Vacation From Chaos

blue soapbox  Late one recent afternoon, spinning my wheels on all kinds of tasks that needed my attention, I called my sister Erica.  “Hey Eri, wanna go get a drink, or a cup of coffee?”

“Well—um, I’m kind of cleaning up my apartment, and—” her voice was tiny.  “I could use a hand.”

She was asking?  Forget the drink.  “I’ll be right over.”

For months, I’d been offering to help my sister, who’s not a born housekeeper.  But she’d been feeling too ashamed of her chaos to accept my offer—and too overwhelmed to tackle the job on her own.  That she was now extending an invitation to me was, in the language of sisters, something of an honor.

I know how thorny it can be to do spring cleaning, how myriad the opportunities for self-reproach:

I bought these pants, but who am I kidding?

What kind of person lets mail pile up like this?

Why didn’t I keep the moisture out of this now-unusable dishwasher soap?

How did I create such a monster out of plenty?

I headed over to Eri’s and walked into the kind of disorder only a trained eye would recognize as evidence of progress.  I began scrounging around for empty bags in which to put the castoffs.  We gained momentum, and in a few hours, we’d filled dozens of bags with giveaway, recycling and garbage.  “If you regret anything, you can always get it back on eBay or at the flea market,” I chanted, as much to myself as to her.

Eri seemed anxious that I was going to lose steam or, worse, start lecturing her.  But for me, the work wasn’t hard; I appreciated its concreteness, the discarded items piling up nicely in the hallway.  And I felt no urge to criticize my sister or tell her what to do.  I had my own pile of stuff I didn’t want to face: an e-mail inbox I hadn’t purged in a year and a half; that Advance Directive form I kept meaning to fill out; research on the various options for authors wishing to make their books available in electronic form.

I’ve been on the receiving end of sisterly hand-holding many, many times.  Home moves, babysitting, post-surgical care, fridge cleaning, remodeling decisions, party throwing, proofreading of galleys.  Until now, I hadn’t fully grasped the most important part of that generosity: countering any self-condemnation the other person may be feeling about not being able to manage everything herself.

How is it that we’re all convinced our mess is the worst, our shame the most legitimate?  While Eri waited for disapproval, I could only admire her for being brave enough to let me in.

Something must have shifted during my unplanned vacation, because when I returned to my own chaos, I found I was able to tackle it much better, as if my hand-holding of Eri were now magically extended inward.

And a few days later, Eri called to tell me she was re-organizing her kitchen cabinets.  By herself.

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3 Responses to “Vacation From Chaos”

  1. Michele Says:

    So wise, funny, loving and uplifting. A friend of mine flew across the continent (and border) for a conference and stayed with us. But did she go off gallivanting in her spare time? No, she helped me organize my kitchen countertop much the same way you helped Eri. We both felt great afterward.

  2. Rebecca Wald Says:

    Great post. A lot of us harbor feelings of guilt for all the things we need to get to. I certainly do! Having a buddy to help without judgment is a wonderful blessing. Speaking as someone without siblings, you are indeed fortunate.

  3. bonnie burt Says:

    Hola Lisa from Florida,

    Loved the column especially the sisterly love. How Brave-r of Erica to ask for help!

    See you soon!


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