Jun 21, 2012 0 Share

The Liberation in Letting Go

Donation box with clothes and toys.

Last week, I read a blog post entitled, “What's Right Now” by well-known “clutter buster” Brooks Palmer. Brooks has a gift for getting to the heart of clutter issues, and I read his insightful posts for the psychological insights and human drama. In reading this post, I found myself remembering a particular day of decluttering I'd done with my mom, and what we uncovered during that time. 

It must be said that my mom is an incredibly patient and supportive parent. She doesn't love decluttering in the same way that I do, but she does enjoy creating order, and she loves spending time with me (even if it's clutter-busting time). On the day in question, our chosen project was my brother Willie's closet. It's a tight space, but that day, it was filled to capacity with old projects, outgrown clothes, art supplies, and various odds and ends. We filled trash bags with discards and donations, moving along at a good clip. Of course, the stuff became overwhelming at times; more than once we both stood in awe of the objects that had managed to make their way into Willie's closet.  

There were difficult decisions to be made; Mom knew that we couldn't keep every piece of art Willie had created, and it was tough to choose between them. At my suggestion, we kept a few of the best creations, hanging them up in the closet and the bedroom so that they'd be on display. The hardest things for my mom to part with, though, were the ones that represented Willie's learning process. We unearthed a phonics-based program they'd used when Willie was younger (complete with floppy disks), old math worksheets (many filled in, but a few stacks still blank), and hundreds of tiny plastic figurines that had helped Willie to learn personal pronouns and storytelling skills. These things had been part of Willie's early intervention program, part of the reason why he can do so much today. 

Even though these things hadn't been used in years, Mom was reluctant to let them go. To me, it seemed obvious. The materials were out-of-date and out-of-use, clearly recycling material. But then I looked into my mother's face, and I saw what they signified for her. These weren't just outdated educational materials. These things represented hours upon hours of time that she had shared with her son. They represented her dedication to helping Willie learn and grow. They were proofs of proactivity, proofs of dedication.

The downcast-yet-determined expression on her face seemed to say so much. If I read it correctly, it said, “Willie, we did all of these good things together, and yet sometimes, when I think of your life now, I wonder if they helped at all. You're stuck in a cycle of self-injury, hurting yourself and others, and so many of the gifts you have go hidden because of it. And yet these things remind me that I didn't give up on you and your potential back then, and I'm not going to give up now.” 

All at once, I remembered an earlier decluttering session Mom and I had done together, this one focused on the basement toy closet. When we'd come to an old baseball and mitt, I couldn't understand why she didn't want to part with them. When I asked her, she burst out: “I thought that maybe someday Willie would play.” And as I reached out to hug her, I understood. It can be very, very hard to let go of past dreams, to let go of what might have been and never was. It can be very, very difficult to face “what's right now” … and yet facing what's real in the present is, I believe, a powerful prerequisite for acceptance, and, ultimately, freedom. I enjoy decluttering despite its difficulties because it's a liberating process. 

Ultimately, Mom and I decided to give away both the baseball equipment and the educational materials. Yet even so, there's a part of me that's glad my mother kept them so long, so that I could be with her in the letting go … and so that I could see what love looks like.