And then something happened.
It wasn't anything dramatic. It was hardly anything.
My daughter and I were in Columbia, Missouri, for a wedding. My husband—who hates parties and hates to travel—was at home with the dog, the bird, the guinea pigs, and the mess. One of my best friends from graduate school lives in Columbia, and she picked up Grace and me at our hotel and brought us to her house. In 20 years, Marly's aesthetic hadn't changed a bit: Her living room was still an explosion of colors and textures. Everything was just better, nicer, than it had been when we were in grad school and didn't have any money.
Standing in her living room, admiring it, I felt something tug at me: despair. My aesthetic hadn't changed over the years, either. But my house was worse, much worse, than the house I'd lived in during grad school.
"I can't believe we live this way," I told my husband when I got home.
"I can," he said.
"I mean, I can believe I live this way. I just can't believe you do."
It was as if a bomb went off in my head.
I called a friend who has lived in Columbus all her life, and whom I can always count on to know "the best" of whatever I'm in need of. The next morning, Terra Marzetti (Terror? Grace asked, alarmed. No, I told her: Terra, the earth) walked through my house with me, not saying a word as I chattered nervously. When she did speak, she was matter-of-fact. "You realize that this house is infested with mice."
Infested? I coughed out a laugh. Not infested. I knew we had a few mice. I'd seen some droppings, I told Terra. I just hadn't gotten around to setting traps. But I would, I promised, right away.
It was too late for traps, Terra said gently. There were too many mice. And then she took me from room to room, moving furniture, moving stacks, opening drawers, showing me the nests—mice made nests?—and all the things the mice had ruined. I had to go out immediately and buy poison, she said.
It took five days for all the mice to die or flee, and by then Terra and I had gotten started. We worked side by side, ten hours a day, and I kept at it even after she left each evening, until I collapsed, past midnight.
Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.
Terra, who called herself a home space orchestrator, was systematic and patient, working room by room, sorting every single thing she saw into one of three categories: obviously trash, obviously good, and look it over and decide. When I'd sorted the look-it-over piles into one or the other of the first two categories, I hauled out the trash and then contemplated what was left so I could make more decisions: good and keep, or good and give away? I filled bag after bag with clothes and toys and linens to donate to Goodwill. Meanwhile, Terra cleaned.