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Spring Cleaning

    Spring has come in fits n’ starts this year, as have I. Yes, the bluebonnets are up and I have bouquets of them on my table, though they are already fading here in South Texas and have yet to fully burst forth in the Hill Country. Temperatures all last week have been in the 40s – 50s at night, and maybe 70 during the day, but yesterday we hit 90. Such are the vagaries of  Texas weather. Pollen is the one sure thing that is blossoming big time, however, and I have the sneezes and watery eyes to prove it.

     While allergies may make some people miserable, most folks still eagerly await the warmth and sunshine of spring and welcome it as a time to refresh and renew, to clean up, clear out and begin again. This is especially true in areas where long winters of six months or more breed a serious case of cabin fever.  As an astronomical season, spring is based the natural rotations of the earth around the sun with two solstices and two equinoxes. Yet, while people have used natural phenomena as markers of time for thousands of years, the vernal equinox associated with the beginning of spring in the Northern hemisphere (around March 21) doesn’t necessarily coincide with spring-like weather.

     The origin of “spring” as a meteorological, and therefore metaphoric, season is easier to understand but harder to pinpoint, based as it is on climate and temperature cycles. In Western Europe where the Catholic Church held sway for centuries, spring was originally called Lent to indicate the days leading up to Easter Sunday. Sometime in the Middle Ages, the period began to be called “springing time,” because of all the plants and flowers “springing up” from the ground. A while later, the season became known as “spring time,” and then, finally, just “spring.”

     It’s interesting to note now how many cultures in the world, regardless of their religious beliefs or geographic locations, celebrate a “spring-like” season of rebirth with cleansing rituals and traditions. One of them, the custom of “spring cleaning,” can be traced back to ancient Jewish practices of thoroughly cleaning the house in anticipation of Passover (itself a forerunner of Lent). Similar traditions are found in the Iranian Nowruz, the Persian new year, which falls on the first day of spring. The practice of khooneh tekouni, which literally means “shaking the house,” is still honored today. In some cultures, “spring” cleaning and the urge to refresh and renew comes at the end of the year, which could actually be in winter or summer, depending on their calendar. 

     I have been particularly ruthless about clearing out and cleaning up this year. Part of that impulse, of course, has been occasioned by the cartons of papers and documents, family photos and records, and personal possessions and keepsakes of my Mother’s that now are deposited in a guest room, in a closet and in the garage. Not only am I still trying to wrap up her affairs, I am now trying to distribute, dispense, and dispose of the leftovers of her life, much of which I personally value, but simply don’t know how to accommodate. 

     Integration of belongings from one generation to the next is a tedious process, and a sad one.  As I go along trying to marry some of her things (photos, knick-knacks, special treasures, pieces of furniture) with my own, I inevitably find myself overwhelmed and irritated with the clutter I myself have accumulated. I open drawers and things fall out; I go to shelves and have no room left; I look in closets and am met with chaos. Thus, a cleaning frenzy ensues — one not entirely due to the season, nor one entirely based on hope for the future. Not only am I feeling  encumbered by all my own “stuff” right now, but I am also facing the future reality that our one bachelor son doesn’t want to be encumbered by it either. 

     In 1986, comedian and social critic George Carlin did a routine about “stuff” that still resonates with me. It was masterful, as so much of his very original work was, because it satirized Americans’ lust for big money and high style, which so dominated the 1980s,  through the simple, immediately familiar descriptions of our own everyday relationships with our own everyday “stuff.” As Carlin made plain, you didn’t have to be one of the Carringtons on Dynasty to be guilty of conspicuous consumption: You buy a house to “have a place for your stuff.”  Pretty soon you need another, bigger place to “keep your stuff while you go out to get more stuff.” Then a whole storage and security industry develops based on a need for “keeping an eye on your stuff.” Ironically, Carlin performed this routine for Comic Relief in a charity event to combat poverty. (Find it on You Tube.)

     Tomorrow my community is having a giant disposal day, with shredders for papers and documents, bins for outdated prescriptions and medications, and dumpsters for unusable appliances, furniture and other household items that regular garbage collection won’t take. That bachelor son of ours is coming over with his big pick-up truck to help us haul our “stuff” over to the drop off site. This isn’t everything that I need to get rid of, but it’s a start. 

     Fits n’starts — that’s what this year’s spring, and spring cleaning, is all about.

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