Clearing House and Mind

August 13, 2012

With the August sun bearing down upon me, I spent this past week cleaning. I don’t mean your average sweeping and dusting kind of cleaning or your mother-in-law is coming cleaning or even find every crumb pre-Pesach cleaning. I mean scorched earth, take no prisoners, it’s like we’re moving cleaning.

But this particular cleaning cycle was less about dirt and more about the things that have cluttered up my life. The time had come to simplify, to have less and to breathe more. My intention was to empty shelves and closets, finally making the hard decisions about what should stay and what should go. In the process, I’d hoped to clear my mind, too.

Armed with a case of garbage bags and a few cartons, I set to work. 

I started with the library in the den. Letting go of books – my beloved books! — meant determining which ones really mattered to me and which ones did not. They’d long been a happy conglomerate, a collection gathered over the course of a reading life. Staring at the teeming shelves, I felt like a surgeon readying a patient for an amputation.

Some choices were black and white. College textbooks and the skinny paperback on the metric system that I bought at the fifth grade Scholastic book fair, for example, spelled an unemotional goodbye. A hardback edition of Little House in the Big Woods, a gift from the Waldenbooks store manager after a shelf fell on my eight-year-old self, was an unquestionable keeper. 

The sports-themed, much-read paperbacks from the boys, so symbolic of these young years of their lives, presented a struggle. In the end, my eldest pointed out that they would be available in digitalized versions for my grandchildren down the line. The boys chose, instead, to cling to their favorite picture books, like Everyone Poops and Pete’s a Pizza. By the time we were done, we had filled two cases. 

With a handle on the den, I moved down to the basement. I tossed a stack of shoe boxes after transferring the miscellany of photos they contained into albums. I sold the rocking chair in which I’d rocked my babies, and gave away the foosball table, once a popular novelty that had lately been taking up valuable space. Afghans torn beyond recognition went to needle crafters patient enough to fix them and the “Dora the Explorer” videos to families with working VCRs.

My husband began to fear what he might find at the curb upon his return home each evening.

A friend visiting for the weekend helped me with my own closet. Her message was clear: What is too big, I should hope never to wear again. What is too small will be out of style by the time it fits me. I rehung what remained – not very much indeed – and bagged the rest to give away.

Even the boys got in on the action. We tackled their closets and bookshelves, their toy chests and desks. It was they, in fact, who cheered me on when I decided to send the foosball table packing. In the process, we each became all too aware of how much excess was weighing us down. 

The laundry is still daunting, but now there’s less of it. My sons see the empty space where clutter once stood and realize how many more friends they can have over to watch football. And I have reclaimed a carpeted area on which to play Xbox Kinect Soccer with my husband (he always wins) and to watch him play with the boys (they always win).

Throughout the process, we took evening breaks to watch the Olympics. Still, almost magically, our living room filled up with garbage bags designated for the charities coming to collect them. As the pick up deadlines loomed, the score from “Chariots of Fire” began to play in our minds, and before we knew it, our bag tally rivaled the Team U.S.A. medal total.

Decluttering should be an Olympic sport. After all, the process began with pole vaulting over piles of unneeded accessories and turned into a long-distance relay. There was some synchronized swimming, too, as we made our way through the muddy waters. Like a lithe high diver, we took a leap of faith, believing that we would get to the bottom of it all. 

Summer is now in the home stretch, the final sprint toward the school year and shorter days. We are off soon for our annual family road trip which, not unlike clearing out a house, is about simplifying, moving forward, and figuring out what really matters. But at least we will, G-d willing, return to a reasonably clean, more manageable house.

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