Clean at your own risk

The perils of organizing your house after age 35

4 minute read
The keys to what? (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
The keys to what? (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

If a memory doesn’t pop up as a photo on your social-media timeline and cause you acute pain four years later, did it even happen at all?

Last week I wrote about my birthday. It was nice—I even got some of the things on my list. But as I am lucky enough to stack up birthdays (which seem to come around quicker every year), I’m getting disgruntled with the cumulative volume of life’s tragedies, challenges, and irritants. I’ve been using social media for about 10 years—long enough to get really bitter on a regular basis about what Facebook thinks I want to remember.

Clean all the things

I am also now accustomed to a periodic obsession with purging, organizing, and cleaning everything I own. I’m at risk of these states when my deskside Complete Works of Shakespeare and handbook on gender-inclusive language get buried by polite paper threats from local hospitals to whom I owe money, months of PECO bills I paid online, obsolete press packets, and empty Cheez-It boxes.

Before I had reached the emotionally redolent pastures of my mid-30s, these clean-outs were sort of fun. Photos from high-school summer camp. Funny forgotten t-shirts. Old magazine stories I wrote. Last year’s boots.

As the warm wave of this year’s birthday wishes receded, the compulsion to get my life organized (again) took hold over the following weekend. But it wasn’t as satisfying as I remembered. By Sunday night, when my partner came over, I was assembling some hoarded loaf leftovers into a bread pudding, mixing butter, cream, eggs, maple syrup, vanilla, and cinnamon according to a vague recollection of a recipe I heard six months ago from Terry Crews while he ate hot wings on YouTube.

This bread pudding was the final stage before a prolonged fit of weeping.

It’s not so bad

Sure, a lot of the stuff I unearthed was innocuous. The bottom of every drawer is awash with those lead-heavy little IKEA wrenches, plus assembly booklets for cabinets with terse, sour names like MALM. Fifteen years of spare buttons (can’t throw those away). Whimsical clothes that don’t fit anymore. Irritating joke presents that were fun only for the giver—I’m finally throwing that shit out, unless the neighbor kids want it.

Some things are a boon, like the water shoes I thought I lost last summer. And I did find my auxiliary cord, disappeared for many months. Then I realized it can’t be used with the phone I have now.

Who knew that in 1999, I painted a hyperrealistic watercolor still life of a pile of Cheetos? I also saved my first-ever pay stub as a professional writer, from a Philly newspaper in 2007.

Paint like it's 1999. (Image courtesy of the artist.)
Paint like it's 1999. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

Here it comes

I’ve also got a whole handful of keys, from those tinny sham padlocks you put on your luggage to the keys for the house I relinquished in the divorce.

That horrible, liberating divorce. It’s almost four years behind me, but all I have to do is open one filing folder, and it’s everywhere. And then there’s the matter of the old smartphone, saved along with its charger. I used to love playing Tetris on that thing. I plugged it in, turned it on… and read an old text thread from my ex-husband. He disapproved of the new glasses I had carefully chosen. Just like he disapproved of most things I did. I remember how I felt when I sent him that selfie from the optometrist’s. Hoping, hoping he’d be kind about this small thing. Knowing he wouldn’t be.

Never better

I wish I had had the sense to jump into something less painful, but alas. An ex-boyfriend’s academic conference schedules were still living in the same drawer. The papers he delivered after we pored cozily over them for hours, and before he vanished into a PhD program across the country. Wedding-reception photo-booth shots of me and a different man, arms around each other. A thoughtful small gift he gave to show me I didn’t have to be afraid anymore. I held it for a long time and tipped it into the trash, many months after our agonizing breakup.

The older I get, the more dead people I know, and I have a feeling this is only going to get worse. An increasing number of funeral-service printouts lurk in my papers. Photos of people I loved swim up through the drawers. I opened old birthday cards and touched signatures that no one will ever sign again.

People say “it gets better,” but the irony, to me, is that pain like this can ambush you only because things have gotten better. Perspective is a double-edged sword. Grief becomes intermittent, but never loses its edge. Each necessary reinvention, however joyous, is also a former self to grieve. The older we get, the deeper the detritus of our lives goes. In the future, I’m going to try to clean as I go—but I think we all know how that ends.

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