Shedding what no longer serves


I am deep into purge mode these days. And I’m not alone in this.

Not that we’re ever alone, with almost 7 billion souls on the marble, chances are good that whatever you’re going through, you’ve got some fellow travelers somewhere. But suddenly, or perhaps it’s a creeping sort of suddenness, I see people all around me letting go of their shit. Moving on from relationships and jobs and systems that just aren’t working for them anymore. I have no idea if this is A Thing or another manifestation of Yellow Volkswagen Syndrome or both. I’m almost certain that, like my friend and fellow Virgo, Adam, it has something to do with marking the passage of another year the way some of nerdlier types mark it: the end of the summer, the beginning of the new school year.

I love the idea of filling my life up with learning, which is why I’ve always gotten a little schoolgirl-giddy for back-to-school time. New books! New clothes! New gadgets! All wonderful things, especially in a simpler, less stuff-filled time, the 1960s, when everything had a higher acquisition cost: it took you longer to find the stuff you wanted and it was more expensive to buy when you finally found it. Even the rented stuff, like library books (remember card catalogues?) and flat-out free stuff (remember life B.C.L.?) And at six, or even 16, that cost was insanely high: no wonder I clung to every new bit of input so ferociously; who knew when tiny, carless, broke me would get another shot?

Stuff is abundant now. Forget how easy (and cheap) it is to get almost anything you might have a passing thought about wanting: these days, physical stuff seems to breed in stacks and piles. It’s as though they embed crap-sprouting seeds in all that cheap crap from China we started glutting ourselves on a few decades ago.

Yet the oldsters among us, those raised by and around Depression-era survivors, without whiz-bang search and delivery tools like the Internet, are still operating in scarcity mode.

Save the rubber bands, the recipe clippings, the Shirts to Clean the Car In.

Save the orphaned Tupperware and gym socks, the never-quite-comfortable shoes, the stop-gap Fat Pants.

Save it save it save it lest you find yourself, what? Unable to wash the Toyota for want of a selection of 25 shirts in which to do it?

With each previous purge, I’ve filled up the empty space with new stuff. Nothing wrong with that, provided it keeps moving through: the Catch-and-Release Planâ„¢ for books; the assimilate, not accumulate method of information consumption. But too often, it’s been just tiny, greedy, scaredy-cat me, stockpiling crap against some kind of dreadful winter sans stores, power and people. When really, if it came to that, who’d want to stick around anyway?

This purge feels different. It feels both urgently needed and centrally right in a way that it never did before, as though I am on the brink of getting somewhere big, but can’t fit through the tiny passageway with all this stuff clinging to me. So I am shedding it in a way that works for me: quickly, then slowly. Or slowly, then quickly. Stuffing great heaping loads of things into opaque blue bags, the better not to be be eyeballed again before they’re sealed and trotted off to Goodwill. Finding good homes for a few cherished treasures that no longer serve. Asking hard questions not only about each and every item that touches my hands, but that floats past my eyeline: does this serve? When it inevitably no longer does, will I be able to let it go with relative ease?

Some things that have helped me to get here, I think:

  • Removing myself from my mess. The trip to the Pacific Northwest last year was central to this shift, even if the high-intensity purging didn’t start happening until recently. I see huge value in the occasional long-ish retreat from everyday life, now that I’ve done one. Others, like my friend Chris Guillebeau, remove themselves more regularly, via travel. (More on retreats soon, as I’ve another one coming up.) Note: I see both retreats and travel as very distinct from vacationing or holiday. They’re vacations/holidays because they’re a break from routine, but that’s about it. This is not pina-coladas-by-the-pool stuff.
  • Getting serious clarity on some short and long-term desires. Nothing fires one up to actually get shit done like white-hot desire for a specific thing, or even a white-hot dose of truth. I do not know what exact shape my next living situation will take, but I’m almost certain it means moving somewhere that pets are allowed and quietude is in greater abundance. (Do they let people live in the library with a small pet?) Reducing my possessions to what really serves right now clears the way for further reductions as the goal gets even clearer.
  • Support, support, support. Almost two years ago, at the start of 2008, I decided to shift my goddamn paradigm to one of “Help is everywhere.” And since then, it has been. Help has turned up in the form of accountability partners, coaches, mastermind groups, teachers, classes, products and, yes, books. Help is so much everywhere that I’ve now started to trust there will be a net when I leap, or a hand extended when I need a leg up. The unexpected bonus in all this? That I have become a trusted source of support in various ways for all kinds of people I never imagined might find my help useful. This makes getting up in the morning a delight. Well, most mornings. And it’s been the handful of magic beans that started my new business. Huzzah!

