t imagine keeping them much longer; They weren’t useful in any real way; If I let them go, I would be losing a reminder of my dad’s memorial service; I could hang onto them by taking a photograph of them… and by writing this blog post. So I reverently threw them into the trash, feeling a touch of sadness followed by a sense of relief.
My father’s memorial was a tiny sliver in the scheme of what I want to hold onto regarding him. By letting go of the memory jogging roses, I am able to focus on other memories – the times he made me laugh, the times he let me cry, and his unconditional love. I remember him chastising me once for paying for a storage unit. (I am almost ashamed to admit I had two units at that time.) He said with what I was paying for storage, I could buy all new things. He was right. There is no point in holding onto “stuff,” whether it’s physical, mental, emotional. Save the storage fee and get new stuff!