I didn't watch the crew work; I couldn't. I stayed upstairs, going through file cabinets, filling bag after bag with paper to recycle—manuals for electronic devices I no longer owned, manuscripts of stories by people I hadn't talked to in 18 years, AAA TripTiks for trips I'd made in 1986.
When, finally, unable to stand it anymore, I wandered downstairs, outside, the Dumpster was full: A mound rose out of the center of it—a mountain of trash. I watched the men throw things on top; I listened to glass break, to the thud of wood on wood, the clank of metal.
The leader of the little band of men, a great big man named Alan, sweating and breathing hard, came up to me as I stood and watched, and put his hand on my shoulder. "This must be hard," he said softly. I burst into tears.
I still can't say exactly why I was saving all that stuff. Some of it was about a confusion of meaning—what matters and what doesn't—and my reluctance to make that distinction. Some of it was learned behavior: My grandmother, by her example, had taught me to save everything. In their way, my parents had, too. They saved nothing—none of my toys or clothes, not one volume of the Bobbsey Twins or Nancy Drew—and for years, I'd been making up for it.
But a lot of my hoarding was about "just in case": the fear that something would go wrong and I'd find myself in need of an old bed; a sense that it would be courting disaster to give up suitcases with broken zippers. I'd spent years, after deciding to make my way in the world as a writer, eking out a living, just barely getting by. There was a time when "a new pillow" was on my pie-in-the-sky wish list, when I'd dig through the crevices of my sole armchair for enough change to buy groceries with. My husband has been there, too—which is why, when I started to take the space heater to the alley, he balked. "That's a good space heater," he said. But we didn't need it, I pointed out (as much to myself as to him). We had a perfectly adequate furnace. And if the power went off, an electric space heater wouldn't do us any good, would it?
So: a combination of superstition, training, and overcorrection of the past. A recipe for a house stuffed full, and a woman at the center of it, overwhelmed.
I don't supposed I will Ever be the sort of person who lives a pared-down life, but I've made a lot of progress. I have put my hands on every single thing in the house—from all the clothes that had to be laundered in the mice's wake to every Playbill, baking pan, and slip of paper—and made a decision about it. I feel as if I have wrestled my possessions, and my house itself, to the ground. As if I have been through therapy—house therapy.
Terra, my house therapist, returns each week to help with cleaning—because I'm not kidding myself, I realize I have neither the time nor the inclination to keep things tidy on my own. Knowing that she's coming helps keep me vigilant: I do triage on everything that comes through the door, and if it's not something we need (now, for real—not maybe someday) or something that deserves to be saved for posterity, it's discarded. I stop before I let myself drop something into a drawer or set it down on the piano. Where does it belong? I think. If I don't have a place for it, I make a place.
And it occurs to me that for the first time in years, it feels as if there is a place for me in my house. That I have chosen what surrounds me—that I choose, now, every day. There is a place for everything in my house now, and everything is in its place. And I like it that way. It's what keeps me keeping house.