I am wired to cling, I think. But I no longer fear it, because I know it.

Add to that my deep understanding that help truly is everywhere, and it becomes much easier to shed what no longer serves. What you cling to tends to cling right back. I cling now to the moment, and to my bigger truths, and to my growing belief that the glorious, chewy center of the entire bleeding universe is love love love.

Let go of my old books, and there is room for new ones.

Let go of my old way of thinking about myself as a writer, and there is room for poetry.

Let go of my old career, and a new one springs up in its place. (A little slowly, that fucker, but whatever.)

What I ask for now is support, in a very specific way: what are you letting go of, and (if you’re so inclined) how? And, if it’s started to happen yet, what do you find it being replaced by? Are you scared? Are you exhilarated? Are you both, or neither, maybe some other thing I’ve not even thought of, because I’m still clinging to my way of looking at shedding?

We are in this together, more than we know. We will explode with awesomeness once we get down with this, more than we can possibly imagine…


Image by visualpanic via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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  1. So much insight in this post…

    I’ve started shedding as well.

    First, food – overeating for comfort and when anxious is my thing. I am aware of that now, and I am slowly releasing it. By doing so, I actually feel overall less anxious.

    Then, my day job – i am shedding any emotion i had attached to it (hate, despair, frustration), and i am instead just doing the job. As a result, I have more energy and focus to apply to my dreams and plans.

    What I notice is that just by being in this shedding, less-y mode, it’s easy to get more and more minimalistic on certain things. I am choosing what to read, instead of believing I HAVE to read and know everything that is out there (which, of course, created tons of anxiety for me). I am planning and spreading my time better, and I am giving myself time to rest.

    It’s a great experiment, for me. Change one thing and the domino effect is immediately noticeable.


  2. Hurray and Huzzah for clearing out the shit!!!! As someone who has moved 18 times (but who’s counting), I applaud you for throwing away old crap and making room for the life you WANT. xoxoxoxo

  3. In my early 20’s I was rigid in my daily life. I clung to the routine and despised anything that got in its way. One day I realized that the routine wasn’t really doing anything for me – it was a bad habit that closed me off to things. So I decided to live a more flow-y life, leaving me open to be creative and pay attention to whatever drifts my way.

  4. Wow, so glad you’re at it with the stuff-shedding, I assure you it will bring you the energy and all other goodies your intuition is guiding you to… I’ve lived in 15 countries during the last 10 years, which was tough in many ways, but it definitely made me learn the importance of getting rid of stuff and go on with my life without it… a habit that I definitely plan to keep now that I apparently am finally settling down in a single city!


  5. You’re taking me back to the lean years of my youth and early adulthood when I remember just longing for stuff, to be able to afford it, and I remember it being imbued with so much power then. Now I’m amazed at the degree to which stuff downright chokes out happy. I literally feel the clutter in my head and often a choking sensation in my throat (which is why I now avoid Target and all similar crap-sprouting venues). Thanks for reminding me I’m not alone in this because God knows this point of view will never be backed by a billion-dollar ad campaign. I will say, though, that I still feel deep appreciation and cherishing for those few treasures that really mean something to me. I worry that these next generations won’t know what that feels like, drowning in pointless stuff as they are. This one hit home, C. (and belated happy birthday to you…hope it was wonderful!)

