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Category: joy of cleaning

the dangers of not letting go. and the dusty path toward redemption.

the homestead, circa 1957

this is not a story about religion. though it’s a subject with zealots and slackers.

marie kondo, the porcelain doll of a declutterer, calls it sparking joy (and swears it can change your life). i call it getting covered with cobwebs. and eye-watering dust. and reminding myself of my proclivities for not letting go of the sentimental. 

but i took a trip to new jersey, to a white-clapboard house that might have been built in the early 19th century, and might have been there (in one form or another) as early as 1789. 

and everything changed. 

inside that old house were dozens and dozens of orifices, each one packed to the brim. to open the door to the attic was to trigger a domestic avalanche, the sort you might find spelled out in the weekly gazette, where some poor soul was buried alive beneath decades-old shoeboxes, crumbly yellowed news magazines, and strings of christmasy lights that might never have burned. 

when your job is to pack up the kitchen, to wrap not only the skinny-necked goblets, but to sift out toothpicks, circa 1960, and mismatched tupperware lids by the dozens, you swiftly absorb an abiding commandment: thou shalt not leave behind a house stuffed with stuff thou hast not had the courage or chutzpah to preemptively toss. 

you get cured right quick of your stockpiling ways.

marie kondo, whose best-selling tidying book i once was assigned to survey, makes the closet-clearing task sound downright zen-like, as if standing before overstuffed shelves, blithely sorting and chucking and plucking for joy — would that be placing the object in the palm of one’s hand, awaiting the wee bit of voltage that’s the signal for “keep me”? — is the next best thing to a trip to the spa. (no wonder i tossed aside that pretty little spark of a joy-jolting book, the book that sparked little but befuddlement back in my stuff-keeping days.)

the truth is, i found packing up the kitchen of someone i love a hauntingly heart-tugging endeavor. i unearthed the red apple-shaped placemats she must have delighted in setting on her breakfast table, or when a struggling student she lovingly tutored came for after-school cookies and milk. i pulled from a drawer the crystal-handled cake cutter that might have sliced into chocolatey layers on countless occasions, and i heard once again the peals of laughter that echoed through the house’s post-colonial walls. i discovered my mother-in-law’s absolute obsession for all things valentine’s day; heart-shaped candy dishes, red paper doilies, and 101 variations on heart-speckled pink paper napkins. 

it’s as if a life is being unspooled wordlessly, a silent reel of thing upon thing. each one with a story you can only imagine, each one a frame still palpably pulsing, but only just barely. and you feel the slipping away all over again.

i kept picturing my mother-in-law peeking over my shoulder, wincing each time i tossed a tchotchke into a trash bag or pitched some trifle to the give-away pile. i felt guilty. i felt tender of heart. i wiped away dozens of tears. (and i kept those few things that belong in the family treasure heap: a dough cutter (highly likely unused), a trio of age-worn red plates (the ones i ate off dozens of times), the red-plaid apron i long ago sewed for her birthday, and now frayed at the ties.)

but then, stripped of my long-held tossing hesitancies, emboldened to not bequeath such a task to my own two boys, i came home and applied my newfound thick-as-reptilian toughness to the orifices i call my own. all week i’ve been standing akimbo in closets and tucked-away corners, dispatching and discarding with gusto. whole bags have been filled as i’ve scoffed at the millions of times i’ve stashed some odd something away, long deluding myself that some day i might find reason to put into action whatever was the odd esoterica. i now know that someday never comes. 

and my new best allies are the fine fellows at goodwill industries, who handily roll out the big blue bins every time they see my red wagon pulling into the lot. 

it’s hard work for the heart. and i don’t mean the muscle that’s doing the pumping. i mean the ineffable filaments of said organ that cling too mightily to the objects of everyday living. the invisible cords that — in some of us anyway — tug too hard in the attachment department. 

to excavate the closets and cupboards of a life long lived is to sweep across the narrative told in dusty old things. in the story told from the long life i hope is mine, i want the people i leave behind to lift up each object and know it sparked me pure joy. 

