Thursday, December 29, 2011

Clearing Space and Cutting Hair: Letting Go of Stuff in the New Year

I’ve never been fond of having too much stuff—stuff on the walls, on shelves, stored away, in the brain. Traveling and changing residences a lot in my twenties helped to facilitate my love of periodically paring down, because I could not possibly carry that much on my back, transport that much in my car, or find the space to store everything in whatever new space I was about to call home. But when you start living somewhere for a long time, with no plans to move for years or even decades, you have to grab the reins and take charge of this process a bit more, force it to happen, or readily give in if you feel a sudden urge to create change.

Unlike some, I enjoy the process of periodically going through my papers, my clothes, my boxes full of ‘special things’—and now my son’s clothes, books, and toys too-- and figuring out what no longer needs to be kept. Ideally, this kind of organizing can be done while alone, playing music, and at a leisurely pace, with plenty of time to allow the mind to pause and linger over old memories as you make choices about what you can let go of. Otherwise, if you don’t have the right time or space to do this, you might be tempted to just re-stuff jumbled piles into new boxes, afraid that you will make a hasty decision that you will regret.

In any case, I’ve been on a de-cluttering kick this holiday season. I took one of my 2.5 hour breaks one day and attacked my overflowing pile of papers and files on my bookshelf. I three-hole punched and stuck in a folder many pages of writing from the last couple years, and I threw away old drafts of grant applications, outdated insurance forms, and old writing magazines.

I also decided to finally throw away a folder full of rejection slips that I’ve collected for almost fifteen years. You might wonder why I hung onto these slips at all, and I assure you it’s not because I enjoy reinforcing my failures (at least not on a conscious level). No, I’ve kept these slips precisely because I’ve been so convinced of the opposite—that someday I would have such success that I would be able to look back on this folder, perhaps even show it to some of my students pining for instant publication and fame, and say, this is what it takes. You can’t be hurt by rejection, you’ve got to keep writing and learning and getting better. You’ve got to trust deeply in your intrinsic love of the process, in your intrinsic knowledge that this is what you want and need to do with your life—amongst other things, of course. Even writers can’t be writers all the time.

But you know what? That folder was taking up space that I could otherwise give to something else. I’ve barely submitted a piece in the last few years due to a lack of time, but also because I’ve transported my “publishing energy” to this blog. And I’ve said this before-- although my audience from this blog may be relatively small, I still am interacting way more with people who are reading my words than I was before. I have not given up on traditional publishing modes, but I’ve taken a sabbatical from pining for such goals because, a.) Like I said, I don’t have the time right now, and b.) refreshingly, the blog format allows me to let go of my perfectionist tendencies, and instead to just keep writing, as much as I can, and put stuff out there even before my ideas may be fully formed or paragraphs fully edited. Is it my best, most polished or lyrical writing? No. But is this process just as satisfying, albeit different, as it was to labor over essays for months, even years, putting them through rounds of feedback and revision? Yes.

There’s just as much of an ego-tripping danger in holding on to something to prove your worth as there is to holding on to something to prove your lack of worth. It’s really just the inverse of the same impulse. In my stubborn clinging to my own outdated notions of what it means “make it” as a writer, I devalue other crucial layers of my creative self that are evolving every day.  I persist in clinging to notions of "making it" (book contract, career in academia, recognized in literary circles) that I don’t even fully strive for anymore, for the longer certain beliefs have been established within me, the longer they take to dispel. On many levels, I still value more what the outward, linear trajectory of my life story “says about me” versus the inward, cyclical trajectory that I have come to know as the true reflection of the way I learn, grow, and live.

It’s important to say goodbye to things—to people, to homes, to outdated lifestyles, goals, and beliefs—on symbolic outward levels, on levels that we can recognize, in order to help move the stubborn clinging old stuff inside that persists, despite our best intentions. This, to me, is what this season of solstice and darkness and hibernation and reckoning has come to symbolize: saying goodbye and letting go. Shedding old skins, pledging to new ways, marking time with ritual so that our deepest desires and wisdom can sink into our conscious psyche and manifest in our actions that much more.

Although the actual day of winter solstice passed by in our home without even a lit candle or nod of ritual (what can I say? we are tired; the days blend), this season of letting go and inviting change has not escaped me. Not only have I been purging files, but I’ve also been rearranging items on shelves, re-hanging pictures on walls, moving furniture and plants, and getting rid of bags full of old blankets and clothes. My motivation may be practical and aesthetic (our tiny home’s clutter has reached an all-time high, and we are debating how to either create a little zone for Cedar or, more drastically, move our bed into the living room so we can give him the bedroom), but my underlying impulse to clear space and get rid of things has a more primordial drive. As I continue to move furniture and plants, I cannot help but also dust and clean long-neglected corners of the home, corners which I might not see or notice in my every day, but which are there, collecting physical and psychological weight all the same.

I love how small acts like rearranging pictures on the walls and repositioning things on shelves can make a space feel so different. It’s so easy to get stuck in thinking that this one way of arranging things is the best or only way, when in truth there are a multitude of ways in which we can inhabit our space. I have this fantasy of someday taking our family to live abroad for a year and packing up all our stuff in storage—but ironically, a big part of this fantasy involves the process of then coming home again; of how our home will feel new to us, and by extension how we will be freed to recreate our space, and our lives, in a vital way.

The other unexpected change that my husband and I have embarked on this holiday has come in the form of hair. My husband took the biggest leap and cut off his long locks that he has grown out since high school. He’s been considering doing this for some time, but he’s also known that once he does, he may not have long hair again for a long time—or ever. (Who wants to go through the awkward growing out phases at this age?) It helped that his sister, Sarah, is a hair stylist who brought her shears to our Christmas gathering and gave cuts and highlights to just about everyone in the room.

As for me, I got my bangs trimmed and a shorter cut. Then when Sarah asked if I wanted some color, I confessed to my long-harbored desire to do something even more playful. I just am so low-maintenance and frugal that I can’t really justify spending the money nor time involved in re-coloring roots and what not, but now that she was offering, why not, what did I have to lose?

So here I am, feeling trendier than I have in years with my amber-streaked hair that has loads more “dimension” that I never knew was lacking. Change is fun, and even if it’s “just” on the surface, the surface too is a valid part of the equation that helps us stir up our crusty interiors. It’s probably no coincidence that my new haircut is coinciding with a period in my life in which I am gearing up to lead some workshops and be more “out in the world” than I have been since before I got pregnant. And the fact that my husband and I are working to help clear up our living space is no doubt conspiring to make room for new, more conscious ways of being alive together in our home.

Our homes may be the place where we chill out and relax, but they are also the places from which our habits our born. If we live (and work, for some of us) in a space that has not been “updated” in a long time, it follows that it might be that much harder to break into new modes of thinking and seeing. And similarly, if we slouch within messy clothes or stagnant haircuts for too long, this too can affect the way in which we carry ourselves in the world.  

So here’s to clearing space, cutting hair, and letting go. Here’s to asking ourselves not just what we want to do or acquire in the New Year, but also what we want to say goodbye to. After all, if we want to invite something new into our lives, first we need to make the room for it.

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