"Are you married?" the garbage collector asked when he caught my eye. Surrounding us was a mountain of trash -- ripe, reeking garbage, construction debris, old appliances and the noise and exhaust of all the trucks unloading it. Perched on the unsteady heap of junk in the back of my pickup, I tried to keep my balance as I answered.

"Yes, I am -- 17 years."

"You look way too happy to be married," he replied, smiling.

Well, the truth was that despite the hard work of loading the truck, the difficulty finding the dump, waiting in the long line and being surrounded by disgusting waste, it felt wonderful to be getting rid of stuff that I didn't really need. I think I may have actually been beaming as I flung the old easel and some broken chairs into the pile.

We all get the urge to organize our things and clear out our closets and basements. Regularly I'll fill a bag with clothes that aren't worn much and books that aren't precious and quickly drop it off at a neighborhood donation box. There is a certain virtuous pleasure in this type of recycling. But this fall, after two months away from home, I saw my house in a new way -- there was junk everywhere. Why were there so many empty flowerpots under the porch? Is there any nostalgic benefit to having the repair records of my first car? Would we ever fix the broken chairs on the side porch? Did we actually want to look at the kids' school notebooks from three years ago? Is there any use for a cracked aquarium? Those questions all led me to one conclusion -- my life was cluttered with unnecessary stuff.

I did not discover the joys of purging my belongings on my own. One of my mother's favorite field trips many years ago with her three daughters, right behind bird-watching at dawn and teaching us the names of the stars, was going to the dump. We would load up the car and drive way out into the country to her favorite dump. After tossing our stuff out, we were each allowed to find one treasure to bring home. Somehow, someone else's broken doll carriage always looked more promising than the one that you had jettisoned a few months before. We would arrive home happy, the kids with our new-old acquisition and my mother with her emptied basement.

In many ways the Fort Totten dump here in Washington is very much like the dumps of my childhood; nothing is sorted or recycled or reused. It is actually a "transfer station." All of the trash in the city is brought to one of two stations, a kind of drive-through stadium for garbage trucks, from where it is put on larger trucks and taken to landfills in other states. This is a scene that you would expect to see on the outskirts of some third-world city, not within the city limits of the nation's capital. Other than the personal satisfaction of clearing away your trash, there is no feeling of virtue in adding to the stinking heap. It is one huge, horrible pile of discarded stuff. By the time that I'd tossed the last of my things from the truck, my smile had begun to fade a little. Like any dieter who has successfully lost weight, the real satisfaction comes from keeping the pounds off; how could I keep from amassing so much stuff again?

Returning to my emptied house, I felt new resolve; either I love it or need it, or it doesn't belong here. It is a simple question that you can ask yourself dozens of times a day. But life is never really all that simple, especially when you share a house with three children and a pack rat of a husband. And just this week I passed a neighbor's very promising bulk trash pickup pile. Sitting on a broken table was a perfectly good parrot cage. I don't have a parrot, but I have a baby squirrel that will soon need to move to a bigger cage.

As I lugged the cage home with a smile of satisfaction on my face, I realized that my mother had taught me this lesson years ago: You have found a treasure indeed when you've found something good in someone else's waste.