Monday, January 11, 2010

A One Year Search for True Value

The Great Purge

As many of you know, what started as a fun travel blog (and a place to randomly post pictures of my life when NOT traveling), has morphed into a weird, sporadic sort of journal centering on my personal I've gotten multiple emails, phone calls and comments about my writing and what I'm finding is that this as yet unnamed process of self-discovery is really pretty common among women. I'm also realizing that other people find it entertaining to read about someone else going through it so that they all feel more normal. So, why fight destiny?
The truth is that I don't really know who I am. The truth is that I don't have it all together and probably never will. The truth is that I struggle with understanding who God is to me, what having faith really means, what my calling in this life is to be and what kind of woman I really am. The honest to God truth is that I experience times of deep loneliness and isolation and don't always know what to do about that. My role as a mother and wife is not ultimately fulfilling and quite often I feel very wasted and taken for granted. In short, my life thus far has been pretty unsatisfying and I refuse to live like this for one more minute.
Unfortunately, my identity up until now has not supported this new philosophy of accepting truth for what truth is, and admitting that my roles do not fully satisfy me. My identity and actually, my religious views too, have confined me to this strange and scientifically unfounded expectation that I should be utterly joyful doing the laundry and wiping little noses and that searching for more than that is a betrayal of some kind.
Well. Sorry. But I'm doing it. I might be a stay at home mom. I might not have finished that degree I started on all those years ago. I might be living in a tiny orchard town in the middle of nowhere, but that doesn't mean that I can't have an amazingly fulfilling life, full of richness and beauty and one which will be deeply satisfying to me, regardless of the season of my life. I want joy. I want happiness. I'm going to get my six thousand dollars worth out of these braces and smile more often and with actual sincerity.
My first step a few weeks back was realizing that I'm captive to the opinions and expectations of others and that I can't be free to love God or myself or anyone until I find freedom from those chains. This realization begged the question, why? Why do I allow myself to be taken captive by these things? And the answer is value. Or rather, a lack of value, a lack of meaning.
And so for the next twelve months I'm pursuing true value, where it comes from, what it means and what difference it can make in the life of an ordinary woman. I'll be posting my experiences here weekly, partly to share my thoughts with you, but also to help me keep my goal in mind. I not only welcome your comments, but I hope you will comment. Comment, criticize, encourage, make suggestions, share your own experiences, tell me what books you've read that have helped you, give your opinion. I'm deeply curious about any and all information I can gather on this subject.

