The Clean Slate Mentality

As 2012 winds down and we prepare to scribble through it and write “2013 – oops!” on our checks for the next month or so, it seems that now would be a good time to talk about the “clean slate” mentality that ought to be so refreshing, yet so often stands as a horrible obstacle to getting anything done at all.

Life is messy.

The end of one year and the start of a new one is no more than the act of exhaling and inhaling, something we do unconsciously, countless times each day. There is nothing magical about midnight’s approach on December 31, except that we make it so. The new year stands before us, unwritten and full of promise. Just like it did on July 7 or August 12 or any other day, really. And we’ll still have bills due in January for goods bought and services rendered in 2012 – if not in 2002. Shoot, the average home mortgage runs 15 to 30 years! There’s no “wiping the slate clean” in life.

But there is a sense of forgiveness, of “letting go,” of leaving past mistakes behind in the promises of an infinite number of newer, more exciting mistakes to be made. Seriously, that clean slate is overrated. A clean slate isn’t fulfilling its purpose. It’s only when it is full of scribbles, words, and ideas that it can be all that it was meant to be. And in turn, the eraser that’s not covered in chalk dust isn’t doing its job, either. But somewhere in between, learning and life and experience happen – it’s a cycle, just like breathing, and it happens every moment of every day we live.

Sometimes, the clean slate mentality creeps in and becomes a page – our acts envisioned in indelible ink. Failure, mistakes, and tentative scribbles give us the urge to crumple the day like a piece of paper – to throw it into the trash and, like Scarlett O’Hara, “think about that tomorrow, for tomorrow is another day!” Instead of shrugging our shoulders, forgiving ourselves and others for being a little like a kindergartner’s coloring book or a teenager’s messy closet, we sometimes try to sweep the day under the mental rug, sleep it off, and wake to the promise of a new one.

“Live each day as if it were your last” isn’t terrible advice, here, but it has always struck me as slightly morbid. Honestly, faced with the question, “What would you do if you knew that this was your last day on earth?” I envision myself as a deer caught in the headlights. There are so many things I want to do, and there is no way to cram them all into a single day! I can’t even begin to prioritize, faced with a massive “bucket list” of stuff I’d like to experience before I die.

“I’d probably spend it in a blind panic, doing absolutely nothing.”

Be honest: What would you do if your doctor told you you had one day to live? You haven’t just won the lottery – in fact, nothing else in your life has changed. You just get 24 hours and the certain knowledge that it’s your last 24 hours on earth. What would you do?

Now, faced with your own answer to that question, would you really want to know? Or would you rather just live out each day in the hopeful believe that you won’t get smacked by a bus on your way home from work – today? On the off chance that you might, though – is it really worth crumpling the day’s “draft,” with all its little blotches and goofs, in the determination that tomorrow’s going to be a fresh, new day?

How many smokers and alcoholics, when they “screw up” and have that drink or that cigarette, give up the determination to quit and recover from their addiction? Or put it off to tomorrow, next week, or next year – instead of “next minute”? We set up time as an artificial boundary, then allow it to control us like a dog that’s used to an electronic fence – even when the fence is off.

How many writers abandon a less than perfect draft and relegate it to the back of a drawer or a trunk? The clean, crisp promise of a blank page whispers, “You’re not worthy,” and we fail to say back to it, “You were meant to be written on – it’s my scribbles that give you purpose!” (If it sneers back something about dead trees, go plant one – and then write your heart out.)

How many people give up on a relationship because they, themselves, “screwed up”? It’s often so much easier to forgive the other person, but how many relationships die because of guilt and lack of self-worth? Each day, we have a choice and a chance to be better. But really, why wait for a new day? Each minute, we have that choice. Each interaction with others is an opportunity.

Why not just lay down that baggage right now – accept that the scribbles and oopsies are part of the “art” of being human – and keep right on going towards the next thing on that bucket list? It’s December 27 – and so what? Why wait till January 1 to start the adventure of a new year?



Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at For more information on her children's books, please visit
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15 thoughts on “The Clean Slate Mentality”

  1. Hi Holly,

    I really like this post and the premise of your new blog. What you say about, “living each day as if it is your last.” I met a girl in my oncologists office a couple of years ago and she had pancreatic cancer. She said she didn’t know how long she had, but she felt okay right now. I told her, “Live your life not like it’s the last day you have, but like there is no last day!” She smiled and seemed to appreciate this. Sally

    1. I’ll bet she did! I think part of my problem with the usual notion of living each day as if it’s the last is the expectations that come with that–as if it’s somehow a sort of competitive sport. What spectacularly bucket-listy thing would you do? (“bucket-lusty” was my Windows phone’s idea – not a BAD idea, just not what I wrote!) OK, today could be your last, so why aren’t you doing it? I’d probably curl up on the couch and talk all night with family. Hardly a Hollywood movie ending, that, but it’s the truth.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…The Clean Slate MentalityMy Profile

  2. Hi Holly,

    If I lived each day as if it were my last, I would make amends. Not to make me feel better about myself (even though I would), but to give the gift of forgiveness to others.

    My mother died during a time when we were mad at each other. I now have to live the rest of my life knowing I never said I was sorry (except for when dad made me apologize to her still body, inside the coffin)…

    Knowing how I feel from that moment, and well into the future, I would make amends with everybody to prevent them from having to live with the misery that they never got the chance to say they were sorry.

    That’s how I live each and every day. When the partner and I argue, we don’t go to bed mad at each other. I refuse to. Because, you just never know when today is the last day to take a breath.

    P.S. Your comment luv isn’t working. I get all kinds of parsing errors on the page. Oops! Might want to check that. πŸ™‚

  3. Whoa – no kidding on the CommentLuv. What the heck IS that?? (Thanks for letting me know. I had this issue the other day, but resetting the CL options seemed to do the trick. Apparently…not.)

    Sorry about that! I’ve written to Andy – he’ll probably tell me it’s something to do with my new theme, and I’ll cry a bit if I have to change it now!

    Do you have children? If you do, you know that your mother would not want you to suffer another moment’s guilt over whatever it was you were mad at each other about. That you regret it to this day says to me that whatever rift you might have had at the time wasn’t irreconcilable, and if it had been, you’d have no regrets – the love is stronger than the anger, and she’s long past holding a grudge. Forgive yourself, because she’d forgive you if she could. If you don’t have kids, trust me on this – I do. And go watch Terms of Endearment.

    When my daughter was a teen, we used to fight bitterly over stupid stuff. (Still do, now and then, but it’s much, much rarer.) I distinctly remember the day she called me from her car (MY car) on her way to high school – and apologized. It had suddenly hit her – either of us could DIE before we saw each other again over the dinner table. Things didn’t get instantly better, and there were many more such calls. (Still are, on occasion.) But she knows, I think, that I love her – and that I wouldn’t rest easy if she tortured herself after I’m dead over some spat we had while we were alive.

    I HAVE told both my kids that if they fight with each other over so much as one lousy SPOON from my kitchen when I’m dead and gone, I WILL come haunt them, and it won’t be a benign sort of haunting. πŸ˜‰

    Thanks for visiting my blog! I really hope I get the CL thing ironed out before long – I appreciate your alerting me to that.

  4. I really enjoyed your post. You’re right, why wait until January 1.

    I try to enjoy every minute, every second of the day, and though I’m somewhat thick at times, try to learn from my mistake.

    My cousin once said (in reference to my writing), “What are you afraid of, failure? People fail at something every day of their livesβ€”it’s nothing to fear. Just learn from your mistakes, take a breath, and try again.”

    1. I had a wonderful manager, years ago, who – upon learning I’d made a terrible mistake I fully expected to get fired for – calmly asked: “Can you back your ass out of it?”

