The truth is, I already knew the answer before I asked the question: we’d been in survival mode. For a long time.
Let’s just first acknowledge how embarrassing it is to lead with the picture above. For so many, many reasons. Right? But that’s kind of the point.
In the tippiest, toppest room of our house, there is a room. To get to the room, you have to go upstairs and into our bedroom and walk through the closet where there is a door. Open the door and there it is: an attic.
Most people don’t know this room even exists. But we do. And when we bought the house, we couldn’t believe how much storage room it gave us. We put our boys’ clothes in tubs and stored them in there for hand-me-downs, and then relatively neatly used the space to store our “stuff”: wrapping paper, theatre costumes, boxes of photos and memory items, Christmas boxes, purses, luggage, baby gear, etc., etc., etc., etc. We even have a shelf that has two sides: one side for really good items to regift and one side for really weird items to regift.
And shoe racks! Oh, the shoe racks. The multiple layers and rows of enabling shoe racks.
It really is a Good room.
But the problem is what it became.
Slowly, over the years, we would run in and out grabbing things, rummaging through things to get what we needed and not putting things back. If we didn’t have a place for things downstairs, we would just toss it in the attic.
And the shoe racks? The morning rush of deciding what shoes to wear resulted in mismatched shoes tossed aside; and because the room was “out of sight, out of mind,” my already problematic relationship with shoes only worsened because I didn’t have to face the issue.
The downstairs on the other hand…
We had gotten good at cleaning the downstairs, decorating the downstairs, making sure the downstairs was presentable for people to come over—or at least had gotten to where we could very quickly clean the downstairs so that people didn’t see our mess.
But we didn’t just clean for other people. It was also for us. Things would get messy downstairs; and when we couldn’t stand it, we’d clean it up and feel the relief that comes from having space cleared.
Meanwhile, that attic…
The “stuff” we would shove upstairs would end up getting thrown in the attic eventually. Because then even we didn’t have to face it.
Such had become our life.
We had gotten so good at surviving. Of making sure we made our appointments and practices and meetings and parties at least CLOSE to on time. We had been through a lot of loss, a lot of gain, and were knee-deep in navigating autism and how we could help each other thrive in this new reality—establishing a routine and communicating a routine (something I desperately struggle with anyway), implementing behavior strategies, potty training, sleep training, therapy homework. Brian was juggling the demands of his coursework with the demands of his career, and I was just focusing on keeping everything calm and working.
We were only focused on our “downstairs.”
Meanwhile, in that furthest upstairs room of our “house,” things were getting bad. We weren’t paying attention to our internal lives. Together we were working so hard on functioning as a family, but we were dealing with the stress and tension and uncertainties of everything so differently on our own. So much energy was spent on keeping things going that our thoughts and priorities went unexamined, and we stopped building into each other in the ways that really mattered. We were good at cleaning up the messes downstairs, but the deepest rooms of our individual hearts and heart of our marriage had gotten so incredibly cluttered.
But we didn’t even know it because we weren’t paying attention.
Our closest friends knew how bad that room had gotten.
Our family knew how bad that room had gotten.
But we were oblivious. We just went in and out of that room for the things we needed, or to dump off things we didn’t need.
We weren’t paying attention to what was happening in that tiny, little, essential room of our life.
But you can’t ignore things forever. Eventually you discover the mess.
Brian talked about “doing the work” in his last post. And this fall, the “work” became a critical priority. One of the many things we realized was how much our physical space represented our spiritual and mental space. It all works together.
And we needed less. A whole lot of less.
We began to purge.
We purged in so many areas of our life—examining the things we needed to focus on and the things we needed to put to the side. Time became our most vital currency and we tried to maximize every moment as we worked to clean the corners of our hearts and minds and spirits. We started declining invitations and opportunities and commitments and began to sort of disappear a bit, clearing our schedule the best we could.
And we went to work. Doing the hard. Facing the mess. Clearing things out that don’t belong, and dusting things off we’d forgotten about, those things that bring Life and Good forward.
And one January day, we opened up the door to that little attic room and just faced the physical mess we’d been avoiding.
We started with the shoes. Oh, man. The shoes. I had shoes I’d held on to since high school!
But that’s what I do. I hold on to things because they remind me of people and places and moments. Brian does the same. But holding on to all that physical stuff was creating so much chaos in my spirit and my mind… and we just needed less.
So we purged some more.
Trash bags full of donations. Tubs to the resale shop. Good stuff to friends who could use it.
We went through pictures and videos, laughing at who we were and revisiting times with friends and family. Grounding ourselves in the Good of the hills and loops of life. The sad, the hard, the hilarious. The people who have come. The people who have gone.
And still we purged.
I whittled my shoe collection down to one-third of what I had before. We aren’t finished, but you guys? Check. It. Out.
I can breathe up there.
But I can breathe even better downstairs where I’m typing out this post. And I can breathe even better when I pull into the driveway at the end of the day. Just knowing the work we’ve done on that attic.
And we aren’t done yet. There is still much to go through. I’m slowly going through our boys’ old clothes and there are still things up there we need to get rid of… but it’s progress.
We’ve even moved beyond the attic, purging our closets and drawers little by little.
And yet? All of our living spaces right now are filled with clutter. We just haven’t been paying much attention to our downstairs these days.
Right now, if you’re a “garage door friend” and you don’t use the front door, the first thing you will see is the disaster that is our garage. At the front of our house, the porch still isn’t finished, and we need to paint the steps, powerwash the siding and clean the gutters.
But those closets and drawers that nobody sees are getting cleaner and leaner.
And that one room in the tippiest, toppest corner of our house is tidy.
Somehow that seems most important.