A great project begins with a grate cleaning

I looked through the black grate over the floor vent in the large hallway of my Maine farmhouse and as I did, the question of a recent visitor echoed in my thought. I felt a stab of guilt. She had peered through the grate at the untidy collection of stuff that had settled on the surface beneath. What was the purpose, she had asked, of this particular unit located in front of the cellar door? From what she saw, she must have expected me to answer that it was a handy repository for chips of white paint - lots of them - and scraps of paper, not to mention black dust kitties. Instead I muttered something about it being an inaccessible part of the heating system, with a strong emphasis on "inaccessible."

Today, a month later, in a state of delayed embarrassment at what my visitor must have thought of my housekeeping skills, it occurred to me that just maybe I could lift the grate and clean up the mess imprisoned beneath it.

I locked my fingers on its bars and gave it a pull. Much to my surprise, it yielded! I worked it out from under the doorsill, pulled it upright, and slid it over to the left of the door. With that removed, I had sufficient access to the bowels of the vent to give it a long-overdue cleaning.

It required considerable exertion on my part to remove several dustpansful of debris, but I persisted.

My final chore was to wipe the grate clean with a damp cloth and coax it back into place. That done, I continued with my interrupted morning routine, finding ample justification for the day in what I had already accomplished.

The next morning, I was looking for a Phillips screwdriver in a bottom kitchen drawer that holds a plethora of miscellaneous items. Amid cup hooks, balls of twine, hammers, batteries, cups for placing under furniture legs, picture-hanging wire, and a jar of tacks, I found the screwdriver. I then tightened the screws on the fixture that holds a cupboard door shut. I replaced the screwdriver, but I couldn't bring myself to close the drawer without bringing order to its contents. This meant taking everything out, setting it on the floor, wiping the drawer with a damp cloth, and returning the items - sorted and grouped.

When I decided that the hall closet (which has shelves for all the larger objects that don't fit anywhere else) needed straightening up, I realized that something was stirring within me to inspire such activity.

Then I recalled how in mid-December I had come up with the idea of beginning the New Year with a clean slate, figuratively and literally, a custom firmly in place in some cultures. But in Western culture, attempting to overhaul - amid December's activities - one's possessions and habits in preparation for the New Year is impractical and, in my case, nigh impossible.

However, I could fall back on making a delayed New Year's resolution. After all, I had a good 10-plus months in which to implement it. With no preholiday frenzy pulling me in other directions, I could give myself permission to improve my immediate environment as the impulse prompted me.

So I weeded out all superfluous containers from the hall closet, untangled the extension cords, restacked baking pans, re-nested mixing bowls, and tossed out candle stubs and a defunct slide viewer. The closet looked leaner and cleaner when I had finished purging it. I viewed its interior with justifiable pride.

I was on a roll, and the contents of the narrow shelves on either side of the cellar stairs fell next under my ruthless gaze. I gathered all the lids and jars I knew my jellymaking friend would like and put them in a bag. Then I filled a couple of sacks with recyclable containers I had been saving for goodness knows what reason - "just in case," I guess. Recycling is a noble cause, so I had no problem moving those containers along. Food items that I keep on hand to give as gifts were given their own shelf - containers of maple syrup, blueberry preserves, a can of cashews, and a mixture of popped corn and nuts.

Energized, I pressed on in my New Year's resolve to have a totally clean and organized house, counting the dusted grate and duct as examples of what can be accomplished when plans for the day are allowed to be preempted by the inspiration of the moment.

Spontaneously tackling what comes to hand and refusing to add it to tomorrow's list of things to do defeats procrastination. I see energy expended in this way as firming up a habit that will ensure me a more orderly 2005. And all because a curious houseguest drew my attention to the state of my grate.

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