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Spring Cleaning -- or Not

It's not what I do -- the item on the list -- that ultimately matters. What matters is why I put the task on the list in the first place. That's the energy that drives intention.
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It's that time of year when I find myself generating to-do lists. The overgrown backyard needs attention. The closets would benefit from a good airing out. The bookshelf, stacked two rows thick and completely disheveled, requires pruning.

Often, my spring-cleaning list becomes my fall list and then my winter list. Sometimes an item stays on my list for years, recurring like a garden perennial, only less lovely, its blooms scented with failure. See, it's already mid-May, more than halfway through spring, and I'm only just getting around to writing about this.

Where does this human passion for the list come from? And why isn't it accompanied by a passion for execution? Is it simply that we have much to do and not enough time to do it in, or is the cause more psychologically and spiritually complex?

Likely it's both. Since I'm not a psychologist or a priest, I won't theorize. But I'd like to share how I'm approaching spring cleaning this year with the hope that you might find it helpful -- and that declaring this approach publicly will help me keep my word. This year, my list looks similar to prior year's lists, but keeping in mind the words of a wise man who said, "I don't just listen to the words you say. I listen to why you speak, and why I listen," I'm resolving to see the reason I make my list in the first place.

I'm a natural list-maker. Lists help me manage time. They provide a structure, a reference point, each item a bell sounding my priorities. But like anything, lists can be taken too far. Certain things are not so conducive to being enumerated. Love, for example, despite Elizabeth Barrett Browning's famous poetic counting of its ways.

It would be useful to order my bookshelves -- poetry with poetry, novels with novels -- so that when I go looking for something, I have a chance of finding it. My neighbors would probably appreciate if I tamed my backyard. But this year, instead of just getting right down to these tasks, or putting them off, I'm going to pause as I put each job on the list, note why I'm putting it there, and -- this is important -- let go of my attachment to seeing it done.

What's the point of making the list, you might ask, if you don't plan to follow through? It's not that I don't hope to follow through, or plan to. I love that cleared-out, fresh-cut-grass feeling that comes from completion, from putting things in their proper places and liberating forgotten, unused objects to a new life. I'm the one who purges in our house -- ask my husband, who believes that the minute we give something away, we're going to need it. Sometimes he's right. But I still believe in the ultimate value of getting rid of stuff we could do without.

This year, the backyard is on my list, as it usually is, a perennial item for various reasons, one of them being that it is hidden from view. The grass is long and weedy. Ivy and blackberries encroach. Mint has taken over along the fence. Plans for new landscaping, a writing shed, and a wood-burning sauna remain just plans, something my husband and I talk about from time to time, like we talk about riding bikes in Asia.

Today, as I write down "backyard cleanup," I pause. I remember how last month my sweet orange tabby Jai lay in the grass, scooping up the scents in the air with his nose and purring, the week he died. I remember the beautiful, twisted-bark juniper tree that used to shade a section of the yard before a fungus killed it and we had to cut it down. I picture the mother deer and her two fawns who made their beds in the long grass and stared solemnly at us as we peered back at them from the bedroom window. I think of planting lettuce seedlings in the bed now occupied by the mint, pulling off a few tender leaves for a dinner salad.

The words themselves, "backyard cleanup," don't evoke the feelings these memories and images do -- and thus, it's easy to forget why I really do want to spend a day or two in the yard as the season tilts into summer. This is the list behind the list: mourning my cat, connecting with the natural world, tasting its gifts. These are good reasons to get out in the yard and work, reasons my body can get behind. And if my body gets behind it, my heart and mind are also behind it, and I can do what I actually want to do.

It's not about crossing "backyard cleanup" off the list, though there is satisfaction in that. It's not what I do -- the item on the list -- that ultimately matters. What matters is why I put the task on the list in the first place. That's the energy that drives intention. Once I find that, I'm in my work clothes, pulling on a sun hat and gloves.

That said, if the job doesn't get done -- if life has other plans and I'm diverted from my backyard cleanup project, that's all right too. Jai was as content in the long grass as a lion on the African savannah. The deer will enjoy the blackberries. And in the meantime, I won't indulge guilt or feel deficient. Those are things I can definitely do without.

For more by Colleen Morton Busch, click here.

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