but more than that, far more than that, in the now, i want my life to not be buried under the crumpled weight of stuff that niggles at me, taunts, “why on earth are you holding onto me?” why not let go, and be freed from the crushingness of closets that threaten to topple, drawers stashed with missing and misplaced parts, and the generalized sense that i live in a house that might split at the seams? 

i want only the things that conjure a someone or sometime or someplace i loved. i want to live lean and clean and not take up more than my share of the room. i want a house without the ghosts of fibber mcgee. i want a lightness of being.

mostly, i guess, i want to pare it all back to the essence, the true essence of joy — unencumbered.

turns out, marie kondo was right after all.

how do you rate in the declutter department? are you a stasher or trasher? if you told your life story in objects, what might be the most treasured pages?

back to business

back to business

i nearly forgot how much i ached all day monday, the day my firstborn packed his bags, flapped his arctic wings and flew back to the hills of western massachusetts. i nearly forgot how the whole day felt like an uphill climb, and how each time my little one and i looked each other in the eye, we knew we were hollowed, were drained, had just had the plug pulled out of our sink.

blessedly, we birthed a tradition back on that uphill empty day. our dear across-the-streets were suffering the same heart drain, had just sent their elder child off to the vermont woods, and what with a vat of leftover beef stew in the fridge, and a pot of mashed potatoes to boot, we inaugurated what we think will become our annual “plus three instead of minus one” rite of soothing our oozing parts. and, as they walked in with a hot-out-of-the-oven blueberry-blackberry crispy-crumbly, all vapors of heartache up and went poof! (forgive us, you faraway children, it’s not that you’re a solid swap for fruits under buttery wraps, it’s just that, well, a dousing of sugar makes your leave-taking all the gentler to swallow.)

the polar cold didn’t loosen its hold till late tuesday night, so it took till wednesday for school to re-open and, thus, the real world to settle back in, the post-holiday, post-new year, back-to-business rhythms that i, for one, find as cleansing and invigorating as a frothy green drink chock-full of parsley and kale and mustardy greens.

why, i even hauled out the scrub bucket and mop. dis-assembled the yule tree. penned the thank you’s. tucked away the holiday dainties (to use a vintage wordchoice for confections, one i bumbled upon over the new-year stretch). turned in a book review. ironed the christmas-y napkins, tucked them away for a long winter’s nap.

i was gettin’ down to business in a scrub-dutchy way.

it is what january calls for, if you put your ear to the frosty winds and listen hard. diligent work, assiduous effort, those are the siren songs of the month at the top of the year.

in my case, it feels like it’s been far too long since i’ve gotten down to serious business. put nose to grindstone and cranked out a solid assignment. and, wonder of wonders, i find that i hum when working hard. when i can hold up a tangible something at the end of the day, and say, softly: “i did this.”

any day now, the last batch of edits are due from my little book’s editor, and then i’ll be sailing toward the copy editing desk. and i’ve promised myself i’ll get brave and dial up one or two assigning editors, in hopes of plunking some coins in my decidedly bony porcine bank, the one that’s teetering on nothing but fumes. in the meantime, i’ve signed up for an online poetry course, one that will hold walt whitman up to the light and bring a cambridge lecture hall here to my old maple table. and, for pure delight and because i believe in it as one of life’s richest assemblages, i’m picturing a dining table filled with madly opinionated, yarn-spinning chroniclers of everyday truth, wisdom and hilarity.

it’s january and the year is filled with promise. time to shake off the sloth, and see what i can pull from the depths of my deeply blessed soul.

how ’bout you? what’s on your i-promise-to-do list, not because you feel obliged but simply because it inspires? 

that framed moment above was just before my firstborn shuffled out the door with his duffle sack. the little one, leaning into him with all his sagging heart, not wanting him to go. ever. it’ll be months, and three full seasons, before he returns. these long pauses never get easier. and the heartache never dulls. so flow the rhythms of loving a faraway child. 

