I’ve been purging.
I don’t know exactly where it’s come from, this desire to pull open drawers, to sort into keep and toss piles, to load up the back of the Rav and drop it all at Goodwill, pulling out of the parking lot quickly before I have time to change my mind. But since January, I’ve made maybe a dozen of these trips, sometimes with the trunk full, sometimes with only a few things waiting on the backseat, calling out to me in that special way of old sweaters, jars of bath crystals and picture frames still in their cardboard packages.
Don’t worry, I think, as I dump them onto the folding table at the donation drop-off center. Really, you’re better off this way.
I have been watching—guilty-pleasure watching—episodes of Hoarders. My husband wants nothing to do with it; he shakes his head in disgust when he sees what’s on TV; at the first mention of a dead pet found beneath the pile of rotted food in the kitchen (and that always, always happens), he demands that the channel be changed.
Also, I did recently buy The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. There’s a certain level of crazy in the book that cannot be overlooked, but some shockingly good common sense, too.
And I’ve been thinking—a luxury that my last few semesters of madness didn’t allow, but the more sane pace of this semester does. There’s a left-digit change in my near future, and I feel in many ways that I’ll be moving on to other things. I’ve done that already, I realize when I find a box of books from my teacher credentialing program. This year marks the year I’ve not been a high school teacher as long as I was one, and without me noticing it, the date to renew my credential has come and gone.
W. has been busy with work, and I’ve found myself with uninterrupted time on Saturday mornings, and the purging has been happening then, with the pets staring wide-eyed from their respective corners. One night, W. opens the linen closet, and instead of towels and sheets spilling out haphazardly, he is greeted by short, orderly piles.
“Did we get rid of a lot of stuff?” he asks. “There’s all this empty space in the closets.”
“I’ve been spring cleaning,” I tell him.
The garage, I determined sometime in the middle of 2015, was going to need a major overhaul. The garage represented everything that was wrong with our lives (and dare I say it, America). It stank of so much abundance that perfectly usable things could be placed out there and never even moved for ten years. There had initially been an order, an attempt at organization—suitcases here, pet stuff there, paint cans here, laundry stuff there. And then at some point, that system disappeared and the room became a hold-all for plastic tubs full of halfway discarded clothing, towering tiers of empty boxes, dropped socks, a million golf balls rattling around loose, and the office supplies I’d packed hastily into bins when I left my job teaching junior high, vowing never to return.
I knew it needed a serious cleaning, the kind that required a cleared calendar, good weather (way too hot in the summer to even contemplate) and a rented trash container from the city. So, overwhelmed by the chaos, I did the only thing I could think to do at the time.
I posted a sign on the door leading from the kitchen to the garage. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK, it says. AND NEVER AFTER DARK.
Sometimes, friends see that sign and think it’s for them. They hesitate, hand on the doorknob, ready to turn. But no, I tell them—that sign is for me.
I decided in January that the best way to handle the garage was to give it an hour of my time each week and hope to be done by June. Every Saturday, wearing old jeans and tennis shoes, my hair pulled back and head covered (spiders have crisscrossed the rafters with their webs, reveling in our neglect), I prop up my laptop to listen to last week’s This American Life and I dig in.
At times, it goes pretty fast. I slice through empty boxes with a sharp blade, flattening them beneath my feet as I go. At other times, it’s a bit like an archaeological dig. I find a laptop box from two laptops ago, and wonder why I’ve kept it. I uncover the Christmas tree stand I used years ago when I still decorated the house for the holidays next to a bag full of dusty aluminum cans that never made it to recycling. There are boxes and boxes of notebooks full of my writing—I know I can’t bear to part with them just yet, so it’s dangerous to even crack the cover of the box.
Occasionally, the cat flap squeaks on its hinge, and Baxter pokes his head into the garage to sniff the air, see what I’m doing.
Three weekends in, I begin to suspect that I have a problem with paper products. The fifth weekend, this is confirmed when I find another stash of napkins, paper plates, cups. I am/we are prepared for the world’s largest picnic, if not the zombie apocalypse. I dedicate two full shelves on the industrial-strength organizer to paper plates, and then shove the rest in a giant trash bag and deliver it to Goodwill. I imagine the worker sorting this bag, wondering who raided a Walmart, what party was canceled last minute.
Yesterday I reached the paint section in this hardware store that is my life, and I dusted off the tops of cans. What I found was a short history of our house—beginning with the Mallard Green that used to be our exterior trim, and on through each of the rooms—Lemon Meringue, Bread Basket, Classic Ivory, Camelcoat, the disputed blue in the office that I’ve threatened to paint over so often, I’ve become the Girl Who Cried Paintbrush.
At one point, I bought three different quarts of high-gloss exterior for the front door, then talked myself out of the bolder colors.
I hesitate over these colors, then decide to keep them.
