Let me start out by saying that Fay Schmitt is one very smart lady. Many of you know her as Snookie, and she was one of Norma Sevel’s best friends for a very long time. It was Snookie who helped smooth Norma’s transition from her beloved New York to Central Pennsylvania when she and Bernie married. And that included helping Norma understand the local lingo, fondly known as Pittsburghese.
As Snookie told the story at Norma’s 85th birthday party in our social hall a couple of years back, she early on had Norma flummoxed by her use of a phrase that’s pretty common around here. She said she couldn’t go out with Norma just at that moment, because she was in the middle of redding up her house. Redd up the house? You know, said Snookie. Redd up your house. Tidy things up. That’s the way we say it here.
It’s one of those many colloquial expressions that pop up in conversation. Like “Yinz better redd up the dining room and put out the chipped ham whenever company comes.” Like that.
I’m particularly fond of the “redd up” phrase. To me it sounds like a shorthand for “get things ready” or, even better, “get yourself ready.” Because today, on Yom Kippur, our focus is not on redding up the room, but redding up our lives.
Let’s be clear. This is not going to happen in a day – even on this holiest day. Yom Kippur – the entire Ten Days of Awe, really – is designed only to give us a time and a place to start. Prayers to openly acknowledge our failings. Music to fill our hearts with gratitude at being part of this Temple family – a family that’s here for us even with all of our flaws. Time for silence, to contemplate where we are and where we want to be.
But when it comes to actually implementing a plan to tidy ourselves up, well, that’s up to each of us.
Fortunately, there’s never a shortage of self-help advice in pop culture. And the current craze for redding up is called the KonMari method. It comes from a best-seller called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo. Now, it makes sense that this should be so popular in Japan, where tiny living is not a choice but a necessity. These days, Japanese architects are building on odd parcels of city land as small as 300 square feet, with the task of making the homes as airy as possible.
But KonMari has become an obsession all over the world. And I think it’s because the message is universal. KonMari focuses not only on relieving clutter but also the emotional baggage that results from it: tension, lack of focus, frustration, even anger and resentment. And the author herself is aware of the implications:
“From the moment you start tidying,” she writes, “you will be compelled to re-set your life. As a result, your life will start to change. That’s why the task of putting your house in order should be done quickly. It allows you to confront the issues that are really important. Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.”
Tidying is a just a tool, not the final destination. And it has both a physical and an emotional element to it. It’s a parallel to our engagement with ourselves, our bodies and our souls, on Yom Kippur.
To put this physical challenge in its emotional context, we turn to Christiane Northrop, a physician who dispenses health and wellness tips in books, on TV and on the web. She’s a big fan of the KonMari method and suggests three main steps:
First, ask yourself: WHAT DOES YOUR CLUTTER SYMBOLIZE
Second: LIGHTEN UP what you have
And third: VISUALIZE YOUR NEXT STEP
First things first: What does your life’s clutter symbolize? Dr. Northrop says it makes sense to see where it is, what it is, and what it means.
If our main living spaces are a mess, for example, maybe we are trying to hide ourselves from the world, because no one will be welcome there. If we stuff things into closets, maybe we are unable to really see ourselves as we are, hiding things away from sight. If we clutter the bathroom, maybe that’s a sign that we lack self-worth, because that should be a space of both privacy and luxury. And dumping everything in the garage, to the point where we can’t get our cars in and out easily, may be a sign we are having difficult moving on with our lives. Maybe it’s due to a trauma, or a loss, or just plain exhaustion. But all of these places of clutter tell us something about what’s getting us stuck.
Marie Kondo says the first step to understanding the emotional clutter is to put all the physical clutter in one place. Clear out every room and really look at what we’ve accumulated. As she puts it, “There are three approaches we can take toward our possessions: face them now, face them sometime, or avoid them until the day we die. The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”
So let’s say we face them now. What are we likely to see? My guess is that it’s a lot of stuff that contain memories of people and places in our past who may not be part of our present. Maybe it’s a favorite shirt that belonged to an ex-boyfriend. There’s a good reason he’s an “ex” – but the shirt may remind us that we had good times too, that the relationship was not a complete mistake. A photo album full of pictures of a neglectful, or even abusive, parent reminds us that this person’s life was not all bad. We might keep the photo as a way of saying kaddish for someone when we cannot bring ourselves to actually recite the words.
I was really glad, after my father’s death, to discover he’d kept a few things from each of our childhoods. I have my baby book, old Polaroid pictures, a letter to me as a newborn from his boss, about what kind of dad I had. A couple of the birthday and fathers’ day cards I hand made for him. A few report cards, where I can see that my verbal skills have always been good, and my handwriting has always been rubbish.
It’s all in a little box I keep in my office at home, within easy reach when I need my dad close. But a few things are just enough to help me jog the memories. If I kept too much, I wouldn’t be able to sort out what’s really important. And I wouldn’t be able to find what I want, when I want it.
