I am not afraid of spiders, snakes, public speaking, heights, crowds or death. I am afraid of clowns, but I am taking steps to get over that, having just last February shaken hands with a clown who attended an event I was catering. “Don’t you find that a lot of people are afraid of clowns?” I said to her as I stood shivering in my apron.
“That’s pretty silly” she replied from behind her big, red nose. But I digress.
My greatest fear, the one that requires deep breathing, aversion therapy and Xanax, is cleaning. By “cleaning,” I mean not the casual wiping down of bathroom surfaces, or bagging up used magazines to take to the library as a donation. I am talking about staring down a room with piles of disparate junk, the room where everything has gone to rest in teetering towers until someone (read: me) has decided what to do with it. I am speaking, at the moment, about my office, home to a gigantic treadmill, a small garden of herbs in peat pots, all of the family’s tools (we have neither a garage nor a usable basement), thousands of books, and enough craft supplies to stock a small store. There is a Raggedy Ann doll, a straw hat, and a bright blue ladder salvaged from my son’s preschool playground renovation. There is a collection of Buddha statuary, a box of beads and wire, and a map of London in the 1700s rolled up and held tight by a rubber band. I want a clear space in which to write, pay bills and make my grocery lists, and I’d also like to walk on the treadmill without the feeling that I am taking my imaginary walk through Sanford & Son’s back 40. It has to be cleaned.
I tell myself that I have had five root canals and given birth (glossing over the rewards associated with facing those fears, like Vicodin or a baby). I wear comfortable clothes and make myself an enticing and energizing playlist. I have everything I need – black plastic bags, cardboard boxes, a bottle of Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day in Lemon Verbena and a stack of rags. I feel a wave of enthusiasm and can-do attitude, and there are intimations of the clean, well-ordered glory that awaits. That’s as good as it gets, though; I am not cleaning anything, I am sitting in another (cleaner) room writing about it. My computer will still not fit on the top of my desk because I have not removed a single scrap of paper with a password on it, or a mug full of loose change, or a dried up tube of Superglue.
It’s the sorting that slays me. I love the idea of keeping nothing that is neither useful nor beautiful, but it’s complicated. There are objects with sentimental associations that fit into neither category, but discarding them seems disloyal and karmically improper. They are gifts that someone thought I would love, or things tied to earlier times in my life, other phases, other selves. I think maybe it’s okay to donate the unloved gifts to someone who might use and love them, but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Even if I haven’t seen them for 20 years, even if I am absolutely sure that they don’t remember buying me a bud vase painted to look like a woman in a suit when I opened my law office, I worry. As for the other stuff, the remembrances of things past, I am stuck on all the times I have done a scorched earth cleaning job and then wished, years later, that I had not thrown something away. I gave away my Complete Rilke because it reminded me of a failed and most unpoetic relationship, and then found myself buying another copy because long after the hurt was gone, I still love Rilke. I donated my silk screening equipment to a school and then wished I had it to make Christmas cards.
It seems logical that if I just keep everything I will want it again, and that maybe I can have a special shrine, a closed cupboard filled with things I really don’t want, but may want again, things that were gifted to me, things that I don’t want to use, or see, or move to get to something I really do need. It will be a kind of museum-behind-a-closed-door. The Archives of Unwanted and Unloved Objects. The Island of Misfit Toys.
It will be my office.
So I will push up my sleeves, crank up Judas Priest or Joan Baez, and wade in with a black bag in hand. I need space, clean, orderly space in which to live, and work and breathe. I want to sit at my desk, really a dining table made by my grandfather, and see nothing but the green leaves of August out the window, and maybe a few gentle Buddhas next to the pencil jar. When I am done digging, sorting, hauling and scrubbing, I will get no Certificate of Completion, and no pat on the back. I will be sweaty and grumpy, but I will have a blank slate waiting to be covered with spare, select, beloved notations that tell the story of who I am today, free from the stray marks and partial erasures of past fancies and false starts.
Maybe, if I work really hard and strain a muscle or two, I can also get some Vicodin.