“Everything worthwhile in life takes just a little bit more courage than we currently have.”
John Patrick Shanley, A Dreamer Examines His Pillow
I’m not an accumulator of stuff, but somehow, stuff accumulates. In my case, I think the Devil comes and leaves old stuff at my house when I’m not looking. I know I had nothing to do with it, because every year or so, I go through stuff and take car loads to the thrift store or send it off to some dump. Somehow, behind my back the devil then drops off more stuff to replace the crap I got rid of.
Recently, the Great Water Heater Basement Flood instigated a massive clean-up-get-rid-of-more-stuff campaign—not just in the basement. In the last few weeks I’ve been on a kind of rampage. While the team downstairs tore out walls, and put them back together and painted them, I got my outdoor shed repaired from the holes the squirrels and raccoons made, and then started pulling out the really old stuff to go to the dump. What an awful mess.
Almost everything I touched in the shed reeked not only with animal smells but history. I yanked out a piece of some set I had used for a production of my play, Intelejunt Dezyne, and felt all the emotions associated with that experience good and bad. I dug out a pair of downhill skis that I will never use again, and propped them up against a tree ready for departure from my life. Panting from the effort, I had to face aging and the fact that I would never ski again.
And so, I cleaned everything out of the shed. There was nothing worth saving there. I swept out all the acorns and debris left by my former tenants. One of the angels working downstairs packed it all into a van and took it away somewhere—hopefully not where it would screw up the oceans.
After the workers left, I went to the basement and into the work room where every single thing had been moved. Another big mess.
I was forced to handle everything, and nearly everything I picked up evoked some difficult emotional response: a picture of an old boyfriend, another picture of my dearly beloved and long-gone dogs. “What’s this?” I thought for a second as I picked up a thick piece of paper with blue and green paint streaks on it. Oh, yes. It was a “painting” made by Natua, one of my beloved dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center. He did it holding a paint brush in his mouth while a trainer held the paper over his head. How sweet. How funny. My heart felt a stab of pain. Natua was a kind of guru among dolphins and is now dead. Each thing I touched seemed to make me relive some kind of loss.
In one box was a small, faded, padded, pink baby album—mine. I opened it up. I’m not sure I have ever looked inside. I stood in the middle of the mess looking at my mother’s small, careful handwriting that had recorded my weight: 6.5 pounds at birth.
I flipped the old, dry page past the careful notations of who visited the hospital. Under the next was a one-page letter written to me by some woman I never heard of telling me how lucky I was to have such a loving and wonderful woman for a mother. I sighed, refolded the letter, and put it back. Tucked in the back of the little album were four small envelopes. Inside them were blue-lined pages with the penciled-in handwriting of a nine year-old child—me. These were letters I sent to my mother during a month-long trip to Arizona with my aunt, grandmother, and grandfather. My mother had saved them.
Taking time out from my cleaning, I read each one, feeling deeply sad for that little girl. How dutiful were the letters that recount visits to a pool, shopping for shoes, and my aunt’s deep tan! But there was little else—no, “wish you were here” no “miss you very much” just—“I like it here, love Elaine.” (My former name.)
I stood in my basement workroom in a flood of difficult emotions, closed the album, and put it safely in a metal file cabinet drawer. Though it is of no use to anyone, I didn’t throw it away. I just couldn’t.
These difficult emotions, I believe, are at the heart of why some people never go through the process of getting rid of old stuff. Much of what we store reflects moments of our entire lives. It’s hard to face that sudden, painful encounter with loss and the past, and so they don’t get rid of anything.
But, I do know that getting rid of what doesn’t work creates the space for what does. I know it is a profound and important spiritual practice. But, oh, my, going through and getting rid of stuff isn’t easy.