Things I Learned from Cleaning Out My Closet

I put away the shorts and sandals this week and replaced them with corduroy pants, sweaters and, ugh, shoes that require socks. I’m a neat freak who needs her clothing organized—solid or print tops, dress slacks or jeans, shoes grouped by color, etc. When I do this in the spring, it’s with joyful anticipation of outdoor swimming and deck-sitting at Ocean Pines, but the fall changeover tends to depress me, because holidays aside, I’m not a big fan of the dark months.

Like many of us, I don’t wear a lot of what’s in my closet because there’s no place to go. Not that my husband and I were living a high-end social life, but at least there were concerts and theater, dinners at nice restaurants, and the occasional party. But now, it’s mostly just jeans and tops for puttering around the house and watching Netflix at night. However, you will never, ever find me in pj’s after 8 AM, wearing sweats in public, or appearing on a zoom meeting without at least a touch of make-up.

Memories cling to our clothing like lint. I got rid of both the shirt I wore when we had to put Vinnie down in June and the one I had on when we found a friend in a serious medical crisis. The fuzzy purple robe from when I had my back surgery ten years ago still hangs in my closet, but I haven’t worn it since. On the flip side, I keep and still wear an ancient sweatshirt that was one of my last pieces of Dallastown swag and a pair of boots permanently stained with candlewax from a wonderful holiday dinner party with friends.

Clothing purchased at outlets tends to have a short shelf-life. Cutting corners never really pays in the long run.

Plain, boring, Land’s End squall coats and jackets literally last forever. I open the closet and think, “You’re still here after how many trips through the washer?” There’s something to be said for being a plugger, for just getting a job done without a lot of bells and whistles.

Clothing from a store that went out of business in 2014 (or before) needs to go. Now. No questions asked, no Marie Kondo does-it-bring-me-joy-stuff. Sometimes we have to move on and accept that what worked in the past no longer does.

Know thyself. I dressed casually when I was teaching because I was on the floor adjusting cello endpins or schlepping instruments from one school to another. Heels and dresses weren’t practical for my job or my body. I have a friend who can perfectly style an outfit and wear linen without it wrinkling. I admire her fashion gifts just like I do someone who can paint pictures or design cars, but that’s not who I am, and that’s okay.

You can never have enough good quality solid cotton tee-shirts and colorful scarves, (although Dr. Birx almost ruined me on scarves.) I also recommend those Skechers that you can wear without socks which will ease the transition from your beloved sandals to the rigid confines of winter shoes and boots.

Do not let well-meaning friends talk you into clothing you’ll never wear. I finally got rid of a wool jacket purchased on a shopping trip with friends who ooh-ed and aah-ed when I tried it on. Just looking at it makes me itch and the thing generates so much heat, I can’t imagine wearing it in above-freezing temperatures.

Most importantly, take stock every now and then. Examine what still works and what doesn’t. Get rid of the excess, the worn-out, the no-longer-fits. Perhaps give something you bought and never wore, another chance. Accept the current reality of your life and plan how you’re going to dress for it. Weigh what you want against what you already have, although the occasional splurge on something new feels so good and is absolutely necessary. And remember that in six months, the light will return and, once again, it will be time for flip-flops.

We Were a Team

You and I were a team. We were the yin and yang, the passion and the patience. You pushed me when I needed it. (“Let’s do a strings festival with every kid in the program.”) I pulled back when you needed it. (“No, you cannot send that letter to the school board.”) I was your enabler—the one who made sure the permission slips were sent and that the printed program was not only finished on time but grammatically perfect. You were my musical inspiration and my go-to person for all things strings. If I wasn’t sure about a bowing or stylistic approach for a piece, you had the answers, and they were spot-on. I watched you get squirmy middle-schoolers absolutely lit up about Mozart and Beethoven, and I learned a thing or two about what to do when you step on a podium.

