“Intuitively, we know that the best stuff in life isn’t stuff at all, and that relationships, experiences and meaningful work are the staples of a happy life.” -Graham Hill
Last week on Mother’s Day when I was practicing with my new empty nest, I gave myself the long overdue gift of cleaning out my closet. I began early in the morning, optimistically believing I would be done by brunch when I was meeting my daughters. Even as the sun was setting, I still had drawers and shelves yet unattended. At least I am in good company; there has never been (through the history of the earth) a society in which its members have had more possessions than ours. Still, as I waded through piles of clothes and dresses that I could not part with for the last 30 years- memory markers that recalled my first child’s christening, first job or my brother’s first wedding- I realized, finally, that these things did not bring that time back to me, as I had always thought, they just cluttered up the time that I was in. With or without the dresses, those times are long gone. This hoarding mentality which many of us share, is the ultimate form of hanging on, a kind of magical, superstitious belief that the thing itself connects you to another time or person. Sadly, it is rampant in the world we inhabit.
This life stage is teaching me at every turn about letting go. Clearing out my closet has flipped a switch in my brain in which I am finally able to recognize that all the things that fill my house; all the things that I haven’t been able to let go of, are remnants of that superstition, somehow magically imbued with memories that I have believed would otherwise be lost. The truth is that they are really just things- old things that have not had use for years and are taking up space. Keeping an old doll house and game system drumset in my family room does not translate into the time my children filled this space with noise and life. Likewise, keeping my dead dog’s blanket draped on the couch does little to ease the space that is left in her passing. Cleaning out my closet was an epiphany and I realized, maybe for the first time, that allowing, even welcoming the empty space of children grown up or pets passed away may well offer a fuller life than living with the clutter of what is gone.
I know well the transient highs of shopping therapy and recognize that many of my purchases over the years were in vain attempts to fill a hole. Now it has become so cheap and quick to acquire more we rarely even consider the consequences. Yet, burdened by debt, not to mention the mountains of stuff and food thrown away, our over-consumption contributes to significant lack and huge imbalance of resources worldwide. It is hard to reckon with how we can be so burdened with belongings while billions of people can’t even get a drink of clean water. Why do our children who make up only 3.1% of the world population need 40% of all the toys? The new minimalist movement away from stuff, towards simplicity, is calling to me. Last year after cleaning out my father’s condo, it was plain to me where all of our stuff ends up. It was not nostalgia I felt when I found all of the alarm clocks that rang through my childhood stashed in the back of his kitchen cupboards, but rather, grief for my dad, who couldn’t let go of anything.
What we accumulate doesn’t actually fill us up, it ties us down and makes it easy to be distracted by the real things that turn our lives on. The process of acquiring, sorting, washing, storing, insuring our stuff can fill all available hours. We can stupidly be more attached to our stuff than the people we live with. I know about filling an empty space deeply and intimately and am sad that it has taken the better part of fifty years to realize that stuff is never going to do it. What I want is connection, feeling included in something bigger than myself; usually stuff gets in the way.
So I am dedicated to making space, living in more emptiness and allowing that stillness to fill me instead of frighten me. It is a noble pursuit to give up needing more and one that has the power to heal this overburdened planet.