David Sibbet | Cleaning Up Messes
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Cleaning Up Messes

It’s the new year and I like to start with my messes cleaned up. Heavy winter rains carpeted oak leaves and tiny branches on the deck outside our living room in Petaluma. The acorns are surprising when you step on them in the dark. It’s better to have a clean deck when running up and down to my studio preparing for the flood of work the new year brings, so I have a priority of sweeping up after rains.


As I danced in the cool morning imagining sweeping being a form of maintenance Tai Chi, I thought about all the social messes that need to be cleaned up this year. A lot of promises have been made during the campaigns having to do with this or that policy or agency that is a “mess.” I wondered if people who don’t have to clean up after themselves really know very much about cleaning up messes. What happens when some try to get rid of others they consider “messy?”

Sweeping the deck seems relatively simple—or is it? Here are just a few of the things you have to think about:

1.  Over-sweeping makes some of the oak leaves dig into the wood and the cracks.

2.  Moving too quickly can result in slipping on the rain-slicked wood.

3.  Getting oak leaves out from under big ceramic pots requires crouching down and slowly poking the leaves out from their hiding places. Even so, some remain.

4.  A good sweep requires two or three passes even when the technique is masterful.

I wonder if the lessons from simple deck cleaning are understood by people who try to clean up social messes.  What constitutes over-sweeping? What special operations are needed to get leaves out from the cracks under pots? What constitute pots? Are these the special places in budgets where things hide? Do people who implement sweeps really understand how many times you have to do it in order to get good results? Who slips and breaks bones when things are done too quickly? Did Congress really think they could get away with not sweeping themselves ethically now and then?

This kind of reflection moves to whole new level when I’m out trying to deal with the front of the house. Here it is not a simple pattern of one kind of debris, oak leaves. Here there are leaves, but of different kinds with different levels of sticking capability. Decorative grasses overgrow the driveway. One particular tree drops hundreds of little red berries in the fall, squashing under car tires in the driveway. Cleaning here requires a range of tools:

1.  A leaf blower
2.  A heavy push broom
3.  A large green bin
4.  A large dustpan
5.  A flat nose shovel for the berries
6.  A rake
7.  Pruning shears

These seem like simple tools, but each one involves techniques that make it easier or harder to clean up. Anyone who has used the leaf blower knows that it is quite easy to create as much mess as you are cleaning up. Too much direct blowing creates a billowing of leaves that can scatter for dozens of yards beyond where you’re working. A gentle sweeping blow back and forth, starting at the edges and moving forward like sheepdogs herding cattle, seems to work better. I began to wonder who the blowers are in the incoming administration, and what are the impacts of the” blowhards?” How does social media figure in all this? Where does the blowback go?

Rakes are different. Their rigidity is useful. Steady smooth raking gets the leaves out of the flexible long grasses. It still takes digging, poking and several passes to get a clean result. What’s a political rake, I wonder? Is this a legal term? Maybe the tines are like a line of lawyers combing for inconsistencies.

And then there’s muck. Leaves that have been hiding for a long period of time begin to rot. This muck doesn’t respond well to a rake; it needs a shovel. Is a flat-nosed shovel like an ideological agency director? Does the residue go to the compost or disappear in a rubbish pile? People who actually know about cleaning up care about these things.

Finally, there is pruning. Because pruning usually involves raking and sweeping afterwards, I do them together. It’s exciting and scary to prune, because the results are immediate and dramatic. It is an exercise of power to cut through a big branch. But there’s no real turning back once it’s cut off.

And there are perils. A tree’s tallest branches are usually the ones growing the most prosperously under current conditions. They may require ladders and precarious arrangements to do proper pruning. Ladders can crash down and hurt people. Big falling branches can crush things. Good pruning can be very healthy—but as with good cleaning, it takes time, patience, and respect for the things nearby.

I’ve had a lot of experience cleaning up in my life, so I know my tools and can move smoothly. I take my time, feeling my relationship with all these things—dancing, stretching, moving, and breathing in the crisp, fresh air and sun.

On this inauguration eve, I’m wondering who will clean up what and how? And how much caring will guide the tools?

  • Christine
    January 21, 2017 Reply

    Brilliant writing and so much to contemplate
    It’s hard to know where to begin so I am starting in my own backyard and when I wander out I smile, listen deeply and take as much in as I can stand. It’s a bit scary though and I hope I can weather each day and clean up any mess I come across.
    Namaste is all I can say.

  • Holly M Hendrickson
    January 21, 2017 Reply

    well said. Keep the faith,

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