house day

in the annals of psychology, i’m not sure where this would be filed: ordering one’s house as sure cure for inner re-arranging, pacifying, lulling into seasonal harmony.

humming while you work, another way to put it.

what’s on the docket today is no mere flickering of dust rag, no mere spewing this place’s dust over to that locale.

no, today is deep and pure and utterly satisfying.

i’ve yanked itty blue bottles off the window sills, hauled window cushions clear of the vast and dreamy looking-posts that are my window seats, where i’m nearly nestled in the boughs of trees, looking out and down on all that stirs in the lane and yards beyond.

yes, i’ve cleared the way for that once-every-18-months ritual (a saner soul might do it with more regularity, but oh, life got in the way): the washing of every blessed pane of glass in this old light-filled house.

but why stop there when the garden just beyond is calling, too. when the shaggy, floppy stems of summer’s-glory-gone now beg for sharp-edged readjustment. when weary stems can no longer hold up their end of the equation, and beg to be cut to the crown, where they can assume the winter’s lotus wrap and settle into slumber.

it’s inside-outside cleanse and purge today. i’ve been at it all morning, my hands worn raw already.

oh, but my soul is bright and shining. humming, too, because a cleanse is all a girl needs at the end of a long hard summer, at the end of a string of weeks that make your wiry hairs stand on end.

i’ve spent my life claiming to be mostly irish, but fact is i am half german. latent german, indeed. except for this one rare sprout of me, where it all comes spewing forth. and i can clean against the best of ‘em, clean my heartache away, sweep away my worries, scrub my everlasting fears.

oh, i’ve been caught out front, with broom in hand, sweeping off my bluestone stoop like some weathered, babushka-wrapped eastern-european hausfrau. i once (okay, maybe twice or thrice) forgot to eat the whole day long because i’d gotten caught up in the hurricane of cleaning that is a clean-freak set loose on a day without distraction. at night that night i got all woozy, felt my heart thump-thump in a way that made me think my dying act might be squeezing out the squeegee mop.

a friend of mine, one i work with, just last week watched her husband die. and she tells me that she cannot keep from cleaning. has been up half the night all week long, with toothbrush to the grout, trying to rid her house of every last speck of muck and gunk.

the famous family tale, told for years now, is that when my husband went off to college, his father, bereft and adrift, took to endless cleaning of the garage. when he’d rinsed the garbage cans for the umpteenth day in a row, someone who loved him finally pulled him aside, and suggested he might find his solace elsewhere.

someone here had better lock the garbage cans away, for we’re due for a repeat performance by the next generation–that very son who next year will be the bereft father who’s left his firstborn off at college.

i only wish that every friday could be my day-long deep-clean-the-house day. oh, i get spurts and chunks. string my week with short blasts of vacuuming, sponging down the counters. why, even emptying the dishwasher has its medicinal gratifications.

but for the nooks and crannies of the soul there is no such balm as a dawn-till-dusk, sun-soaked, crisp autumn day awash with buckets of soapy water, and piles of garden clippings to haul to the compost bin.

there are rare few corners of our existence that we can polish to a shine, rid of that which mucks it up. and so, to the cleaning rag and the garden clippers, we must bow in fervent gratitude.

amen amen. there’s much left to be done here today, and so this quick meander. still adjusting to this itty bitty screen, now carried to the kitchen table, where i watch the windows glisten, where i sense the garden’s lifted from its end-of-season shearing. it’s been quite a week or three on the workfront, none of it easy to swallow. and so i come back to here, to the table, where it all keeps ticking along.

next week, a serious treat here at the table. i’ll be sitting down to coffee with the barefoot contessa—be still my heart, and here i’ll uncork the back story, and let you in on all the secrets of what it’s like to share a table with the contessa herself.

till then, anyone else find pure emotional repair and contentment in the cleaning bucket, and the garden clippers?

day job: washing windows

it’s an occupational hazard, or at least this week it was. i’ve been spritzing, rubbing, wiping streaks from windows all around.

