Baby Bathwater

Determining what is affectionate accumulation or consuming clutter


in Features • Illustrated by Kat Heller


I am typing this manuscript on a 1941 Royal Quiet De Luxe manual typewriter, which was manufactured during the early days of World War II. It’s one of 30 manual typewriters I own because, well, because why only have one when you can have 30? Up until just a few days ago, I had 35 machines; I sold five typewriters for well below market value to simply get rid of them. I have far too many typewriters taking up space. In my defense, I am a writer, and I do use manual typewriters to draft my work, but do I need all 30 to get the job done? Rhetorical. Of course not. But I mention it to help illustrate my journey to reduce the sheer number of my belongings, and along the way, try to understand my — and probably your own — obsession with stuff. Cue the late, great, comedian George Carlin:

Actually, this is just a place for my stuff, ya know? That’s all, a little place for my stuff. That’s all I want, that’s all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know? I can see it on your table, everybody’s got a little place for their stuff. This is my stuff, that’s your stuff, that’ll be his stuff over there. That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.

I feel like this is my third or fourth attempt to clean up my act and figure out why I act like this in the first place. But now, I feel the environment is right. I have both the time and space to dedicate myself to lessening the load. I can explain more, but I’ll leave it at that for today. Before tackling today’s purge I want to quote Scott Sonenshein, co-author of Joy at Work with Marie Kondo (yes that Kondo), who writes, “ . . . when people feel they are no longer in control, they begin to accumulate more unwanted stuff while also struggling with a sense of guilt and pressure to do something about it. The result? They put off dealing with their stuff indefinitely, generating a vicious cycle of ever-increasing clutter.” 

No more. 

Starting is tough. I have no idea where to start with the books, bags, files, pens, paper, electrical cords, pictures, mugs, hats, and all this loose change. So, I look at a space in the mess and frame it as I would a picture and work on only those items, which fall within the frame. Today, a black, plastic file box with a handle, and a small straw box. And the first item out of these I touch is the kind of thing that makes this task especially difficult. It is my Scottish grandmother’s Holy Communion certificate from May 16th, 1909. I mean, really.  

Grandmother’s First Holy Communion certificate is not in an original frame. The blonde-wood frame is eight by ten inches; the certificate itself is floating inside the frame at five by nine. The central image is Leonardo de Vinci’s The Last Supper, and beneath this, it says in script both handwritten and mass-produced: “Annie Connolly received the first Holy Communion in Edinburgh on the sixteenth day of May in the year 1909 in the Church of the Sacred Heart.” Turn over the frame and on its cardboard backing in my late father’s handwriting over five lines it reads: “Annie Born August (three years in a column; all scratched out in black ink; 1898,”) on the first line. Beneath this, “Married Francis Connolly (Not Related).” The third line reads: “Mother of Kevin 1926 June 11th.” Beneath this, “And Denis 1928 Sep 25th.” The final line goes: “Died 1955 June.” Lower and to the right on the back is a piece of masking tape with “Connolly” from when my father was in an assisted living facility.  I will have to ask my sisters about that.

Some days the clean-up is all about clearing space to work. Sometimes it even means the space on the ground and not just in your head. own here because I’m bored and extremely tired. I don’t know if that’s the right headspace to be in, to make life-and-death decisions about my junk. Not to put too fine a pine on it, as They Might Be Giants say.

Emptying a vertical file cabinet, which I stuffed with detritus while unpacking moving boxes, so there might be some surprises in there. 

What do you do when you find rocks. I found two very smooth rocks. Wet them down, praise them, and release them to the wild, where they belong. An hour with the vertical file with nice files, journals, pens and a lot of loose and needless paper; but no surprises.  

I found about 60 pens, assorted pens and I bunched them together to seal them on Etsy, naming the bundles: Kafka, Borges, and Pynchon (for no particular reason). See if there are any takers out there, some real gems in the bundles. Also, (a big sigh) selling the Nautica set my mother bought me. A set of five ballpoint pens, with differing color barrens. Also up for sale today is my multi-colored iBook, clamshell.   

Laptop. Twenty years ago, all the rage. Still works. 

The day’s project was to work on a four-drawer vertical file cabinet I have no idea where I got it. It’s quite industrial looking with four drawers and an awful off-white paint job. Only one of the drawers has its label in the slot and it reads 2005. 

