The ubiquitous Starbucks coffee cup has now become the Confucius of mass marketed consumer goods: “We are what we can’t give up,” said the cup a few years ago. The quote comes from Brian Scudamore, founder and CEO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK. At the risk of arguing with the wisdom of a cup and all the marketing strategists at the Starbucks home office, I’d like to propose the opposite. Maybe we can be as easily defined by what we are willing to leave behind as what we can’t give up. In a culture where we seem to race to collect things and where we cling to conventional and sometimes questionable notions of love, family, marriage, and success, perhaps considering what we purge could be just as useful in understanding who we are.

A few years ago, I had just finished a hostile phone conversation with the property manager for the house I rented, and when I turned around I caught sight of the giant crack in the dining room wall, the giant camel cricket hopping across the kitchen floor, the giant yard that needed mowing and weeding . . . . Enough. I was working too hard to keep up a falling down house I didn’t own. I had had enough of all the old furniture that my husband and I had collected together. I had had enough of trying to take care of so many things.  So the things and the house had to go. This was a Wednesday. On Friday I signed a lease on a two-bedroom apartment and began the process of purging a three-bedroom house. On Saturday morning I pulled to the driveway much of my furniture. I taped a large, hot pink piece of poster board to the post at the end of my driveway, which read “Sale Today! Make an offer!” And they did. I sold everything within a couple of hours.

I was shedding more than furniture, of course. This was also about shedding my notions of how to raise a child—didn’t children have to have a yard like I did when I was a child? Aren’t they supposed to have a house to call home? Aren’t they supposed to have two parents in the home, siblings, and a dog to be whole people? When I got divorced, I knew I would have to begin the process of shedding the generations of ingrained ideas and prejudice about children of “broken homes.” Furthermore, I was shedding notions about marriage and about material success, which by most American standards I would be considered a failure. I knew that wasn’t true. Just as snakes shed skin only to reveal new layers, I had a new skin that glowed and shimmered and fit me better than the last layers had.

Purging causes great anxiety. Where does this fear come from? I suppose we are afraid of losing our connection to a time, place, idea, or person associated with the thing. I have to wonder if the sheer amount of stuff we have keeps us from having to look too closely at our lives or the darkest parts of ourselves that are difficult and painful to see. The fear of letting go of our things and ideas is a fear that underneath all our stuff we might amount to nothing. I continue to find things to purge, both mental and physical. Each load I take to the Salvation Army or the dumpster, each vexatious idea I shed frees me to enjoy the layers and layers of new skin, each one more beautiful than the last.

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