If I made an activity chart of my retirement so far, the biggest slice would be devoted to cleaning. In nine months I’ve progressed from the heavy lift of death cleaning to the life-changing magic of Marie Kondo-style t-shirt rolls.
Along the way, I’ve become an archaeologist of my own life. I’ve excavated layers of clothes, yarn, books, periodicals, receipts, recipes, playbills, unfinished sweaters on knitting needles, cameras taken apart and only partly reassembled, dress pieces cut out but still pinned to their paper patterns. I’ve been forced to wonder who the person who started all these projects really is.
The papers shocked me more than anything else. The deeper I dove, the more clots I found – bound with rubber bands, stuffed into accordion folders, and shoved into shopping bags, jolting me back to the mid-80s as I went through that clot over there, or the early 2000s in the one over here. Up and down the decades I go in dizzying loops.
Here’s the paper I was asked to present at a symposium by a professor who’d written A++ on the title page. But since I’d misplaced the paper and overwritten the floppy disk that contained the only digital copy, I missed my big chance. That paper would have blown the lid off Jonathan Swiftian scholarship! It has resurfaced at last, fastened with a rusty staple. I found tons of floppies too, including 36 that I once fed into my Apple Macintosh PowerBook, one by one, to back up my hard drive. I really did that – every few days for years on end, inserting one disk after another, listening to the hard drive squeal and groan.
I unearthed a Geraldine Ferraro button, a “We Won’t Go Back” Planned Parenthood bumper sticker, a copy of “The RBG Workout,” and that confounding Hillary sticker from 2016 with the big blue H intersected by a big red arrow. I arranged these items together in a tableau of failure.
These unruly accumulations were only partly the result of my working full time. They were left – unused, unfiled, unrecycled – as Tom and I fled to hike our trails or paddle our lakes and rivers. Our need to get outside overruled any impulse we might have had to cull that stack of instruction manuals for long-forgotten appliances 100 percent of the time. The unfinished projects, like the unsewn dress, that needed to be worked on indoors were the most likely to be left in the middle.
Ian Frazier, one of my favorite outdoors writers, wrote about his nonrelationship to housekeeping in The Great Indoors, an essay that’s shaped my priorities since reading it more than 20 years ago.
“The law says that when an outdoor guy, real or self-imagined, finally does come inside, the result, almost always, is household turmoil.” Calling himself “Martha Stewart’s worst nightmare,” he describes with infectious delight the duck decoys on his bureau, the bookcase riddled with birdshot, the “chest waders hanging from an overhead pipe like the lower part of a hanged man.” And though I would not necessarily copy his decorating schemes, such as the dead bat languishing on his light pull, I did adopt his conception of home as base camp. It’s the place where we stash our gear, prep for our expeditions, and rest when they’re over. It’s the launch pad for our rocket to Planet Fun.
But now that I’ve done several decades’ worth of delayed spring cleanings, our base camp is looking more like a B&B. I’m now finding it congenial to swan around the house playing the part of guest and host. “Would you like a cup of tea?” I ask myself, to which I answer “Oh, yes! Echinacea elderberry?” “Brilliant!” I tell myself, and gratefully accept the steaming cup when it’s ready. What service!
I sip my tea near the window to watch the deer in their late winter weirdness: they’re digging craters in our fern patch, desperate for tender roots. A skinny red squirrel is running himself to exhaustion keeping the fat grays away from the bird feeder. A red-bellied woodpecker looks fetching surrounded by blue jays, all of them hopping politely around one another as they angle for fresh patches of earth.
What fun it is to be outside! I put down my cup, pull on my jacket, and release myself into the wild.
Trailhead: Tillman Ravine Natural Area, Branchville, N.J. Two parking areas are situated close together on Tillman Road, about one mile from Walpack Center and NPS 615.
Trails: Take red-blazed Red Maple Trail 2.6 miles, then make a right on the blue-blazed connector trail (behind gate), passing the Brinks Shelter. You’ll reach the white-blazed Appalachian Trail in 0.2 miles. Make a right on the AT and hike the last 0.75 mile to the summit of Blue Mountain, which has a spectacular view of the Delaware River Valley. To make the hike out much faster, take the easy-walking Brink Rd. Trail instead of the Red Maple Trail: just continue straight down the hill when you reach the gate past the shelter. But you’ll need to do about 10 minutes of road walking. Make a left on Dimon Rd. to get back to your car.