Late in September, just as the opening volley to the over-long and often exhausting holiday season was sounded, I was at a conference in North Carolina facilitated by one of the world’s delightful elders: cross-cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien, author of The Second Half of Life: Entering the Eight Gates of Wisdom. There were many times in the course of this life-altering weekend event when Angeles challenged participants in the workshop to think outside the box or seek innovative ways to help bring about a personal and cultural shift in our prevailing paradigms. With her mischievous and beautifully expressive face smiling on us, she asked us to institute a spiritual practice one of my conference friends came to call "27/9."
Could we commit ourselves, she inquired, to move, give, or throw away 27 items a day for 9 days? You could hear the collective gasp.
I was there in a group of six women from Maine, all self-appointed to be in the middle of this challenge. Oh, yeah! We waved our arms and raised our determined fists into the air. We can do this!
I’m now seven days into my nine, and it’s becoming torture. The first two or three days were actually fun, as I opened drawers, closets and cabinets to discover all kinds of things I hadn’t used in years. I was so intent upon the "throwaway" part of my commitment that I swept things into big, dark trash bags and happily hauled them to the end of the drive for a Tuesday morning pick-up. I would sneak covert glances of prideful satisfaction at these signs of my accomplishments, and continued to tear through my house like a banshee on overdrive.
Old music tapes? Hundreds of them, gone. Old video tapes, including favorites of my children when they were growing up, gone. CDs I had no interest in hearing again, gone. Old business receipts, bills, outdated tax records, gone! And it was a pleasure to watch them go. Even more of a pleasure to notice how space was slowly opening up in my home, which has already earned its reputation as "a little zen house."
I threw out plants I had been nursing through bouts of aphids for longer than I cared to remember. Every spring and fall, I’d haul them outside to hose them down, certain that, this time, I’d won the never-ending war to eliminate the bugs. Plants, gone. A few – those worth saving – I moved to new locations, and some I gave to others. A lifelong plant lover, taught by a mother who believed no home was complete without plants to warm its spirit, I actually felt free rather than resentful at the hours each week I’d spend watering them or picking away dead leaves. Space for something new to enter, Angeles had said. I made it.
On the fourth day, I almost didn’t make my 27 things. On the fifth, a Sunday, I gave myself a day of rest. On the sixth, I tried to pick up where I left off, but my enthusiasm was definitely fading. Then I went to the grocery store for a routine pass at getting food enough for the week. This is the most odious of my tasks: I simply hate the whole grocery store culture where everything lies in wait as a temptation to buy more than I’ll ever need. I dislike knowing someone in an office somewhere is planning a strategy to manipulate me into wanting more than I need, and this is no where more apparent than when I walk into the aisle where Halloween has already been set in motion.
Shelves of candy no parent wants their children to eat. Cheesy costumes made by a man, woman or child in a third-world nation who earns next to nothing so our kids can dress up in a throwaway outfit for a few hours to extort candy from neighbors (and in my neighborhood, the kids come in by the vanload from the nearby countryside) that will make them sick or hyperactive for days.
Just across the aisle, and it is now only the first of October, are the first of the Christmas decorations. Thanksgiving is thankfully overlooked. If I asked why, I feel sure someone would have said, once the turkey and all the fixings are bought, there’s no money in it. Halloween and Christmas: a retailer’s dream.
I’m not a grinch. Let me say that again, and emphatically: I am not a Grinch! I love the spirit of the holidays: the gathering of friends and family, the times we spend together as my sisters and brothers share the effort of making a shared meal for our large family, or the cleaning up as the meal is done. Good things happen in those times. Stories intermingle with laughter; afterwards, we play some silly game and laugh even more.
But the holidays are not about things, and somewhere along the line we have all been swept into a collective lie that tells us no celebration will be complete without (fill in the blank). The brief glimpse into the Halloween aisle was sufficient to renew my commitment to my practice of 27 things in 9 days. I went home re-invigorated.
