Heading into the attic storage room to rummage around for Christmas ornaments, I noticed this sign hanging above the door. My late husband and I salvaged it from an old vacuum-cleaner box at my mother’s house after she died, and we had it framed. It was too retro not to save, and too cute, and reminded us too much of my mother’s approach to housecleaning, which was not to do any.
I always notice this sign, because I’m always heading into the attic storage room to rummage around for something or other, be it a pair of hockey skates or a DVD of William Shatner’s “Alexander the Great” TV-movie that he made in 1964, when he was really young and really hot and I was 1 year old and not yet infatuated with him. I am no longer, but I still possess weird Shatneriana and ephemera.
I possess many things, weird and not. I wish I didn’t. I don’t actually like things; they weigh on me like an obligation, requiring regular maintenance and necessary organizational skills that, unlike my things, I do not possess. Chris was good at owning things, knew what to do with them, how to take care of them, where to store them, how to retrieve them, how to use them, how to put them back afterward. I suspect he was always like that, but an early career in carpentry and construction honed his ability to retain and organize objects. His basement workshop was a miracle of tool-coordinating feng shui, and after he died it was months before I could bring myself to disrupt their order and give some of them away.
I have no such order to disrupt. When I write, my mind is organized, but that’s about it, folks. In all other contexts and all other ways, I’m a slob. Not a major one: no greasy pizza boxes anywhere. Just a minor one. And a recovering slob: 20 years of marriage to a neatnik brought me some self-awareness of my own chaotic and confused inclinations and, even more important, taught me to be vigilant in combating them. I work at it. Sort of. Kinda depends on your definition of “work.” If it means keeping the public parts of the house more or less passable and the private ones private, that’s me. But if, by “work,” you mean “vacuuming the curtains” or “scouring out the grot with a nail file,” or “polishing the silverware with my tongue,” then, umm, no. I don’t do that. But I do sweep and clean dishes occasionally.
Since Chris died, I’ve managed to purge a lot of things. Not just his things; all things. I need fewer of them, because I’m a terrible and neglectful caretaker, and because I have so little time to spend on anything that doesn’t matter. Things don’t. I’m reminded of my mother, whose life changed and time shrank after my father — who was 56 when I was born — began to go senile, forcing her to care for him and her children while earning a paycheck. At the end of the day, she never had much stuff left in her for cleaning: I never saw her scouring out the grot with a nail file, either. She did her best, and her best included a laissez-faire attitude that allowed her scrappy younger child to throw baseballs against the house and, in the process, shatter every other window on the first floor. “It’s only a thing,” she’d say, and then cover the broken glass with a sheet of plywood.
Touch no dirt. Breathe no dirt. See no dirt. The way I gauge it, I can achieve these three exalted states of being by applying myself full-time to household scrubbing. Or I can do as my mother did and just make do — picking at this stack of clutter, straightening that one, sweeping away the dirt as it accrues. I clear out the cobwebs. I haul things to the curb. Onward.