      “Yes, sir. Already fixed it.”

      “Good. Did you learn something from the mistake?”

      “Yes, I did.”

      “Good. Are you ever going to make that same mistake again?”

      “No sir! No way!”

      “Good. Then it’s been a learning experience. Get back to work.” And he smiled at me, and that was an end to it. So that’s kind of how I measure “mistakes” and “failure.” And when my kids worry about “failing” or taking risks that MIGHT lead to failure or disappointment, I run them through the following dialogue: “What’s the absolute worst thing that could happen if you fail at this? Is anybody going to die?”

      “Well, no. I might die of humiliation…”

      “You’ll survive. So, say you’re completely and thoroughly humiliated, and you don’t actually DIE of that, you think you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again?”

      “I guess.”

      At this point, I try to find someone famous who has been well and truly and publicly humiliated.

      “What else? What’s the next worst thing that could possibly happen?” Eventually, we get down to some pretty ridiculous stuff and end up laughing. “Great. Go for it, then.” My daughter, who has a really excellent driving record with nothing but a rolling stop on red against her in 8 years, finally realizes that it wasn’t lack of faith in her abilities that kept me from letting her drive her little brother anywhere without me for YEARS. I was simply protecting HER from a mistake she couldn’t afford to make. It took a good six or seven years for her to get that, but I think she appreciates it now.

      She’s always understood, I think, why I reluctantly consented to my cousin taking her skydiving (he’s an instructor and I trust him) – but why I won’t pay for her to go do it – ever. Because that’s a mistake I can’t afford to make. If something should happen to her, I can’t be the one who provided the means to do it. A car – well, that’s a “need,” but skydiving is a frivolity that she’s going to have to pay for, herself, if she goes again. I won’t try to STOP her, and I get why she enjoyed it – but I don’t have to be the instrument.

      As the blog title says, it’s all a matter of perspective, and that’s something that changes as the years go by.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…The Clean Slate MentalityMy Profile

  5. Wow.. Holly.
    I enjoyed every paragraph.
    You’ve covered almost all that matters to most, from mistakes & forgiveness to health to relationship to adventure to a ‘last 24 hour’ way to live.
    I will print this and will have some of my friends read this.
    I will do this because for many of us (and this is the sad part), the ‘Clean Slate’ which we want to start with isn’t going to be really clean… for we still sometimes choose to linger with the past.
    But you are right, why wait till Jan 1 to start a new endeavour.

    Happy New Year Holly.
    Ron R. Lacson recently posted…The Best Gift… from a CaterpillarMy Profile

    1. Hi, Ron! I think this is your first visit here, isn’t it? Welcome. I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. That’s the point, though, too – the slate’s never going to be really clean. The “chalk dust,” though, makes us who we are. We can cling to the baggage, too, if we’re determined to – or we can choose to let go of stuff that’s not serving us well. It’s always there. I suppose we could visualize it like actual baggage – big old ugly suitcases that nobody else wants, either. “Put your load down a while, see how that feels. See? It’s still there if you need it. No one’s going to take it from you. You can always come back to it if you really want to, but you may find the walk a little more comfortable if you just leave it there and stop carrying – or dragging – it around all the time.”

      When I quit smoking, I did one thing that I think was very smart: I quit at 2 PM. I remember it vividly. And it’s laughable – it was, even at the time – but I can remember wondering how the hell I was going to drive home. My car wouldn’t start without a lit cigarette in my hand! Well, I finally worked up the nerve – and guess what? My car started right up and got me all the way home (all four miles!) – and from there, it was baby steps, little choices not to light up that ONE cigarette, every hour or so, for the next three or four days. After a week, it was actually easy. Because I’d just read the quotation I closed with in – and it really struck a nerve.

