Sorting myself out

Jun 5th, 2012 | By | Category: Everything Else

by Sally O’Kane McClintock

Twelve packed boxes stand in the way of my reaching a life “all sorted out.”  Stored neatly in the living room and covered with a decorative cloth, the boxes wait for me to summon the courage for a final sorting. Others may consult practical books on sorting their possessions, but a playwright and a poet are my guides. But because of them, I am stuck in the middle, between postponing and exploring.

Whenever I think of sorting my things, I remember Davies’ recurring plaint in “The Caretaker”:  “Got to go to Sidcup, get myself sorted out.”

In this play by Harold Pinter, Davies is a tramp who calls himself Bernard Jenkins rather than Mac Davies. When questioned, he insists there are papers in Sidcup that will sort this all out: “They tell you who I am.” But he never makes that trip for the documents, blaming lack of shoes or bad weather—always something.

Unlike Davies, I have papers here in my desk that explains my three last names. Birth certificate, marriage licenses, and divorce decree tell who I am.  But I am like Davies in postponing my own sorting.  While most of my stored items are organized in cabinets, basement, and the garage, there are still those twelve unsorted boxes in the living room.

Some bear strange labels: “By the file cabinet.””On the card table.”  Cancer had come to me while living in Vermont.  Chemo was in my life. In a hurry between treatments, my children were moving me west to live near them.  My husband had died the year before.  “Label those boxes when you pack them,” I said as I flew off to Tacoma, “so I know what›s in them when they get there.”  There was no time for me to finish the packing.

Nine years later, a cancer survivor, I look at the labeled boxes and wonder what was “by the file cabinet,” what was “on the card table.” I could open the boxes and look.  But I hesitate, although there might be some precious things stored in them.  Somewhere there’s a jade necklace my father gave me when I was a teenager, bought from a drunken sailor, he said, on a San Francisco wharf. Or I might find my wooden pin of the old woman who lived in a shoe. I had the pin from childhood, the size of a button, with a tiny scene of the woman and the shoe and the children.  In which box might it be?

Still I hesitate to open the boxes and finish the sorting.  I know that sorting is more than uncovering and rearranging the items stored.  I may also uncover my own self, as I remember what was once—or may still be—important to my life. And perhaps consider rearrangement.

I wish I were bold enough to be guided by the poetry of T.S. Eliot, as he writes about exploring in “Four Quartets 4: Little Gidding”:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

If I explore those final twelve boxes, perhaps I will find my jade necklace or my little pin. But to arrive where I started? What would that mean?  And what would it be like to know the place for the first time? Like Davies, I am fearful.

And thus I balance between postponing and exploring, caught between the play and the poem.  The jade will have to wait. And the old woman in her shoe. Why chance a life all sorted out for a possible glimpse of eternity— or of nothing?