My journey has begun already, and unexpectedly, with a surprisingly profound purging. For those of you who have basements or garages, or God forbid, perhaps you're like me and you're cursed with both, this post is going to terrify you. But at least you'll have the benefit of having had warning whereas I went into it naively, thinking I was simply organizing the store room.
My husband and I committed this last weekend to finally go through the boxes we had placed on the storage shelves in our basement three years ago when we moved into this house. We're planning on remodeling our unfinished basement this next year and needed to get the useless stuff out of the way and sort the things we wanted to keep before the usual remodel calamity strikes.
And so, in our stupidity, we blithely made a pot of coffee, filled our respective mugs, and headed belowstairs to conquer our foe bright and early Saturday morning. The plan, and this only showcases our lack of foresight, was to sort out the boxes, tidy up a bit and then head outside to take down the Christmas lights. We assumed this little 'Salvation Army Donation' project would be finished up by noon, the Christmas lights would be down by one and we could be happily tinkering with our remaining electrical work (left over from last summers rewiring project) by late afternoon. Yeah. Not so much.
We enter our storage area, which had become a catchall for everything that was displaced when we started the LAST remodel in August, and are faintly surprised by the sheer amount of stuff we've accumulated in the 12x8 foot area. Not to mention the other storage area on the other side of the basement which is equally full of our prized possessions, which we could certainly not inventory if asked to do so by memory. The reality is that we had no idea what was down there, nor did we care. It was our stuff.
You know, the legions of things we keep just for the sake of keeping. Our old elementary school papers, stuffed animals that meant everything to us when we were five, ugly old candles that I would never use, but couldn't justify throwing away because they'd never been lit, pots and pans who's non-stick coating was scratched away but might still work if I used enough oil and if I had nothing else and was in a pinch, Ryan's karate trophy's and awards from FedEx and all the kids baby clothes that someday I might want to look at again. And on top of all of this was an enormous pile of toys that hadn't seen the light of day in possibly years; Megan's old rocking horse, plastic children's chairs long outgrown, every HappyMeal toy that we'd ever received and never thrown out, all in bags and boxes and crates, collecting dust and housing arachnids.
We began happily enough. We strung up work lights and got the broom. Ryan turned on the stereo and we chatted and sipped our coffee's and pulled down one box at a time and started to sort. After the first box I realized I was going to need a garbage bag. I was delighted that that box had had next to nothing in it! Hurray for me, at least this one was easy. I fetch the garbage bag which I believe will be far too big for this job and sit back down with another box.
Broken tile pieces, ugly Christmas ornaments that I'd never put out, old grapevine wreathes that were long past their glory, broken lamps, picture frames with broken glass, rickety tables, an old chair, a clock that Ryan made in shop class when he was in high school which is now missing it's works.
I went for another garbage bag. And several boxes to put all the things that were too good to throw away and could be donated to charity. Soon, I had cleared an entire shelf and felt so proud! I turned around to start replacing all the things that we'd decided were worth saving and would go neatly back on the storage shelves...but there was nothing to put back.
I shrug. On to the next shelf and probably to all the good stuff, I think. But box after box after box were empty of anything worth keeping. At first this process was liberating. The space! I think. The storage for all the good stuff! I am someone who likes things simple and tidy, but it has been very easy for me to avoid dealing with the basement because, well, because it's the basement and I don't have to look at it unless I purposefully go down there. And why would I? The place was a mess!

By the end of the day, we were exhausted. We never did make it outside to take down the Christmas lights and we certainly didn't 'tinker' with the electrical work which is also long overdue for attention. We collapsed into bed and knew we weren't even halfway done with our 'little project'.
Sunday morning we stayed home from church and headed back to the basement, coffee in hand again, but with less determination, like the last day of a battle that has not gone well thus far. We were losing heart and a deep sense of loss and frustration was settling on me which, at the time, I didn't understand. I thought I was just sick of being down there. Sick of the dust and the spiders and the mess and the hopeless pursuit of tidy.
We finished the store room by mid day on Sunday and slowly made our way to the 'storage area', i.e., the other side of the basement where we dumped all of the junk we didn't want to deal with right away. The better junk was kept here; old greeting cards that were too meaningful to toss, books we hadn't read in a decade or more but can't get rid of because someday we will build a library somewhere in our tiny house, the fishbowl now devoid of fish, the telescope that Ryan loves but has used exactly once in our entire marriage, stacks of our old love letters and boxes and envelopes of pictures.
I sat down in the middle of the mess on Sunday afternoon and started sorting every loose piece of paper I could find. That sense of loss and frustration got heavier and heavier. I made a pile for recycling, a pile for the shredder and a pitifully small pile of keepsakes. Ryan, meanwhile, sorted through his own things and the kids toys and finally tackled the monstrosity that was his workbench.
We worked until well past evening and in the end gathered together twelve boxes and/or bags full of garbage and five boxes and/or bags of things good enough to donate. What was left was an apple box of keepsakes, two medium sized rubbermaid containers full of baby clothes, some of which were antique and passed down generations, and a respectable pile of camping equipment.

I look around in confusion. Where is all of our stuff?? I ask myself. I look at Ryan. Where's our stuff?? He too is depressed about getting rid of things he cannot justify keeping any longer, things with no real meaning that he has hung on to for lack of things that did have real meaning. I'm shocked at all the garbage and the piles of donations, things I don't even recognize, things I don't even care about anymore.

