Given the number of corners of my house I have completely emptied, cleaned, and reorganized over the past couple weeks, I feel certain we must live in a geodesic dome. At first glance our house does not appear much tidier or emptier than it did before, although we have now put 11 bags of detritus out for the trash. I have been working so hard, and I feel like I must have made progress, but so much of it seems invisible.

It started when I was looking in my office closet for Hanukkah wrapping paper. This is the closet where everything is thrown or shoved when you don’t know what else to do with it. A closet where things have often literally cascaded out of it when you open the curtain or move one item. It was the abyss. When I attempted to retrieve the wrapping paper, I noticed that one of the overhead shelves was sagging. I thought the boxes on it must be too heavy. So I took them all down. It turns out the shelf had actually ripped out of the wall on one end. For some reason at that moment it seemed like an excellent idea to empty the entire closet. So I did. And I went through every crumpled cardboard box (and forced my husband to sort through his boxes as well. In one of them was a homemade wooden dagger he had no recollection of making or owning. In another was a scouting patch that reads “Totin’ Chip” and featured an image of an axe. He did not recall what that meant or how he had come to possess it). I found hundreds of postcards and letters–some handwritten on pages of notebook paper, some typed on notebook paper, and some printed on dot matrix printers with the perforated edges still intact–from friends and family members. I found tens of hundreds of pages of emails I had printed out during my semester in Oxford and from old boyfriends. I consolidated all the correspondence and put it in labeled file folders. I couldn’t bear to throw any of it away, except for a few cards and letters I found signed by people whose names brought no faces to mind. This included a couple letters from someone named Larry, who mentioned how much he missed me. I could think of no such Larry. Eventually I found a reference to this Larry in a letter from my friend Jonathan who lived upstairs from me when I lived in England. “Larry is still the same,” he wrote. But I still don’t know who he was…

I found an assortment of political bumper stickers that do not yet have significant value on eBay. But perhaps someday, and they don’t take up much room, so I’m hanging onto them. I found many, many copies of publications I wrote or edited in past jobs. I threw most of them away. I can’t even remember the last time a client requested a print copy of a writing sample. I have one of everything, just for the heck of it. I found binders that include every clip I ever wrote for my college newspaper, The Flat Hat. Zoe was impressed by those. I found a folder containing almost every report card I ever received from kindergarten through college, and the Old Testament part I course I took at Wesley Seminary and the continuing education course in typography that I took at the USDA grad school. I got As in both of those classes. I was surprised, however, that my grades overall were not as stellar as I had remembered. My story was always that I earned all As except for math from 4th through 12th grade, but that wasn’t always true. I definitely remembered that my grades at William and Mary were not particularly good, at least until my senior year. But apparently none of that has kept me from doing what I’ve always wanted to do with my life. No clients have ever asked what my GPA in college was, or what my SAT scores were. But I have them, just in case you need to know. I found report cards belonging to my dad and my Nana. She had much better grades than I did and she had to work in her family’s cotton fields a lot of the time she wasn’t in school. I found a million poems I wrote over many years, many of which I didn’t recognize. I had no idea I was so prolific. I found dozens of mix tapes that I made and that friends made for me. I don’t have a tape player anymore but I can just look at the labels and remember all the songs and everything they meant to me. And someday when my kids are grown I can create digital playlists with whatever technology exists then, like an mp3 chip implanted in my brain.

I found so many photos–most of which I just put in a big container to sort through after Christmas when I have more time–including many of people who I didn’t recognize, although they were taken at parties at the apartments I shared with my friend Melissa for several years. I texted her images with arrows pointing to the people asking if she could identify them. She said, “Are you sure this was at our apartment? I don’t know who these people are!”

I went to Target and stocked up on large plastic bins and disposed of all the cardboard boxes and now every container has a theme. They are neatly stacked in the closet. The shelf has been repaired (thanks, Chris Flanagan!) and I was able to easily slide the Christmas decoration bins back on the shelf after we put up the tree today. For the first time in years, I don’t have to worry about something falling on me when I open the closet.

Meanwhile, the kitchen cabinet that holds our glasses and mugs has been gradually inching out of the wall, threatening to shatter its contents all over the floor. We had to completely empty it out, as well as the neighboring cabinet containing all our plates and bowls, in order for our friendly neighborhood handyman–the aforementioned Chris–to take them down and shore them up and reinstall them. So we did that and when he was done I ripped out the gross old shelf liner and wiped everything down and went to Target (again) to get new shelf liner. In the process of doing all this, I found a lot of lids with no cups or containers, and broken water bottles, and bits and pieces of long departed kitchenware. That led me to clean out the tupperware cabinet, which always descends quickly into chaos but I have to fight the good fight. And now I have a big stack of lonely lids and unmatched bottoms waiting to be disposed of in an eco-friendly manner.

Somewhere in between the excitement of the closet and the cabinet, Zoe’s phone went missing. We are pretty sure it’s in the house, because she was using it last Saturday to film videos with her friend Andrea, and then we went to skate night but she didn’t bring it because she noticed the battery was down to 7%. But where she left it before we headed out remains a mystery. In attempts to solve it, we have cleaned out under her bed, which was a trove of wonders but contained no phone. We cleaned out under Zeke’s bed, which was mostly junk that I threw away, but which contained many unfinished activity books and a massive amount of paper and so many markers and a lot of happy meal toys that I tossed. There is now enough room under both beds for people to crawl in and hide, should the need arise. Because the phone still had not surfaced, Zoe and I cleaned out her area downstairs, including her desk, the game shelf, her Legos, her American Girls and their accessories, and the absurd amount of art supplies that the kids share. I made her consolidate all her slime and slime-making supplies into one large container. We threw away many empty bottles of glue and assorted items. We moved the couches. I mopped. I removed vast quantities of dust bunnies. We started to put Legos she had built on the bookshelf, but ran out of time. I started finding things on the bookshelf to get rid of, but we ran out of time. There’s still work to be done over there. Still no phone. Just in case she had set it down in the kitchen, I cleaned out the space under and around the kitchen cart, and on top of the refrigerator (we found a large red plastic bat and a red plastic golf club that had both been confiscated from Zeke probably two years ago when he was likely using them as weapons). We threw away some yucky old lunchboxes and consolidated half-full boxes of Cheerios. Still no phone, but my theory that somehow it could’ve ended up there was validated by the discovery of an old Arlington County car registration decal.

In the process of all the organization, I have emptied a drawer of my nightstand and a drawer in my office. I don’t remember ever possessing an empty drawer. And there are so many more drawers I haven’t yet explored! I am by no means done. There is still a pile of stuff on my desk that I haven’t figured out how to sort, and there’s a mountain of items to be sold or donated or freecycled taking up a lot of space in the hallway. Not to mention that we haven’t yet found Zoe’s phone. If you have any ideas about where it might be, please let us know, or better yet, come over and take a look! Chances are you will come across some unique and valuable items that you might want for yourself, and I will be delighted to give them to you. If you would like to make Christmas presents with glass bottles, we have some to spare. The more I clean, the more ruthless I am in my decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of. The persistent challenge is how to purge in a compassionate, responsible, and environmentally friendly way. I can’t just throw something perfectly useful in the garbage! Just because I don’t need it or want it doesn’t mean someone else won’t! So if there’s anything you’re in the market for, please let me know because we probably have an extra. And special thanks to the trash collectors who will be coming tomorrow morning to pick up several more bags than usual that are a significant weight off my shoulders.