There are binders containing manuscripts and drafts of my doctoral dissertation. I took everything out and then went through four clear tubs of dross: files, papers, and komono (miscellany). . . in one card from my Australian aunt, which I nearly threw away, was a paper copy of my Irish grandfather’s birth certificate. There were assorted notebooks from now obsolete technological functions. The idea was to empty the tubs into the cabinet, file anything I sort to keep, vertically, and then later go through the stuff for a final determination. 

This is not easy work. I smell. My back aches. My hands are now dirty. My head is a little foggy I think from going through everything and assessing as I go what the item might mean, if it meant anything at all. 

The death knell of the great clean-up is silence, or more accurately, inaction, which I have been guilty of for some time now. Partially because I have been doing other things, spending time with my wife, Dyan, on our anniversary week break. But little else, to be honest. My teaching load is currently zilch; I am on semester break, as it were. But even having the time, the inclination to come, to retreat to the basement on a bright sunny day is low. The pool called. I needed to nap. And so it goes, the time one was supposed to be making progress on a large clean-up is spent with nothing or very little to show for it.  

So far, my Irish grandfather’s birth record fell out of a card I was about to toss. It is the paper original. As well, I found Dad’s application for membership in The Royal Canadian Legion, which he cherished greatly. At some point, it appears he was granted a “life member” designation with the membership number 1960647. The form is one of those fill-in-the-slot kinds. The handwriting is my father’s and I see in one slot he tells a bold-faced lie. Place of Birth: Edinburgh. A lie. He was born in London, but a Scottish lad raised by Irish Catholics would be highly resistant to coping with being born under the enemy flag as it were. The other goody I unearthed is the Holy Communion certificate for my grandmother Annie Connolly. 

A scratchpad-sized list of names in my mother’s handwriting falls from a book. The names are all girls I went to high school with: Karen, Sandy, Cheryl, Tracy, and Dawn. Two former girlfriends among the names. The list contains their addresses as if Mum had compiled them for me for some reason, the likes of which escape me now. I haven’t lived in my hometown in nearly 40 years, and I seldom go back. Why this list of female friends? Why no males? I had male friends, right? The list reminds me of my high school graduation in 1982. I was the first in my family to graduate from high school, and I was the baby of five. No one, not even my parents made it conventionally through high school. So, it was a big deal. My sister, San, was really into photography then and brought her 35mm to capture everything, only later did we all find there was no film in the camera. Paging Dr. Freud, Dr. Freud

The file cabinet purge filled eleven clear plastic tubs. Now, empty. Every one of them, thank you very much. Inside were the files of accumulation from my days as a journalist and early dribbles and scribbles from my writing. Most of it was tossed, and the leaves that remained were filed in one of three cabinets, vertically as Marie Kondo suggests, which allows me later to determine finally what to keep and what to toss. I couldn’t help thinking as I was filing some of the material and objects that I was simply delaying the obvious that most of it were headed to the landfill. But I do need to be careful. Baby. Bathwater. So now my large recycling bin on wheels is chock full of what I once found so integral to my life that I filed it away and moved it from house to house to house. Now, the plastic bins will be used as holding tanks for material I am going to rifle through over some ten bookshelf units, stuffed with, yes, books, but also other treasures. I will sort each unit into books (a bin); Compact Discs (a bin) and Tchotchkes (a bin). And once each of those bins is full: discard, donate, and keep. 

We hope. 

Every other day I come down to the basement, mount our new treadmill, which is connected to the web and a walk/run program, do my workout, and then turn to continue working on my groaning bookshelves to cull books, discs, and trinkets or tchotchkes. Slowly making good progress this way. Culling to sift through what is left as a final determination. It’s Kondoesque

Today, a little panic. Every move, the same panic. I must find Dad’s book, the one that was awarded for “general excellence,” by the St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic School in 1937. The book is Emil and The Detectives by Erich Kastner, a popular young adult book and character at the time. It’s a book filled with Dad’s pencil doodles and contains a handwritten note from him to me when he visited us in the States (for the last time). Well, as you can guess I found it. 

Now I know more about this business of going through your belongings. It’s a slow process, and it should be. The trove contains trash, as well as treasures. •


Wm. Anthony Connolly is the author of four novels The Jenny Muck, Get Back, The Obituaries, The Smallest Universe, and the poetry collection Psalms & Stones. His work has appeared in Esquire, The Rumpus, and Elephant Journal to name a few. He is a creative writing and literature professor in Maryland, and also works as a librarian in Delaware. He earned a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri and also holds an MFA in Writing from Goddard College. He lives on the Delmarva Peninsula with his wife Dyan and their dog Hemingway Short Story.