The Hardest Things to Give Away

The Hardest Things to Give Away

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So often, in the realm of organizing, either self or professionally imposed, there are insurmountable hurdles. These hurdles take the shape of an unavoidable pile on the floor, resembling nothing like an elephant except for in size.

It often occurs naturally when I'm working with a client who has a really hard time letting things go. It begins as an organizing category or categories outside of my usual, and spare three : Keep, Toss and Donate/ Recycle.

It's usually a massive pile of items that has been put aside for years. They work hard to avoid thinking about these items even when they become literally and figuratively the elephant in the room.

Elephant one:
I don't use it. I don't need it. But I want to keep it. Reasons for attachment vary, but the emotional factor, is the likely culprit. Sometimes, it's just the idea that one day it might be interesting to look at or look through. This happens with books, toys and the objects of hobbyists. 

Elephant two:
These are useful or worth something. I can't throw it out but I don't know who to give it to. No one in my family wants it. A prime example is a old electric Brother typewriter. No ink cartridge. Broken plug. And the person says to me, "I can't throw this out - it has to be worth something, right? I'll sell it on eBay... I paid $___ for it 16 years ago."

Elephant three:
Ephemera from a previous career or a previous version of themselves (college self, single self, actress self, married self). Objects related to a former professional identity: old business cards, old art supplies, books from graduate school, an old wedding dress, etc. They now represent a time and a piece of identity that feels impossible to let go of.

So while we work together to whip the space into working order, according to their dictates or mine, the stacks of objects in one of these categories grow. Until we are in the eleventh hour and we look up and see the results of the hard work all around us: the freeing of space, time and light. That is until we back up to get a better look and bump into the elephant in the room.

Usually, by this time, decision fatigue has set in so the client is more than dismayed to find it still there haunting them, demanding to take back the space we had just cleared. Sometimes the size of the stack will cause the client to simply say, "I've got to let this go, I can't live with it any longer." Depending on their values, we go through local options whether it's Salvation Army, thrift stores, their church or community organizations, the guy on the corner of Broadway who sells records and books, the sister on the Upper West Side or the laundry room in the building that has a community bookshelf. The give away list is very, very long.

Sometimes I want to tell them that if they can unfetter themselves from this they will find such relief - not regret - that they will forever be grateful for letting go. I can't say that, no matter how tempted I am. Because I know that we do sometimes regret having given something away. Even me.

Ultimately, they have to decide on every single item. To let go or not to let go. More often than not, it's the letting go of dreams represented in those objects. I still have a stack of flashcards from my calculus and chemistry classes during my short stint in pre-med, one of my saddest dream-that-didn't-come-true experiences. I keep it because I think maybe a good juicy word problem every now and then will keep dementia at bay as I get older.

But who am I kidding? Maybe I hold on to that dream like a tight fisted miser because I think I can't have any more dreams. Medical school is not likely to happen. It's not exactly a retirement hobby I can look forward to someday. I should just toss them. But I don't and that gives me a very special emphatic edge when dealing with a situation where people can't seem to let go of something.

I am there to guide and support. I can provide cautionary tales, my own personal story, a cool glass of water and warm encouragement. It may just be the soft wedge that's needed to separate them from old dreams, old identities and moving forward to the next and best part of themselves and a future they couldn't see because their eyes were always parked on the past.

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