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Cleaning House

June 13, 2011

A few years ago, my landlord renovated the apartment above mine, and decided it made sense to upgrade my heating system at the same time. “Update” implies heat of any kind was already present, which seems a bit generous. I live in three rooms (kitchen, bathroom, neither-kitchen-nor-bathroom-room) and in winter, my electricity bill spiked from roughly matching what I spend on wine in a month to a sum closer to what my parents pay to heat their entire two-storey house. I suspect my walls are insulted with spit and horse hair and maybe a little plaster here and there, and the electric radiators clunked and chugged and exuded a tentative warmth that smelled like an over-heated clothes iron. Which is an insult to the amount of warmth given off by a clothes-iron…

So, when the contractor did a walk-through and informed me I would need to remove everything, absolutely everything, from cupboards and closets, arrange to sleep elsewhere for at least three weeks, and should expect the plastic drop sheets to let plaster dust through like sieves, I could have been pissed but was instead excited. Heat! In my house! Between the months of September and June! Imagine!

Since my place would be unlivable during the renovations for a handful of reasons (absent ceiling, present builder-guys, most of my furniture parked in the bathroom next to the toilet and inside the tub), I shacked up with my then-boyfriend, thinking a three-week sleepover would be sexy and awesome. I think that decision laid the foundation for breaking up and never speaking again, especially when “sleeping over a few weeks” stretched into nearly three months of living together pretty much under duress, gazing at each other’s least attractive house-mately qualities, and dulling any shine that remained on our relationship. It’s unfair to blame the renovations when in fact it was just a crappy relationship whose day had come.

The season changed, and still I skulked around my boyfriend’s loft, still the contents of my home remained stacked atop my bed, and still a pair of baby-faced Russian men had yet to advance from tearing the walls and ceiling down to putting new ones up again. Although it was the catalyst of ensuing drama, the actual construction part is the least of the story, and wrapped up quickly once real work got underway. The Russian contractors stopped showing up, and were replaced by one guy who tore out everything the other two had installed, started from nothing and finished the job in under two weeks. He was lovely, making small-talk whenever I dropped by my own home, and asking polite questions about some of the weirder items stacked under the drop sheets in the main room. His only transgression occurred the day I arrived home to pick up supplies, drop off a few things, and walked in on him not just taking a Number Two in my bathroom, but doing so with the door wide open. The door that points directly onto the entrance foyer and afforded a generous view of naked contractor junk. Aside from that, his work remains beyond reproach, and he did a nice job of painting my kitchen lemon yellow, just like I requested.

The real story is how much crap I realised I owned, and which seemed like a manageable, reasonable collection of things when it was squirreled away in closets, cabinets and drawers. Stacked beneath plastic sheeting in the middle of my apartment, my possessions seemed grotesque. Not that I owned an obscene, extravagant or greedy quantity of things. The grotesque part concerned the nature of it all, the things I had more than one of, the things I’d never used but continued to own, the things I had lugged around for decades out of attachment and nostalgia. Just as telling was the list of things I didn’t (and four years later, still don’t) own at all. Many of those “do not owns” can be explained by economy of space. Living alone in the city on a more than modest income requires a compromise — no sprawling spaces, tall ceilings, or spare rooms, and no grand collection of furniture and decorative items to fill my home. This is fine, though, since most of those are things I feel like people purchase for no good reason. End tables, special shelves, units in which to store things and on which to rest things, and under which to stow things. Things we probably over-bought to begin with, because with all this storing and stowing, there seems to be very little using. If something is always in use (and therefore essential), it’s probably within easy reach rather than jammed in the back of a place for keeping things you don’t even remember you own once they’re out of sight.

But there were (and still are) bigger items absent from my home, things that suggest…well, suggest I’m not quite sure what. An actual bed that is only a bed and not also a thing for sitting on. A kitchen table that seats more than two, and which doesn’t need to be folded in three pieces and shoved against a wall in order to leave room for opening the oven door or reaching the garbage pail. A sofa. A place to hang visitors’ coats.

