My fiancé came home today and said she wants to purge.
“Like that horror movie where people get one day a year to go around killing people?”
“No, I want to purge the house. There’s just too much…stuff.”
Once you’ve cleaned the whole house and that subtle feeling of suffocation still wafts in the air, a purge is the next logical step. If you’ve dusted all the ceiling fans and even washed the spinning plate inside the microwave, and it still feels like the walls are closing in, you can rule out cleanliness and point the finger at the belongings themselves.
It’s a great example of how a few bad apples can ruin it for the whole lot. Even though almost everything in our house has its place and purpose, on the day of a purge everything must stand trial. “Yes, I understand that you slice, dice, and chop all in one and that we made that killer guacamole together, but what have you done for me lately?”
She starts with the kitchen cupboards. Half-empty vitamin bottles fly into the trash and expired wedding invitations are ripped from the fridge. Her left hand exterminates while her right disinfects the death path with a Clorox wipe.
I start with the junk drawer. I mean, what could be an easier place to warm-up? The fact that something ended up there is circumstantial evidence that it’s useless.
In fact, if you want to study what happens to a tiny ecosystem when things are left to pile and overflow, look no farther than your junk drawer. Go ahead and purge yours and I’ll bet you go from overflow to nothing but batteries and pens.
Not everyone has the stomach for a true purge. Personally, I’ve been known to get carried away. When we moved to South America for what was supposed to be six months my attitude towards everything in our San Diego apartment was, “Throw it out.”
“Don’t you think we’re going to need plates when we get home?” she asked as I carried a box of kitchen goods towards the dumpster.
“You mean, platos?” I said, preparing my Spanish.
I figured it’d be easier to stay the whole time if we had less to come home to. There was something about running off to the jungle together that made me want to burn all the boats back. “What do you mean you want to go back early? Baby, we don’t even have plates back home!”
We lasted three months in South America and the trip to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to replace everything I’d thrown out cost about as much as the trip itself.
I blame my mother. My urge to purge is a deep-seeded rebellion against her unwillingness to do so. She’s the only person I know who takes a pro-life stance towards everything, including inanimate objects. One might go as far as calling her a hoarder if it wasn’t for her dual passion of “getting organized.”
Hoarders have no sense of organization. You’ll never see an episode of Hoarders where one yells out, “Don’t put those Ziploc bags of gravy next to the milk carton collection.” My mother may be a pack-rat, but she’s never lost her sense of feng shui when it comes to preserving the past.
I have a theory that she loves organizing so much that she secretly walks around moving things out of place just so she can declare every other Saturday “get the house in order” day. It’s like watching a sick dictator play war games.
Inside my parent’s garage, you’ll find bins of memories. Old bikes, costumes from elementary school plays, and Disney VHS collections line the walls. There’s an old, hand-stitched rug passed down from my grandmother both my parents are convinced is, “definitely worth something” though I’ve never seen it anywhere but rolled up in the rafters.
Focusing on the practicality of an object is a good strategy for knowing what to keep during a purge. But for my mother, there’s nothing more practical than sentimentalism. For her, nostalgia is practical pixie dust for emotional time travel.
I think she has the idea that before she passes on one day we’ll all stand around her bedside and unload these bins of memories so she can touch everything one last time. She’ll expect us to pass around each and every beanie baby from the collection and give a presentation on the day we got it and what it meant to us. The old maxim, “You can’t take it with you,” is something she’s willing to put to the test.
That’s never been for me. I’ve always wanted less drag. Somewhere along the way, I attached to that old ramblin’ man persona. Ready to go at the drop of a hat. No time for anything that might slow me down.
When the whole minimalist movement came around I rolled my eyes. Of course you don’t need 15 pairs of pants! Do we really need a documentary where two grown men complain how “all this stuff is making us sad” for 90 minutes?
I agree that no one should outsource their self-worth to physical belongings but I don’t think giving away all your possessions will make you suddenly happy any more than a 7-day juice cleanse will make you suddenly healthy.
Two hours into the purge and I’m pulling clothes off hangers. Everything from dress shirts to summer tank tops is brought under the bright lights for questioning. I try on a few old shirts and stand in front of the mirror, asking if they have any last words before the jury goes into deliberation.
My fiancé shouts from the other room, “Do we need this?”
“Toss it!” I yell back. Completely unsure of what she’s asking about.
I have to say I’m impressed with the cold-blooded indifference she’s summoned during this purge. Looking around our room I see a now empty bin that, until today, housed what she called her “festival clothes.”
Inside was everything from thigh-high leather boots to shiny leotards. There were shimmer shorts that parted dance floors and lacey rompers that would have made Hugh Hefner blush. Outfits from a past life where single-girl-skin could shine freely under a young and reckless sun.
I once skimmed through the book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and landed on the page where the author recommends holding each possession and saying “thank you” before throwing it out.
I pictured my fiancé holding her sequin bodysuit and thanking it for all the good times. Like a couple of war buddies who now have to get used to civilian life. “Thank you for your service. While I don’t have use for you now, you will live on in my Instagram photos.”
I’m emptying closet drawers and handing out life sentences when I remember that today is the first day of the World Cup. I think about how four years ago, on this day, I was at the bar with my friends playing ping pong and drinking beer like it was a patriotic duty.
The goal then was to keep a steady buzz throughout the day without spending too much or crashing too early. Quite different than today where the goal is to purge the house and still have enough time to make it to Whole Foods.
She shouts again from the other room but I can’t make out the words.
“Get rid of it!” I shout back. It’s just fun to say at this point.
I find an old box in the back of the closet and pry it open. I start to unfold letters I’d saved and flip through my old journals. Practical pixie dust hits my nostrils. Like someone who caves and reaches for the bottle even though they know they have “the gene,” I let the dusty time-capsule swallow me whole. All of a sudden, I am my mother’s son.
I pick up a pocket knife I got in France when I was 18. I put the face of a vintage watch I wore during my “watch phase” to my ear. It’s frozen in time like the rest of its neighbors. There’s a pouch of silver quarters from the 1940s and some buffalo nickels. Not that I’d ever check, but I’m sure “they’re definitely worth something.”
I hear the footsteps of my fiancé and frantically close the box and shove it back into the drawer. I relax my face to not look like a teenager who just got caught looking at a dirty magazine.
Standing over me she asks, “You purgin’ or what?”
There’s something to the theory of addition by subtraction. Purging the old opens up space for the new, and the occasion audit of personal property is a healthy habit. But real life can’t compete with memories. If it could, we wouldn’t have to try so hard to live in the present moment.
And what is the present anyway, if not a mediator between the past and the future? Holding onto the impractical remnants of yesterday doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not ready for tomorrow. Shuffling through old bins of memories isn’t much different than two old friends, sitting on a front porch playing, “remember when…” over some iced tea.
When the present falls short and the future seems too much to bear, there’s always memory lane. In case of emergency: Break open old bins.
I hang up the clothes that survived the purge and start to think, maybe a little drag isn’t such a bad thing. What a ramblin’ man calls drag, a family man calls roots. And when it comes to the tug of war between the past and the future, there’s nothing like a strong hit of nostalgia to take the edge off.
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