Creating a Life Free From Chaos

No Shame: God, Decluttering, and Letting Go

This is a guest post by Melissa Joan Walker.Last week, I spent three hours decluttering my bookshelves. I culled four grocery bags of books to sell or donate. Many of the books were arty, French novels or experimental novels from my time in grad school.

It was hard to let go of the arty French novels and keep the more banal novels that I have actually loved. It was hard to let go of something that used to be important to me, but that I never really loved.

When we let go of our old stuff, what are we really letting go of?

The backstory: On our first date, when I told my husband that my dad worked in a factory, he assumed that I meant my dad MANAGED a factory. He thought I was pretty and well-spoken. After all, I had made the financially unsound decision to go to grad school for art, when only a rich person would make such a foolish decision. Only a person with a trust fund, he thought, would go to art school.

But my dad worked on the factory floor. He wore steel toed, non-skid shoes and a hairnet to work. He worked second shift every day, 3 pm – 11 pm on a dangerous line where one wrong move could cost someone a couple fingers.

We only saw him on the weekends. Often after work, he’d buy us McDonald’s or biscuits from KFC or a loaf of Hawaiian bread from the grocery store, and we’d wake up to a note on an index card on the kitchen counter, that said, “Kids – Please share. I love you. Xoxo, Dad.”

My mom worked in a hardware store, and then a Walgreens, and she wanted me to work in an office, I think. I imagined my life stretching out before me like this: Working as a secretary, married to a boy from down the street and then sitting at the dining room table drinking Miller Lite complaining about my husband for the rest of my life. Kill me now, I thought.

I was afraid that if I learned to type, I’d get a job at the local college and be NEAR college students and never BE ONE of them.

But I worked and got loans and when I moved across the country to go to a liberal arts college on scholarships and financial aid, I LIVED A DIFFERENT LIFE. I did a lot of independent study with my professors. I studied experimental documentary and literature and art.

I read and I read and I read, and I kept a video diary and I wore costumes almost every day. I dated an arty boy who wore horn-rimmed glasses and dressed like he was from the 1950s and took amazing photographs.

At least once a day someone stopped me on the street to tell me that I was beautiful. I was terrified, but, hey, I looked decent and I was living the life of my dreams.

I had created this life out of thin air.

After I graduated, I was working in a coffee shop again – just like I had been before I left to go to college. So I decided to apply to grad school. I’d never shown anyone my writing before – not really – but I applied to a great writing program and I got in. I showed up in fancy stockings, with a fancy hairdo, ready to BECOME AN ARTIST.

So, these french novels I let go of this week were hard-won. And it’s hard to let go of an old self, of paths I didn’t take.

Why is it so hard to let go of the past?

Now: As I drop these french novels into grocery bags, I find that I have been living my life like it’s a choose-your-own-adventure novel like the other routes are potential paths from my past and that some of my energy is still tied up there.

The hard thing about letting go of those French novels is part of me pipes up and says, Oh, you mean I’m NOT going to move to New York when I’m 21 and be an artist?

News flash: I’m 43.

To that part of myself, I say, as gently as possible: Honey, no. You’re not going to move to New York when you’re 21.

I can let go of these old paths.

Maybe next lifetime. Maybe reincarnation will turn out to be a real thing. Who knows.

But the thing is, I haven’t read those novels in a long time.

I’m afraid to tell you this. I’m afraid you’ll think it means I’m not arty anymore, or I’m not creative, or I’m just not SMART ENOUGH to like those experimental novels. You may be right.

But my real problem is not that I’m afraid of what you’ll think – no, I’m afraid of what I’ll think. I’m afraid of disappointing myself. It’s that old devil – shame.

Shame is the idea that whatever I am is worse than whatever I COULD HAVE BEEN.

It’s shame when I am married more to my past-potential-self than my REAL LIFE, TODAY self. When I prefer some old idea of a self that I never quite was to the real, today self who I actually AM.

I thought it’d be so hard to let go of those novels. And it was hard to get them out of the house, but now that they’re gone, I find there’s more room here. There’s more air, and more energy for my goals TODAY.

And look at me: I’m not a secretary, but I’m typing for a living. Still. So maybe some destinies are inescapable. When he was four years old, my son would try to convince me to do things by saying, “It’s your destiny.” Maybe he was right.

God has made me into the person I am.

Not a smarter, artier girl. Not a girl who wakes up with makeup perfectly done and who miraculously avoids the inevitability of aging. God made ME with all my likes and dislikes, my preferences and my goals.

When I reject this self, my actual self, I am rejecting God, and then I am truly lost.

What’s ONE THING you need to let go of from your past in order to be more who you are TODAY?

Let me know in the comments.

Let’s start letting go.

