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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

McCallum: Clean Sweep

The symphonic sound of peepers is what I think of first when I get itchy for spring and its rewards for having come through another winter. This year, that poetic notion was temporarily edged out by a most unusual craving to clean.

Not windows, carpets and cobwebby corners. No, this was a piercing desire to pitch possessions, a lifetime of accumulated detritus that I hold affection for but don’t need. Just one unplanned hour spent searching through overstuffed filing cabinets provided enough juice to launch a sifting frenzy that continued for weeks.

Once I got past the initial reluctance to part with a few items, a momentum took hold that had me sorting discards into piles and asking myself questions like, Where did all these baths salts come from? and Do I really need fifteen coats? Then there were the large plastic bags of assorted yarn stuffed under the eaves of my attic space. Do I knit? Never. Do I want to be a knitter? Yes, but in a future lifetime. For this one, I humbly bowed to my lack of motivation and happily passed on the yarn to those who churn out socks and scarves. College textbooks and video cassettes? A snap to part with, though challenging to find takers. Worn carpets, unread paperbacks, heavy wool sweaters than cannot withstand hot flashes - all gone!

So, what is it that makes us hold onto our stuff ? Granted, sentimental value is irreplaceable. I still reach for my father’s worn plaid flannel shirt on chilly evenings, though he’s been gone for six years and the fabric is thin and frayed. But it will remain on the closet hook until it falls apart. It’s harder to justify why that short black and silver spandex dress hangs in the same closet, near strappy silver sandals from the 1960s. And therein lies some truth: our stuff tells us and others who we think we are . The vintage clothes, antique kitchen implements, mismatched dinner plates and shelves lined with used books are like a physical resume that introduces me to someone who walks through my door. I like to think that my stuff tells them that I’m not much of a consumer but I have good taste.

The liberation of paring down is as exhilarating as the first whiffs of spring. My piles of possessions have receded as quickly as the snowbanks. Giving a few heavy sacks of possessions the old heave-ho has created a sort of new psychic floor plan. Through the windows I see a pale green expanse of bare yard, ready to pop open. Indoors, less inventory and more opportunity for rethinking my ideas about space, stuff, want and need.

And while I’m more likely to reach for the old flannel shirt than the spandex dress, I’m not ready to give up on the possibility that I can still slip it on and surprise myself.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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