my glass, egad, so streakless, poor pigeon crashed beak-first into what it thought was sky. (fear not, i went in search of him, poor feather-fallen thing, but he was nowhere to be found, which means i can assume that his neck remained intact; by the way, i promptly scotch-taped cutout bird to prevent another crash. did you know that window crashes kill a billion birds a year? someone counted.)

but back to window wiping.

all this wild-eyed doing away with smudge and splot, the goo that’s left from winter, it has nothing to do with me going nuts with newfound vernal light. and it’s not, i promise, from inhaling ammonia fumes.

no no, you see, in the latest wrinkle of my investigative life, i am testing cleaners. green cleaners to be precise. trying to determine if saving the sweet earth might mean giving up some sheen.

it is, i suppose, spring cleaning under duress.

were it not for story deadline, would i be spritzing up a storm?

truly, probably not. but fact of the matter is i do appreciate the leap on clean that it inspired.

oh no, here we go again. me and my fixation on making messes clean. no no, i do protest, it’s not the messes i detest (though they do get under my skin, make me kind of antsy, remind me i’m a slob at heart, just one pile away from giving in to inner pigpen), it’s the dirt.

ah yes, it’s doing away with dirt that gets my juices bubbling.

i was i love lucy, all except the rag tied ‘round my head, madly sudsing up this house.

the more you ditch the dirt, i find, the more determined you become. what starts out as surface cleaning quickly takes a dive. you find yourself quite suddenly excavating grime. there you are in cracks and shadows mining shmutz of origin unknown.

i was reading of the jewish ritual of cleaning house for passover, the bread-free springtime festival that hovers around easter, and i kid you not the sisterhood recommended toothpicks and q-tips for getting into crevices. that is armament the likes of which this catholic girl has rarely seen.

and then, as if the toothpicks aren’t enough, the night before the eve of passover, the whole family ventures through the house, in search of furtive crumb that might be clinging to a crack. this time armed with feather, spoon and candle, papa leads the way. any crumb that’s confiscated will be burned in ritual offering the next morning. all this spelled out in the holy book.

and that wouldn’t be a guide to springtime cleaning.

though it could be.

what is it, i wonder, that has us as a species so finely wired that when the clock ticks march, we are stirred to shake the rugs? to grab the feather duster? all right, at least to dial up the kleen brigade, and make a date for superkleen with extra wax?

maybe it’s got something to do with all the pure new light, the angle that it slants, how it catches on the dust fields in ways it never did in winter.

or maybe there’s some chemical that surges when the daylight savings time clicks in, and suddenly all over, we feel the need to shake the feathers from our nest.

speaking of feathers, it seems i was not the only one under this shingled roof who got into the nesting groove this week.

seems that mama sparrow has been sizing up my house, looking high and low for a place to call her own. spied herself a little cove, she did, right above the woodwork that surrounds the new front door. the very one, of course, where i’ve been madly cleaning glass.

my mama saw her darting in and out. i saw her picking sticks, like she was bargain hunting in the basement of filene’s, i tell you, sifting through the racks of sticks, deciding just which one. plucking this stick, wiggling it around, dropping stick back to the ground. maybe she didn’t like the way it looked against her feathers.

my mama, ever full of common sense and what lurks around the corner, pointed out that if mrs. sparrow and her brood spend their hatching days right above my door, well, i’ll be wiping lots of springtime goo from panes of glass.

this springtime cleaning thing might take me through to summer.

anyone else out there doing the feather-duster dance?

cleaning, housekeeping, the recipe

sometimes i feel i need to apologize for being such a cleaner. not now, not at the new year. which for me begins today. this is my jan. 2, by the way. i’m on a two-day delay thanks to the accident of my birth.

but here we are. all of us on the relative same page here. all leaping in anew. perhaps you too are cleaning. it seems to be a widespread affliction. right up there with new date books, new diet plans. i, believe it or not, forgo both of those. get my date book in july, just to be a trend-bucker, i suppose. don’t diet; hard to do when popcorn and broccoli are your main food groups.

