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In a women's world, closet symbolizes chaos vs. order


When the principal of the neighborhood middle school retired, I asked her what she planned to do, and she said she hoped finally to get around to cleaning out some closets.

When school ended for the year, I asked a teacher friend if she had plans for the summer, and she said she thought she better clean out some closets before she did anything else.

When her boys left for college, I asked my friend what she was going to do and she said she thought it was now safe to clean out some closets.

And when I asked another friend why she didn't take some time off from work, she said there were no plans for a family vacation and, "What would I do at home? Clean out closets? That's no vacation."

Apparently, it depends on whom you ask.

But whether they see it as a satisfying chore or a surrender to the mundane, women have a thing about cleaning out closets.

My friend Betsy says cleaning out closets is an appealing chore -- for other women, not her -- because "it is a task that has a beginning and an end, unlike the other things we do."

She thinks that the need women have to dig into a dark place, throw out long-forgotten items and reduce their possessions is a kind of "de-nesting," the reverse of the accumulating we do for the comfort of our children.

She is on to something, I think. But women don't have to get rid of anything to find this chore satisfying. Cleaning out a closet is a sort of emotional shorthand for bringing order to chaos, and that appeals to women.

Bring order to a closet and you have brought order to a small square of your life. Throw out old junk and you have lightened your emotional burdens as well.

"It is a control thing," says my friend Susan. "It makes you feel like you have control. Once a closet is cleaned out, you know what is in there and where everything else is that was in there.

"And heaven help the child that messes with that."

Apparently, the closet is an allegory for a woman's mind. If there is stuff jammed in one and forgotten, there is probably stuff jammed in the other and just as forgotten.

"You can close the door and tell yourself that you aren't going to think about it now," says Susan. "But it clutters your mind. You know you are going to have to come back to it."

My friend Nan says cleaning out a closet is an act that often marks a transition between the seasons, or in life.

"It is preparation for something else. You do it before you get to do something else."

Her worst closet is the extra one located in her son Dan's room. She says it is filled with baby memorabilia, table linens handed down to her but which she will probably never use, out of season and "out of century" clothes, including the bridesmaid's dress she wore in her brother's wedding in 1966.

"I will certainly never wear it again, but it is such a good memory that I can't bring myself to throw it out," Nan says.

Dan has left for college and Nan can now safely clear a path to that closet. It is kind of haunting her now -- something she must do before she gets to do something else. And she might be ready to face its contents.

"There are some things I might be ready to say goodbye to."

If not the bridesmaid's dress, then perhaps the gerbil paraphernalia, she says.

Like a closet, a woman's mind can be crammed with essential and nonessential items: the date of her child's last tetanus shot and the lyrics of a high school love song. And you never know which one is going to fall out when you open the door.

"You can't clear that useless stuff out of your head, but you can clean out your closet," says Betsy. Not that she wants to, or will anytime soon.

She knows that waiting in her closet is a dress she bought for her daughter four years ago, still in the store bag, as well as the viola her child hasn't played in seven years.

For her, that closet is filled with the evidence of things she hasn't done, and no woman likes to face that. It is the same with the stray worries inside our heads, the ones we can never seem to resolve.

"I was thinking about cleaning out the bathroom cabinets," Betsy confessed, suggesting that closets cannot be far behind.

"It is brewing in my head," she said. "It has almost made its way out of my subconscious."

Proving my point, I said.

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