  6. Perfect. Linda and I just spent a solid week traveling, exercising, and reading with absolutely no internet connection. Speaking for myself this morning, and I suspect Linda’s on-board with this conclusion, I realize that we are not only addicted to the material trivia of this western world, but way more seriously addicted to the trivia of the information that we allow to intrude. Too much screentime. Like everything else, fixing that means having some backbone on a moment-to-moment basis. GREAT post Colleen. (We’re addicted to them….) -sam

  7. When I decided to live a Zen life I got rid of EVERYTHING. I now own only a bowl, a bedroll and the clothes on my back. Just kidding, I too have been trying to shed, but it turns out to be more of a reorganization. After deciding to start my own business up again I’ve had to reclaim the studio/office that had become the junk room. You could barely walk through there. At one time in the beginning it was a gleaming spacious state of the art, efficient design/art studio. After many life changes, interruptions, job upheavals it comes back down to relying on yourself. Books and my notes are a large portion of it. I’ve gone through this numerous times in the past. It’s a time consuming ritual. In a way it’s a useful exercise because it forces you to focus on where you were coming from and where you were trying to go. Now I can toss everything from the blind alleys. The stuff that still resonates helps me focus better on the overall direction I was trying to chart. Sometimes you rediscover ideas or concepts that were forgotten but you are now ready for. I’ve found bits and pieces of puzzles that I’ve been collecting all my life that are beginning to form something recognizable. Over the years each time I’ve done this the filter all this stuff gets strained through gets finer and finer. Much of it I can’t get rid of because It is necessary to complete the thing I am trying to construct. What I need is a personal stuff archivist and a row of warehouses to keep it all straight. Then I wouldn’t have to go through this arduous process.

  8. I’ve just returned from four months away, living in a very small space, to find that my permanent home is just crammed full of physical junk, so I’m definitely feeling this post: I filled a bin bag the day after my return in about half an hour of drawer-cleaning. There are other kinds of shedding I really need to do — as the new academic year is firing up, I don’t wish to invest the kind of energy in gossip and politics that I have used up in the past; I’d prefer to breed myself more friends. But I really get what you mean about autumn being the real new year, Colleen — this time of year is also when my birthday falls, as well as the return to school and the change of the seasons. I find it always throws me a little off-balance (sometimes in a good way, sometimes not), and this year’s no exception.

  9. great post and great questions you pose…

    in an effort to clear clutter in my home, i took a fun e-course (Divine Declutter) but what actually happened is that i started taking in the weekly message of “You deserve a home that reflects you” and it became “You DESERVE (fill in the blank!)” I guess what i really needed was to clear the clutter in my own head and get clear about what i really want in my life – a life rich in creativity and to share my creativity with others in a heart-felt/meaningful way =-) it has been both exciting and a little scary, but new experiences are always a little scary

    and hurrah to TattyFraney for letting go of the bad feelings about work! i am REALLY working on this one and letting go of caring about the office, which only helps to make more room for me to care about my life and see that it’s time to go back to being self-employed – talk about SCARY! but that is where your so awesome mantra “Help is everywhere” will come in – thanks for creating that fantastic mantra!! =-)

  10. Awesome! So many great stories of shedding!

    It is a bit addictive, this getting rid of stuff, but in such a good way.

    And I love hearing about the creative application of this rule where it intersects with work. No need to junk something automatically—so much better to examine things and see what’s underneath.

  11. Yes, of course, card catalogues. Never had to ‘rent’ from a library for $ though.

    And some of us still don’t have Craig’s List to avail ourselves of, least not anywhere close.

    As for purging, this summer has been the great Read & Weed for me. I’m working through the books on my shelves that I haven’t read (mom used to work at a library so I’ve got-rather had-a lot of discards), reading them, and then deciding whether to keep or donate them. Some went straight to the donation pile. My shelves have some gaps now, but I haven’t filled them. Unless I really love a book, I’m content reading a library copy. I did buy Lilac Mines, a fellow blogger’s small press book.

    Gave a slew of stuffed animals to my niece and salvation army, at least 75% of my collection I’d guess.

    Got rid of all my floppy disks since I don’t have anything that will read them anyway. Well, except for one metal piece from each that’s part of an ongoing sculpture project composed of leftover CDs.

    Packrat is my nature but I don’t think it comes from scarcity thinking. I have pieces of things because I see potential in them, pieces of art waiting to happen. Overall, I’m into reduction now, no doubt because I’ve moved hundreds or thousands of miles multiple times.

