In 1996 I walked away from teaching at one of Boston's preeminent schools at the height of a 20-year career. I was at the top of my game, and burned out. I didn't know what I loved anymore, or who I was.
Teaching was my life. I had seniority, a fabulous community of students and faculty, a salary with full benefits. Why would anyone quit the best gig in town?
You could say I had lost it. In hindsight I'd say that something inside me needed to be found.
And "finding" I did. By releasing a huge part of my personal and professional identity, I was able to get in touch with the things that made my heart sing (and cringe): my passions, my longings, my fears... my clutter! For the super-organized neatnik that I am, this last revelation came down like a sledge-hammer to my self-concept and world-view.
It turns out I didn't need to go on a pilgrimage or meditate on a mountaintop to find myself. My home became my temple, my clutter was my teacher, and my journey of self-discovery began with clearing out a single drawer.
Though modest at the start, the process of shedding a lifetime build-up of stress and stuff grew organically and exponentially. Clicking through four pens to find one that worked led to clearing a drawer full of dead magic markers, a pristine box of personalized pencils that I'd saved since I was five, and stacks of Siskel and Ebert movie reviews clipped out of the Sunday paper.
Looking for a plastic food storage container led to recycling dozens of excess lidless yogurt cups, consolidating the condiments in the fridge, tossing unidentifiable freezer items laden with inches of frost.
Removing sticky bulletin board notices, dog-eared flyers, expired coupons, stale artistic masterpieces, and rubbery refrigerator magnets (selling pest management services) led to the long-overdue renovation project that opened up a dividing wall in our kitchen, added a fresh, colorful coat of paint, and offered a new lease on life.
The easy things led to clearing more difficult ones like the clothes I might be able to fit in again someday (not), my daughter's adorable baby clothes, my matchbook collection, all my graduate school term papers, and 20 years of purple mimeographed handouts and teaching paraphernalia (saved in duplicate, of course, just in case I might teach again).
My clearing process led to surprisingly soothing, repetitive rituals like sweeping the kitchen floor, unloading the dry dishes to make room for the wet ones, rounding up the family room before going to bed.
Before I knew it, my efforts grew into something way bigger than a string of random feel-good exercises. It became a journey -- a journey that had much less to do with clearing out "things" than it did with clearing out my attachments to things.
Weeding out the material excesses of my home and office became an enlightening practice of feeling the experience of clearing: Feeling how congested, gummy, or even nauseous I can be after an hour of moving junk around. Feeling the ache in my feet, the tightening in my chest, the drying in my mouth. Feeling how hard and painful and embarrassing it is to let some things go. Feeling how good it feels in the house after I've put stuff in the recycling bin and walked it out to the curb for the Friday morning pick-up. Feeling how much easier it is to clear when I am less attached to an outcome and my dramas (surprise, surprise).
Softening the hardwiring of my past -- one useless suitcase key and painful memory at a time -- has been my hero's Journey. Who could have predicted that all my messy and meandering baby steps would lead to significant life changes: reconnecting with a longtime passion for nourishing home spaces, a complete makeover of my professional career, and a love for something I never knew I had in me: writing.
After nearly two decades on the clearing path I can say that it boils down to these basic truths:
You can start right now. Whether it is a lighter load, a quieter mind, a better mood, a solution to a problem that you're chewing on, less attachment to outcomes, finding your soulmate or your mojo... here's my all-purpose recipe:
And when you feel complete, here's the advanced practice: repeat the same exercise again tomorrow.
And the next day. And the day after that.
With a little willingness to be pleasantly surprised, this simple daily practice may just lead you places in your home, head, and heart beyond your wildest imaginings.
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