A different kind of spring cleaning
What will I do in Thornhill, I moaned to my partner, Frank, when it became clear that I would have to isolate either at my Victorian row house in the Annex or at his restored bungalow north of Toronto. Well, he asked, what would you be doing at home? For a few years now, I’ve wanted, if ever I had the time, to go through three large trunks in my basement, full of things I’ve saved for over forty years. Let’s bring them up here, Frank suggested.
The trunks, it turned out, were too heavy to haul upstairs, so I ran to the hardware store and got extra-strength garbage bags, like they use on construction sites. We quickly filled eight of them and brought them to the suburbs.
Every day since mid-March, I have spent a few hours reaching down and bringing up treasure. I never know what I’ll find: yellowed newspaper articles I wrote decades ago, old photographs, my daughter’s baby clothes, forgotten playbills. When I’ve told friends about my new routine, many have expressed sympathy: it must be hard emotionally, they observe. But the exercise is actually making me very happy. For one thing, it’s changing the story I’ve always told myself about my own life.
When I was young, I thought that I was very unattractive. Once, my parents came home from a wedding party, where all the women had sat behind a curtain with their legs sticking out. Each husband had to guess which ones belonged to his wife. “Of course, I knew your mother’s,” my father said. “They were the best.” I inherited those legs. But I also remember walking across Front Campus at the University of Toronto in the late ’60s. I was wearing a miniskirt, and some boys shouted, “Great legs!” When I turned around, one yelled, “But look at the ugly face!” Now when I pull out pictures of that time, I see another story. I had long thick wavy hair, nicely arched eyebrows, a fine nose, a sensuous mouth, soft eyes. Why did I not know this then?
After I graduated, I started directing and writing plays and publishing poems. With each one, though, I was thwacked by the hammer of shame. I half-consciously expected to feel that shame as those pieces came back into the light. Sure, some of it is a little embarrassing, but some is also quite good. And while I never believed in my talents as an artist, my old sketchbooks contain some pretty decent drawings.
My diaries are a little more excruciating. How I suffered through those obsessive romantic crushes and relationships that would make even Emma Bovary squirm. In between love affairs, I filled volumes with my strange attempts to make sense of my lonely man-less days, using a Marxist-inflected theory of women and work.
Each diary, each letter, each object is a key that opens up a room in my psyche, many of them locked for decades. I hold a remnant from the kitchen curtains that I made for my house on Rushton Road, where I lived for more than twenty years. The print is a winsome collage of Grandma Moses paintings. Suddenly, I remember my friend Barbara coming with me to the fabric store — how delighted she was at how delighted I was. And the complex pleasures and frustrations of that long-ago lapsed friendship rush back.
What to keep of this random, chaotic pastiche? My plan was to pare down the three trunks to one. Some days, I’m in a tossing mood, and I gleefully consign birthday cards and other ephemera to the recycling bin beside my desk. Of what interest is any of this to anyone but me? What will happen to it all when I die? Do I want my daughter to read my diaries, with their references to sex? Other days, I’m too attached to each object and can’t bear to part with it. The various piles that I want to save threaten to topple over and bury me.
It’s fitting that I am finally undertaking this task in the middle of the crisis. As we are repeatedly reminded, things will not be the same when we come out of this. There is no going back to the pre-pandemic world, any more than I can go back and relive the past that was, until a few weeks ago, consigned to my basement. All of us must winnow out of this experience what we want to keep and what we want to throw away.
As it’s gotten warmer, I’ve taken a single-malt Scotch outside at the end of the day to ponder a springtime unlike any other. There’s an astonishing clarity, as the pale light outlines every branch, every new bud. I can see every striation in the bark of Frank’s old walnut tree. We’ve stopped polluting the air, stopped driving, stopped travelling. We’ve given the earth some space to breathe. Then I remember grade 2, when I got glasses for the first time. I could finally read the blackboard and see the teacher’s expression. It’s like we’ve all gotten a new prescription, which I don’t want us throwing away.
But I do want to trash a system that creates misery and penury for so many and wealth and comfort for so few (privilege acknowledged). Usually in an economic crisis, the mostly male commentators sternly admonish us to pull in our belts or pull up our socks. This time, the experts are scientists — often female — and they are telling us to care for each other, to make sacrifices for the common good. At least in Canada, our political leaders are mostly speaking with one voice, trying to help us and to calm us. These are the things we must lovingly put back in our trunks when we at last are able to venture out of our homes and into a new world.
Published in the Literary Review of Canada, June 2020