  12. Sounds like you are standing in a really cool place right now.
    To me, shedding /clearing clutter is a vital first step in making way for the new stuff to come in…I could go into a big description of why it is energetically important to do this…and how the Universe loves to fill the holes in once you create them and make space in your life….and how it is a perfect opportunity to tell the Universe what kind of cool , fun , good feeling stuff you want to fill these spaces you have created….but that would turn this into a really long comment.
    I will say that it is really helpful to also think about taking care of all the little irritating things that you have been putting off… dealing with your back taxes….or clearing up that misunderstanding with your friend that makes you avoid her phone calls.
    What am I letting go of?? The habit of focusing on what is not working in order to fix it or change it. I have always been a big problem solver and seeing what needs to be fixed was my default setting. The problem with that is it keeps me in the place of noticing everything that is wrong. It is very unsatisfying. Now I pay attention to noticing what is working and what I want more of. I apply my problem solving skills in a different way now. When I see something that is not working for me, i ask myself “what would be better?” This keeps me moving forward and feeling positive.
    The hardest thing for me around letting go of stuff and doing things differently is the fear of the unknown. But I have found that if I stay focused on what I want to create…and just chillax into the unknown….. the more juicy goodness I find unfolding before me.

  13. “We are in this together…more than we know.”
    Right on crouton.
    I always laugh at how similar we are…and then I read the posted comments and see how similar I am to Jim…Mary Ellen…Sam…Claire…
    Truly…we are in this together, more than we know.” You are great at connecting humanity Colleen…keep it up.

  14. Claire – Well, being a late-returning asshole, I’m forever paying in via late fees. But that’s a quibble. Mostly, time costs, and none that I begrudge. God bless our libraries, and long may they rent.

    I get the potential thing, but I’ve had to become much more selective about it. I choose now to release in the hope that it will form the basis of someone else’s perfect project.

    Leah – Love that bit about applying problem-solving skills in a different way. You keep looping around, you find you’re better at using what you’ve got to deal with the “new” stuff.

    Debbe – Yes, we’re all kind of the same weird, wonderful person. Cheers me enormously in my downer moments. (Hey, they happen.)

  15. Ah..the urge to purge.

    This is exactly what I’m going through, on kind of a deeper level than previously.

    Years ago, I read an article about a guy who has only 53 (or so) things. How is that possible? I have 53 things in my medicine cabinet for God’s sake. But I am inspired at how he raised the bar here.

    You know how you think you’re really traveling light, but when you leave for the airport you realize you have way more baggage or weight than expected? The extra 10 pounds of crap that gets thrown in the carry on “just in case”?

    In March I came down to LA to do an artist’s residency for a year. I emptied out a great deal of stuff from my SF apartment and rented it out indefinitely.

    I put some stuff in storage (not a lot, I thought at the time, but I just looked at my list of boxes today and about fainted. what IS all that stuff for, anyway?).

    More traveling light denial.

    I sent about 10 boxes of art crap to LA. I do mixed media and recycled stuff, so it’s my job to gather paper. yeah right. I have about 5 boxes of paper not even opened yet. And already halfway through my stay here. Yikes.

    Now I’m on this tear to see how far I can go with minimizing my stuff. All of it: clothes, books, art supplies, the sacred paper.

    The impulse to let go was particularly strong beginning this Sept. In the last week, some serious other letting go questions have arisen:

    Can I let go of my “bread and butter” gig that I’ve been really wanting to let go of for the past two years?

    How can I end a business that no longer serves me? That I’ve outgrown?

    How can I create some breathing space to develop something new while keeping up with demands of the existing gigs?

    [geez, this is feeling like confession]

    there’s more, but you’re not a priest.

    The cool thing: Last weekend (in between weeding the closet and book shelves) I let myself just imagine letting go of the business stuff. A lot of anxiety arose. I kept going with it. Then I made a list of my big new ideas and real, real, real wants. Got very energized. Got some new ideas that feel interesting. But mostly, got some clear answers to some dilemmas that have been hanging around for a long time.

    Letting go of what no longer serves — even as a thought experiment — really is the best thing that’s happened in a long time.

    If I let go of the STUFF that weighs me down… where might I go next? And what might I do?

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