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Personal Spring Cleaning

After living on the west coast for a number of years, the ritual of “spring cleaning” practiced by many in the Midwest and the East is a faded memory. But for many people in the country, warmer weather in the spring means opening the doors and windows that were shut all winter to keep out the cold. Once open, it’s time for things to move in and out more easily – sweeping the dust out the door and letting the new warm fragrant breeze in. It can also be a good time for home maintenance like re-painting walls, bringing in new furnishings, or cleaning out things to give away to charity. Spring cleaning is an annual ritual that makes a home feel revived and refreshed in a way people often find invigorating. While we’ll let Martha Stewart teach us how to do that literally, there is also a figurative way that people can do spring cleaning psychologically.

Last year, in the Spring, I was recovering from treatment for cancer. After 7 weeks of daily radiation therapy, which started in the dead of winter, I finished the treatment just as Spring had begun. How appropriate, I thought, that the treatment came to a close just as Nature was giving us all a sense of rebirth. Spring has been marked as a time of renewal since the ancient times. Some Pagan cultures observe the holiday of Beltane (May 1st), practicing rituals to celebrate a time of year of widespread fertility, re-emerging plants, blooming flowers, and new births. Later traditions observe Easter, a time of “rebirth” and “resurrection” in Christianity. The popular “Easter Bunny” comes from the prolific fertility that rabbits are known for in the Spring.

When someone is living with HIV and there is a long winter of cold nights and short days, it’s easy to feel like there is much darkness. Our selves hibernate and stagnate just trying to get through it. But Spring can be a time of re-invention for ourselves, of re-discovery of the parts that were in “cold storage”. It’s a time for asking questions about what kinds of changes would represent a mental “spring cleaning” for our minds that would make living with HIV easier. For example, what kind of image of my body can I visualize and adopt to motivate me to exercise now that it’s warm enough be outside? What kind of healthy new habit can I start, such as eating more fresh produce to reduce triglycerides, fat and cholesterol, and increase antioxidant nutrients? What one harmful thing (stress, smoking, fatty foods, overwork) can I eliminate from my week? What resentments and old hurts can I sweep out my mind’s door so that I’m a little less careworn? What long-neglected but positive trait in my personality needs to be revisited and reinvigorated, like giving something a fresh coat of paint? If I came out of my shell the way a butterfly comes out of a cocoon in the Spring, what would I do? The answers to these questions are highly personal and individual. They might not be noticed or have meaning to anyone but ourselves. They can be public changes, such as new clothes (an Easter bonnet, perhaps?), a new hairdo, or redecorating where we live, or they can be changes in our internal life and perspective that only we know, but others perceive later.

Spring cleaning this year might help us to have a winter next year that accumulates less “psychological dust”. When you examine the parts of yourself that you want to change, how can you sustain that change? Do you need support from others? Who? What would you ask them to say or do that means support to you? In preparation for next winter, what do you want to do differently? What visual reminders will you need during the summer and fall to keep that state of mind fresh? I have a plant that someone gave me during the height of my cancer treatment. I remember receiving it on a day I wasn’t feeling good, and it was such a welcome gift. I remember thinking then and wondering when I would ever feel “normal” again. Now, since thankfully I do feel “normal” again, whenever I go outside to water it, that plant serves as a visual reminder to appreciate that feeling all the more, and puts the “small stuff” (and to quote the wonderful therapist and author, Richard Carlson, “it’s all small stuff”) in perspective. Any small object or picture can serve as a reminder to keep us focused on our positive goals and mentally free of “dust”.

Spring can also be a time of forgiveness. With longer days of sun and warmth, there is a certain “olley olley oxen free” message from Nature that it’s OK to come out from hibernation again and safely explore the world around us. What personal and psychological hibernation of the recent months or years can you come out from? Letting go of old, unuseful hurts and disappointments can be very liberating. Diana Ross sang a great song of self-affirmation when she said, “If living for myself is what I’m guilty of, go on and sentence me, I’ll still be free; It’s my turn, to see what I can see, I hope you’ll understand, this time’s just for me”. How long has it been since you said that to yourself? And if you said it to yourself now, what would you do? By practicing the “spring cleaning of the mind”, the possibilities are endless.

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