Maybe someday I’ll go for it.
There’s enough room, at this very moment, to stand on the south side of the garage, reach out my arms, and spin in a wide circle without hitting anything other than air and the occasional spider web. It’s the smallest of small dents in the mess, but there’s hope. There’s light at the end of the tunnel—or at least, from the room’s only window, which was previously blocked by the box for the world’s largest at-home telescope and now emits a cheery, sunny view of the outside world.
It’s not a bad thing.
A funny thing about writing: It’s both an incredibly private, intimate act and (I suppose, if you’re persistent and lucky) something that gets shared with the world.
Which means, essentially, that the hours and hours (… and hours) that you spend alone or semi-alone or for-all-intents-and-purposes alone with your manuscript may one day translate to a book sitting on a shelf, and you the reader may walk past the shelf and do a double-take, because there’s the physical proof that you the writer really did all that work.
It’s awesome. It’s the stuff dreams are made of. (Erm: It’s the stuff of which dreams are made.) And then, at times, it’s incredibly unnerving.
Case in point: The Drowning Girls.
Or as she’s known around my house, Baby #3.
In the public life cycle of a book, The Drowning Girls is in its nascent state. Advanced reader copies are out there, circling amongst a handpicked group of writers and bloggers and reviewers, and I imagine the books, lovingly packaged in bubble wrap, being transferred from shipping center to shipping center, being loaded and unloaded, and finally being hand-delivered onto a doorstep. Later the package is opened, the book set aside for the time being or the spine immediately cracked open—and that’s where I have to stop imagining, or one of two things will happen: I’ll become a bit queasy, or my head will explode.
In its other, more private life, The Drowning Girls is eighteen months old, this no-longer-tiny thing I’ve nursed from idea through touch-and-go illnesses and minor missteps and finally, to triumphs. Those of you who know me in my private life know that there were times I wasn’t sure TDG was going to make it to its present state. (Add them up: stress, self-doubt, inhibitions, distractions from all angles.) TDG is responsible for a white streak that has formed on the right side of my head, springing from my scalp. (Think Stacy London, but less striking.) I credit TDG both for weight gain and weight loss, for making new friends and losing touch with old, for "above average" alcohol consumption, for sleepless nights, for bad decisions.
In other words, I’ve lost a healthy sense of perspective.
Here’s how it goes:
Someone will love the book and proclaim their public love on Goodreads or Twitter or Amazon or Facebook or a blog, and the writer me feels a rush of love and warmth and gratitude, a sort of cosmic alignment of hopes and fears and dreams. Or someone will give it a three-star ‘meh’ rating and I’ll feel this rush of annoyance, because clearly that reader missed something, or maybe he/she just needs me to sit down and explain the book to them. (This is unfair and not entirely charitable, but it’s a real feeling.)
Then there is two-star star rating and (thankfully rare) the one-star. There's a horrible wish every writer must have to contact the writer of the one-star review. Perhaps the rater made an error, a simple misclick on the keyboard. Perhaps the person can be reasoned with, talked to, cajoled, bribed. But no--none of these things are appropriate, of course. And my husband, thankfully, talks me out of these baser impulses. (Truth: He reads all the reviews, and once things get going, I come to a point where I don't.) There's nothing left to do but privately seethe about the person who clearly didn't even read the book, or merely stumbled across it by accident and felt cheated at its lack of vampires or werewolves (or vampires and werewolves). There's nothing to do but assume that the account is fake, created by the student who I popped for plagiarism last semester.
On the other hand, it may not be personal at all. Perhaps the account is held by a troll or a cyborg or a bot. Maybe by a vampire.
Or a werewolf.
The best thing to do, of course, is not to visit those sites.
When I’m writing, I enable an app that disables my wireless connection, because distractions abound—emails, social media, random google searches I feel compelled to perform at that exact moment. I’m generally good at this sort of discipline—my time is in short supply, and I can’t afford to find myself watching a cat video or building a new Pinterest board for a remodel that may never happen.
But this early in the game, I’m propelled by a relentless curiosity, an obsessive sort of nervousness.
Will they love it, or won’t they?
I do, but then, I’ve got a different perspective.
I sat with her when she was nothing but a rough outline, a two-thousand word sketch, a tangle of words I was too embarrassed to share with anyone other than my beagle.
Early reviews, when I've dared to peek, have been good. They've been better than good, really -- some from writers I admire, bloggers I've chatted with, and a few, wonderfully, from people who don't know me and therefore don't feel any compulsion to say nice things.
They are not all from my mother, hiding behind fake profiles.
In fact, I hand-delivered a copy to her only last week, and out of everyone, I'm most nervous about what she'll think.
At this point, it's all a waiting game.
(Did I mention The Drowning Girls publishes on April 26?)
Paula Treick DeBoard