95: Clearing Out the Clutter

95: Clearing Out the Clutter

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less


Clearing Out the Clutter

It is preoccupation with possession, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly.

~Bertrand Russell

I recently completed my grand summer cleanout, an ambitious home project I started in July. My goal was to have a place and a purpose for every single item in each drawer, cupboard, cabinet and closet. It was a lofty ambition to be sure. This cleanout, born of necessity, was a project on which to focus in the midst of personal heartbreak. For a year prior, enduring family stress and illness, I sustained an injury that damaged my vocal cords. I couldn’t speak or sing. Eventually the disability found me barely able to arise from my bed each morning.

Not only was the loss of my voice a career destroyer for me, a singer and voice teacher for twenty-five years, but it caused me to question my true purpose in this world. I viewed it not simply as the quitting of a job, but also as a shift in my worth. I was a woman at sea without a life jacket, that which I generally wore in the form of a worthy vocation. I was devastated. Months later, after surviving a period of vocal mourning, I knew I needed something to pull me out of the doldrums. I turned my attention to home.

“Closets and cabinets and cupboards, oh my!” was my Oz-inspired mantra. I had been daunted by the overwhelming task of organizing my house for almost a decade. As an admitted project-starting enthusiast without the discipline to complete my ventures, I had continued to purchase and plan, cram and pile designs into every crevice without completing most of them. Now, there’s a saying about what happens when the going gets tough. Yes, as the truism states, I “got going” when things got tough. I wish I meant moving with resolve. Instead, I mean I would literally GO — out the door — on my way to the next idea, all without seeing my original plan through. Thus the sheer volume of “stuff” jammed into every nook and cranny of our home had gotten overwhelming.

I started small and cleaned out a drawer. A slight weight lifted, then I felt a tickle of pride. So I cleaned out another, then another. Next I tackled a kitchen cabinet. I was breathing easier already. The stress of the previous months began to abate, coupled with a sigh of relief that only ridding one’s life of excess can produce. “Okay,” I thought, “time to rope the kids in.” As my son watched the Little League World Series, I would hand him a drawer full of pens and markers with a request, “Will you test each of these on a piece of paper? Toss anything that doesn’t work.” Forever my happy helper, especially if he can work while watching sports, he would grab the drawer and say, “No problem, Mom!” My daughter was a harder sell but was eventually converted. Though she may deny it, I think she secretly enjoyed the time we spent together getting organized. Side by side, the kids cleaned out our movie cabinet, discovering video compilations along with hours and hours of family events recorded but never enjoyed. We loved watching these precious finds. Little did I know, however, the intangible treasures would continue abundantly as we furthered our mission.

For somewhere in the midst of days, then weeks, spent cleaning and organizing, a familiar thread began to surface. I began to view the contents of my home for what they truly were. They attempted to fill a void in my heart. They were a bandage, a temporary fix of an illness. So many years of craving and purchasing passed by without the desire to address the real issue. I was not living life. I was not valuing my role as a mother and wife. I was dreaming and spending my way through it. I had been covering up lack of purpose with material possessions just as my injured vocal cords were now covering up the ache of our family issues. Only when everything ground to a halt was I able to see clearly what I had been camouflaging. What a blessing in disguise.

We worked diligently for three months, and as I cleared the dark recesses of my closets, I recognized I was also clearing the pain, sorrow and insecurities from the past year and beyond. The empty spaces on the shelves signified new spaces within me to fill with an openness of heart and mind: new beginnings, new goals, and new healing. As I straightened each cabinet and drawer, I was straightening out my priorities. Family was once again at the forefront, and even though we weren’t having a summer vacation, we were spending hours of quality time together, helping one another and laughing all together. My children and I were never closer.

Lastly, I grasped the importance of completing this monumental project — step by tiny, necessary step — as a final resolution to my self-indulgence. For years I had longed for a bigger home, newer furniture, more space, and more fashionable things. I longed to be accepted for my personal savvy rather than the beauty of sacrifice in raising my family. In finishing all of my tasks, I finally understood that I had been longing for all of this as a way to fill a thirst in me that objects could never quench. I was longing to run from those personal qualities I didn’t want to face. Starting small, I finally completed my grand summer cleanout of both my living spaces and my head spaces. Now that I have faced my fears, my regrets, and my skeletons in the proverbial closet, I look forward to each day in my home, free of clutter, free of disorder, and free of distraction. I am focused on life. Best of all, my heart is free once again to be filled with the good things it has to offer… hope, faith and family. It was the greatest summer of my life.

~Cynthia McGonagle McGarity


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