A couple of mornings ago, I picked up my daughter’s backpack to move it from one room to another. I was shocked at the weight of it. For interest’s sake, I decided to see how much it actually weighed. First I weighed myself (and cringed, because quarantine baking and daily drinks are catching up with me). Then I put the backpack on, weighed myself again, and found the difference. As a storyteller, I am wont to exaggerate, but here, there is no need. The backpack weighed more than twenty pounds! That’s almost a quarter of my daughter’s total body weight!
The shocking thing is that my 14-year-old daughter hoists that school bag onto her back and walks around with it like it weighs nothing. She’s used to it. She’s grown accustomed to the weight. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t hurting her.
We all carry around heavy backpacks without even realizing the weight of them. When we add one sheet of looseleaf at a time, we don’t notice the incremental building. Until we do. Until it starts to be uncomfortable. Until it starts to cause us pain in other ways. Until we can’t carry it anymore.
In our culture, we have rituals for decluttering, for sorting, for Marie-Kondo-ing. But these practices are typically for our physical spaces. Periodically, we sort through our kids’ closets to remove items they’ve outgrown, or to eliminate socks with holes. About once a year, in a total rage, I throw away plastic containers without matching lids. In the springtime, we might corral items deemed ‘no longer useful’ for yard sales or donation pick-ups. We regularly purge our plastic, paper, and bottle recycling by placing it in defined bins, and then delivering it for roadside pick-up or to the nearest depot. With all this self-isolation at the moment, my junk drawers and closets have never looked so good.
But we don’t seem to have useful rituals for emotional or mental decluttering. In the same way we collect stuff, we also pick up feelings, absorb experiences, and store traumas. And without intention, there’s nowhere for them to go. We just keep cramming them in. There’s no yard sale for hurt feelings. There’s no roadside pick-up for grief.
Back to the backpack. I have often used a backpack as a means of illustrating how easily we collect and carry heavy things. When I’m disappointed about something, it’s as though a little stone goes into my backpack. Someone hurts my feelings, and another heavy rock is added. Constantly worried about money? Pebbles, pebbles, and more pebbles in my backpack. Individually, they may not weigh much, but collectively, they become heavy.
If we don’t stop from time to time to purge or empty our packs, we’ll carry around weight we were not meant to carry. We will grow accustomed to a heaviness that doesn’t need to be there. We’ll damage ourselves without even realizing.
One of my regular rituals is to pause and take stock. I empty my metaphorical backpack onto the ground and intentionally release each stone. This might mean letting someone off the hook for an insensitive comment, or forgiving myself for blundering with my words, or identifying and acknowledging a burr under my saddle. As I do this, I visualize placing the stones in a pile. If one could see—if I could see—my life journey, one would observe a pathway or a trajectory marked with little stone alters all along the way. Altars are typically places of sacrifice where we lay hard things down. They can also be places of remembering, to mark a moment or an event. So, I take those heavy rocks—the hurts, the disappointments, the grief—and I intentionally remove them one by one from my soul. I name them, and I place them on the ground, one on top of the other, until a small altar is formed. And then I move forward with a considerably lightened load.
Earlier this week, I became conscious that I was feeling weighted again; that it was time to sift through my soul and build another altar. I sat with my eyes closed and asked what was happening inside of me. Because of the way life has been this last while, I have grown very adept at digging in when the weighted feelings come. Even when I don’t feel like it (does anyone ever feel like it?). I was fully prepared for yet another funeral pyre. I was expecting to do the onerous work of grieving, of sacrificing, of letting go. But the scene in my mind unfolded differently.
I pictured myself hunched slightly, but grittily soldiering on along the path, like always. I was managing(-ish) all of my heavy things; large rocks in my hands, heavy items in my backpack, and crushing weights on my shoulders. In the scene in my mind, my companion—who, for me, is God or Spirit—urged me to slow, and invited me to unload the burdens. I consented and my companion began easing the heavy things from my clenched fingers, my tired shoulders, my heavy heart…and began building something.
Stone by stone, a familiar structure took shape beside me. I wasn’t sure what would be sacrificed. Honestly, I don’t know what I have left to sacrifice. But then my companion said no…sit down, I’m making a meal. We’re going to eat together, and rest. I recognized it was not a funeral pyre, but a cooking surface. Seated and relaxed by the small pile of hard things, we nourished ourselves. And then I laid down and slept.
The hard things became the means by which my strength was restored. I dreaded building another funeral pyre, but it wasn’t about death. I steeled myself to allow forgiveness, but it wasn’t about letting anything go. It was about eating, living, savouring, enjoying, resting. My companion repurposed my hard things as a vehicle for nourishment.
In this unusual and unprecedented phase of life, where only essential services are open, let’s develop our own rituals for determining what is essential to our restoration, our wholeness, and our peace, joy, and love. We’re in the process of stripping away so many things away right now, because we have to. While we’re at it, let’s also Marie-Kondo the hell out of our inner lives. Let us intentionally purge the non-essentials and lighten our loads.
Unload the stones. Build an altar. Nourish yourself. Rest.
Much love to all of you.