And, there were plenty of “why do I owns”, too: pink rainboots that leak; vintage suitcases housing seasonal hosiery (winter, spring, fall); a packing crate of cookie cutters; almost one dozen cake pans. Books. So many books. Cassette tapes, a set of flocked zoo animals, a half-finished latch hook project, and a collection of jelly bracelets from grade five. A rice paper parasol printed with cherry blossoms too fragile to open and therefore useless in the sun and of course impossible in the rain. A black leather doctor’s bag stinking of mothballs and patent medicines, a pink fur hat that would not stay put. A velvet opera cape, and several pairs of high heels that my aching feet never made it more than a block in, and which deserved better homes, homes inhabited by ladies more willing than I to be crippled by their pretty footwear.

And so, the cleaning began. I considered putting things on eBay, or at least Craigslist, or taking them to a group garage sale, or swapping them for other things from friends. Instead, I loaded lots of it into plastic bags and left them on the porch for charity pick-ups, and set the rest of it at the curb, a new batch each night till all the things I felt uncomfortable about owning were gone. I rationalised this choice by assigning an hourly wage to my time and a weight to  those unnecessary items. Let’s say each week, I packed things up and took them to the post office and shipped them to buyers after standing in line to pay postage, and this took about an hour each time, and required I invest in petroleum-based packing tape, and a bunch of wrapping paper or plastic, indestructible, landfill forever bubble envelopes, and often the post office required a special trip, loaded down with boxes and mailers. Sure, slowly I would unload all of my extraneous possessions, but that time would never be mine to use on something other than the post office trip, and I could never erase all that plastic, and would be devoting so much effort to transporting objects in order to recoup a small fraction of some money I had long since made peace with spending. So, if I figured my hourly wage was what, twenty dollars? Thirty or thirty-five? And, over time I repeated this process thirty times…well then. Curbside it is.

I have terrible insomnia, a situation more than diligently documented here in other posts. The thing about being awake so much, it gives me a whole lot of time for thinking about things. Not smart things or important things or anxious things or bad, worried things. Just…things. And, lately one of those things has been lifestyle checks and balances. How one choice that might be socially and environmentally responsible is either enhanced by or offset by something else I do. For instance, I walk and cycle, don’t have a driver’s licence, rarely fly in planes or ride in cars. I buy most of my food from small shops that perhaps don’t stock “perfect” produce (local, organic, small-crop, etc.) but at least the shop keeper’s wages are being paid by his or her own efforts and not as a trickle-down from a massive supermarket chain. I choose things without packaging, and don’t wear cosmetics and generally, I avoid garments that require slavish dry cleaning. I opt for locally produced liquor and haven’t consumed soda in at least ten years. But…I buy shoes made in Eastern European republics that can’t get into the EU because of their legacy of human rights abuses. Sometimes, I eat a lot of oysters. I recently bought a new phone not because the old one was broken but because it seemed like the new one might work better. I own more clothing than I need, and I like pastries and treats and things that are all about pleasure. Sometimes, I waste food by letting it spoil in the fridge after accepting a fun-sounding invitation to dine out. So, how do those good things balance against the less responsible ones?

This story is beginning to read a bit like the way those Insomnia Nights flow. A bit of this and a bit of that, dropping one thread to pick up another, only to snarl it and let it go, too, and backtrack to a place less tangled up. I think this sloppy storytelling gait represents the place I’ve reached so far. As in, I’m not sure there even is a system of checks and balances, that all these choices and actions and ideas require so much thought. But, they feel like important questions right now. Questions I’ve been refining ever since I looked at all the things I own tossed together in one space and wondered where the fuck it all came from and what to do with it next. Put it back neatly on shelves once the ceiling and walls were reinstalled? Or seize the opportunity to clear some space, let go of some things, and in the case of the stuff I continued to own out of nostalgia, lighten up on my past?

Since that round of aggressive housecleaning, I’ve made very different choices about inviting physical objects into my home. For that matter, I’ve made very different choices about boyfriends and our respective homes (I learned more than just “I own too much shit” during those three weeks turning into three months and the acrimony that arose from my apartment-crashing). Refining my possessions, refining my choices, refining my consumerism, refining my love, and refining the questions that flow from truly taking stock. And to think I swore at those Russian contractor jerks the day I walked in on them using garden spades to shovel debris out of a hole in my ceiling and dropping it directly onto the rug. Their abuse of my space led to more than just better heat and yellow walls. In fact, the heating system sucks eggs and I continue to use the inefficient, ancient, grossly expensive baseboard heaters the renovations were intended to render obsolete.

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