cleaning out


Today our garage is going to lose some weight.

On what is turning out to be a perfect New England summer day, Ginger and I are going to pull everything out of our garage (which is actually more of a storage shed) and take most of it to the dump. For the five years we have lived here, the garage has been the repository of everything from boxes that haven’t been opened since we left Charlestown to stuff we were going to get to later to stuff we put out there to get out of sight.

Moving as much as I did growing up, I never had much of a chance to accumulate things. We moved often and traveled light. In my adult years, I have realized, I never learned much about throwing things away. I’m a pack rat, pure and simple. Some stuff I hang on to because I think I might be able to use it; most stuff I just hang on to. Something in me would rather put it in the garage, or in a closet or a drawer, than put it out with the trash, take it to Goodwill, sell it at a yard sale and let it live in someone else’s garage. I feel like Steve Martin in The Jerk, walking through the house saying, “The ashtray, the paddleball, and the remote control – that’s all I need . . .”

I think there is something in all of us that resists getting rid of stuff. I worked at the Red Lion Inn last night. The evening was slow, as are most Mondays in the restaurant business, and I took it upon myself to clean out the walk-in refrigerator. We do a pretty good job of making sure what is in there is what is we need and is fresh, but I did find a couple of bain maries with remnants of soup de jours from jours gone by, or pans of things that had, for one reason or another, gotten pushed to the back of the shelf and forgotten. In the kitchen, as in the garage or in life, we have to stop from time to time and deal with what’s left before we continue with what’s new. I’m not good at cleaning out until I need the space for something else or what’s there becomes a nuisance. Part of my resistance to getting rid of things is an irrational fear of throwing away something important. I say irrational because if I haven’t needed what is in those boxes for five years, how could it be that important? Why is it so hard to let go? Why am I so attached to trash?

The way I want to answer those questions is the other reason we are cleaning out today: it’s a jumpstart for a new beginning. Ginger goes back to work in about two weeks, fall means a new church year and – even without kids of our own – a new school year, which changes the sense of time for everyone. We want to start with a cleaner slate (and garage) than we have right now because we want the year ahead to be different for us in how we handle our things or money and our time. Once again, creating open space reaps benefits.

As the space clears, the other intriguing aspect of cleaning out is what I learn about myself as I look at what I have collected. I’m embarking on an archaeological dig, in a way, sifting back through the layers of my life as told by what has become superfluous, stacked in reverse chronology. As we clean, we will find both what we no longer need and what we have forgotten, both calling us to remember where we have been and to evaluate once again who we are now and who we are becoming.

When we walked among the ruins of ancient cities and civilizations in Greece and Turkey, everything we saw had been unearthed, city built on top of city. The dust and debits that had collected over time buried turned one civilization into the foundation of the next. When they dug the subway system in Athens, they found parts of the old city underground, even though people had lived there continually. In her wonderful book, For the Time Being, Annie Dillard writes:

New York City’s street level rises every century. The rate at which dust buries us varies. The Mexico City in which Cortes walked is now thirty feet underground. It would be farther underground except that Mexico City itself has started sinking, Digging a subway line, workers found a temple. Debris lifts land an average of 4.7 feet per century. King Herod the Great rebuilt the Second Temple in Jerusalem two thousand years ago: the famous Western Wall is a top layer of old retaining wall near the peak of Mount Moriah. From the present bottom of the Western Wall to bedrock is sixty feet.

Quick: Why aren’t you dusting? On every continent, we sweep floors and wipe tabletops not only to shine the place, but to forestall burial. (123)

I said yesterday that both the present and the future call us to respond with a mixture of wonder, creativity, tenacity, and compassion that can’t be carried in a fist. They also cannot be carried in arms already filled with things.

Here’s hoping I can let go of the ashtray, the paddleball, and the remote control.



  1. Every year, on Labor Day, my mother would make us clean (closets, drawers, etc…) in preparation for the new school year. She really knew how to put the “labor” in Labor day!

    This post was definitely something I could relate to! We should just start the “new year” in Sept.

  2. I love this. That scene from the Jerk is one of my alltime favorites. When I can make myself do it, I love the clean feeling you get from ridding the house and mind of those unimportant “things”.

Leave a Reply