We built a program where there had been none. We made music and we created art, and although other wonderful people joined us later, you and I started it. So many lives are better because of the lessons we taught in elementary school hallways and storage closets. Because of endless rehearsals and orchestra trips with long bus rides and because we fought so hard for music to be valued at a time when all that mattered were standardized test scores. And the product– from little fiddlers scratching out Twinkle, Twinkle, to the high school orchestra playing a full-blown original symphony– was second to none.

Working with someone who’s passionate about what they do isn’t always easy. I remember the frequent drama, the frustration, the texts and emails written in all caps, and that you made the F-word part of the music department’s own private mission statement. But there was always humor and laughter. The cone of silence in the stairwell for the latest juicy gossip. The stories you’d tell at our Lion’s Pride lunches. The third-grader who looked up at you after a recruiting demo and said, “Nice hair.” The comments you’d make to your high school kids that they would write down and then read back to you at the spring concert. Kids remember things that make them feel something and no one could sit in your orchestra or be around you and not feel something, even if it was occasionally fear.

Few people get to have a work relationship like ours. Back in the early days, you propped me up through my divorce and I did the same when things were rocky for you. And when we were walking down the hall a few years later and I said, “I’m in love,” you said, “Well, my God, Anne, it’s about time you got it right.” Our work together spilled over into a mutual love of church music and choral singing. What a gift it was to sing that glorious cantata last Christmas with your wonderful choir and others who were like friends and family from our teaching careers. And despite being in treatment, you still demanded the very best of the musicians in front of you.

I know these are terrible days, but I hope that hearing how you touched others brings a little comfort. I remember sitting in the auditorium with your colleagues watching you rehearse the high school orchestra. We would mutter to each other, “That music is too hard. He’s making them play it too fast, they’ll never get that right.” And yet, in the concert, your kids always came through. They got it right. You showed all of us that we can play it better than we think we can. For that, and for being such a wonderful part of my life—the annoying brother I never had, thank you, my friend.  

Grand Pause

I haven’t sung since the second week of March. Well, that’s not completely true since I recorded (with much angst and frustration) a piece for a virtual choir and a few hymns for a friend’s church service, but that’s it. This is the longest stretch in my adult life that I haven’t sung. When I try to sing along with the hymns and familiar liturgy of live-streamed worship, my voice sounds the way I feel, which is miserable and sad. Those of us who sing are stuck in one Grand Pause—a seemingly eternal fermata of silence.

I know there are far worse situations in the midst of this pandemic than not being able to sing. I know there is unspeakable suffering and catastrophic financial hardship and whining about the loss of music-making seems petty and self-serving. But until it was taken away, I don’t think I realized what a huge role singing with others plays in my spiritual support system. Choir is part of who I am, and I suspect I’m not alone in this feeling.

I miss being shoulder to shoulder on the risers. I miss the intensity of watching the director and keeping my head up out of the music and fighting that fourth line D which is my break note and feeling the hair raise on my  arms at the sound of the organ introduction to a favorite hymn. I even miss the annoying stuff–the hokey church anthems that inspire eye-rolls, or the dress rehearsals where your feet go numb and your shoulders ache from hours of standing and holding a folder. Right now, I’d give just about anything to sing a lame anthem or endure a grueling dress rehearsal.

And yes, I read the optimistic posts about virtual choirs and being creative and singing with masks and rehearsing outdoors but the harsh reality is we’re stuck in this nightmare until there is a vaccine. That which so many of us love either as participants or listeners and which has lifted us up out of the muck so many times is now forbidden because it’s dangerous. Take the hymnals out of the pews and don’t even hum along behind that mask. No singing with your favorite group in a sold-out stadium filled with adoring fans. No live singing for weddings or funerals or even family birthdays. I simply can’t  wrap my head around that. The loss of the human voice raised in song, whether it’s on the Broadway stage or in the elementary classroom, leaves us bereft and grieving.

