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Cleaning Tour 2021

The task that faced me was overwhelming. How was I going to deal with almost two years of material that trickled through the front door and wound up on every horizontal surface in the living room, dining room, and kitchen? Little things, big things, well-intentioned projects littered our lives since we both began our new work lives in December 2019. They were all there for the world to see. For us, the sight of them meant nagging feelings of things undone.

I had a week off work. Unable to go anywhere, I decided I would undertake the Cleaning Tour 2021. I promised Virginia we would have a house to live in again. A pandemic had come and stopped many people in their tracks, altering their lives irrevocably and changing the very fabric of their habits and routines. But here at 1717 Jarboe, the coming of a new era started with a sinking feeling that we were falling off the face of the planet.

Part-time teaching wasn’t going to carry us through. Unable to find a job, I went to work at the Post Office. Seventy-hour weeks took up my time, sometimes 16-20 miles a day. I surrendered myself to the work, lost weight, and made it to work on time regardless of how I felt. Meanwhile, lockdowns and mask requirements took the attention of everyone around me. None of that mattered. The mail had to go through.

Then, in April, I graduated from assistant to career employee, a change of status that left me with 40- to 45-hour weeks and two days off each week. In May, I landed my own route, cutting my daily mileage to 14. I had some time. But the miles I put in every day kept me from having the energy to tackle the simplest housekeeping tasks. Sure, we kept dishes from stacking up in the sink and the floor relatively free of obstruction. Laundry was washed but then sat in lazy piles spilling from the dryer. We picked out what we needed from day to day and left the rest, only to repeat the cycle week to week.

And that pile of on the dining room table and in the corners of the living room—books, mail, pens, papers of various importance—kept getting thicker and higher. We could no longer eat at the dining room table. The detritus of living stacked up in the corners. The books I read at night stacked higher and higher, becoming dustier and more bothersome from month to month.

Then came my vacation.

Let me tell you this: If I sit down to write a book, I’m going to fail. But if I sit down to write a sentence, I may wind up with a page. I have to break everything in my life down to the most doable, chewable bits if I’m going to get anything accomplished.

And that’s the way I approached the Cleaning Tour. I decided in the weeks leading up to this vacation, this glorious seven days free of the mail, that I would do one thing at a time, one project or corner or table or dresser-top a day. If the project for the day took 20 minutes, well, that’s all anyone was going to get from me. If it took six or seven hours, then so be it. Meanwhile, I would nap, read, and soak in the tub, bathing in the absence of carrying mail.

I started with the kitchen and dining room. It was with a great sense of loss that I piled letters and the things I thought I would get to one day into paper sacks for recycling. But I was ruthless. I wasn’t going to let sentiment, of which I am full, stop me in my quest to see the top of that dining room table. The papers that seemed important, things we shouldn’t throw away, went into plastic storage containers (likely to be tossed later). I mourned and contemplated as one thing after another went from the table to a storage container or the trash or recycling. After a couple of hours, I was down to a dusty tabletop and felt a great sense of accomplishment wiping it down with a clean cloth.

It was with a great feeling of loss that I considered what I had relegated to recycling and trash. There were letters from loved ones there. Congratulatory cards from my graduation. Pictures and notes. I plowed through a lot of love that was sitting on that table. But you can’t eat love and too much of it produces a sense of squalor.

I thought a great deal about those houses I deliver to where people don’t throw anything away, the open garage doors that reveal walls of once-useful utensils and machines that someone will have to go through on those people’s deaths. There’s something about hoarding that produces despair in me. Nothing we have, that we hold important, can’t be thrown away.

Then came the kitchen, a real mess of piles of tiny things stacked in the corners and around the edges. That ruthlessness set in again and I was like a machine, throwing things away, finding places in cabinets for those items we needed, and ridding myself and my family of old to-do lists, shopping lists, and lists of people we should have sent thank you cards to ages ago.

That was it for the day. I read, napped, and bathed. I slept well feeling freedom from the earthly binds that held me back.

The same thing happened to the living room the next day, and then the bedroom the day after. I sifted through stacks of books, maps, and those items that I keep close to me at night like teddy bears to keep me company. Nine sacks of books went to the used bookstore. I kept volumes I like and will read again, those books I have yet to read and want to, and formative tomes—those that made me who I am. I reduced it all to two stacks of books, all dusted and cleaned, which will, of course, be the seed for my next cleaning spree.

And so on through the house until yesterday. I shampooed the carpets—now that there were carpets to be seen. After returning the cleaner to the place I rented it from, I stood back. The loss was palpable. I would miss some things that I threw away, recycled, or took to the second-hand bookstore. But I can’t hold my life up for what might be. And, in all likelihood, I wouldn’t actually miss anything. If it was important, I could buy it again, such is the nature of our material society. Nothing I handled over the week had any monetary importance and, if it did, well, too bad.

I sit now in a house that’s filled with light. It is airy. I revel in that. I feel much better. Virginia is happy—that’s the greatest accomplishment of the week.

And, now, it’s time for a nap.

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