It was one of those mornings. My son missed his bus. The cat threw up on the carpet. I forgot to turn off the simmering oatmeal, which then boiled over and coated our stove in a gooey mess. I couldn’t find the kneepads that my son needed for basketball tryouts. And I was running way late for an appointment. As I frantically rushed out of our back patio door, I passed my newly hired cleaning lady.
“Sorry the house is a disaster,” I called to her as I hopped in our Jeep. “It’s been one of those mornings.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” said Hazel casually as she entered the house. “Believe me, I’ve worked for way worse hoarders than you. You wouldn’t believe some of the stories I could tell you”.
Ouch. Double ouch. Did she actually just say that? Now that one stung. Big time. I drove off to my appointment feeling a little appalled at her audacity. I mean really? Me? A hoarder? Come on! Certainly, you can call me a collector. Yes, yes, that’s it. I’m a collector of fine things—of friends, words, American pottery, original art, plates, pets, plants, memories, etc. But a hoarder?!
Sometimes the truth smacks you upside the head in the most unexpected ways. Being labeled a hoarder was deeply troubling to me. Compulsive hoarding is described as “a pattern of behavior that is characterized by excessive acquisition and the inability or unwillingness to discard large quantities of objects that cover living areas and cause significant distress and impairment.” Hmm. Interesting. I then ordered numerous books from Amazon (yes, I know, not just one book but about 4 or 5) and read up on the topic. After doing so, I was overjoyed to learn I am NOT a full-fledged hoarder but do just so happen to have a few “hoarder tendencies”. (Big sigh of relief.) However, this self-realization catapulted me into a 3-month quest to sort and purge my way through my home.
It took me five hauls to Goodwill to unload my pickup truck of 46 Hefty Ultra Flex Trash Bags, 10 boxes filled with nearly 200 books (mostly cookbooks, for which, I apparently have quite a fetish), a wicker table, unwanted pictures and paintings, old book shelves, outdated boxes of Christmas decorations, a juicer, a Panini maker, an extra waffle iron, two coffee pots, a yogurt maker, and countless other tchotchkes I’d accumulated over my 50 years of living. (Yep, lots of proof here of those hoarder tendencies I confessed earlier.)
With each trip to the drop-off center, after unloading my truck, a glorious wave of relief swept over me. Truly it was a spiritual experience. It felt like the heavens opened up and ushered in a soulful choir of angels who sang in joyous celebration! Most certainly, I felt lighter, more peaceful, and happily energized.
Over these past months, I’ve had this obsessive craving to clear through my cluttered life and make space for only what’s truly best, what’s most important. It started with this insatiable desire to purge closets and drawers. One of the Amazon books I purchased was, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”. In it, author Marie Kondo suggests taking every item out of your closet or drawer, briefly holding it in your hands and asking the simple question, “Does this bring me joy?” Obviously if the answer is yes, the item is kept. If, however, it’s no, she recommends thanking the item for the role it served you and making the choice to let it go in order fill your life with only the things that bring you happiness. I was intrigued. Sounded easy enough--a simple, straight-forward approach. I liked not needing to calculate how long it had been since I’d last worn those beige slacks, how to repurpose the coffee table that was hidden in the garage, or what would happen if I got rid of an old blender and then suddenly realized I needed it later. It all came down to the question of, “Does it bring me joy?” This one simple question is actually quite expansive and I’m using it in many areas of life. Does this relationship (job, friend, volunteer role, church, home, purpose, responsibility, identity, etc.) bring me joy? And if not, why I’m still holding on to it? What part of me is clinging to what it used to be? And what am I resisting in the letting go?
I’ve noticed that an important theme that often runs through the second half of life is that of making space for what’s really most important. When I coach executive teams, I’ll often ask them the question “What’s something that’s become more important and something that’s become less important to you as you age?” Inevitably, the reoccurring answer goes something like, “Relationships and family have become more important for sure. Good health is more important. And so is using my time wisely. I’m more aware there’s only so much time I’ve got left here to make my mark. What’s become less important? Stuff. Material things have definitely become way less important—they’ve almost lost their meaning and joy. In fact, it some ways having stuff is a hindrance.”
Stuff. We can sure get caught up in it, can’t we? Stuff. Most of us have the “stuff” of life coming out of our ears. In fact, sometimes we’re “double stuffed”. Unfortunately, having lots of stuff does not equate living a meaningful life. However, it does mean you have to manage it, maintain it, dust it, tune it, wash it, store it, polish it, fix it, fluff it, make it, fake it, and bake it. Stuff, no doubt, takes a lot of focus, time and energy. When we clutter our lives with stuff, it’s easy to become distracted by it. It’s easy to neglect the more important things—our relationships, our spiritual journeys, our health, our purpose and dreams.
I recently watched a clip on YouTube where Denzel Washington talks passionately to a group of young aspiring actors. “We all have that unique gift to go out and touch people, to affect people. Understand that gift. Protect that gift. Appreciate that gift. Utilize that gift. Don’t abuse that gift. Treasure it. You have it. You already have it. And finally, I’ll say this: you’ll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. I’ll say it again: You’ll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. Now, I’ve been blessed to make hundred’s of millions of dollars in my life. I can’t take it with me and neither can you. So it’s not how much you have. It’s what you DO with what you have. And we all have different gifts; some money, some love, some patience, some with their ability to touch people. But we all have it. Use it. Share it. That’s what counts.”
Beautiful reminder isn’t it? As I age, I’m doing the work of becoming clear about my purpose and my priorities. I’m learning to painlessly discard whatever does not support these. Clutter, whether it’s physical, relational, spiritual or emotional, does not serve me. I’m actually getting good at letting go of “stuff”. A U-Haul won’t follow me to my gravesite, but hopefully the memories I create with others and the impact I leave on this world will.
I think Hazel, my cleaning lady, would be very proud.