Staying at Home II: Closets
Closets are full of contradictions. They coddle the things we wish to keep safe, and, somewhat conspiratorily, swallow up the stuff we wish to throw away (but can’t). They hold at the ready our quotidian matter, and absorb into their deepest recesses the stuff we want to hide. They are our best friends and our most dangerous informants.
We love them and hate them. One thing is for certain, we never have enough of them.
Most of the time, we take them for granted. Things go in and things come out, and as long as this exchange remains uneventful - no bats, for example, clinging to our sweaters, and no sinkholes gobbling up our shoes, that is, no unexplained disappearances, or re-appearances – life goes merrily on.
But life inside a closet is anything but uneventful. Two black sweaters emerge where one used to be; shorts vanish; strange coats materialize; ties multiply obscenely; toys spontaneously whir and burst into motion; and don’t even bother talking about the sock drawer. Sometimes closets seem to have a life of their own.
If pressed, we would have to acknowledge: closets are not all that benign. They are not just recesses in the walls where our material stuff resides. They are more accurately citadels that harbor our hopes, dreams and fears; a refuge for all the emotional detritus our souls stir up that our minds cannot readily deal with, so we put out of sight. And of all the places in a home, we know, therefore, that it is our closets that lead to the land of imagination.
As wife and mother, I moved into two different houses, seven years apart, each with a linen closet on the upstairs landing. Both houses were adequate to the needs of our family. Both seemed perfectly serviceable when we moved in. And yet, within a month (I want to say a week) of living there, I had the same dream: I was exploring my new house and found myself on the upstairs landing. I looked at the linen closet door and remembered thinking, ‘Funny, this wasn’t here before.’ So I approached the door and opened it (this dream door opened inward, on a hinge; the “real” door slid from side to side).
And as I opened it, I was flooded with bright light. Through the light, I saw a staircase, which I ascended. At the top was an enormous empty room, practically doubling the square-footage of our new house. I thought, How fortunate are we! And how amazing that we didn’t know about this door and this room til now!
I am sure Jung and company would have many things to say about this dream. I always took it to represent the new adventures, the unwritten story, the space to grow that awaited my family. It was a symbol of possibilities, of expansiveness, of not being trapped. And while it was triggered by a radical change of place, it holds a message that continues to serve me well, no matter what my station in life, and no matter how long I have lived in my home.
As children, we knew that leaving the closet door open at night was reckless. No one told us this. We just knew. Neglecting even the tiniest of openings was tantamount to inviting Armageddon. Word would travel like lightening throughout the monster world: Security breach in Matthew’s bedroom, 114 Maple Drive. They would begin to gather in our closet, slip through that crack and terrorize us in bed.
If there weren’t monsters in our closet, there were at least secret doorways to enchanted places through the darkened inner walls. The closet, of course, denied all this. It masqueraded as a passive, inanimate receptacle oblivious to our visits. But we knew better. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Indian in the Cupboard; even what happened to us when we closed ourselves in with our flashlights proved us right. Things came alive in there, and they plotted and planned and played when we weren’t watching.
Closets, like attics, both reveal and conceal a storehouse of our psychic energies. And every now and then, we have to clean them up. Both for their sake, and for ours.
A great Staying at Home adventure is found in this most avoided of all chores: cleaning the closets. When I was a grad student, I knew who of my colleagues were married and who were not simply by listening to them describe their winter vacations: those who said they were going skiing or to Cancun were not married; those who said they were cleaning their closets, were.
So, wait for that rainy day, when a trip to the neighborhood pool or nature hike have to be postponed, change into comfortable clothes, and attack your closets. The question now becomes, which one? First, be sure you have permission to enter said closet. If it is spouses or a child’s, permission is essential. One never knows what one might find there – and it is better off keeping it that way.
Second, to model good behavior, to set the household standard and to give others time to clean up their own, it is always a good idea to either start with yours, or a very public closet. These are two different experiences. The public closet requires public engagement: clarification of who owns this baseball glove and who still fits into this jacket. Or who got this game for their birthday and does it belong here or in their bedroom. Cleaning public closets is an exercise in boundary setting and lessons about the Commons. Things left in the Commons are governed by the rules of the Commons. At some point, these need to be clarified and witnessed by all. Things that are of private use should be stored in private space. Cleaning the public closets is a family, as well as quasi-legal, affair.
Cleaning one’s own closet is a different matter. Waiting til everyone is out of the house, or at least gainfully occupied elsewhere, is not inappropriate. The dread with which we approach this task is often offset by the discoveries, sweet - sad and achingly powerful - that await us. Or overtake us. And sometimes we just want to be there, alone. Uninterrupted.
At this point you might be wondering why this topic is an entry on my blog. That is a good question. For the moment, I have two inter-related answers.
(1) Everything we do contributes to our global footprint. Finding great ways to discover more and be more while consuming less and wasting less (fuel, money, stuff) is essential if we are to sustain sustainable lifestyles. Nobody sticks with an unsatisfying diet.
(2) Most of us have too much stuff. If we go through it regularly, we can reduce our off-site storage; recycle our unwanted housewares that can be of great use to others; reduce the clutter in our homes; shed our redundant clothes and shoes; dampen the desire to keep purchasing more; recapture bits of our personal history that we tend to forget; make room for those objects with greater personal resonance; and otherwise construct a more satisfying life that enriches our children while fulfilling us.
And, I love thinking, talking and writing about homes.