Seven years ago, I spent about six months getting rid of stuff.
Clothes in the cupboard, used toiletries, random stuff like hats, books, sunglasses and all sorts of things that a person might own. It wasn’t a huge cleanout and there wasn’t a lot of effort put into it, hence the reason it took six months. I’d spend pockets of time here and there donating stuff to charities or passing them on to relatives who might find better use for those things.
My mother had just died and I wasn’t sure I wanted to stare into a cupboard full of clothes no one was going to use (her cupboard was next to mine). Her perfume also sat in that same cupboard which she used to wear on special occasions (in the months following her death, each time I caught a whiff of it it would trigger lots of tears), and there were lines from the Bible offering comfort IN CAPS which coloured her bedroom wall which I often looked at with what felt like unenthused dispassion.
And it was in all of that cleaning, and in all of that staring at clothes hanging from the rails and putting stuff into black bin bags, that the realisation hit me like a punch in the gut. My mother was gone and there was not a single bit of comfort to be had in her belongings whatsoever. She used them and they benefitted her while she was alive, but they no longer had utility now, at least not in our home where her things will no longer be used or worn.
On the outset, I thought that I was being practical with all of the cleaning (and I was – to some extent) but perhaps there was more to it than that (hindsight is a beautiful thing). This brilliant piece in the New Yorker looks at loss as “putting us in our place; it confronts us with lack of order and loss of control” so perhaps it was also an attempt to regain some semblance of control under emotionally chaotic circumstances.
It turns out that all the memories we made travelling (or even doing something as simple as having dinner) together were much more valuable than the things that sat in our home or that I had inherited from her. Those things meant nothing, zero, zilch. Pearl necklaces? Don’t care. Diamond engagement rings? Not interested.
About a year or so after all of this cleaning happened, I travelled to Cambodia to teach English to children who either had AIDS or had lost their parents to AIDS to put my loss into context. While the intention was noble, the focus wasn’t. It was self-directed, and perhaps to an extent selfish, but it turned out that it was giving and other-centredness that made me the happiest.
All of the time that I’ve spent abroad – in Cambodia included – NOT following the path of least resistance of school to higher education, to degree, to job (which I realise I was privileged to have had the chance to pursue at all) was when I felt most alive, which I learned from the most, and which I look back on with not an ounce of regret (again, hindsight is a beautiful thing).
So if the formula works, wash, rinse and repeat!