Here is my problem with persistent clutter: I’m not good at distinguishing between the debris of the past that should be discarded from the building-blocks of the future that should be saved. I often spend too much energy worrying about whether to throw out something that has been part of my life, only to be surprised how quickly I learn to live without it once it is out-of-sight. And afterward it feels like fresh air, like I’ve finally stepped into the clearing. Author Gail Blanke wrote, “I don’t think we pay enough attention to the lighter, prouder feeling that comes from cleaning stuff out of our lives.” Well said.
I have been reading Gail Blanke’s book, titled “Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life.” I picked it up at Barnes and Noble when I was in Dallas in January. When I first saw it on display I wondered why anyone would need a book to learn how to throw things out. Why add something to the pile of life when you are trying to reduce the pile? But the catalysts of life that push me off the bubble and into action are unpredictable and often subtle. I decided if I were capable of throwing out fifty things on my own I would’ve done it already, so I bought the book and read it. The author was so convincing I started throwing out things after reading the first chapter.
To be honest, there are some things that I’ve always been good at throwing out. Clothes, for example. I’m good about cleaning my closet on a regular basis. When I hang up a shirt fresh from the laundry I put it at the front of the line, so my clothes are sorted by frequency of use rather than color. That means if a shirt remains at the far end of the line for a season or two, it is time for it to go. I don’t throw the clothes in the trash, of course, I give them away, but in the context of Ms. Blanke’s book, it is the same thing.
But as I said, cleaning out my clothes closet has never been hard for me, so I can’t give myself much credit for doing it, even though this particular January I filled a drum-sized heavy-duty opaque plastic bag of seldom-worn and ill-fitting clothes. (The opaque container is important - you don’t want to see the items through the plastic and rethink your decision to throw them out.)
I am also pretty good about cleaning out my books. I have a lot of books on my shelves, and I have read almost every one of them. But I see no glory in simply collecting and storing books just to have a lot of them. And I am not interested in keeping books that haven’t earned their way into my friendship. If I look at a book and know I’ll never pull it off the shelf again, if there are no highlighted passages or notes scribbled in the margins, out it goes. I am not as ruthless with books as I am with clothes - books are more personal than polo shirts - but at least once a year I will fill a box to donate to the Friends of the Library.
Throw Out Fifty Things encourages the thrower-outer to make a list, numbered 1 - 50, and write down the items as you throw them out or give them away or sell them. At some point along the process, completing the list to 50 items becomes its own motivation. According to Blanke’s Rules of Disengagement, that big bag of clothes that I gave away counts as one item, and the books count as another.
So far I’ve emptied at least a dozen boxes from the attic and garage. I want to keep at this while my motivation is high. I know that for most of us, if we leave the clutter long enough that we get used to looking at it every day, get used to stepping around it, then get used to ignoring it, the clutter becomes part of us and part of our daily life and part of our identity and we can’t imagine living without it.
I remember reading a novel by Barbara Wood about living in Kenya titled, “Green City in the Sun,” and she wrote, “Life meant constant vigilance to keep one’s standards. It would be so easy to give in and relax the rules of civilization, and many of the settlers had done just that. The Stone Age could be just a broom or a fork away.” Or in my case, one overlooked box of old stuff.
Cleaning was on my mind last Monday while I was running my five miles, as well as an Erwin McManus talk about the importance of dreaming. I invested a lap around the Windlands Par Course praying about my dreams: I thanked God for making me a dreamer and rescuing me from a life of cynicism and tedium, I confessed my dreams of selling thousands of books and wondered which dreams were from God and which were my own greedy wishful thinking, I wondered if my dreams to be a writer put me on the path to financial destruction even as I thanked God for His clear and unmistakable and
repeated calls to write. And then, in the middle of my prayer, it occurred to me that whether or not I make a real impact as a writer, the past three years I’ve invested have been important in my journey, a definite gift from God. He put too many opportunities where I could reach them, and put too many people in my life that were willing to help me and push me along, for this to have been the wrong path.
So as soon as I got back from the run I added to my list of fifty things, “Fear of traveling the wrong path.” I’m throwing that out, too.
Gail Blanke wrote, “When we throw out the physical clutter, we clear our minds. When we throw out the mental clutter, we clear our souls.” I need a free mind and free soul to go forward into the future. I haven’t finished with my fifty yet ... I only have about 29 things on my list. I’ll let you know when I’m done. Maybe you can join me in this adventure.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32
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