In his essay, “Good-Bye to Forty-Eighth Street,” E. B. White describes a move from the six-room Manhattan apartment he then shared with his wife. Even in 1957 people accumulated lots of stuff; it’s not just our epoch that is so acquisitive. Contemplating my own home, which is fairly tidy, I feel about it the same way that White felt about his apartment:
A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on night and day — smooth, subtly, imperceptibly. I have no sharp taste for acquiring things, but it is not necessary to desire things in order to acquire them. Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. [...] This steady influx is not counterbalanced by any comparable outgo. Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in.
In the passage above where I’ve used a “[...]” as a placeholder for many sentences I’ve omitted, White lists the various things that have made their way into his life without his beckoning or actively acquiring them: books, oddities, gifts, memo books, a chip of wood sent to him by a reader, and “indestructible keepsakes” left behind by someone who has died. Later in the essay he writes about the special problem of trophies. (Note: While my post is not at all about teaching, I think it could be a fruitful assignment in a creative writing class to have students make a long list of items that could fill that “[...]” spot. Perhaps an idea for a poem would emerge.)
White and his wife had only six rooms in this apartment. In our house, we have seven rooms, plus more closets, and an attic and basement. Ah, therein lies the problem. A former grad school professor of mine once said to me, as she and her husband packed up a house to move in with a daughter upon their retirement: “People should not be allowed to know that they have attics and basements.”
Our attic, which is reachable by a pull-down stairway, is not too packed. There are some holiday ornaments, papers, and baby clothes, all boxed, as well as the air-conditioning compressor and a series of corrugated silver ducts. Our basement, in comparison, is a danger zone. There is a small, finished portion that we use for a den dedicated to tv-watching and a desk alcove for Jimmy; the rest of it I think of as a kind of lower intestine to the house — you really don’t want to know what goes on there — and is filled floor to ceiling and wall to wall with some stuff we need (tools), some stuff we believe we need to save (board games for a boring day), and some lost and forgotten stuff (no doubt some computer peripherals and cords). An oil tank, burner, and water heater are nestled among all this.
The presence of excessive disorder in the house, even though it is down below, has started to put so much psychic pressure on me that I have made it a priority to tackle it this summer. I’ve enlisted Jimmy’s participation too, even though he has been so far unfazed by the basement clutter. This weekend, Jimmy confronted the family files and his own papers. I at last stood in front of the burgeoning paint can collection and did not run.
Over many hours, and with some help from Grace, I opened and inspected all of the paint. What was spoiled, I set aside for drying out and discarding. (It’s all latex.) What is still useable, although no longer relevant to the color scheme of our house, I set aside for a Craigslist giveaway. What is still useable and relevant to our color scheme, I labeled and re-shelved.
- Set aside for drying and discarding: 12 gallon-sized cans + 5 quart-sized ones + 11 of those 4 oz. samples
- Set aside for a Craigslist giveaway: 3 gallon-sized cans + 13 quart-sized ones + one 5-gallon bucket of white ceiling paint
- Kept and re-labeled for our own use: 15 gallon-sized cans + 13 quart-sized ones + 4 spray cans
- Total number of paint containers assessed and sorted: 77 items
Although I felt fear as I first confronted the hoard, which I think of as mine and therefore my problem, as I got into the task I felt purposeful and eventually experienced pleasure. Some spoiled or old colors reminded me of early days in our house, when the old bathroom was a lavender blue. A bunch of barely used quarts reminded me of the activity of making sample cards to test colors for the exterior shutters or for the new bathrooms installed in 2008. Of course, I also felt the exquisite pleasure of making order where before there was none.
This making order where before there was none is a kind of clearing the decks for me, not just physical but also mental. The domestic physical world, which includes the garden and trees too, seems so an extension of my mind that when it’s disordered, I feel unrest. When it’s ordered, I feel peace.
Perhaps this tendency could be considered a neurosis, and yet I experience it as a strength. If I can use my brain and body to bring organization to a task, group, or collection, I feel better. Lighter. Almost free.
In making order, my mind also ruminates on other problems of interest to me. While bringing order to the paint, for example, I thought about an essay draft I had recently written, a draft I am unsure about. I had wondered if perhaps I should discard it, not unlike a spoiled can of paint, and start with a new design. As I used the paint can key over and over to pry off the lids, I mentally looked at that draft and imagined new ways to shape what is now a used thing. (One thing that’s hard about revision is that the bloom is off the rose; its early freshness is lost. In revision, one must recommit and then find and make an essay’s final, beautiful maturity. That takes stomach.) Today I return to that draft clear-eyed.
The winnowed paint collection is satisfyingly re-shelved. The basement clean out continues. Tools — we have three hammers, plus duplicates and triplicates of many other useful things — are next.