Saturday, March 20, 2010

Still Paring Down After Five Years

A tourist from America paid a visit to a renowned Polish rabbi, Hafetz Chaim. He was astonished to see the rabbi's home was only a simple room filled with books, plus a table and bench.
"Rabbi," asked the tourist, "Where is your furniture?"
"Where is yours?" replied Hafetz Chaim.
"Mine?" asked the puzzled American. "But I'm only passing through."
"So am I," said the rabbi.
(Martin Buber, Tales of the Hassidim)

There's not much that we really need when it comes to belongings. We can live perfectly rich and satisfying lives with remarkably few material possessions. I know this because more and more I live it. For the past five years I've been in the process of paring my life down to essentials. I'm still working at it, but one thing is clear to me--the less cluttered my life becomes materially, the richer it becomes in other ways.

On the other hand, the more cluttered it becomes, the more unsettled and unfocused I become. This became painfully obvious to me in recent weeks when a problem with my water heater in the storm cellar beneath the house forced me to move all the contents of the cellar upstairs. The storm cellar is narrow, about three feet wide, and over time I had filled the space with boxes and bins of my belongings, stacked many high. There was nowhere else to put everything but up in the house while the water heater was being repaired.

Now the house itself is very tiny, about 485 square feet, so there was not much space to absorb such a huge influx of stuff. It took over the living room. There was only a path from the front door leading into the other rooms. The sofa and chairs were completely covered--there was nowhere to sit. Every time you had to pass through the room it took effort to navigate the pathways without crashing into things. It's the sort of environment that makes me more than a little crazy. I could feel my nerves jangling and my ability to concentrate and focus seemed to evaporate into thin air.

It was good however because I've been meaning to clean out the storm cellar. I had envisioned doing so on a bright sunny warm spring day, not tackling it in the snowy gloomy damp cold--but oh well. I've worked over the past five years to streamline my living space but this stuff stashed beneath the house was like a skeleton in my closet and the remnants of a former way of life. Laying it all out in the light of day was startling. Still so much work to do, obviously. More letting go. Will this process never end?

Confronting all of this stuff I find find there are still things I'm not quite willing to surrender yet. I've let go of so much already, physically and emotionally...and yet I still cling to things. Why is that? Some of these things are sentimental--like old letters and mementos. Some seem like they could be useful some way, some how if only I could figure that out. None of these things would actually be missed if I lost them in a sudden way, like in a fire or a tornado. So why do I still hold onto them?

My goal is to be completely done with this process by the time my son leaves home in little over four years--when my nest is empty and I prepare to embark on a new adventure. I want to leave here cleanly, streamlined, with next to nothing to carry. I know I have to be patient with myself. It takes time to let go. Things aren't just things after all, they represent aspects of ourselves--who we are or were or would like to have been. They hold memories and hopes. Letting go of stuff is quite a process. I would love to come out of this process knowing how to carry my identity, memories, hopes, etc fully inside of myself, not projected "out there" onto a bunch of lifeless things. Without so much clutter I would be freer, lighter, more fluid. What kind of life could I craft for myself, living so lightly? That's what I want to discover.


  1. Oh, the irony. I can't figure out what is making the line spacing on this post so tight. Nothing is showing up in the html. It's very strange--must be another Blogger glitch. Anyway, I apologize, but I guess it's kind of fitting. It looks cluttered and crowded just like my living room. :(

  2. How ironic that the Protestant Ethic valued material gain so highly. Our modern society has so distorted real values that we find ourselves hopelessly victimzed by our own excess.

    I once read a book by a Conservative political writer entitled, "Back to Basics" and it struck me how it would make a good motto for a trend toward simplification of life and a return to sanity.

  3. Yes, and the new twist on the Protestant ethic is the New Age trend towards spiritual materialism, ala "The Secret" and the whole Law of Attraction movement. Funny how we love to find religious and pseudo-religious justifications for our greed and excess.

  4. All things in moderation. Progress can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how it's pursued. I don't know if you remember Barry Goldwater's famous saying, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." Extremism is the enemy of liberty.