The Legacy of Spring Cleaning

04/15/2014 01:07pm ET | Updated June 15, 2014
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Though by the thermometer it may not feel like spring, by the calendar spring has arrived. The ritual of spring cleaning has a long history. I can still see my mother wearing her 1940's housewifely apron, the symbol for making everything "spick and span" as well as doing the deep cleaning.

Those of us who live in the northern tier of the country change our closets as part of the spring regimen: from winter clothes to spring and summer.

We throw open windows and doors breathing deeply to experience the sun-warmed air of spring, exhaling the dead old winter air. We feel new ourselves as we inhale the soft, fresh air of spring..

Spring cleaning in the Jewish tradition is linked to the holiday of Passover. Every cupboard, every drawer, must be cleaned of "chametz" leavened products) as preparation for the holiday celebrating the exodus and freedom. Understood metaphorically we are preparing ourselves for new life, the promise of spring, emptying ourselves of the accumulated puffiness of leaven, arrogance and pride. We ready ourselves for the new life of spring cleansing our souls as we do our clothes and kitchens. Though I am no expert about the Christian tradition, I think the coming of spring portends rebirth and renewed life, symbolized by the resurrection, and prepared for with the traditions of Lent.

In Your Legacy Matters, Chapter 10, "Cleaning out Your Closet", is about prioritizing our material possessions through the perspective of legacy: "... the stuff we've been given, that we've gathered and collected, and haven't given, recycled, or thrown away." In this context spring cleaning means to differentiate the stuff that has meaning -- things we inherited, mementos, and gifts: our objects infused with meaning that are symbols of our identity, our values, our relationships - from those things that we've accumulated though they have no special meaning.

"To change skins, evolve into new cycles, I feel one has to learn to discard
....I throw away what has no dynamic, living use."
-- Anaïs Nin

Spring cleaning time is as good as any to get started. I believe we have a responsibility to clean up our inner and outer stuff. Although the outer stuff may be easier to deal with, they are related, not separate.

Looking through the lens of legacy, this is about respecting the next generation who will have to clean up after us when we're gone. "I've imagined dying suddenly and watching from somewhere as my two children wander through the morass of my things: papers, books, pictures, collections, and accumulated mementos. Not only is it an unfair burden to leave them, but my stuff makes a statement about me."

"I ask myself, 'How will they know the junk from the stuff with meaning? What might they conclude about their mother who held on too long and too much?' I imagine their resentment -- being left to go through my things because I didn't take the responsibility to leave life expressing what 'I say' I value, including simplicity, order, and beauty."

One caveat about the value of our possessions: When elders make the complex transition of moving from independent living to communal housing, their stuff can help maintain coherence and continuity of identity.

"This special stuff is emblematic of belonging, kinship, and relationship, all basic and universal human needs throughout life. Precious objects are reminders of life history, achievements and life roles; they support security and the dignity of each individual's life. Even when memory fades, this special stuff can provide comfort."

So as we spring clean, we can note and make a list of those few things that we would want to accompany us should we have to move from our homes. We don't want to say what my friend's mother did looking around the unfamiliar room that was to be her new home: "I feel like a refugee."

Suggestions for Action:

1. Reflect about your memories of spring cleaning from your childhood. Then think about what spring cleaning might mean to you today as you change closets, clean out cupboards and drawers awake to the metaphors of spring.
2. Meander through the rooms of your home making a list of at least ten things you want to recycle or get rid of this spring. Make a second list of five to ten of your most precious possessions. Write about the meaning of each.
3. Write a legacy letter to those you love explaining what your valuable things mean to you, and your preference to have hem accompany you should you have to move to a smaller living space. (If those are things that you want specific people to inherit when you are gone, make that clear in the letter, too.)
4. Make a commitment to yourself to stay awake to the meaning of your spring cleaning as you do it this year and journal about any insights you have about yourself or your things.

May you be blessed with the courage
to let go of the stuff that has no
and with the time to share your
stories of stuff and spring cleaning
with those you love,

Rachael Freed

NEW: Webinar Workshop May 20, 6-8:15 CDT "Writing Love Letters to our Children." Contact Rachael for more information and registration "Your Legacy Matters" is now available everywhere. 2012 editions also available of "Women's Lives, Women's Legacies, Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations", "The Legacy Workbook for the Busy Woman," "Heartmates: A Guide for the Partner and Family of the Heart Patient," and "The Heartmates Journal." (All legacy books are available as pdf's on Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, Rachael is a clinical social worker, adult educator. She provides programs, workshops, and training for financial, health, and religious organizations focused on legacy principles and practices. She has seven grandchildren. Her home is Minneapolis, Minn.