The last few weeks have comprised a massive de-cluttering initiative in preparation for a home renovation, as we clear out junk from our basement, attic and just about anywhere useless stuff has managed to accrue.
What Do We Throw Away?
The basement was our project one Sunday afternoon. And it is funny to see what you turn up after the years have gone by. Time can rob you of explanations for hanging on to some things (grief, old attachments and resentments included). Like the old chest of drawers I had found hanging out on the curb in a gritty west Atlanta neighborhood. I had managed to convince myself (and a kind neighbor with a truck who knew I was crazy but obliged me, anyway) that the piece would be fun to resurrect as a kitchen island in a brand-spanking new, remodeled kitchen dreamed for the following year.
That bureau belonged to an entire lawn of disgorged contents from a foreclosed house now overseen by a guy with an amputated arm. The items, he insisted, had once belonged to him—although it was clear he was without a home and had nowhere to go and nothing to do. But the care and motivation with which he helped me carry that bureau to the car, arm or no arm, as he told me a bit of his story—about how he lost his arm as a child in a gun accident, and about how he really lived (gesturing ambiguously) a few blocks away but could use a ride to the Walmart—seemed deserving of $20 for the dresser and for his help, even if he would still have to walk to the Walmart. The dresser would not fit in my car, so I had called my friend with the truck who had driven over to marvel at the stretch of ‘hood we had landed in and at my craziness.
That ugly, faux-painted dresser missing one drawer is now awaiting dumpster day. Does something similar await the seemingly senseless furniture of our lives—the mistakes, wrong turns and broken parts for which we have no explanation or use? “Chaff that the wind blows away,” the psalmist says of “evildoers.” What of the things in our lives that may not be so much evil as lamentable, tragic or merely useless? Are these mere food for the dumpster, or do they, too, have their belonging somewhere, and if so, where? If my soul’s new-found sense of freedom and spaciousness in the aftermath of a basement clear is any indication, I would like to think such things are tinder for a great big, mischievous bonfire.
My house cleaning had been merciless with other things, too. College books now mildewed from years of storage in a dank basement. Baby clothes from our children’s first year of life. Old files and papers from seminary. (If at the end of his life a great theologian like Thomas Aquinas could call his life’s work “straw” for the fire, then I could let go of notebooks filled to the brim with my scribbles on seemingly useless theological squabbles about God.) All of these things had been taking up precious space for far too long and would now be carted off to our local thrift store or become fodder for a line of garbage bags.
What Do We Keep?
There were also the serendipitous and sometimes inexplicable discoveries of things that still meant something to me, as evidenced by their capacity to elicit a smile or chuckle. Like the box of quirky, humorous postcards my husband had written me during our dating years. I had chucked the old casette tapes of music he had made for me in that period of young love—they were now too defunct to be worth salvaging—but those postcards were another story. And there were the VHS videos from our wedding, and other sentimental paraphernalia, like the graduation Barbie doll I had received from not one but two family members on the occasion of completing college. I had kept only one, but somehow Barbie #2 went on to survive even the second cull.
There was even the old uniform I once wore as a child in primary school growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That ruffled, green-and-white checkered dress had seemed too much like an innocent bystander bearing witness to the ruthless pruning at hand, so I kept it. Funny what we choose to hold onto and why, despite the transience of a life that will one day depart by wrenching everything we claim to possess from our clutches.
Letting Go and Embracing Reality
By strange coincidence and as if in tribute to our recent house clearing measures, Marilynne Robinson’s book Housekeeping has accompanied me during this process of unloading junk. The book’s narrator is Ruthie, a girl whose story of family tragedy and loss, relayed in surrealist tones, unfolds against the backdrop of a remote Idaho town, “Fingerbone.” There, Ruthie, her sister Lucille, and their only living relative, Sylvie, the girls’ flighty and rootless guardian, struggle to “keep house” with the clutter they have inherited; and the stuff of their home environment, in the form of old cans, newspapers and detergent boxes (the last of these are recycled as makeshift dinner plates), is richly metaphorical—a metaphor for human baggage, maybe, like unresolved grief, broken relationships, and the impermanence of human love. Ultimately, that house of clutter will go up in flames, its demise releasing Ruthie and Sylvie—Lucille chooses to stay behind—to roam freely in the world beyond Fingerbone, and it is as if the conflagration of “home” sets these two free to live in reality rather than from among the ruins of a dream.
I am not sure that our recent sort and clear can achieve anything quite so ambitious. Has my remarkable capacity to collect useless things at yard sales and on random street curbs finally been put to rest? Probably not, despite my best efforts. But home now feels less cluttered—and, with the freeing recognition (however fleeting it, too may be) of the impermanence of all possessions, my soul feels not just lighter and more spacious but alive to a desire for what matters more. And the desire itself, as Robinson’s novel seems to suggest, is worth holding onto.