The last acts on the last day of my forty-first year are organizing, arranging, putting in place. Tidying, as Canadians say. How fitting to close out a year of upending and newness to tie things off and declare them done. Fitting to feel pleasure and gentle relief in making things fit.
De-materialism makes this less onerous–and far less wretched with bathos–than it would at, say, my parents’. The garage at the house where I spent most of my childhood is so full of crap that access to the attic has long been lost, the garage stairs effectively unlowerable due to the boxes and layers of fragile junk that can’t be moved out of the way. (A tennis ball, tied to a string hanging from the ceiling, prevents the car from driving into the pile.) My boxes long put away onto Ikea shelves have nothing on the boxes still unpacked in that garage, perhaps unmoved since being placed there in 1978. The basic-cable fascination with hoarding reminds me of friends’ and neighbors’ houses growing up: garages packed with random stuff so that one car can fit inside a cardboard cave, jagged scarps of cardboard lit to monstrous shapes from the garage door opener’s feeble glow. Or, just as common, the garage lost to stuff: I remember several suburban Texas houses, their high brown roofs all lined up between brown fences across a treeless plain as far as the eye could see, the grey-white concrete radiating that pleasant sunset warmth into my feet as the door is opened to a solid wall of boxes and laundry baskets. I don’t remember what friend or what suburb, but I helped move some boxes to get to one the person was sure was within. There is something unique about the garage gone to storage for years, the smooth concrete floor cool and cleanly dirty, layered with a fine soft dust that somehow rides up the arch of the foot but leaves the sole alone. The boxes were heavy, light, crushed, solid and paper-thin all at the same time. They felt like they held books, or bodies.
That is not my situation. Mine is this:
Not daunting, merely inefficient. Shelf items could be better arranged, the bike and its alternate tires and carrier hung. I would be a good sailor with my passion for getting things off the floor. In this picture I’ve already made progress, having hung the license plates before thinking to get a picture.
I bring down my new radio and the stepstool, pull over an old sweatshirt, and pick things up and put them down, building to a flow. This shelf for automotive, this one for the paint I thought I had, back in the lit corner some boxes restacked and the snow shovel hung on a hook. I can’t say if the concrete floor has the same feel as a suburban Texas garage: it’s a little cold for me so I am wearing shoes.
There is no pleasure of throwing out, which is its own pleasure of realizing there is no excess. The garage is mostly there already, like a sentence that just needs editing. It feels like the tail end of something, finally sliding down off the new-home-purchase purchases that can’t be avoided–tools, screws, paper towels, Ikea–to the ease of making places for things and having white space between them. I drill holes for the bike hooks–only missing the first one by a half-inch–and there is more floor. I walk the few blocks to the local cheap Chinese hardware store for some more, but end up not using them. It was only a few bucks and a few blocks, the sun out, Saturday. I remember a friend’s story about her Chinese competitors working barefoot in foundries. I hold the Chinese hooks up to the light and wonder who held them before, how many hours they had worked.
After a short hour the garage looks like this:
Hardly a startling change, but the car can pull in another two feet, and it seems like the driver’s door opens a little wider. It feels tidy, like a Canadian basement. The house is new still and I have not weighted it down.
It is my last day as a 41-year-old. Were I eleven, or 21, this might have been a terrible way to spend a birthday. Maybe at 11, probably not at 21. Today it feels well-done. I have paid attention to be present, to look at the carb cleaner or rollerblade and see it without seeing it, be with it in the present instead of falling down and back to where it came from, where it’s been, where I’ve been with it. It’s a thing I have now, here with me, now. It’s all right. It has a place, right here on the Home Depot shelf.
I continue the momentum outside, in the surprise sun. I hate lawns and I have been burdened with a small one, hardly more than a footpath and planting strip in front of a fence, all covered in weeds, some pine trees left by the builder scraggly. I put on gloves and start pulling, fuming quietly, channeling my childhood and adolescent rage that my immense gifts should still be so wasted in a pointless, endless, valueless task. But the builder has put down grow-stop fabric and covered it with bark, and the weeds come out like knives from a drawer. The roots are fine, stark white against the bark soil, and the contrast is as rich as the smell of green. I slow down. My back hurts a little but not much. The weeds come out with the sound of a horse ripping grass to eat. Only a few snap off in my fat leather fingers. I stop thinking and just pull them, working from the lower brain that matches shapes, moves muscles.
I feel the clock a little–my oldest friend will call later, and I have the time wrong, so am working with less time than I think–but the work is more easy and clear than annoying. It starts to look good. I think about buying some bark to renew the look. It’s not much, won’t take long. My mini compost bin fills up with weeds.
A Lowe’s gift card went into some pruning shears and I put them to the pine trees. Now subdued with winter’s deep green I take the scraggly branches off the bottom, skirting the tree. I remember something about how to cut a branch without cutting it off and trim at the Y where the branches reach out into the sidewalk. I even the sides, not to a topiary extent, but a level that makes them look cared for. The bin is too full for the branches and they lie next to it, smelling of turpentine. I smell a cut tip and think of grandparents’ houses in Pennsylvania, my first hikes in British Columbia, Christmas trees. Each is full and fleeting and I am back here with a branch, in the surprise sun.
Six bags of bark and even $10 for a Chinese rake yields a fresh brown layer. The improvement is modest and remarkable, the trees a nice contrast against the wood fence. Like putting the Ikea shelves together I breathe and am with it. Trimming the branches and smelling the pine smell is rewarding and I won’t do it again any time soon. There is only one first time trimming new trees in your new post-divorce house.
Gloves drenched and filthy I take them off to get at the last few weeds and smooth bark around the mailbox. Dirt rides up under the nails instantly in the earnest crust of work done by hands, building work, work that doesn’t require diplomas. Sun shines down after a dreary winter; the grass and weeds are green, but the trees hesitate. My plot is ready, cleaned in the artificial garden way, but, still, sharp and clean.
Washing my hands requires scouring with a pad, sink running, suds everywhere. It’s not a dirty like working on the car: no grease here, just compacted dirt the way humans have always been dirty. As a young child I can remember my mom scolding me for getting so dirty she had to wash the soap. Seems earnest and genuine to me, nothing to complain about. It feels like days out of elementary school, the weekend filled with following Dad to Payless Cashways, sawing, digging, whipping into shape. It feels grownup, tended to, good.
Matt calls and we talk while I sit on the floor and feel the close city space. We are too tired to really talk coherently about anything, but we talk anyway. We have known each other a long time, so it is all right, easy, more fun than years past when my calls were desperate and clinging. I have about four hours of 41 left. We met in middle school in the era of Atari and VHS, and it seems like a million years ago. Now remains now, cleaned up and solid. It is a well-done day.