In March of 2020, as the Pandemic creeped into our lives, I was in Alabama helping my uncle prepare his condo to be sold. My aunt had quickly drifted into the land of Alzheimer’s, and my uncle had to act fast to get her the care she needed. So began the great purge of most of the life they had shared together for over 50 years.
My uncle was the minimalist and my aunt was the collector, a familiar dynamic I see in the home organization business. She had meticulously honed her collection of clothes, art, jewelry, and all the accoutrement of a comfortable life. But these clothes no longer fit her, and that life was now gone, never to exist again. This was a great loss for all of us: first to see her go away, and then to let go of so many of her things while she was still alive. It was sad. It felt strange.
My uncle managed this transition with an admirable, monastic composure. He could see with perspective all the time and experiences gone by, celebrate them, mourn the losses, and let them go. He reframed his new reality by paring down to just the necessities, and he made plans to take what little was left and move himself and my aunt to California, near me and my mom. All of this took courage, and it inspired some courage of my own when it came time to face the dreaded storage unit.
We were meant to do it together, my mom and I, but COVID forced her to stay home and the burden fell to me. It was more than I could imagine. To cleanse and organize comes naturally when working with other people’s things, but a big room full of our entire family history was a profound and somewhat shocking experience.
Trunks and trunks and trunks full of photos, movies, slides, super 8 film, yearbooks, ephemera, paintings, you name it. The plan was to pack the car to the brim with my maternal family history and haul it back to California. My aunt and mom and grandma all being artists, there was a lot of art. Yet a car fits only so much, so what would not fit went to Goodwill. All that family history to Goodwill or the recycle center or the dump. I still question those decisions made in haste, the decades curated in an afternoon.
On March 21st, I drove back across the COVID-swept country, terrified but ultimately home safe and sound. I brought the family archive up to my mom’s apartment, where it has been slowly picked through in the ten proceeding months. It is a daunting project facing all that past, one my mom barely has energy for. All our belongings — these mountains of stuff — remind us of our own mortality and of those already passed. It’s depressing.
But, as I noodle and grow in looking at stuff in different contexts, I am inspired by my uncle’s response to this profound and unwanted change. Instead of dwelling on the past and getting stuck on the stuff that had various modicum of meaning or significance to x-y-and-z, he harnessed his gratitude for the past as fuel for a better future with my aunt.
This perspective is groundbreaking and immensely practical, but it’s hard. It takes a reckoning with the perceived mistakes of one’s past. My uncle and I had many tender moments in the storage space together, crying and coming to a deeper understanding of who we were, who we are, and who we want to be. Our relationship grew stronger through this experience and reminded us of the love we have for each other and our family. Without the weight of that stuff, my uncle was able to swiftly sell his house and start focusing on the care of my aunt and their future together in California, a dream they shared for decades.
This year has been an adventure to say the least. I have moved five times since I got back from that fateful trip to Alabama. I have let go of so much, as we all have, but my uncle’s pragmatism helped inspire me to remain optimistic and go with the flow as best I could. The more I let go, the more can come in. Esoterically, there is a direct correlation — an energy exchange, a calibration — that I witness every time I help someone clear out their life.
When you intentionally make room, what is ready to come in will come. I see a “waiting room” of energy and help, waiting in the invisible wings, waiting to help us calibrate to the present. We hold on for so many reasons, and that’s okay. Letting go is a delicate, painstaking process deserving of gentle discernment. But when that inner voice tells you it’s time to let go, listen to it. What comes after the pain is a lightness and freedom full of inspiration and new imagination that is all the more appropriate for the time at hand.
Take care of yourself and each other, and Happy New Year!