This article first appeared in the June 2017 edition of Delaware Communion
This year I got inspired to do a little spring cleaning. In anticipation of the annual neighborhood yard sale, I decided it was time to finally tackle the basement—not an endeavor for the faint of heart. If your household is anything like mine then you take all the items you don’t know what to do with throughout the year and toss them down into that yawning black hole. And, to be cliché, out of sight out of mind. Needless to say after eight years in the house, my basement looked like a cross between the Daytona Flea Market and the Cherry Island Landfill.
There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So, I put on my waders and started making my way through the quagmire, creating a keep and sell pile as I went. Full size ping pong table (that my parents were quick to off-load the month we moved in) I’d never used once: sell. Hand plane with the broken blade (I bought when I put new interior doors in the house): keep. Bellows (how did I get this, I don’t even have a real fireplace?): sell. All the plastic learn and grow toys my children have outgrown: sell, sell, sell! When the dust cleared I was pleased with myself; the basement was almost tidy, organized, and dare I say…empty.
Why keep a broken hand plane you ask? Simple. I do a lot of carpentry, and a replacement blade from Woodcraft is fifteen bucks. It’s something I can easily fix and will use in the future. The flip side is the stuff, junk really, I won’t use in the future. That’s the stuff I put in the “sell” pile. My mom loves to get rid of stuff (one method is to bring it to my basement). In a previous life she was a Spartan. Her mantra is, “If you haven’t used it in a year get rid of it!” While I think that’s sage advice for physical items, it’s also important to occasionally do some spring cleaning in other areas of our lives.
Whether it’s letting go of a toxic relationship, or dusting-off and renewing an old friendship, or your relationship with God, it’s imperative we constantly take stock of our lives or we collect a lot of baggage, the emotional equivalent to a cluttered basement. In the case of the toxic relationship, put it in the “sell” pile in your life. Get rid of it. Free yourself up for something new. If your faith has waned, place it at the top of the “keep” pile. Figure out how make your faith viable and relevant in your life now. To use the hand plane analogy, put a new blade in it. We live in a throwaway society. We (and I know I’m certainly guilty) are quick to pitch a TV or lawnmower or dishwasher when it acts up. Gone are the days of servicing things. But remember, that friendship or faith or job about which you’re ambivalent is tucked away in the basement because at some point it was important to you. Spend some time with that friendship, faith, or job and figure out what needs to be kept, recycled, polished or what needs to change in order for you to “clear the piles.” Will it be difficult? Absolutely. Change, re-organization will always be work. Sadly, I think that’s why a lot of us shy away from it and let the piles build, because it’s real work. Do the work and see how accomplished you feel after a job well done.
But what happens when you neither want to necessarily “keep” or “sell” the relationship and a whole new type of pile begins to form? For instance, what do you do with your connection with someone who has died?
In my line of work—the funeral profession—I see a lot of mourners who will soon be struggling with how to qualify, classify, and morph their relationship with a deceased love one. In other words, I see them at the beginning of grief, and Grief is good. It’s a natural—albeit taxing—process that allows us to reorganize our lives after a death and, eventually, continue. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, preeminent grief counselor and teacher, organizes mourning into tasks (not to be confused by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous stages [i.e., denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance]). Accept the reality of the loss is task one. Experience the pain is task two. The third task is in my opinion, the most difficult: adjust to the environment without the deceased. And finally, reinvest. What Dr. Wolfelt means by this is people have “left” the world to grieve, meaning they have interrupted their usual routine to grieve which is fine. It’s normal and healthy! But at some point reinvest yourself back into the world, to family, to friends, to your career, and move forward. Neither “keep” nor “sell” those relationships with the deceased, rather modify them into something else, hopefully fond memories.
My grandmother died this year. We were close. And even after a long and full life with no regrets, it’s still terribly sad not to have her around any longer. The way I remember her, or have reinvested, is to say the Selkirk Grace before meals. She was an immigrant, a Canadian with Scottish parents, and the grace is something I heard around their dinner table while I grew up. The trick is (is there can be such a thing as a “trick” with mourning) is to figure out what works for you.
When I’m my working in my woodshop after the kids are in bed I listen to the radio. At least once a night I hear the 1-800-GOTJUNK ads. And though, they’re irritating, I think the basic message is correct: you’ll feel better if you clean out/unburden yourself. So, get motivated. Do a little spring cleaning.
Postscript: I did end up deciding I needed something to seed the next trash heap, so yes, I decided to keep the bellows. I’m no Spartan, and far from perfect. I’ll take the basement being clean-ish.