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My Year to Clear

A photo of shelves stacked with boxes and other items
Messy closet

I have a hard time getting rid of things. Old clothing, bedding and purses huddle with shoes and board games in the closets of now spare rooms. An abundance of photographs lay in bins along with drawings and notes written by my children on yellowed pieces of paper. The notes are so faded that only I know what was once written on them; all beg to be unstuck from one another and placed in albums. I cringe when I think of the contents of the storage area above the garage and the cabinet in my home office and I’m pretty sure that I could win a million dollars on Let’s Make a Deal with the contents of my bedside table.

A day doesn’t go by that I don’t wake up with a plan to attack just one closet or drawer only to find myself feeling quickly overwhelmed and literally frozen. What is worse is that I have recently discovered that, much like the clothes that no longer fit and the knickknacks that no longer hold meaning or purpose, I tend to hold on to grudges. It’s odd and embarrassing to acknowledge this truth because I know that I am a kind person but I don’t think it’s an uncommon trait in people who have trouble letting go. What I do know is that for me, I am facing old things and feelings that are taking up space and energy and I want that physical and emotional space back. I need to get rid of what no longer serves me. 

For twenty-six years, my home was full of activity, laughter and tears. We shuffled backpacks, lunchboxes and sporting equipment while surviving piano lessons, driving lessons, college admissions and thankfully, only a few slammed doors. Now, with one last child in college, I look forward to summer when my home will fill back up by 1/3, but for all intents and purposes my nest is empty but not empty of all of the physical and emotional clutter I have gathered over the years. It’s quite amazing to witness and feel this void while surrounded by so much stuff. It is a space that is still creating noise but the voices now come from the empty sound of the clutter; it is no longer drowned out by the footsteps of children thundering up and down the stairs and most recently, it’s been getting louder.

So now what? I know I have a problem which is the first step to recovery, right? I googled possible strategies including The Decluttering Packing Party, The KonMari Method, The Minimalist Game, Four Boxes, and The Closet Hanger Method which only works for hanging clothes, but it’s still a solid strategy. Most methods require that you move items each day, whether to a box or to the dump and each has a theme. One requires that you tackle only one category at a time. In this scenario, if you were to pick shoes, you’d hold each pair in your hands, close your eyes and decide if they bring you joy; if it’s joy you feel put them away, but if not get rid of them. Each strategy boasts life changing results and readers share promising testimonials but I couldn’t help but feel even more stressed when thinking of packing up everything I own as if I am moving or attaching joy/no joy to every item in my home. I knew that I needed to find out why I hold on to things, both material and otherwise and that only when I released that emotion would the decluttering be sustained and actually enjoyed.

Feeling overwhelmed again, I logged off and took my dog for a walk.

Two months later, while scrolling through Facebook, I noticed that some friends “liked” DailyOM, a self-help website that offers an abundance of on-line classes including yoga, meditation, core strengthening, relationship advice and yes, decluttering! Something drew me to the gentleness of the site and the thoughtful descriptions of the course offerings. Even the payment was somewhat optional. Each course, whether it lasted for a week or a whole year was just $25, or only $10 if that was all you could afford. After scrolling through endless titles I found it! It was perfect for me. “A Year to Clear What’s Holding You Back” was going to give me 365 days to not only get to the bottom of each pile but also to the bottom of what is keeping me stuck.

After signing on and paying the suggested fee, I opened the first assignment and was surprised when asked to consider just one simple word: “departing”. I sat very still and read the word over and over and then scrolled up and down, looking in vain for more instruction. After a few minutes had passed, my mind started to wander and I pictured a ship heading out to sea and then remembered vividly, the bittersweet moments when I drove away from three separate college campuses. I looked at the word again: “departing” and I started to cry.

I soon learned that this program is referred to as a “slow drip” method and each day I would be given an intention or an idea to think about. Rarely would there be an assignment suggesting that I get up off my you know what and get rid of stuff, but instead I was going to be asked to consider how I feel when I look at a pile or enter a certain space or room in my home. Needless to say, I was a little skeptical and I know that emotional work is much harder than physical work but how was this going to help me dispose of broken ornaments and old Easter grass or the bright plaid chinos that I have NEVER worn? But, I was curious about the early tears and I was hopeful when told that it might take a little while to understand how it works. So I continued to be patient and follow the rules and then suddenly, on day seven, I found myself waist deep in the contents of my linen closet.

At the time, I had no idea how it happened because I hadn’t been instructed to actively do anything but over that first week, I had noticed something that was just under the surface of my life. One of the reasons I can’t put things away is because there’s no place to put them. All of the things I use ninety percent of the time are always out in the open because the things I don’t use are taking up all of the storage space. I had opened the closet to put away some linens but instead of a clear shelf on which to place my carefully folded towels, I found three full shelves packed tight with faded comforters and twin sheets, which is a problem because we haven’t had a twin bed in this house for over twenty years!

Please don’t imagine that my home looks like a bad episode of Hoarders or that I’m an obsessive neat freak; neither is true, but I am someone who has trouble letting go. Once, when cleaning my car at Champ Car Wash, I found a grainy, sticky, liquid stained photograph of my children under the seat and I, appropriately, threw it in the garbage along with everything else that was too big for the vacuum to suck up. When I was done wiping down the car, I opened the garbage bin one more time to throw out the paper towels and I saw three faces looking up at me from the bottom of the barrel. I don’t think I need to tell you what happened next and I’m guessing that you now have a visual of my backside in the air as I dove in to rescue them.

On day 55, I am still a work in progress but I’ve been cultivating the ability to look at a pile or a collection of things without emotion or judgement; removing both is allowing me to become unstuck and is restoring the energy necessary to do the physical work. I know this sounds a little out there but for me, it’s working and I’m discovering a more discerning and forgiving self.

Clutter is exhausting to be around and I am learning, one day at a time, how to release 26 years-worth of things that I thought held memories while holding on to the possessions that actually do. I still covet immaculate garages and clear countertops and maybe someday those will be mine but probably not. Perfection is not my goal.

While writing this, I began to understand why I cried on that first day. To depart means to go away from or to leave. My children are slowly departing as they should, and I am leaving young motherhood and heading into a new chapter, one that I know I need to make room for. For me, holding on to possessions is about holding on to the past and certainly, there are some things worth saving but I am learning to save only the best of the best memories; I’ll store them safely for my children to take when and if they want them. Yesterday, I opened the linen closet to put away a clean set of sheets and I noticed that not only do the shelves hold what I use and what I love but most importantly, I have created plenty of room for more.