The line at the dump last week went all the way out to the road. Everyone, it seems, had the same idea with the turning of the calendar: Jettison all that old stuff. Clean out the debris. It’s 2016, after all.
And it’s true, many of us live with entirely too much clutter and stuff. I don’t mean just those extra salt and pepper shakers, but the unseen internal clutter that takes up its own space. Our old habits and beliefs have a way of crowding out new experiences. Perhaps we’ve always been the caretaker in our families, or the one who never seems to have it together, or the one who always does. We can get stuck believing that’s just How It Is.
We may try to shove those stories in the back of the closet, but they can be sticky. Not something we can leave at the curb.
Which brings me to this sweater. Or, more accurately, this pile of material that once was a sweater. It lived in the drawer under the bed for years, daring me to toss it.
Perhaps you have some of these in your closet: hoodies, t-shirts, barely-held-together pants that violate every rule of clutter and cleaning. You don’t wear them, they aren’t beautiful. They take up space as odd, cotton-poly relics of a time or place you can’t quite shake.
This sweater was one of those unshakeable items; grey, holes in the elbows, it was wool but had gone through the wash and so didn’t quite fit right.
But 8 years ago, when I lived between the bathroom and the couch, slogging through a continuous flare of ulcerative colitis, I wore it all the time. And I wore it when I went into the hospital, and stayed for nearly a week. In the waiting area, seeing me hunched over and grimacing, a kind orderly asked if I needed a wheelchair. I was 30.
Things at the time were so threadbare that the sweater became a perfect uniform for the way I felt inside. Dusty, unfixable, fraying. As the years passed, and my health returned, I confess I felt oddly loyal to that sweater. We had been through so much together.
Our old patterns are like this. Yes, we’re totally sick of them, ready to not need or hurt or bend in the way we have. But, then… they were so useful once. They did serve a purpose.
Still, what if we could repurpose those old habits and put them in the service of new choices? We may have learned that to get by we needed to take care of everyone else. And now, maybe we take our strong empathy and listen to ourselves also. It’s a different kind of space-clearing, one that doesn’t reject any part of us.
Over the holidays, thinking that I wanted to make something for friends and family, I stumbled on the idea of potholders. So practical! So easy! Who doesn’t need them?
Now, potholders have one job: To protect our hands from burning. Without some thick stuffing, they’re just closed up pockets.
Which is when I remembered that sweater. There was something sublime in cutting it to pieces, in giving it a new job. In saying goodbye to all that.
Florida Scott-Maxwell writes, “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done…you are fierce with reality.” I love this notion that part of becoming fierce in our lives is to claim the entirety of ourselves. Even the broken bits.
I have more dump runs in my future. The house is in real need of de-cluttering. But on the inside, I’m curious what those old habits have to offer when they’re not running the show.