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On whitewashing the past
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"Like it? Well, I don't know why I oughtn't to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?" (Tom Sawyer)

There's nothing like a fresh coat of paint to make things seem brand new and clean. Even Tom Sawyer preached the tenet. I know his truths firsthand. I recently picked up a brush of my own and whitewashed something mighty important: the kitchen closet.

This wasn't any old run-of-the-mill everyday sort of closet. It was the garbage closet - a location with its share of spills, slops, slurps and smudges - mostly of the food variety. Unidentified glops and globs of stuff congealed on the once-white walls and floor. It was, in a word, icky.

But no match for a coat of paint.

I scrubbed the muck and mudge away and attacked said surfaces with my weapon of choice: a paintbrush loaded with white paint. The innards of the once-filthy closet became pristine within the hour. Sometimes the yuckiest jobs are the most rewarding - when they are complete.

The small task got me wondering: what if life were a garbage closet? What if we possessed the ability whitewash over our stains and appear brand new within the hour?

The possibilities seemed endless - and tempting. We all have garbage in our kitchens. I'd get rid of mine as fast as you can say, "Prom gone wrong." Or, perhaps I'd whitewash over the time in first grade when I misbehaved and had to stand with my nose against a tree for the duration of recess. No good memories there.

Then again, there was the incident involving a can of spray paint and my sister's bike when I was 13 - but it's best not to go into particulars. Garbage is garbage. No need for the specifics on the stink, I think.

The one hitch with the concept of painting over our errors is this: paint only belongs where it belongs. While tasking on the kitchen closet, I slipped and got some paint on my arm. It looked out of place, because it was. You can't paint over stuff that shouldn't be painted.

Like life.

Some weeks are better than others. I won't go into detail, but for me, this was one of the others. I'd probably whitewash over it if I could. But that wouldn't work, and it wouldn't be right.

Life involves garbage and garbage, by design, is messy stuff. To paraphrase, I guess that means life is messy sometimes. Tragic even. I woe upon the woes of my week. Then I think about the victims and their families in Colorado and my issues seem minor. I wonder what Colorado wouldn't give for a can of white paint, or a do-over. My heart goes out and I wish we could give them both.

But we can't. You can't whitewash life and you can't escape the garbage - at least not completely. You have to deal with the trash in your can, whether you put it there or not. Garbage knows nothing of fairness; no one said life was fair.

What do we do, then? We keep going. We set our alarm clocks. We eat dinner. We throw in a load of laundry. We put one foot in front of the other. We are honest with ourselves and others. We work to make things better. We see things through. We love. We heal.

Sometimes the most complex problems require the simplest answers. Hopefully at the end of it all we are left with no paint on our arms and the knowledge that we've dealt with life's garbage as best we can. And we'll understand sometimes the yuckiest jobs are the most rewarding - when they are complete.

- Jill Pertler's column appears every Thursday in the Times. She can be reached at