Clearing the Clutter

§   In the years of dealing with my Cleaning Lady personality quirk, I’ve learned one important thing: If you’re going to have an “episode”, clearing the clutter and disorder in your own home is the least problematical way to deal with what is, in truth, the need to clear something in your own spirit. §

A friend has been in the throes of a start-of-the-year Clear the Clutter episode, and e-mailed me about the mess, the lack of serenity in the process, and the things that are driving her to sheer madness, such as a water spot on the ceiling and a broken cabinet door. She took down all her wall hangings, she explained, because they were no longer (in the popular parlance of the day) “giving her joy”, and now there are little holes all over the wall. Pain, and yet still no gain!

I sympathized. I regularly endure the pain of clearing the clutter. In fact, a favorite cousin and I, each raised in similar childhood circumstances of dealing with an alcoholic parent, have, as a result, a few (well, perhaps in my case, more than a few) control issues. This might be a problem except that, for each of us, we have channeled our control issues into what we consider the healthiest possible outlet: We are OCD housekeepers. Cleaning Freaks. Totally, almost unforgiveably, neat. I have even been heard to say–totally without irony–that my house, dirty, is cleaner than most people’s homes are when clean.

In the scheme of things, there are far worse ways that we could have channeled our need for control.

But, as I counseled my distracted friend, in the years of dealing with my Cleaning Lady personality quirk, I’ve learned one important thing: If you’re going to have an “episode”, clearing the clutter and disorder in your own home is the least problematical way to deal with what is, in truth, the need to clear something in your own spirit.

The best way to handle my need for clean control is, I’ve discovered, to use the time as a sort of meditation. Yes, that water spot on the ceiling is incredibly ugly, but does it represent something more to me?  Does its ugliness evoke an ugly memory? Is that stain caused by falling raindrops evocative of tears? More than I need to plaster and paint, do I really just need to cry?

Yes, my cabinet door is broken; why, then, haven’t I either fixed it, or called a repairman, or just saved up the money to replace it?  Okay, so there are now little holes everywhere in the walls where I took down the photos of relatives who caused me pain, deciding that a family connection was not worth the reality of having to look at their faces and remember how they abused me. And, yes, I know that a dab of putty and a lick of paint will fix those holes, so why am I so absolutely furious about having to do that?  Is it because it’s just one more damn thing I have to do? One more problem they caused me? Or because I know I’ll be doing this, as I do everything, all alone and without any help?

And why, in the name of heaven, have I been keeping all this crap?! Why didn’t I get rid of it a long time ago; in fact, why did I ever keep it in the first place? It isn’t just a case of “Well, this is actually useful, and I might need it”, now is it? No. It’s fear. It’s fear because so much has been taken from me in my lifetime that hanging on to something I don’t really need—something that could possibly be of use to another person—seems to smother that uncomfortable, burning feeling deep within my spirit that I won’t have enough. It’s a barrier, this clutter of stuff I don’t really need and am not using, and don’t even particularly like. It’s a moat against emotional attack.

But in truth, there is no moat, for the real emotional attack is within myself: my habit of castigating myself with cruel words; of rerunning dark videos in my brain of old, damaging scripts; of hearing the voices of abusers, some now long dead, forever muttering criticisms and invective, all within my head. And there is no moat, no barrier, tall enough, deep enough, wide enough, to stifle those soft, invidious whispers of pain.

I have developed a word for myself, one less prejudicial than being OCD or a compulsive housekeeper: I am a “Clear-ing” Lady. I am constantly processing old emotional damage through the method of cleaning my physical surroundings. And that, I’ve decided, is okay. It is just who and what I am, and I am no longer going to chastise myself for a personality quirk that at least results in pleasant and orderly surroundings.

But the most useful technique of handling an episode of clutter clearing, is, I’ve discovered, to go deeper, and to use both the time and my actions to put my soul in order, as well as my home.

Saving Things For Good

My mother died in November, 2010. Following her passing, it took months — quite literally months — for my Dad and I to go through all her hoarded possessions and decide what to do with them.

One of the last things we sorted through was her china cabinet. The shelves were packed with her best china — lovely, thin, translucent white dishes with gold rims. There was expensive glassware, too,  and silver and crystal salt shakers, many of them.  Sadly, although unbroken, everything was in dreadful condition.  Each piece was covered with a pasty, thick film comprised of yellowed nicotine residue and grey dust.  The two prettiest salt shakers, exquisite cut crystal from the former country of Czechoslovakia,  were capped by ruined lids, the silver badly corroded because the seasonings put into them years before had never been removed. Nothing, not one of these lovely pieces of china or crystal, had been used in over twenty years.  They hadn’t even been visible, hidden behind the closed doors of cabinets, slowly gathering dust and grime.

For hours I carefully washed each piece, using a heavy mixture of nose-and-eye searing ammonia blended into scalding water; it was the only way to remove the thick film. Then I rinsed them multiple times and dried them gently until they shone once more, and took the dishes home with me.

A few mornings later, as I prepared my breakfast, serving myself on the pretty white-and-gold china, salting my eggs from the glistening Czechoslovakian crystal shakers, (newly capped with replacement lids that I’d hunted down at a flea market), it struck me forcibly that my mother had lived with these beautiful things all her life, and never enjoyed them.  It wasn’t just that they weren’t used — they weren’t enjoyed.   She took no pleasure in them; she merely owned them. They weren’t cherished, but accumulated.  They weren’t treasures, maintained and conserved; they were merely possessions.

A dear friend told me of a proverb she’d one heard, from another country, another age: that when something precious breaks, like a piece of valued china or a crystal cup, it is taking upon itself the harm that would otherwise have come to a loved one.  Therefore, when some precious possession shatters, one should rejoice, for now a loved one is safe.  In consequence, there is no point in packing precious things away or refusing to use them, for if they are destroyed, they have served even a greater purpose than the sheer pleasure of appreciating them.

So I use my mother’s fine china every day, and salt my food using her crystal shakers from a vanished country. Most of her plates are chipped now, touched with the “chigger bites” that indicate long use, their gold rims fading. Many have been broken. And often, too, I now use my own personal fine china and lovely pink Depression glass teacups — admiring them, holding them before my eyes and drinking in their beauty with my tea — taking pleasure in them, because no matter how precious they may be, they are valuable only if they are appreciated.  And if, as sometimes happens, one shatters and breaks, then I rejoice, knowing that my loved ones, my true treasures, have been kept safe from harm.

Hoard nothing.  Treasure everything.  And save nothing “for good”, for our good is right now.