The therapeutic benefits of taking out the garbage
For 30 years my wife and I have owned a getaway home 95 miles north of New York City. Our village has many charms and there's much to do, from foraging at the farmer's market to riding a scenic rail trail. There's a great book store and first-run movie theater, plus horse, dairy, and alpaca farms within a 10-minute drive. I've spent many an afternoon shagging fly balls to my two sons at the local ball fields.
But one of my favorite weekend activities — I kid you not — is taking out the garbage. Let me explain.
In the city, garbage and recycling bags are piled on the sidewalk, stuffed down trash shoots, and jammed into tiny containers outside of brownstones, which are magnets for oversized rats. I live in a service building, so I'm lucky I can place my trash and recyclables outside the kitchen door in a stairwell where a porter comes to whisk them away. I dutifully break down boxes, separate the bottles and yogurt containers, and bundle the newspapers but I can't wait to get it over with and get back into our apartment.
The country is different.
At our house, the garbage bins stand at the far end of our backyard fronting the street behind us. Of course, I could simply march through the yard to reach them but at night the grass is wet and there are bats flying around. Recently some mammal — a groundhog or raccoon — has been leaving piles of dung. Plus, you have to slip through a tricky gate, where I've twisted my ankle more than once.
Instead, I wait until the kitchen is spotless after dinner — usually around 10:30 p.m. — grab the garbage and haul it around the block to the bins. I look like a hobo Santa carrying two large Hefty bags over my shoulder, sometimes in my socks. But I get a glimpse into people's homes, sample the night air and take stock of worldly affairs in the way that mindless chores allow. I could just go for a walk, but taking the trash has its own purpose and satisfaction that has nothing to do with exercise and everything to do with closure. It's the perfect punctuation to an otherwise stressful week.
Therapy works in all sorts of surprising ways. Recently I learned how therapeutic garbage detail can be. Something bad happened at work the week before, an outlier, black swan mistake for a client. But it had consequences and none of my usual coping mechanisms — walking the dog, listening to jazz, being with family — were helping shake the nauseating kick to my self-esteem. I was losing sleep and heading to dire places. Another few days of this negative loop and I would have sought out a trained professional.
It was the last night of a holiday weekend at the house and I dreaded restarting the cycle of doubt going back to work, so I took extra time with my route around the block. Rewinding for the hundredth time the what-ifs around what happened as I slogged down the street with my Heftys, I noticed the crickets were especially noisy and a streetlamp was flickering, animating the trees and bushes. Someone had left a bunch of FREE stuff on their curb — including a vintage sewing machine.
I saw a small bonfire in a neighbor's yard — "Just getting rid of kindling and old letters," she said going in and out of her shed. I stopped to admire her enchanted garden with its illuminated orbs and a plastic bird light that slowly changed from cardinal red to green to amber. My bag of bottles and cans clanked when I set them down. Continuing around the corner and up the hill, I looked in on the extended South American family watching a soccer game together on a large-screen TV in their den. Something rustled past me — a cat? No, a skunk, which left a mild, telltale sign of its presence.
I arrived at the bins and dragged them away from the fence to line up for the carting truck, which would make its appointed rounds on Tuesday after the holiday. Lifting the lids, I glanced up and was overwhelmed by a sky awash in stars — clusters, constellations, asterisms, loners in deep space. I located Orion's belt and tried to guess the billions of miles stretching from the Big Dipper's handle to the farthest end of the pot in another galaxy. I think I spotted Venus glowing over our garage roof.
Standing under the show until my neck strained, I suddenly knew that what happened at work was of zero consequence, not only among the heavens, but to my own life. I looked back down at our house a few dozen yards away — my wife and daughter were talking in the kitchen and I knew our granddaughter was asleep upstairs. I closed the lids and walked briskly back home, letting go at last.
Thank you, garbage therapy.