Take out the trash

I have a recurring dream in which I’m at someone’s house — sometimes I live there in the dream, although not in real life; sometimes I’m a guest — and I need to take out the trash.

Well, not the trash exactly. Not stinky smelly nasty rotting garbage. Sometimes it’s recyclables, piled up in a garage or basement or storeroom. Sometimes it’s yard waste — bags and bags and bags of it.


Either way, it’s a large accumulation, weeks’ or more likely months’ worth. And now it’s the eve of the pickup day, and I need to shlep it all out to the curb. It will take numerous trips, and it’s getting late, and even if the people who live in the house (my parents, in some dreams) aren’t worried about it, I know it’s my job to clear it out.

I don’t remember having that dream last night, but I woke up this morning thinking about it. Why, I wondered, do I repeatedly dream about this mundane household chore?

I understand the school anxiety dreams I used to have: can’t find my schedule, can’t find the classroom, can’t find my locker, can’t remember the combination. Didn’t do the reading for class, never attended class. Can’t find a bathroom. (That last one is a middle-age dream for sure.)

Those school dreams persisted for decades after I finished college (and yes, I graduated on time). That’s common, from what I’ve heard, and it makes sense: school dominates our lives for 12 years or more, so it’s a natural stage for performance anxiety to play out.

But taking out the trash has never formed part of my identity. It’s basically a pass/fail activity: you do it or you don’t. I guess you could get a D- if you make a mess and don’t clean it up. But really, it’s an extraordinarily low-stress task.

Then it struck me: we all have inner “trash” that we need to get rid of. Feelings, thoughts, memories, beliefs that were once useful — maybe even beautiful — but now just take up space.

For several years, I’ve been working to discard my perfectionism. I’ve come to recognize that my unrealistic expectations stand in the way of happiness. The impossibly high standards that I viewed as spurs to excellence are, in truth, just spurs. They make me run faster at times, but at other times they are immobilizing. No matter what, they cause pain.

If I dig a little deeper into the metaphor of the dream, however, I think it’s not mainly about perfectionism. That’s the metaphorical stinky smelly nasty rotting garbage, urgently in need of disposal. The dream is about less-toxic waste. It can remain in the storeroom for a long time without drawing a lot of attention. But still, it needs to come out.

A lot of fear lurks in my psychic storeroom. These are mild anxiety dreams, after all. And to be honest, my emotional basement is stuffed with sadness.

The main living space is an eclectic mix of family heirlooms and hand-me-downs, gifts from friends, handiwork of my offspring, projects in (sometimes years-long) progress. But underneath it all, sadness and loss — and fear of sadness and loss — are always at the point of overflow.

It’s hard for me to let those feelings out. Perhaps the dreams are telling me that I need a more active approach: if I can’t let them out, I need to find ways to take them out.

Sometimes meditation or yoga will do it. Sad books and songs and movies can help. Any time I take a few minutes of quiet time, sadness is likely to well up.

But that’s where the anxiety comes in. Clearing out this emotional storehouse is a big project. And once the sadness begins to flow, who knows when it will stop?

In three weeks, it will be Passover. Celebrating this holiday of plagues and liberation, at a time when the global plague of Covid-19 has us confined to our houses, will be a strange and unprecedented experience.

But the coronavirus doesn’t change my Passover preparation: weeks of cleaning and decluttering. Removing what’s not needed in this season. Taking out the trash.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.



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