I've been harboring a bad attitude all morning and it finally gets the better of me. I bite Ryan's head off about something trivial and stomp up the stairs. He finds me in the car a few minutes later, engine running. I'm leaving.

"What's the matter?" He's deeply concerned and thinks perhaps two days in a dark basement with a woman who is essentially solar powered might not have been such a good idea. "Do you need to get out for awhile?" He thinks he's struck a chord here even though I'm gazing like a catatonic person out the front window. "I know! We'll all go. Let's just get out for a bit. I need it too." At this he rushes back inside and comes out a moment later with our kids in tow. They all pile into the car, I move into the passenger seat so Ryan can drive, and we begin the trek westward. We're not sure where we're going, but we need some space from the project and the emotions it tills up. I still don't know what my problem is but am so desperately sad I can hardly stand it.
We weren't yet to Hood River when the tears came. I just sat there in the front seat, weeping soundlessly. Ryan says nothing. He's waiting and knows I don't want him to bother me about it. When I've gotten enough distance from the dark clutter of the basement and had enough time to process what's happening in me, I can finally diagnose the cause of my grief and I say to Ryan,
"There's nothing left! All those boxes were supposed to have our life in them and they were just...empty. Where did our life go?"
But the reality of the situation is that we have spent the last ten years of our marriage investing in things that don't matter and then storing them on the shelves in our basement. We've hung on to things that weighed us down for fear that giving them up would leave us without our memories, without our pasts. And when we went back to look at those things, it was a bit startling to come to understand that everything we thought we had was meaningless junk.
I saved the most important things, the love letters, the pictures, some of the greeting cards that meant something to me. But we are, more or less, starting over.
This is, at once, terrifying and exciting. We have purged our house of all those old trappings. Now to purge the idea that our value is in what we possess. Easier said, I'm afraid, this idea which is so thoroughly ingrained in our western way of thinking. Even this last Christmas serves as an example of how consumerism has put it's slant on my thinking.
I don't even want to know how many thousands of dollars worth of stuff will be housed on the shelves of the Salvation Army by the end of the week, and all from my house.

In his book The Call, Os Guiness states, "The overall lesson of insatiability is that money alone cannot buy the deepest things we desire. Money never purchases love, or eternity, or God. It is the wrong means, the wrong road, the wrong search."
I suppose the same thing can be said of all the stuff we acquire with our money. It will not bring us closer to loved ones, give us satisfaction or bring us meaning. It's just the junk in our basement.
And so, on my search for true meaning, January's lesson for me has been one of materialism, finding value by discovering what has no value. It's also been one of finding room for what's really important. It's not the telescope, it's pouring a glass of wine and spending an easy evening in the backyard with my husband, gazing up at the stars and hearing him talk about the constellations.
It isn't the photographs, it's an afternoon with Megan, building them into an album of her favorite memories.
And it isn't even about de-cluttering the basement, taking loads of used goods to the salvation army. It's about putting together a basket of our best stuffed animals and taking them personally to the kids at the Providence Children's Hospital and spending some time with people who aren't fortunate enough to be able to go about their day as we do.
Lesson #1. It's not about things. It's about life. I want less of the former so that I can have MORE of the latter.


rebecca said...

Wow. That was too deep for me to fully wrap my head around in just a few words, soooooo, I'll just comment on a safer subject for now: I now know I don't have to keep all the ugly candles I have that I have never lit but, "someday, the lights are going to go out and we'll need every last one of them!". Um, so thanks for the lightbulb moment, and I'm sure the real meaning of your post will be so incredibly helpful to many women. Nice work, Melissa

jkroft said...

Melissa, you have ridden the whitewater of the soul to the falls and over! And as terribly afraid of water as I am, that metaphor speaks volumes because I feel like I am able to ride with you on this. I am almost afraid of your next post. But not to worry, I will get a box of kleenex and sit at my computer like a good soldier and hold on tight. I love you so much. A><>J