Fourteen bags.

I can’t believe it. There are fourteen trash bags piled up in my living room, filled to the brim with all of the crap in my life that I’m suddenly realizing I don’t need.

Okay, maybe crap is too strong a word. I’ve hauled this stuff back and forth for years, first letting it fill up my bedroom, then dragging it into not one, not two, but four different dorm rooms. I stuffed half of it into my car when I did a summer internship in DC, then retrieved the remaining half and more when I landed a full-time gig in Baltimore.

Here’s the thing. My apartment is small. I’m fortunate not to have to share it with a roommate, but even with just my stuff, it’s a tight fit. Or at least, it was.

This weekend I decided that I need to breathe. So I started going through everything that I own—yes, every single thing—and decide what do I actually need. The answer, it turns out, is not much.

This came, comes, as a complete shock to me. You see, I’m the sentimental type. Don’t look at me like that. Yes, I’m a girl, but even among girls, I assign meaning to more than most. I’m not just talking about the doll my step-father gave me a couple weeks after Mom brought him home, the composition notebook I turned into my first diary, the sappy letters I exchanged with my first boyfriend, or my acceptance letter into James Madison University. Of course I’d assign value to those things. Even if someone else may not be compelled to keep them, they at least understand why I would be.

No, I’m talking about the gym t-shirt I wore when I finally ran the entire mile without stopping, the white pants my sister gave me that I managed to spill an entire glass of red wine on, a torn Gilmore Girls poster, and a couple receipts to books that I loved but somehow managed to lose track of (seriously, I don’t know how that happened). These were all old, worn out things that I knew I should get ride of, but I lugged them around every time I moved.

Only now, I can’t do it anymore.

My life, it’s just, I can’t breathe.

I’m a teacher. Not just any teacher, an inner city teacher. Recruiters came to my school looking to find desperate and hopeful youth to come teach urban kids. Needing the money and figuring I had to start my career off somewhere, I signed up for the chance.

Now I find myself standing at the front of a classroom filled to the brim with students, and while most of them want to learn, I don’t know what to say to those that don’t.

The more frustrated I get, the more time I spend between classes organizing the room. I rearrange desks. I get papers together. I look for the perfect arrangement of posters on the wall. And during all of that, I clean. I sweep the floors, polish surfaces, and wash the chalkboard. Do I need to? No. But by the time the next batch of kids walk in, I find myself better prepared for them.

And now, I figure I should bring this same approach home. If it can empower me there, than it can do so here. I hope so, anyway. I can’t take control of my life if I don’t even feel in control of the things I own.

So I’m confronting all of my stuff. And that means confronting my past.

Most of it is stuffed in the fourteen trash bags filling up my living room. An old pair of shoes sticks out of one, and while it still fits just fine, it’s been abused down to the point where I’m even too embarrassed to wear them in private, forget going outside. They aren’t connected to any monumental event. I’ve just had them for eight years. That’s almost a decade! Anything I’ve had for that long has to be worth something, right?

But when I tossed the shoes into a trash bag, I felt such a weight lift off my shoulders. When I followed them up with a dozen old T-shirts, some extravagant dresses my younger (yes, younger) sister handed up to me, and panties with animals on them that still fit, I felt even lighter.

It was as if with each item I relinquished, so went a wave of extra responsibility. I’m an adult now, with an overabundance of tasks all pulling at my time. I don’t need to add on to that with the burden of everything I carry from my childhood and the emotional baggage that goes along with it. It’s time I put them down.

I’ve gone through every room of the apartment, clearing out closets, drawers, cabinets, shelves, bags, and storage containers. I even cleared out the junk in my car. It was cathartic, letting go of purchases that had outlived their value, gifts that I (guiltily) never really liked, and important-seeming papers that I’ve never looked at longer than the time it took to decide that maybe they were important.

Two at a time, I haul the bags out to my car, managing to get everything out in just two trips. When I return, the apartment feels empty. There’s so much space. It feels as though my apartment has gained an extra 500 square feet.

Standing at the front door still, I feel as I though I could do anything. I had imagined few things could be more difficult than clearing out my possessions, and yet I have managed to get through it without shedding a single tear. Me, sentimental, over-attached, little me.

Suddenly I’m overcome by the same feeling that sweeps over me just before my next class is about to begin. I don’t know what to expect, but I’ve just cleaned, and I have only four words to say to myself.

I can do this.