Let Yourself Go: Spring Cleaning
Lori Jakiela explains when your memories take up too much space in the house, it’s freeing to let them go.
The mildewed boxes in our basement nagged my husband, Newman, for decades. Newman is the organized type — think Marie Kondo if Marie Kondo looked like an extra on “Sons of Anarchy” and didn’t give a @&#$%! about what did or did not spark @&#$%!-ing joy.
My husband is gentle and sweet, despite appearances, except when it comes to clutter. Then he’s ruthless, a biker-bearded bully — which is good since, left to my own devices, our house would be overrun.
“I like order,” Newman says, because so much else in life is beyond our control.
I get it. He’s a writer. I’m a writer. Too much clutter is distracting, the world being too much with us, so it goes.
“Not that it was beautiful / but that, in the end, there was / a certain sense of order there,” the poet Anne Sexton wrote.
I love Anne Sexton. But one day, Anne Sexton came home to her own tidy space. She put on her dead mother’s fur coat, took off her own rings (poets love rings), poured a glass of vodka — that tidiest of drinks — locked herself in her garage, started her car and gassed herself to death.
As role models go, Anne Sexton is a major fail.
But this isn’t about that.
“Do we really need all of these?” Newman says, holding up the stack of hats our son, Locklin, wore from age 1 to 10 — little denim bucket hats I keep layered like Russian nesting dolls in our hall closet.
Sometimes I line the hats up, from tiniest to least tiny, like a timeline of my son’s joy. When he stopped loving hats, the sadness crept in — adolescence, the embarrassment of loving anything too much.
“The Before Times,” people say about the line between light and dark, between innocence and experience.
Other things I’ve stashed: my children’s teeth — creepy and which occasionally draw some sort of bugs I don’t want to Google; my dead parents’ expired passports; a blue handkerchief my father kept tucked in the pocket of his work pants; a souvenir penny of Detroit my grandmother left me in her will.
I don’t think of myself as a hoarder.
This may be the first of the five stages of hoarding. Denial.
As for the boxes, I kept them stacked next to our washer and dryer, hoping they wouldn’t draw Newman’s attention. After years, the stack reached almost to the basement ceiling, but it was my stack, my boxes. I wanted to keep them.
“My life is in those boxes,” I said, like an actress in a 1940s movie about to faint or break into song. “Oh please,” Newman said. “Those are my memories,” I replied — and realized that was the same excuse I used when I was 12 and my mother demanded I clean my room.
“Your memories take up too much space,” my mother said. “Either they go or you do.”
I was an adopted kid, so this threat hit different.
My mother didn’t mean it, of course, but she liked order, too. Her generation washed walls and spring cleaned — that act of renewal, rebirth. My mother purged. She’d move furniture around.
“A fresh start,” she would say, her face lit with hope. Moving a couch or a bed would bring happiness, a new perspective.
Maybe it did.
“I never seemed to like spring for what it was; I always loved it for what it might have been,” Anne Sexton wrote.
Finally, after 22 years together, just before spring hit, tired, I gave in to Newman’s sense of order.
“Do whatever,” I said about the boxes.
Newman built a fire in our firepit. I helped him lug the boxes out. We fed the fire.
There was so much paper — yellowed news clippings from my first work as a journalist, obscure literary magazines where I published embarrassingly terrible poems, flyers with my face on them, letters and printed-out emails from friends and kind strangers and former students who wrote to tell me something I’d done in this life once mattered.
At first, I hung back and let Newman handle things. Then I got in there. I read everything before I dropped it into the flames. I pulled a clipping of a story I wrote about a blind champion bowler; I pulled a clipping of a column I wrote about Live Aid and my first love and how we traveled to Philadelphia in the back of a Le Car driven by a scalper; I pulled poster after poster promoting my first book, my second, my third and so on. I burned dossiers, which is a fancy word for academics who want to prove their worth in this world and get tenure.
What a word — tenure.
Tenure: the act, right, manner, or term of holding something.
As I watched everything burn, I wondered what I was holding onto, why it mattered, and why it felt, in the end, so freeing to let it go.
“Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard,” Anne Sexton wrote.
Life is fleeting. Nothing will give us tenure in this world.
“I’m shredding my journals,” the author Elizabeth Strout told me recently. Elizabeth Strout is a beautiful human, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, the subject of countless academic studies.
“I couldn’t bear for anyone to see them,” she said about her journals. “It’s so personal.”
Elizabeth Strout. People would want to read her biography, written by someone who studied her journals and notes and boxes of memories. But Elizabeth Strout is a private person. There is something beautifully invisible about her. She enters and leaves a room without people noticing. Her eyes, the color of the sea, are so intense, a camera focused on the world beyond her. She takes everyone else in.
“We all have to have something that’s our own,” Elizabeth Strout said. “And we have the right to make it disappear.”
Let Yourself Go is a quarterly essay series by Lori Jakiela. Her latest book, “They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice: On Cancer, Love, and Living Even So,” will be published by Atticus Books this fall.