ahem, back to the subject at hand here, back to the cleaning. the older i get the more i give in to my quirks and my personal square pegs. and the quirk of the day is i love to clean. down on my hands and knees in the corner. vacuuming can send me to the moon. (which by the way, that wolf moon has me howling.)

there is something about wiping away dirt, sweeping off crumbs, returning to order that simply sings to my heart. i cannot go to bed with dishes in the sink. oh, okay, maybe the single occasional popcorn bowl waits ’til the morn. but i am a girl who likes to pretend my life is in order by banning the crumbs to the dustbin.

i am not naturally neat. naturally, i am a piler. piles are not mess, i tell myself. piles are order, vertically. but i married a guy who likes neat. and i am a once-nurse who likes clean. so, once children were born, and my life turned upside down, inside out, suddenly found myself cleaning for joy.

and, oh the joy. i breathe easier when i walk out of or into a room that is sparkling, especially when the sparkle comes from my own sweat and muscle. there must be little tiny specks of my germanic genes washing around in the great irish stew, for the hard work of cleaning is balm to my soul.

the tree is not yet down. i should say trees, for we indulged little T and planted a sweet baby balsam up in the hall on the landing, so he could fall asleep to the lights, wake up to the rumble of the train tumbling off the tracks down below.

so the big cleaning, the clearing of trees, still lies ahead. but for days now, i have been clearing my desk, sifting through files, wiping the slate for the start of a new year of piles.

and speaking of cleaning, how ’bout time for some…

housekeeping: with the holidays tucked behind us, it seems there’s a new percolation of chairs being pulled to the table. i couldn’t be more delighted. it is a gift in ways you will never know. my heart only keeps whispering, carry on, carry on. a most important critical point is that at a table we all take turns talking. please please add your thoughts. and if you’re new here, or took some time off, feel free to meander around. there are some magnificent thoughts being added to meanderings, some way back in the days.

please see a delightful, wonderful passage, tacked onto “extending the table” (12.27.06), by a marvelous thinker and writer, who tags herself jcv, and who trembled at her first-ever blog moment. she is a treasure i know you too will come to treasure.

delight yourself further, and not so far back, by reading along with jan and her moon story, on “bring on the birds” (01.02.07).

marvel, as i do, at anything posted by the mysterious, marvelous wm ulysses, who goes back nearly to the beginning and makes my jaw drop every time.

and finally, drum roll……

the recipe, the one we’ve been waiting for….here’s where i will get teary. if you haven’t, please please read, “eggs, cheese, an ungodly hour” (12.22.06). it was a magical, heart-filling tale of a miracle of a woman named nina who for years made a christmas gift for a soup kitchen. she made a strata, which is an egg-cheese-and-bread layered-y thing. (forgive me, i love making up the occasional word.) well, sweet blessed nina died nearly two years ago but her strata lives on. in a pure christmas twist, her beautiful husband, her father, and her sweet little girls carry on. they make strata by the carload, and we (the ones who get up at an ungodly hour) dish it up in the dark of christmas eve morn. i had thought that we could truly lift nina up if we all got the recipe, and beginning now, made nina’s strata into a most blessed christmas tradition. what if, i wrote, we all made nina’s strata, and, in true nina spirit, we gave it away, gave it away to someone whose eyes needed glistening.

well, michael, god bless him, came through with a marvelous rendition of the recipe. and it seems those who loved nina most have added their heart to the mix. please please, i beg you, go take a look. it’s right there in the archives. and i will re-post the recipe on the lazy susan page, for easy plucking. fear not, next christmastime i will haul it out of the recipe box, remind everyone. and we shall all of us, perhaps, take to our kitchens, tearing up bread by the bits, to lift nina to heights she only could have imagined, as we all brighten the world nina-style, through our great oozy pans of eggs and cheese served at an ungodly hour.

bless you each and everyone. ’til tomorrow…

nina’s strata, coming out of the oven christmas eve morn….