Emptying my Backpack

I don’t have time to write. I don’t have time to think! My dance card is totally filled: I bought a condo, decided to do a major renovation, sold my home, and dealt with several unexpected challenges that required lots of time. Moving day is six weeks away. I need to finish up condo orders, go through a lifetime’s collection of stuff, cull, weed, and PACK!

But here I sit, 4:30 AM, wide-eyed with Overwhelm. It seems important to capitalize that word. Probably the whole thing should be in caps. What to do? I turn to my faithful friend, writing, the one way what is jumbled inside my monkey mind stands a chance of becoming a bit more objective and workable.

The picture that comes to mind is one of myself as a pilgrim, wandering through life, gathering experiences and things as I travel, stuffing them in my “backpack,” both literally and figuratively. That worked when I was younger: the sum accumulation was not overly burdensome. Now, in my sixties, there just isn’t enough room, either in my mind or in my home. I need to put down that pack, look through it, and lovingly leave behind that which has served its purpose. I’m realizing there isn’t room for “new” without letting go of “old.”

I smile as I write this. This is not news, not something that I don’t already know. The difference is I’m experiencing this as reality, instead of as a theoretical concept. The teensiest prick of doubt festers in my mind, wondering if tossing things somehow invalidates their worth, belittles their overall significance to this journey of mine. On a rational level, I know that is ridiculous. Nonetheless, it’s hard. Hard to face all the things that are over, done with.  All those boating books from another era? No room for them anymore…that time in my life is over. Same with books about parenting, with cooking gadgets bought but never really needed/used, with books of music that I thought I’d play but never did. As uncomfortable as those choices are, they pale next to figuring out what to do with memorabilia. Old yearbooks — okay, that’s not too hard…but what about boxes and boxes of old pictures? Treasured letters? Pictures and cards my children made for me? Journals?

As I ponder this question of keeping vs. purging, it seems to me it’s all relative. As a young person, you start out with an empty pack, so it’s easy to gather and keep. Life is busy; if you have the space, the gathering keeps happening and accumulations build up largely unnoticed. When the accumulation becomes unwieldy, reality hits. Years have gone by, circumstances have changed, but the stuff has remained; alas, it seems to have grown, even, and taken on a life of its own.

Since finishing graduate school, I’ve moved four times. The first time, everything I owned fit in my car. The next time, it took several trips with that same car. Third time involved friends and a few truckloads. Moving into my present home followed a 27 year stint and two children, requiring a moving van.

Here I am, then, looking at move #5. Downsizing a bit, but thankfully, not too drastically. I’ll still have room for guests and for all the things I really want and use. But my life has changed dramatically, so I’m inclined, this time, to evaluate what I’m doing instead of just packing things up and putting them in a new place. For one thing, my “pack” is too heavy, too cumbersome. It’s not just the physical volume of stuff, it’s also decades of memories. Somehow I need to figure out how to carry the essence of my journey without bogging down in yesterdays. I don’t want to forget where I’ve been, but I don’t want to dwell there, either. The Buddhists have it right: life is this present moment. Not yesterday, not tomorrow. Today.

This saving/tossing conundrum seems too profound, too multi-layered to dispel with an easy admonition, formula, or answer, but that’s what I need at the moment. I’ve got forty two days, for crying out loud! I need a way to look at this that lets me sleep past 3:30 AM, a plan that gets me out of Overwhelm and back into the truce of gently putting one foot in front of the other, avoiding the temptation to project too far ahead.

Logistically, I think that means “gentle rationality.” I can start by choosing what to keep based on what I use now, rather than keeping things because I feel guilty about getting rid of them. This includes, among many other things, my mother-in-law’s opera glasses, my mother’s favorite chair, my late husband’s theater books, and no small amount of things beloved friends have given me that I no longer need or use. Leaving these things behind does not mean leaving behind the love and memories represented by those things! I believe that, but I have trouble living that belief.

An idea emerges, a possible truce: It’s not an all-or-nothing game. Save some. Some pictures, some tokens of all those past chapters. Some, not all…lighten the pack to a weight that I can carry.

Perhaps the same construct can be applied mentally:  All those other chapters in my life remain. Like leafing through a favorite book, I can turn back the pages occasionally and revisit beloved passages. If I think about my reading habits, revisiting those favorite passages does not stop me from wanting to read (or write) new ones. Another “both-and” possibility.

So, dear pilgrim, (when you live alone, you need to preach to yourself!) cultivate a sense of openness. Openness to lightening the load, to new possibilities, to remembering that validity is not tied to duration. In those beloved words from Ecclesiastes, there is a time to cast away stones as well as a time to gather them together.

Lighten the load! Go ahead, dare to do it. Freedom and joy are the rewards for daring to live dynamically in the present instead of ossifying in a pile of outgrown modes and detritus. Freedom lies in letting go of assumptions and beliefs that what was is what always should be. Freedom opens the heart, and there is no more precious thing this side of eternity than an open heart.

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