May 24, 2013
I am cleaning my house. Everything must go. Or almost everything. As I have explained to anyone who’s asked about those tall stacks of banker’s boxes dominating our front hall, kitchen, and living rooms, I think that it’s crucial to clean out every corner of the house every 25 years, whether needed or not! The accumulated detritus of life must be examined and discharged — if not to the “permanent” collection of life artifacts to be left to one’s heirs to sort through (good luck with that, kids!), or else to the recycle bin, the donation center at Good Cheer, or the plain and simple fact of the garbage can.
I am sure there are some perfect people somewhere who have already done this on weekends or summer vacations, while also mastering the mad dance of balancing mother- and/or father-hood, work-life, artistic life, spiritual life and community life, WHILE maintaining gorgeous photo albums with the grace of spinning so many plates on sticks, but I am not one of them. The 25 years of raising two boys on Whidbey Island went by in a blur of bright colors; we were busy doing all of it, all at once, all of the time, and much too busy to sort papers; but I have large tubs of Legos and closets stuffed full of used Halloween costumes to evoke the amazing times we had in place of living by House Beautiful standards.
The boys are now two years semi-permanently out of the nest, and while I have had the recent excuse for my messiness of working very hard away from home for months at a time in places like Kentucky and Florida, the nest finally became over-saturated to the point of bursting like a fat piñata. Though the image is a colorful one, suggesting something creatively constructed of crepe paper breaking open with a confetti of treasures and treats raining down, the reality is more like a murky flood of old, moldy phone bills and credit card receipts from 1988. I kid you not.
There was literally and figuratively nothing else to do but take it on as I have been doing for the last several weeks — or is it months — as I have lost track of the present while meandering in the stacks of memorabilia. These excavated artifacts include a collection of stories I wrote as a fourth grader, which my mother saved and then sent to me when the boys were themselves in grade school. I have folders for each one of them as well, which contain similar irreplaceable items — Orson’s epic third grade novel, entitled “Travels of an Elf” and Preston’s series of mysteries, which he wrote using his fourth-grade spelling words as a prompt entitled “The Casebook of Tony Mounds — Private Eye.” Who could toss such valuable accretions as this?
In any case, the long and the short of this giant sorting out of the evidence of my life has culminated with the achievement of a glistening clean office, including two completely clear desks, denuded window sills, a new found emptiness of file cabinets, and a central, easily accessible location for paper clips, pens and pencils. From the rubble of the past has arisen a revived writer’s paradise.
This new spaciousness in my workroom is a sight I have not glimpsed since the Great Flood of 1999, when an exploded washing machine hose caused a remodel of our downstairs. For a brief period of time, the place was as empty as a blank piece of paper. Since then, of course, the layers of love, life and sloppy work habits have had ample opportunity to build up again, to the point where I began to feel I should call on one of those reality TV shows to come and force my hand at cleaning up or else be humiliated in front of untold numbers of viewers nationwide for hoarding stacks of unanswered Christmas cards — still hoping to make a master list of addresses, which some day will lead to holiday greetings sent out by Thanksgiving rather than Chinese New Year’s or not at all.
Fortunately, it did not have to come to that. I got a grip on myself and set a deadline which, not so serendipitously, coincided with my oldest son’s 25th birthday, on the 25th of May. I suppose there was something about the majesty of a quarter century marking the start of that crazy, chaotic, beautiful, love-filled time of our lives, which made me wake up, smell the coffee, and clean up the mess. Our family’s form has transitioned into something else now — a time to love each other from afar, cheer each other from the stands, and carry on with each of our separate life’s work. For me, that consists of making peace with the words that went underground, like buried treasure, in the time between my first son’s birth cry and my second son’s departure for college. So many unwritten words are packed into the walls of the house, that when I pull back even one layer of papers in a box, hosts of syllables crowd out like ants from a disturbed hill.
I had occasion to put my hands on what remains of my boys’ baby clothes not long ago, as I disgorged the goods accumulated in not one but TWO storage units at Waterman’s. As I touched them — little hats, a funny coat, a favorite pair of overalls, and an assortment of colorful socks barely worn — I remember their tiny feet inside me, kicking to get out, followed by bigger feet in red, salt-water sandals, splashing in the low tides of Double Bluff, which soon enough became even bigger feet in tall socks, shin-guards and cleats, running up and down the soccer fields. I am fortunate; they had good feet and strong legs, and now as young men they are using these assets to wade their way out into the world away from here, away from drowsy island time and the shimmering pools of childhood summer.
In wishing my son Orson the happiest of birthdays, I offer him this new and shining empty place I’ve made in his and his brother’s absence, with the hope and prayer that it gives us all a fresh start, a new blank page on which to write the next perfect word we can collectively share, which, grammatically speaking, is a verb in the imperative mood. Simply put: “Begin!”
Upcoming beach-cleaning events on the island:
For those who have already done their closets, sorted their drawers, and dispensed with excess rubbish, but nonetheless are looking for a productive way to act on the urge to Spring clean, I suggest joining the W.S.U. Beach Litter Clean-up Program. It starts May 24 at Fort Casey State Park and continues at various beach sites on the island until the end of June.
To learn more about the clean-ups, contact Stinger Anderson at the WSU Island County Extension at (360) 240-5558. Here’s the full schedule.
If you’ve still got kids in salt-water sandals at home, this is a great way to spend time with them before they run off into the future without you!