Shift #13: Cleaning out the House
There’s nothing like sifting through someone else’s house once they’re gone to make us consider what it is we keep and why.
This past weekend, I was in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, with my husband, my daughter, and my brothers-in-law and their families. We cleaned out my father-in-law’s house to get it ready to sell. It was hotter than hell down there. The house had that boarded-up sort of smell. Dust flew and, at times, we all had a little trouble breathing. We sorted through furniture, clothes, linens, old photos, books, jewelry, and all the other pieces of a life that settled into this space occupied by the same man for over 50 years.
It’s an eerie feeling to go through someone else’s belongings with an eye to what to keep, what to toss, what to sell. We weighed each item, became ruthless in throwing things away. My father-in-law had ancient bottles of stale spices in his cupboard, yet had gotten rid of all the baseball cards my husband and his brothers collected that would have been worth quite a bit by now. He had wonderful old wooden toys in the basement that we divided among ourselves for our kids and grandkids; we tossed all the old plastic kitchen utensils without a second thought. There was an entire set of World Book encylopedias from the 1950s that my 12-year-old nephew decided he wanted to keep. The dictionary from 1948 got donated after my daughter teased me, the English major, for not wanting it. My husband ended up coming home with my father-in-law’s college ring from the University of Wisconsin, where my husband also went to college. In fact, he put the ring on this morning and wore it to work. It fits him perfectly.
At one point, my daughter commented that she hoped her father and I wouldn’t let things pile up and get dirty so that she would be stuck cleaning it up. She hoped we wouldn’t save things that really shouldn’t be saved.
I’ve been thinking about that comment ever since. What have I saved that matters to no one but me? What have I gotten rid of that others consider valuable? Do I care?
I care about making it easy for my kids in the event that they do have to clean out this house once I’m gone. I also care that they don’t stumble on something that completely changes what they think of me in a bad way. As a writer, I have a lot of old journals laying around that aren’t meant for any eyes but mine. They contain the raw material that spawns poems and essays but that, on its own, might give the impression of a me that doesn’t really exist. That material may be fictional or come out of dreams/nightmares, it may be a response to something that I’ve seen or heard or fantasized about. Some of it is the way I process what’s going on in my life. Someone else who reads that material isn’t going to know where the boundaries are.
And that leads me to consider what I really need to keep and what I can toss now that I’ve written the words and done the internal work that goes with that writing process. I need to step back and think about letting go of things without worrying that I’m letting go of something important.
Perhaps this sort of shift in focus begins with letting go of something that’s easier to part with than the old journals. I’m great at cleaning out old clothes, purses, cheap jewelry, spices, outdated books. As a writer, cleaning out those old journals and half-written pieces may be just the thing to launch a phase of creativity that hasn’t had to space to exist with the old stuff in the way.
Clear out the space. Make room. See how much easier it is to move around and breathe. Then see what flows in as a result.