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Cleaning Out My Emotional Closet Feels Impossible

I am impressed by the many people who have used their time in quarantine to downsize. I wish I could do the same. The problem is that I never let anything go. I do not speak of possessions, although I don’t deny my family has too many. (My husband has no interest in downsizing, so we brokered a truce to refrain from going to the mat on this issue until we hit age seventy—if we live that long.) 

Don’t get me wrong. I do pitch and throw; I do attack nasty corners and closets and divest them of contents. But I never let anything go.

The truly threatening clutter is on the interior–this is what we are exhorted to let go of as the High Holidays approach. My brain is littered with piles of mistakes, freighted with trunks of painful and trivial embarrassments, encrusted with sorrows that insist on hanging on, pockmarked with losses for which there is no closure, and sodden with deaths that came too early, deaths that make no sense (does any death make sense?), and guilt.

Too, I retain lists in a large variety of categories: to-do lists, should-have-done lists, what-if contingency lists, lists based in realism, lists grounded in fear and trembling, shopping lists, food lists, lists that attempt to capture the contents of my freezer (not possible to do so with accuracy), lists of people to whom I owe emails or some other type of communication, lists of people to whom I owe thanks and gratitude. 

Guilt takes up prime real estate and therefore deserves special mention. No guilt is too small to retain. I engage in precious few transactions that skirt guilt, whether or not merited. I hold onto leaden guilts that do not resolve, even when the injured party has either forgiven me or made clear I have nothing for which to feel guilty. I store lighter guilts—the everyday, garden variety kind—being impolite in a shop, missing the delivery person who needed a tip, hogging the conversation, or otherwise intruding where unwanted. I suffer from plenty of other types of guilt. Guilt is a wondrous thing; it comes in every color of the spectrum. Stored in bulging cerebral closets are crate-loads of actual wrongs for which my memory maintains pitch perfect recollection. There are no statute of limitations on any of those wrongs, my earliest date back to grade school. 

Worry may be the worst kind of metastasizing mental detritus. In the hospital after delivering my first child, I realized I had not understood the meaning of worry until I gave birth. Worry is inseparable from parenthood, and not only does not diminish, it increases with time.  If a treatment for worry exists, I have not discovered it, despite years of seeking. 

I once vowed to return in my next life as a Zen Buddhist, but a friend cautioned that that was impossible without demonstrating Zen characteristics in this life. Sadly, therefore, I have to admit that though I’ll keep trying, I may be too attached to my catastrophic thinking to really downsize in this life.


Martha Anne Toll
 is a DC based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in Fall 2022.