Melissa Joan Walker’s writing has appeared in several outlets, including the Denver Quarterly; Sentence; Banshee; theNewerYork; After Hours; Orion Headless; Parable Press; Ignavia; Wunderkammer Poetry; Disembodied Text; Yes, Poetry; Split Rock Review; Tablet and on the Manifest-Station. She holds an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and lives in Portland, OR, with her family. Melissa blogs about spirituality at

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18 Replies

  1. Thank you for sharing about your decluttering journey and letting go of the past, Melissa. I’m in a different stage of life as an “empty nester.” I’ll always be a mom, but my job description has changed. As much as I loved being a homeschooling mom, it’s been a while and time for me to let go and find a home for a lot of those books. Thanks for reminding me it’s time to let go.

    1. Kathy — As our roles change, we will always have more to clear from the past, huh? It’s hard to let go of parts of our lives that we really loved — for you the homeschooling materials, for me the arty novels. So, I kept a couple french novels, just not ALL of them! Good luck with your decluttering.

  2. Katie Brick

    This is a great piece – I am READY TO DECLUTTER – and letting go of books is just about the hardest for me. I took home three full boxes of books related to my industry when I left my job last week.
    This has me thinking about which of those books in those boxes I actually need at my house. Thanks!

    1. Books are some of the hardest for me, too, Katie! They are such a part of my identity. When we moved into a much smaller home a couple years ago, I had to let go of so many books. I told myself I’d let myself re-buy anything I really needed again, and I’ve only repurchased two. And then I donated them without reading them!

  3. The bad memories of my earlier life. They weren’t “horrible” but they still rear their ugly heads sometimes and mar the me that exists today. I have greatly decluttered, but I know there is more. Papers, mostly. Recently I went thru my oldest photo albums and emptied them – most were sliding out of their so-called magnetic pages anyway. I threw away everything I really no longer care about – pix of somebody’s baby and I don’t know whose! Out of focus shots. Duplicates. I put some aside for other people, and I even mailed a few to people who might want them (my former best friend who died – pix sent to her daughter). Everything I kept is all in a couple of big envelopes. Not enough energy to re-do albums right now, but at least I cleared a shelf.

    1. I really like when you said:
      “Shame is the idea that whatever I am is worse than whatever I COULD HAVE BEEN.

      It’s shame when I am married more to my past-potential-self than my REAL LIFE, TODAY self. When I prefer some old idea of a self that I never quite was to the real, today self who I actually AM.”

      1. Thank you, Sharon. Yes. We’re good enough. Just as we are. It’s so hard to just let ourselves off the hook and appreciate what we are doing and who we are right now. Today.

  4. Beth

    I enjoy the freedom of very little stuff when staying at the lake. It’s so freeing and I feel I can breathe and think better away from the life long collection of belongings I’ve accumulated at home. . I’m tackling and contemplating my mom’s stuff now that’s she’s passed on and asking myself the whys about each item I elect to keep. It’s a long process filled with tons of memories (good and bad) but I’m ready to be free from my “burden of belongings” and know that reflecting on the meaning of stuff as I go through this process will deliver a more joyful, less stressed me.

    1. Beth — I love staying in hotels for the same reason — oh, the blankness of the space. So nice. Just a bed, a window, a chair, and then my clothes for the weekend and the book I brought. Ahhh. The process of going through your mom’s things sounds so emotional. Really we want the person, and we just end up with all this stuff. It’s hard to know what to keep. A long process, like you said, with a lot of “emotional decluttering” built into the journey.

  5. Loved your post. And most of the time when I hear stories of people who have released their grip on their things they do experience freedom, more air, as you stated. But throw one time when you got rid of something prematurely, and then found out you needed it and well, the decluttering gets harder. I mean…you remember that thing you got rid of and you shouldn’t have…We all know what those voices are like. It’s time for another round of thinning out things I don’t need. This post served as a good reminder.

  6. Yes, Anne. It’s easier to realize I’ve “decluttered something” prematurely when I can just re-purchase it — a kitchen gadget I thought I didn’t need, or a book it turns out I want to read again — but much harder when the item is irreplaceable. It takes a fair amount of prayer for me when I am decluttering, just to know it’s ok. I’ll be fine no matter what. Prayer helps. And deep breathing!

  7. Wonderful read. So true. I really wasn’t who God made me until I really gave my life to Jesus and got rid of the fake me. Striving to be in the world … too stressful. Living to be in His Kingdom. Peace.

    1. Janis — I’m so glad you found a path that works for you.

  8. Steph

    Great post! I don’t believe in god, but I believe in decluttering and this post resonates with me. I do live in New York and I am a writer, but I’m not where I thought I would be at this age (54). My middle-aged artist friends and I sit around talking about this: too-high NYC rents and hustling to get more gigs and raise our writing/acting/painting/performing profiles so we don’t have to move. But mostly, we discuss how to reconcile our age with our art and our younger-self expectations of where we thought we would be now v. our current reality.

    1. Yes, those old expectations — comparing ourself to ourself — can be so painful. Hardly any of our lives are a “success” when compared against an imaginary standard of perfection!

  9. Gloria Ferguson

    I am happy that you did not wind up in New York for I doubt you would have met and married my son and become part of my family. I love you.

    1. Thanks, Gloria. It’s good I let go of that dream. Other good things have taken its place!

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