      No one even noticed I’d quit for the first two weeks, either. I made no grand announcements – didn’t want to “jinx” it or ruin my chances of climbing back up on the wagon if I fell off. I didn’t want to have to make dumb excuses to myself or others. I did it for ME, and only for me. And then, when I was confident that I was going to succeed, I let them know. No big fanfare then, either. But the rest of the family was pretty happy about it. πŸ™‚
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…#28Acts of KindnessMy Profile

      1. Hi Holly,
        You’re right, this is my first time to visit your site, but I can assure you that I’ll be a frequent visitor from now on.
        I like your story on how you managed to quit smoking. I can imagine that it was big deal to you but you did it stealthy which I can understand (I tend to do things like that too…’only me knows action’ πŸ™‚ …like when I did try to start writing or when I forced myself to do hiking exercise).
        I’m glad I found your site.
        Happy New Year Holly.

      2. Hi, Ron! Happy New Year!

        Yes, it was kind of a big deal to me when I quit smoking, but by making it less of a “big deal” I deliberately took a lot of that pressure off, that fear of failure, of having to explain or make excuses – see, I’d quit two or three times before, for years at a time. This time was very, very different. It’s been six years now, and I have not had one craving or urge to light up since then. Something just “clicked.” I know people who still get cravings forty years later. I fully expected to be one. I’m actually pretty sure I figured out why I wasn’t – I’m pretty sure the “secret to my success” costs about 20 cents a pound. (Ask me if you’re curious.) But the mindset, the attitude, was equally important – at least in kickstarting the quit.

        If I ever become one of those militant, judgmental, former smokers, I give permission to someone to slap me down – because that’s just not helpful. I clearly remember thinking, “No one is giving me a hard time about this right now. The only person I’m rebelling against, anymore, is ME.” But I also remember how I had an urge to chain-smoke any time someone ELSE told me I needed to quit, as if I were too stupid to know it wasn’t healthy, and that was counterproductive.

        NOW, how did you force yourself to start hiking? πŸ™‚ I could use some pointers there.
        HollyJahangiri recently posted…#28Acts of KindnessMy Profile

  6. Hi Holly. I thought I’d stop by your blog and see what you’re up to. This is a very nice post, and I agree about there being no such thing as a clean slate. In fact, my hobby horse is physics, and that discipline tells us there is no such thing as time and everything is happening at once – past, present, and future. I actually had a moment of experiencing that when I was studying Joseph Campbell’s work. I’d tried so hard to grasp what he was talking about, and of course the experience of infinity happened while at the car wash and for no good reason I could understand. It was a pretty cool experience, but fleeting. Campbell was not a physicist, but he was one of those extrodinary minds, like Jung and Piaget and James, with an uncanny ability to intuit truths we’re now beginning to prove in the laboratory, all of which the generation behind me dance and skip about, re-nameing those theories and preaching them in a language of their own (I’m so weary of “resonating”).

    I don’t want to leave behind the past. I know it’s supposed to be over and there’s nothing we can do about it, but my experience is that there’s nothing as fluid as what was. As I continue on this journey and change, so, too, does my perception of past experiences. One of the things I dislike most about aging is understanding the actions of my parents and other elders. They seemed like such rigid dorks when I was younger, but now I get it, I understand and appreciate what they did and how hard it was making their decisions. Long talks with my adult daughter have also taught me the caprice of memory. Our brains take in an estimated 50M bits of information per second, yet we can only hold an estimated 20 bits in consciousness per second. We’re all creating our reality second by second as we choose so little from so much. In talking with my daughter, this bit of info has played out in dramatic ways. I share the same history with many people but not the same story. There are so many incidents from the past where I thought I’d made bondheaded errors of parenting, but she doesn’t even remember them, while at the same time she has good and bad memories of the past I don’t remember.

    If I knew this were my last day on earth? Ben & Jerry, all flavors, a spoon, a pie and a fork, a day relaxing with TV and shutting out all the noise of the web – the shoulds and oughts, the conflicting expert opinions, the mandates to do it one way and not the other. That would be heaven. That’s available to me every day, but the pay stinks πŸ™‚

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