Part of what makes this so hard is the not knowing. If we knew that as of a certain date, this would be over, it would be a little easier. We could check off the days on our calendar, like a child anxiously waiting for Christmas. But right now that’s not a realistic expectation. We remain stuck in this purgatory, hoping and praying for a vaccine or a treatment that will eliminate the fear of creating and enjoying live music.

A Grand Pause in music indicates the musician is to rest indefinitely. Everything stops, and the choir stands frozen, waiting for that pivotal moment when the conductor’s arms come down and his or her face lights up and we are released to sing again. The music always comes back after a Grand Pause, no matter how long it lasts.

The Absence of There-ness

I started crying when I opened the cereal cupboard this morning. One of the things Vinnie would still eat in his last days was cereal. His favorites were oatmeal, Life (not the Target brand) and Quaker Oat Squares. I don’t think he felt well when he got up and licking the dregs of my cereal bowl and snitching a few crumbs of muffin or toast helped get him started toward eating his own breakfast. On Sunday, when he didn’t finish my oatmeal, I knew we were in trouble.

Unlike cats, dogs are so full of there-ness. Cats slink around, discreetly tending their own business and deigning to interact with humans when it suits them. But dogs are stinky-breathed, crotch-licking, food-stealing creatures of boundless need. You can’t avoid dogs. They are in your face, in your bed and on your favorite chair. They are come-on-get-up-I-have-to-pee-at-1-AM, let’s hunt squirrels and chipmunks,  terrorize the cat, chase the Kong toy, hump the dog bed along with certain guests, secretly crap on the dining room rug, eat unrecognizable things off the pavement and bark maniacally at the doorbell. At least that was Vinnie’s version of there-ness, all of which had begun to fade in recent months.

It is the absence of there-ness that makes loss so hard. Not just the terrible physical loss of the animal, but it’s all their stuff and the routines that become so ingrained in us that when they’re suddenly snatched away, we feel like we’ve been cast into another universe.

Caring for Vinnie was a lifestyle. His chronic liver disease required carefully administered medications along with frequent trips to a specialist vet. Our morning conversation usually consisted of one of us asking the other about what, if anything, Vinnie ate for breakfast and the quality of his poop. The wall calendar is marked with red “P’s” to remind us of the alternating days he got prednisone. We rarely traveled because we needed the pet-sitter at least four times a day.

Now the plastic tub of medications that sat on our kitchen counter for four years is gone. There are no more zip-lock bags of cooked ground beef in the refrigerator. My husband dis-assembled Vinnie’s crate that stood beside our bed since we rescued him in 2013 and took it down to the basement. We kept it covered with towels, like a birdcage, so Vinnie wouldn’t erupt in frantic barking if the cat crept into our room at night. I washed his bowls and put them away in the pantry, perhaps for future use, but relieved of the heartbreak of seeing barely eaten bowls of food sitting up on the counter.

There will be no more computer-generated voicemails from CVS informing us that a prescription for “Vinniedog” is ready for pick-up. I threw away the post-its scribbled with his latest liver enzyme numbers and lab results, along with the bulging file folder containing his medical records. I will no longer feel the polite tap of Vinnie’s paw when I’m eating, reminding me that he would like a sample of whatever is on my plate. His collar rests on my husband’s workbench in the garage because we don’t want our other dog to hear its distinctive jingle and think Vinnie is here somewhere. She’s been bossing him around ever since she arrived as a puppy seven years ago and now looks lost.

Dogs ferret out human love with the same intensity they worry a bone or snuffle down a chipmunk hole. They won’t take no for an answer. They urge us out of our complacency and oh-so-busy lives to feed them and take them outside and clean up their messes. Their need for us is all consuming as is ours for them. And when there are finally no more balls to throw or pills to give, we scramble to create an absence of their there-ness, so we don’t turn into puddles of mush at the sight of a worn and faded collar or half-empty bag of treats. But our dogs have nestled into us just like they have the top of the couch cushions which will never really return to their original shape. Neither will we.

couch cushions