Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Chametz, Schmutz and Clutter

What did YOU end Pesach with? My parents and I ended it at Giorgio's on Clement Street, which features excellent eggplant parmesan, and also garlic bread, and non-garlic bread, and spaghetti, and drinks with corn syrup in them.

I was on vacation this week. (Thanks be to God. I was getting to a very bad place. Also, this has mostly freed me from packing Pesadich work lunches.)

Anyway, I've taken the opportunity to do some drastic spring cleaning and decluttering, because the house was starting to look scary. As a result, I have been thinking a lot about the categories of chametz, schmutz and clutter.

When I tried to explain the whole Pesach process to gentile college friends, one of the things they often got hung up on was the idea that chametz is somehow seen as sinful, or evil. Possibly in the context of Christian thought this makes some sense--Pesach comes in close proximity to Lent, when Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays, and many 'give up' things, often food items, for the forty days. The things you abstain from are luxury products, 'extras' that are given up in order to enter into the sorrow of Lent. Structurally, though, Lent is more like the three weeks, not particularly like Pesach at all. Chametz is not a 'luxury' per se, and you go on eating carbohydrates, just in a modified form. I have eaten some darn luscious Pesach cakes. You don't give up chametz to renounce something. You GET RID of chametz.

Which brings me to decluttering. Decluttering is the process of getting rid of those things in your life and your home which you no longer need or use or want. Flylady, one of the gurus of getting your home organized, is a big proponent of decluttering, on the principal that it is not possible to effectively organize clutter. In her opinion, clutter sucks the life out of you. This, I believe.

Getting rid of clutter takes energy and some cunning. I believe I've already written on this blog about one of the more amazing moments of my decluttering career--I was on my way downstairs with my arms full of my machatenim's abandoned collection of Christmas cookie tins, prepared to take them to Goodwill, when the mythological figure I like to call the 'yetzer of clutter' perched on my shoulder and suggested I could clean the tins up, paint them in Purim themes, and use them for shalach manos. In eight months. I almost gave in. Then I got a grip and hustled the tins out the door.

Clutters in my life also include my inability to get rid of pieces of paper (how many back phone bills does one human being need? On the other hand, what if suddenly I had to prove I'd paid my phone bill in November 2001? What if the FBI needed to know this?), clothing (I might lose fifty pounds and become a blond, and then this would both fit, and look good on me. Besides, I paid money for it), and anything anyone ever bought for me (how would it look if I got rid of a paperback book a friend I no longer speak to much gave me for my twenty-fourth birthday?) And so on. I have problems with the clutter demons.

Aside from insane fears about the FBI suddenly needing access to my personal paper copies of old electric bills, the yetzer of clutter preys on various, sometimes contradictory fears and fantasies I have about the world. She knows about my Martha Stewart fantasies, and this enables her to encourage me to keep incredible junk on the grounds that I might make wonderful things out of it. On the flip side, she knows I can be coaxed to keep almost any damn thing with dark inherited memories of worse wartime I might not be able to get more Bugs Bunny mugs if the ones we kept were to break. Keep them against catastrophe. And she knows I can be guilted about my first-world, middle-class luxury. Children are dying in Africa, and you want to throw out a box of treyf stuffing mix left behind by your machatenim, which is at least a decade old and might actually have turned into a solid mass? Wasteful.

OK, I sound like a nutjob. I'm trying to be honest about the processes going on in the deep crevices of my psyche.

So what does any of this have to do with chametz? Symbolically, I think there's a connection. Pesach is the commemoration of making a decisive choice about essentials, of trading home, and anything you can't drag with you for life and freedom and faith that you can get where you're going. In both Jewish and American history this is a resonant and recurring theme. Things get brought--feather blankets, books, seeds (tumbleweeds are not indigenous to North America, they travelled from Russia on immigrant's clothing and took root on the Great Plains). Things get left behind--Boston rockers abandoned on the road west, some old-country customs, toys too heavy to pack. Decluttering, and freeing from chametz, reflects this process of giving up, of choosing, of moving on. You'll acquire more chametz, more things, being utterly free of them is not the point. The point is to be able to know what you need.

Another thing I keep in mind when decluttering is Flylady's repeated point that by donating things you no longer want or need, you are 'blessing another family' with them. Those damn Christmas tins might have actually been of use to someone. A skinny blond may be looking for a size twelve pale green sweater, and been pleased to find one. The breadmaker I never used and was never GOING to use was probably a nice find for someone out there who wanted one--and I was no longer hosting it and its accompanying guilt in my bedroom closet. If I don't want it, it should go to someone who wants it. If no one could want it, get rid of the thing already!

I don't think it is an accident that in both of my own ethnic cultures, at least, one of the characteristics most strongly associated with holy women is giving away, moving things out of their home. What do saintly rebbetzins do? They feed and shoe Eliyahu, and presumably some actual wandering beggars as well. Brigid, the fire/spring/craft goddess-turned-Irish supersaint, (also said to have been the midwife at the birth of Christ, because things like the time-space continuum do not bother Irish supersaint girls) became a Christian and expressed this, not by going off to a distant rock or cave like Columba or Kevin, but by giving the contents of her stepfather's home to every passing traveller in need. (The stepfather, a Druid, converted, apparently in part because he felt that if his house was going to be given as tzedake, piece by piece, he should at least get some spiritual benefit out of it.) Rather than huddling in my own home, hoarding stuff I don't need or want, I need to turn outward, and send the extra out the door to where it will be useful.

Anyway. That's where I am as the holiday ends. Today I declutter the computer room. Anyone want an elderly desk lamp?


Jessica said...

Hey...I stumbled on your blog through someone else's.

I ended my Pesach at an Italian restaurant with lots and lots of breadsticks. Mmmm. And cheese ravioli.

I used Pesach to declutter too: when I was getting the house ready, I sorted, recycled, donated a truckload of stuff. And it felt good!

Anonymous said...

I ended my passover by taking my kids rock climbing and then out of pizza at an all you can eat pizza place. They do a cinnamon roll pizza there that was just amazing! As far as decluttering goes. I decluttered a lot. I went from a 4 bedroom house to renting a room in someone else's house. Along the way I discovered that there is just not a lot that I need. Sometimes I miss it, but I'm saving a lot more now than I ever did before. Anyway, thanks for commenting on my blog. I've blogrolled you and am looking forward to reading more of your posts.

Eliyahu said...

You mean there is more than one goddess, another yetzer of clutter? Zounds! I thought her excusive domain was my office...i may have to rethink my theology here....