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    Connections | Globe Magazine

    We’re many miles apart, but we can still clean out the closet together

    Who besides a sister would have the appetite to help tackle a tedious chore — by phone no less.

    Gracia Lam

    With my sister living 850 miles away, in North Carolina, we mostly connect through phone calls once or twice a week. Since we both work from home, a late-afternoon chat is a nice respite. But today, I’ve caught her in a lather — she’s just found mouse droppings in her clothes closet. She has me on speakerphone, and she’s swearing and huffing as she pulls out drawers and clears off shelves.

    “Maybe the mouse poop is really old and he’s already moved on,” I say supportively.

    “Yeah, that’s what I’m hoping,” she says. More swearing and banging, then resignation. “Maybe this is a good time to go through my closet and get rid of some of these clothes I don’t need.” She’s preaching to the converted — I did the whole Marie Kondo decluttering “magic” in the fall and have been extolling its virtues ever since.


    “Do it,” I urge. “Take it all out of the closet and only put back what you know fits well, feels good, and serves a purpose. Then weed through the leftovers, see what else you might want to keep, and give away all the stuff you don’t need so somebody else can use it.”

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    I’ve barely finished pontificating when she makes a discovery. “Oh, my God, I forgot all about this jacket. I love this jacket, but it was packed so far back there I couldn’t see it.” Been there. We talk about the fun of unearthing clothes that haven’t been worn in a while — or at all.

    Then a few not-so-pleasant discoveries — more mouse pellets. “This is just overwhelming,” she whines. “I’m so sorry,” I say. “I wish I could come help. Maybe I should let you go so you can focus on this.”

    “No,” she says, an edge of panic in her voice. “It’s easier to deal with all this while I’m talking to you. Do you have time?” I look at my cluttered office shelves. “Sure,” I say, putting her on speakerphone. (What a great invention!) “I’ll do some cleaning out, too.”

    For the next hour-plus, we chat about need versus want, holding on to stuff for the kids, the burden of accumulation, letting go, gratitude. I sort papers and files as she wonders about sweaters that look good but are scratchy, pants that are comfy but not so flattering. Some items elicit: “What in the world was I thinking when I bought this?”


    As she plows deeper into her closet, I move to a top shelf, stirring up dust on ceramics, photos, and mementos. I blow dust off a fanciful sculpture my now-adult daughter made when she was 10, and disintegrating feathers float away, drifting to the floor. I ask: “How do you deal with these precious handmade things, all the sentimental stuff? I’ve got dozens of Sculpey animals.”

    “Keep the best, take pictures of the rest, then let them go,” she suggests. We forge ahead, energizing each other, coaching and cheerleading long-distance, getting a vicarious thrill from the other’s divestitures. By the end of our chat, I’ve sorted, dusted, and tossed, and she’s amassed piles of giveaways for charity. We’re on a roll.

    Who besides my sister would have the appetite to help me clean out my mess — and vice versa? We’ve done it during visits over the years, but never on the phone. I’m already thinking that we may have stumbled onto something. But, reluctantly, I have to stop for a business call. “Come visit and we’ll tackle my attic, and the next time I’m there we’ll clear out the barn,” I suggest.

    “Yeah, but I still need to sort through all the hanging clothes. What are you doing tomorrow afternoon?”

    “I’ll call you at 4.” I have a utensil drawer that could use some attention.

    Karen Campbell is a regular contributor to the Globe. Send comments to

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