This time, I dug deeper, and it hurt some. I made a pile of clothing that I wouldn’t wear anymore, some because my size has changed, and some because there are associations with those items of clothing I don’t want. I placed them in a neatly folded pile in a chair in my dining room. Within a few hours, many of them found new homes with women who were all too pleased to have something bright or striking to help them remember they are truly beautiful.
I went back to that closet. There, on two hangers, are my son’s first sport jacket and half a dozen of his first ties. He doesn’t want them (he already told me so) but I just couldn’t seem to let them go. Day seven now, and I was sweating more than a little. There, on a table in my kitchen, stand 27 rolls of film, exactly 27, from the last two vacations shot on vacation with my beloved before we ended our relationship last winter. Exactly 27 rolls. Do I want to develop (move) them and re-visit those memories of happier times, or do I want to throw them away? On a bookshelf, travel books for those places we were going to go, and didn’t. Are those dreams I want to keep for myself? Is it time to let them go? The decisions to move, give or throw were becoming more painful, as though part of my soul would be lost with whatever I let go.
If this ritual of 27/9 is something like the Boston marathon, then it wasn’t far to Heartbreak Hill.
This whole process brings me back to attachment, which – I suppose – is just what Angeles hoped it might do. It brings my attention squarely onto those things I’m not attached to (and can easily shed), to those that fall in the murky middle, and to those where my attachments are still running at full throttle. This was not a comfortable place to find myself, yet I’m sure as I write this that it’s precisely where Angeles was guiding us. Notice our places of attachment, whether to people, places or things. This is what I am called to shed as I slip deeper into the second half of my life, and into intimate relationship with the bare bones of "true nature," stripped of all but what’s genuinely, naturally, and authentically me.
"It is as important to prepare for death," she says, "as it is to prepare for adulthood, for a career, for marriage, for parenting." These little acts of letting go are practice, spiritual practice, for everything we must one day leave behind.
At this point, the phone rang. My daughter, calling from one of her many trips to and from work, to share a concern about Christmas. She and her sweetheart are getting married just weeks before Christmas this year; her brother, my son, and his sweetie follow a few months later. None of us is in a position to spend unwisely, to buy frivolously, to make decisions that are not conscious and mindful. She wondered if I could agree to approach the holidays this year in a simple, financially wise way to express our love for each other. Sounds good? I began to weep. Tears streaming down my face, I tried to explain how much shedding I was already doing, how much of the old I was sloughing off. She listened, waited, and her quiet wisdom calmed the demons of my grasping. I knew she was right. The wedding was gift enough for all of us. No thing could bring the same joy, love, laughter, memories. The books on my shelf are of dreams that have died, the rolls of film of good times gone by.
Finally, I heard my own wisdom speak: Stand still, stand still, and wait for your next instructions. When I found words again, it was to suggest each of us would buy one small gift for the others, a small but heartfelt way to say what Christmas is all about, "I love who you are. I love the light of the Spirit that shines in the world through you."
My promise to move, give or throw away 27 things has taken on new and expanded meaning. Some of the things I’m releasing are old habits, ways of being family, ways to express my love: not with things, but with words that truly touch the soul. Yes, I will re- visit that closet and complete what I began. The jacket and ties will go to another boy crossing the threshold into manhood. I can remember my son’s passage without clinging to the symbols that represent it. I’ll develop the film, save some of the pictures and give or throw the rest away. The books will go to other people whose dreams call them to exotic places.
How I laughed when Angeles first asked us to enter this practice! I have learned so much in these last days about where, when and why I am still attached; it’s time to loosen those attachments to make room for what’s truly meaningful in my life today.
The volley has sounded. The holidays are bearing down on us. The search is not for the perfect Elmo doll, or the right computer game, or a gift that will fill another’s heart. We are all entrained to think in those terms. Time to stop, stand still, and listen for the hushed voice of Spirit, so easily lost in the clamor of commerce. You will know it: it’s peaceful, calm and true. And it speaks always – and only – the message of love.