Thursday, May 12, 2011

Discoveries and disgust during disciplined spring cleaning

Well, the first round of thunderstorms wasn’t nearly as impressive as they looked on Doppler radar, and the amount of rain they produced nothing like predicted. Weather forecasting has always been a crapshoot and I for one am glad it’s not my responsibility to divine the proverbial tea leaves. I’d hate to be the one to tell farmers day after day that their chances of making it through the Drought of 2011 are slim to none, that the prospects for unremitting sunshine and humidity in the single digits are assured. I jest not: two days ago on a sunbaked afternoon of wild extremes Manhattan’s humidity plunged to eight percent. Salina, not that far west, dropped to five percent, or the same as experienced that day in Albuquerque. The Great American Desert, indeed.

During the brief and inconsequential storm I unearthed boxes of unread books I’d all but forgotten about. They were stored behind a dresser in an upstairs storage space, a narrow chamber tucked away beneath the slant of the roof. I came across them several days earlier when rooting through piles of other books, some I wanted to keep and others I couldn’t wait to vacate, which meant that instead of orderliness and neatness, my stated goals, I simply created a bigger mess with bigger piles.

My ordeal was anything but unique. Most people I know engage in “spring cleaning,” a weasel term used to describe a cyclic phenomenon whereby people divest themselves of the previous year’s accumulation of clutter. Rather than divestiture, however, most content themselves with a haphazard attempt to organize the clutter, an act that will work only so many times before space becomes the limiting factor. 

Clutter, as we all know, takes many forms. Not only does it have a physical presence which must be managed but it also possesses an uncanny propensity to attain value far beyond its actual relevance. Unfortunately, this inflated worth manifests itself to half of a two-person relationship. The dividing line between treasure and trash is never so ill-defined, narrow or fraught with danger as during this seasonal ritual. 

Clutter also has a preternatural propensity to accumulate with unfettered aplomb. One can easily believe that it breeds with the fecundity of rabbits. Looking around the second floor (and the basement and my office and, well, everywhere) I was left dumbfounded, confronted at last with the inevitable truth that I am not only a pack rat but that my former spring cleanings had been useless and ineffectual, mere window dressings to assuage my guilt. 

The question I had to ask myself was whether I was up to the task of digging out, once and for all. If I had the gritty determination to see it through, to winnow with impunity and cold cunning, to adjudicate without favor or bias.

Yes, I whispered. Yessss. The sound was a predatory hiss.

And throwing myself into the fray, I left spring cleaning behind in favor of something more merciless, more brutal, more permanent.

“If it isn’t bolted down, out it goes,” I said.

Lori stared at me with a cautious expression as if she’d heard it all before. 

She had heard it, in fact, many times. It’s something of a vernal mantra, uttered with the authority of one setting out on a quest deluded with visions of glory. She only half believed it, but also knew that beneath the bluff was a sleeping tiger waiting to be roused.

This was different. In my eye she caught a glimmer of something she’d not seen before, and it gave her pause.

After a breathless moment she said, “Don’t touch my grandmother’s things.”

“I won’t. But anything we haven’t used in the past several years is toast. I want minimalism. I want austerity.”

Easier said than done, of course. I hadn’t taken into account the sheer enormity of the task I’d taken upon myself. 

I started with books. Over the decades I’d amassed a sizable library, most of which resided on our upper floor. Had they remained there in orderly rows they wouldn’t have posed a problem; however, I now had stacks upon stacks, some teetering and tottering, others collapsed in disorderly heaps. A four-foot table was blanketed three feet deep. Bookcases groaned under the weight. The dresser was buried and so was the end table and now they marched down the stairs as if intent on escape. The hallway bookcase contained volumes I’d brought from Colorado, never to be cracked. I couldn’t believe I’d bought so many books. Thumbing through them, I couldn’t believe I’d bought them in the first place. 

Those were the easiest to dispose of. I packed them into four big crates and set them by the door, ready for my next trip to Washington and a thrift store that wanted them. Others were more difficult to judge. A few went into a shorter pile that necessitated deeper reading, though within a few days they’d joined the stack of disposables. If the first page or two didn’t grab me by the throat they weren’t worth my time. And anyway, with some 400 or more books waiting to be read (and more on my Kindle, including a roughly 4,000 page fantasy series I’d just started), running out of reading material was hardly a concern. 

The deeper I dug, the more I found. I felt in many ways like an archeologist searching for clues of a former civilization. Who was this man, I kept asking myself, who had such eclectic tastes? Westerns, novels, short story collections, histories spanning the Westward expansion, the Civil War, ancient Greece and Rome, the Neolithic cultures of eastern Europe, mysteries and nonfiction anthologies denoted an interest in the world at large. And then there were the other things, the boxes of fly-tying materials—a small fortune of them, from hackles to entire capes and thousands of hooks and assorted tools and materials—a box of stuffed animals and old baseball caps, another box containing my first gun belt, a box of cheap frames that had been given to me, a long narrow tub stuffed with newspapers I’d written for: with every new discovery and lament, another followed hard on its heels.

It all went. Anything usable went into boxes for donations and the rest into heavy-duty contractor bags for the local landfill. Tossing the old feathered capes from my fly-tying days was the most wrenching experience of all, but feathers grow brittle over time and these, while retaining their lustrous colors, were past their prime. The hooks and tools I kept.

As I placed them back on the shelf my words to Lori echoed through my head like an accusation: “Anything we haven’t used in the past several years is toast.” I hadn’t tied a fly in over 13 years and probably never would. Ditto for the collection of fly-fishing reels, including a jewel-like Ross reel of legendary craftsmanship. I wondered if I was being hypocritical, if by keeping the reels and tools I was inadvertently lessening my vow of ruthlessness, an act surely to be exploited by my wife. The thought gave me pause coupled with a sense of dizziness over the implications and potential ramifications. For a long moment I stood there, hands on the box as if granting absolution. Spring cleaning shouldn’t be this hard, I thought; it should be a simple act of uncluttering rather than a philosophical and moral argument. But some things do have value even if unused. They’re a part of our history and our essence. They’re our storytellers. 

And anyway, there are exceptions to every rule.

I slid the box onto the shelf and walked away.


Carol said...

Having lost our home the evening of June 8, 1966, to the Topeka tornado...I have to mention that there are items lost over 45 years ago that I treasure and still miss. Most are photographs. (Hope you are backing yours up somewhere in the Cloud network.) I also miss books and toys and some books and toys that had belonged to my mother. All of it is STUFF -- and stuff is stuff. Well-being of family matters most.
Still, I have some items acquired in the last 45 years that I enjoy seeing/touching regularly. If it blows away some day, I've been enjoying it while I have it. It's STUFF.

Deb Southerland said...

If it makes you happy when you see it, then you keep it, useful or not. My china closet does not have china in it except the small china set I received from my grandmother over a half century ago. It has my husband's Little Big Books, his animal collection, my dolls from childhood, an old Phoebe B. Beebe, the live-in girlfriend of J. Fred Muggs,a toothpick house my brother made for me, etc., etc.. I am even happy when I have to dust those things yearly because just to touch them brings such happy memories. You are so right. They ARE our storytellers.

Tom Parker said...

Maybe yours is the best definition of what to keep and what not to keep. If it makes you happy... Brilliant and from the heart! Thanks, Deb. I needed that.