Empty Nexter: The difficult decision to prune (your life)

By Carrie Perrien Smith

Each spring, my Japanese maple looks like a teenager with thick, wavy hair who is long overdue for a haircut.

It can manage that extra fullness, but it looks a lot nicer when the excess growth is trimmed. It is also healthier and more productive when its resources are dedicated to a few healthy branches rather than everything it grew over the year.

That’s true about our lives too. In fact, there is much to learn through this pruning process that we can apply to our lives.

Trees Require Occasional Pruning

pruningTrimming and thinning my Japanese maple gives me some time to reflect. I’ve often heard that still quiet voice while looking up from under a four-foot canopy of those delicate green leaves. I start at the base because the easy answers are located there. I work my way up to the tougher pruning decisions.

The beautiful thing is that you can recover from mistakes. If I trim the wrong branch too much, I get another chance next year. I’ve learned a lot about the tree’s growth habits too. Even though the smaller branches that grow downward are beautiful, too many of them drag the main branches down.

And those awkward ones that shoot straight up — those are where the growth is. Some branches look silly today but by leaving the right ones, I’m preparing the tree for a healthier, more beautiful shape in the future.

Pruning Our Life is Important Too

It seems like the first half of our life is about adding things — acquiring the education, the career, the spouse, the home, the pets, the kids, the community activities.

There are chances to prune along the way — the friends who didn’t fit our life after we got married; the old jobs, cars, and houses; the people we dated. We don’t realize we were pruning because those changes usually come in the form of replacements. We get new relationships, cars, and jobs. Replacing doesn’t teach us much about pruning or preparing for the challenge of it.

The First Cut is the Deepest

In what I consider to be the second half of my life, I worry that I will squander the time I have left. I want to not only make a difference but also have fun and take risks. The empty nest opened up the opportunity to do new things over the last two years but not necessarily the time.

Pruning my life was unfamiliar territory. Who ever thought that I would run for political office, host a radio show, or sing in a rock band?

Those opportunities came along after we accepted the time and financial commitment of buying a project house. Once we moved, I saw the need to serve for my community not visible from my vantage point in my old neighborhood. Joining my husband’s band came later that year.

Pruning isn’t always a “cut and dried” decision. I’m self-employed and office from home, so my personal and professional activities bleed together. And is the band a hobby or a business? Community and family responsibilities require my availability at inconsistent times. That is hard to predict and challenging to schedule.

And now my time-management strategy is ruined: I’ve discovered that I can no longer wait to sleep when I’m dead. I’ve lost those extra late-night hours in my day because a woman of a certain age requires more rest. Bummer.

So reluctantly, I must prune. All these activities are worthwhile but time-consuming.

I must prune in my business too. I not only run a speaker bureau and publishing company, I host this radio show. To fully monetize it, I need to manage the radio show as a separate business. And that project house? Here’s the deal. We didn’t sell our original house so that meant renting it. We also owned three residential lots we purchased in a bankruptcy auction. We intended to build on one and sell the other two. The neighborhood sat stagnant for two years and we decided to buy a short-sale instead. That was five properties that needed mowing, repair, and marketing. That is not a passive activity. That is a business. So last year, I finally realized I run three businesses.


The pruning process has begun. The economy is improving so we were able to sell all three residential lots last year — even the one we wanted to build on. Hopefully we’ll be able to sell our original house when the current tenants are ready to move in a year or so. The project house still bleeds my time and our bank account. It is a great investment but it’s not a practical house for a couple nearing retirement. I’ve shortened our six-year plan to repair and sell it to four years. At that time, we are going to build something that meets our specifications before we move in.

I reluctantly pruned a lot of my community activities too. I’m proud of my ten-year résumé of leadership roles with eighteen non-profits. However, retiring from most of the activities in the last three years allowed me to pursue serving my community as an elected official. Just the process to get elected required so much time to campaign, only to lose the election. I learned so much though, and I’m ready to try again.

I’m also pruning those hobbies. My aging knees are influencing my decision to retire the do-it-yourself/home-improvement hobby after this project house is complete. I’m not as young as I used to be. My life has changed too. It’s a safe bet that I won’t be doing handcrafts or art in the near future; maybe never again. I probably should give my art supplies to a young art student who can’t afford her own. I’ve accepted I won’t ever assemble all those quilt tops I’ve made into a finished quilt. I’m going to give away my fabric stash and pay someone to machine quilt the existing quilt tops for me.

My photography is digital now too, so I’m going to sell my old 35mm camera. I loved that camera and we traveled thousands of miles together and recorded twenty years of my life’s milestones. And as much as I enjoyed making Halloween costumes over the years, I’m going to get rid of all but a few of them. I might need a costume when the band plays for a Halloween party.

My kitchen is changing too. I’m getting rid of most of my cookbooks. With my food allergies, I have to develop my own recipes and there are so many resources online now. And I’m taking a hard look at what I really use. I’m admittedly struggling with turning loose of the complete collection of Muppet glasses I collected at McDonald’s in the early 1980s. Must. Let. Go. The same goes for the forty custard dishes that were old when I bought them at my great uncle’s estate sale. The only time they’ve been out of the cabinet is to move from house to house. Five times now. Someone surfing eBay will love them.

So Will I Make a Mistake in This Pruning Process?

Yes, I will make mistakes. I will give away something that my daughter will need eventually. I will return to a hobby and need some gadget I no longer have. But I will remember that what I gave away got another life with someone who truly needed it and uses it all the time.

And most likely, I will be able to find another one at the store. I can probably even find another set of Muppet glasses on eBay.

As hard as this process is, I’m reminded that pruning will prepare my life for a more beautiful and healthy future. What do you need to prune?

Carrie Perrien Smith-51-Twitter-SquareCarrie Perrien Smith is mama to Darcie and a pack of black dogs (Snappy, Jazmin, and Midgieboy — in pack order), grandma to Robert, wife to world-traveler and Walmart-blue-bleeding Tom, daughter to Wayne and Phyllis, speaker bureau and publishing company owner, Business: Engaged! small business radio show host, community activist, singer in a party band, and home improvement junkie. Follow her on Twitter @soarwitheagles or contact her at carrie@soarhigher.com.