We all, I think, tend to hang onto the past in some way. Maybe we’re trying to keep children as babies, when they were dependent on us. Or keep our aging parents as young and vibrant, when they were not dependent on us. Or maybe, like me, we hang on to old clothes from when we were younger and thinner. But as Marie teaches, “The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.”
So we have to make choices. We have to take the next step and LIGHTEN UP.
But here, too, there’s a really important emotional component to the KonMari method. Because it teaches us to focus, not on what we get rid of, but on what we want to keep. It’s not about what we lose. It’s about what we re-discover.
So here’s how we do that. We pick up each item, one by one. We hold it. We stroke it. And we ask ourselves: Do we love it? Does it spark joy? If yes, keep it. If not, let it go.
I can’t imagine there’s a person in this room tonight who isn’t holding onto something that has outlived its usefulness. It might be a grudge against somebody who said something unpleasant. Or bottled-up anger against a slight, whether it was intentional or not.
Did somebody else take credit for a project you worked so hard on? Or did you have to do more than your fair share? Are you still thinking about a mistake you made six months ago, when everybody else has forgotten about it? Are you feeling ignored by your spouse, or disrespected by your children? Does it sometimes bring you to the verge of tears to think about it? Do they even know?
Chances are the other person isn’t even aware of what he or she has done, or at least what it’s done to you – because most of us walk away from a confrontation or a bad experience. We simply swallow the bad feelings, and then they sit like a rough pebble in the pit of our stomach. Because we think – probably incorrectly – that it’s easier to try and ignore it, or internalize it, than to have the conversation about it. Not accusing, not blaming – but simply explaining you how feel.
And now you’re faced with this question: Do you love that feeling? Does it spark joy? Is this the way you really want to live?
Answering those questions is really important today, of all days. We use rituals during these Days of Awe, to symbolically rid ourselves of what we no longer need or want. We cast our bread on the water, to wash away the sins. We beat our chests at each admission in “al chet” litany of shortcomings. Many of us, if we can, fast, to purge our bodies as a symbol of the way we can purge unhappy thoughts, and disrespectful words, and destructive behavior.
But Yom Kippur also calls on us to go beyond the rituals and symbols – and to really let go of the anger, and the grudges, even if we do not feel appeased. A traditional Yom Kippur prayer called the T’fillah Zakah reads, in part:
I extend complete forgiveness to everyone who has gossiped about me or even slandered me. So, too, to anyone who has injured me, whether physically or financially, and for any human sins between a person and their neighbor . . . I grant complete forgiveness.
Granted, true reconciliation is still the goal – so much so that the tradition also speaks of two friends on Erev Yom Kippur, standing face to face and asking each other for forgiveness – even if the offense was only perceived, or unintentional.
But I think the author of T’fillah Zakah recognized that, in reality, this often doesn’t happen. A lot of the time, we just need to act on our own. Because when we leave the break-the-fast tomorrow and head back to real life, we really do not want to go back to a messy house, full of all the stuff that’s suffocating us.
Redding up our lives requires facing all that stuff, keeping only what brings us joy, and letting go of the rest. Only then can we move to the third and final step: VISUALIZING OUR NEW LIVES. The future as we want it to be.
Dr. Northrop encourages us to be very explicit about this. It can’t be just: I want to be a better person. We have to have a specific path, and set ourselves specific tasks, to make that happen.
And here too, Yom Kippur shows us the way, in the two Torah readings we will share tomorrow. The reading from Deuteronomy, Nitzavim, gives us the general outline, the mitzvah of being ready to act on God’s behalf. I think it’s where we stand after the purge. Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem: You stand here, all of you today!.”
But the Holiness code from Leviticus is very detailed in laying out a path for the future. It models for us proper behavior at home and at work, in public and in private. Do not steal. Do not cheat. Do not lie. Do not defraud your neighbor. Do not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. Do not reap everything you can from your vineyards and fields – the corners belong to the poor.
Every single one of the Torah’s specific examples from thousands of years ago translates into what we do today. And every single one of them is a reminder that the best way to rid ourselves of clutter – is not to hoard it in the first place. The best way to make amends – is to be more careful about what we say and what we do, to start with. Chances are, we are going to mess up. We are going to let the clutter creep back in. And we’re going to have to do this all over again a year from now. But maybe then the clutter will be a little less overwhelming, the purging will be a little less painful, and the spark of joy will come a little bit easier.
Marie Kondo warns us that the path on which we embark tonight will not be an easy one. “The process of facing and selecting our possessions can be quite painful,” she writes. “It forces us to confront our imperfections and inadequacies and the foolish choices we have made in the past.”
But the fact of the matter is that we cannot get to step three – visualizing our future and making it real – without confronting our past and purging ourselves of that which no longer sparks joy. And if we can embrace that spark in ourselves, we will be a light – a veritable beacon – of joy for others.
May the journey on which we embark tonight lead us to such a future. May the act of redding up our own lives inspire others to do the same. May this be God’s will and our own, as we say together: Amen.
©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin