red, white, and bah humbug
Are we all quite finished celebrating the Fourth of July? I’ve never seen so much hoopla over a 1-day holiday. Since July 4 fell on a Wednesday this year, people were stringing together makeshift vacations out of two weekends and a “short” week. Richard Nixon made the 3-day weekend possible by moving most federal holidays to Mondays, but 3 days off work has become small potatoes. Mid-week holidays are celebrated for a week, and since no one works on the Friday before a 3- (or 5- or 9-)day weekend, those Fridays are de facto holidays too.
My point, of course, is that someday no one will have to work at all, except me. Signed, The Curmudgeon.
But I predict that in the future, for maximum efficiency, there will be only two holiday seasons, each lasting 6 months—The Holidays (formerly known as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s) and The Fourth (formerly known as Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day). The word “Christmas” will die off altogether, except among a few rabid traditionalists, such as the Pope and Martha Stewart. Everyone else will fakily-multiculturally blandify the winter shopping season as The Holidays, which is pretty much what they do now.
Fourth of July sale—5 days only.
—Petaluma car dealer commercial
The purpose of the two holiday seasons, of course, will be to shop, and children will be taught to sing “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of spending-to-save-the-failing-economy.” During The Holidays, merchants will focus the consumption pitch on the theme of The Spirit (Of Shopping), and during The Fourth they will focus, as they do now, on the theme of Freedom (To Buy) and Independence (To Go Against the Crowd by Buying What Other People Can’t Afford). This year, Old Navy commercials, with patriotic band music playing in the background, extolled this theme in a mock-ironic tone, as if they were poking fun at the commercialization of the holiday—“Support the Red, White, and Blue! Buy Something!”—while at the same time baldly declaring their true intention.
The consolidation of holidays will require that the currently constituted minor holidays be subsumed into the Big Two. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday (when “I Have a Dream Mattresses” will be on sale, if they aren’t already) will take up the tail end of The Holidays, and Gay Pride Day (Week/Month) and Memorial Day, strange bedfellows though they may be, will play an integral role in getting The Fourth under way—Memorial Day will represent the sale of picnic foods, Weber barbeques, and backyard pools, and Gay Pride Day will represent the highly desirable new market of “nontraditional families” (formerly known as queers). The words “gay” and “lesbian” will disappear along with “Christmas,” because they conjure up unpleasant images in the minds of otherwise motivated shoppers. But to encourage the new nontraditional families to get out and buy, there will be one massive annual parade down Market Street to the ocean that will last for days and celebrate the Pride of anyone at all, both nondenominationally and nonsexually-orientationally.
Easter will disappear, because there’s really nothing to buy for it except baskets, colored eggs, and candy, and without the birth of Christ, who needs to celebrate His resurrection? Or it will just be renamed Bunny Day, because there really is a dearth of holidays in the spring, and it’s important to anchor the beginning of The Fourth, just as Macy’s or Sears anchors a mall. The Fourth will have to start getting under way sometime in late March, lest consumers forget their purpose in life. The Fourth will officially end in late September, to give the people who put off their summer vacations until they think everyone else is back at work a chance to get their RV’s and SUV’s and every other kind of V’s out there on the roads, fully equipped with a duplicate of every convenience they have at home. Labor Day will be renamed Labor-Saving Day, the perfect time to shop for household appliances. Then The Holidays will begin again. Actually, The Holidays will never end, and neither will The Fourth. Clearly, what’s in store (so to speak) for us is a total consolidation of all celebratory buying occasions, and America will be renamed Holidayland, and people a hundred years from now will be debating the origins of the name and whether there was ever a time when holidays happened one day at a time. And the scholars and pedants who can still remember that there was once an important date far back in history known as July 4, 1776, will be on hand to bore everyone to death with their nitpicky details about what the US of A was originally meant to be.
But at some point, I’m sure, the pendulum will begin to swing back, and there will be a movement to establish a few Workdays throughout the year, so that people can take a much-deserved break from all that shopping. On Workdays (beginning cautiously with one day a week, probably Wednesday so the weekend can start promptly on Thursday), people will be encouraged to find productive labor in order to beef up their bank accounts so that they can continue the all-important getting and spending that is their—and their magnificent country’s—true purpose.
off to see the wizard
Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible.
—Monsanto Corporation’s 1979 advertising slogan
I feel slightly glamorous sitting alone in Dr. P’s tasteful waiting room on a tree-lined street in Menlo Park. The four blank doors that surround me—she shares office space with other practitioners—lead to sanctums sanctorums unknown. I’ve pushed the button next to Dr. P’s name that will cause a light to go on in her office so she’ll know I’ve arrived. Something about that detail intrigues me—the discretion, the quiet signal of a light—a metaphor? enlightenment?—instead of the crass public milieu of a regular doctor’s office, with its coughing patients and gossiping receptionists. I feel like I’ve stepped into a novel, or at least an episode of “The Sopranos.” Dr. P is my new—my first, my only—psychiatrist, and I have come in the hope that modern pharmacology will cure at least some of my woes. J and I have agreed that it’s time for me to try anti-anxiety medication, since nothing else has worked on my clenched-stomach symptom.
While I’m waiting, I study the picture on the wall across from me. It’s a bland, unpeopled rural scene—a large tree in the foreground, and in the background an arched gateway that leads nowhere. I think of Tony Soprano getting pissed off at Dr. Melfi for having a “trick picture” in her waiting room. He accuses her of deliberately putting a picture of a “rotting tree” on the wall as a way to evaluate his mental state. He can’t think of the name of the test—“Horshack,” he finally calls it. She asks if the picture disturbs him, and he says the disturbance is “built in.” I recognize the paranoia of one who has trouble trusting authority figures.
But most of you probably don’t watch “The Sopranos,” so I guess I’ll have to keep my allusions to a minimum. I can’t afford HBO either, but I rented the first season at the video store and got hooked. I finally bought the tapes and watched them all over again. The second and third seasons aren’t out on tape yet, so I’m woefully behind on story development.
Tony Soprano is the bad guy you hate to love; I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love him, but I’m fascinated by him. He’s a complex person and likeable in spite of the mouth on him—“Stick it up your fuckin’ ass” is a typical response—rather than the usual one-dimensional gangster. And there seems to be a hint of redemption to come. His seeing a shrink at all is a sign that he has a hidden inner life. A clinically depressed person must be capable of remorse, of deep feeling. We get to see the world through his eyes, and depending on how you look at it, the show could be an insidious way to get us to sympathize with a cold-blooded killer or a way to believe vicariously in our own redemption. When, after much thought, he calls the police to arrest a child molester instead of having him killed, he gets drunk and rolls giddily on the floor, exclaiming to his wife, “I didn’t hurt nobody.” And we think, “Aha! He doesn’t really want to be a bad guy!” What a hook—lots more interesting than watching guys shoot each other in the street (though they do that too—this is no touchie-feelie fairy tale).
I don’t think the picture in Dr. P’s waiting room is a “Horshack” test—and I don’t think the tree is rotten—but I wonder if I’m about to go through a gateway that leads nowhere. Already, I’m anxious about having to drive so far (55 miles each way) and pay so much—Menlo Park shrinks charge an arm and a leg—guess I can only go twice, ha ha—to tell my life story all over again. The worst thing about having any “illness,” if that’s what this is, is having to talk about it all the time. Or maybe it’s just the opposite—maybe I want to talk about myself all the time, and this gives me the perfect excuse.
Seeing a psychiatrist also feels symbolically like I’m facing an old demon from my past. As a teenager I read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and scared myself half to death with the extent to which I identified with the main character, who was a patient in a mental institution. All through my childhood, I was aware of a place in the U.P. called Newberry, where the crazy people went. I don’t remember if anyone ever threatened to send me there. I heard quite a lot about “the poorhouse,” but I’m not sure what gave me the heebie-jeebies about Newberry. One of my cousins did end up there, after spending a cold night in a swamp and freezing both his feet off. I don’t know what his diagnosis was, but I think his father, my uncle, was manic-depressive—clinically depressed, for sure, and I had seen him in a manic state. So in addition to spending the first 40 or so years of my life afraid that I was going to get multiple sclerosis or alcoholism from my father’s genes, I worried sporadically that I might be genetically destined to end up “crazy.” The crazy genes would have come down through my mother, so I was covered on both sides for something bad to happen.
You know, I have a horrible feeling I’m going to end up on my deathbed realizing how much of my life I’ve spent worrying about things that never happened. But it seems to be the way I’m built. Or at least the way I’ve grown, like a tree that twists and turns to accommodate nearby trees or a concrete wall, contorting itself into any shape necessary to sustain its life.
The specter of Newberry popped from the back of my mind to the forefront at the beginning of the eighth grade. For some reason, my mother was supposed to drive me to school on the first day. Most days, I took the bus, and by God, I wish I had taken it that day. School was my haven, my escape from home, but the first day of school was always traumatic—new teachers, new kids, the self-consciousness of showing up in new clothes. I was anxious, getting ready—do I start out wearing the new rust-colored blouse and skirt ensemble, or do I transition in with last year’s poodle skirt and the new pink fuzzy sweater? I had a new little purse, my first, which contained a pack of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, a comb, and a dime in case someone asked me to go out for a Coke. (I had no source of income; a dime was big money; we’re talking 1959.) When it was time to leave and my mother wasn’t ready, I panicked. The thought of walking in late on the first day of school, in front of the whole class, made my stomach churn. But empathy was not my mother’s strong suit. If she wouldn’t bother to stop for a policeman trying to pull her over, she sure didn’t think twice about making me late for school.
At the last possible minute, my mother recruited my cousin John to drive me. He lived right next door and had just got his driver’s license. I avoided John whenever possible, ever since I managed to find an excuse to get out of the back seat at the outdoor drive-in theater where he was trying to get his hands in my pants while my parents watched the movie in the front seat. He had stalked me for months, or years, I don’t remember anymore. I just remember the mental snapshots—precious memories (not)—of specific scenes—his startled face framed in the window when I stood up from my bath—his naked game of “hot dog and bun,” no surprise which part I played—the odd tableau we made by the washtubs in the basement, me with the dribbling hose, him watching, always watching, like a creepy yellow-toothed man out of True Confessions magazine.
I don’t remember the ride to school, I only remember arriving, sliding into my homeroom desk barely on time and out of breath, feeling sick to my stomach. What a close call! I sat there, trying to still my beating heart and calm my stomach. Suddenly, I had the most dreadful thought. What if I got so sick that I had to throw up? In those days, you didn’t just get up out of your chair and waltz out the door—or even run out. I had never before thought of the classroom as confining; it had always been my salvation, my structured haven away from the chaos and unpredictability of home. Suddenly I saw it as a prison. I couldn’t just sit there and throw up at my desk like a second-grader. I’d never live it down, and I was not exactly on the Miss Popular track to begin with. But I also couldn’t run out of the room, with no time even to ask permission to leave. Even if I did, I’d have to come back at some point—feeling humiliated—worse than being late on the first day of school—and then what if it happened again, and again?
I knew enough to know I was creating this dilemma myself. The nervous ride to school with John had been a trigger, but now the fear of vomiting had a hold on me. Now that I saw the truth of how much of a prisoner I really was, I felt doomed. I was a prisoner not only of my teacher, Mr. Ersland, but worse, of my own thought processes. It’s amazing to me now that I put so much trust in my reasoning abilities at age 12 or 13. I knew exactly how I was setting myself up to feel sick, but I couldn’t think of a solution, and therefore, in my still-developing brain, there wasn’t one. Is this why so many teenagers commit suicide? They have an acute knowledge of the bleakness of their situation, without any perspective to see a way out. I think that’s the curse of adolescence. You see the negative so clearly, and it’s not that you’re exaggerating—you see it, and you know it’s real. What you don’t know is that there’s a better world out there than the one you see at home or in school, but it can take many years to show itself. The lucky ones have parents or a teacher or another adult who can see farther than they can. I had no one.
I want that sentence to stand on its own as a factual statement—I had no one—but I realize how melodramatic it sounds, as if I were Princess or Kitten or whichever one of the “Father Knows Best” kids was the tortured teen, and merely had a fight with my best friend or lost my math book or something and forgot how very understanding my wise father and loving mother could be. (As a first-generation TV watcher, I believed in the truth of shows like “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” It was my family that was out of whack.)
But no, I was alone. My mother had been my primary link to human connectedness, and she had pretty much cut that link with the “Why My Mother Deserves To Be Queen for a Day” episode (see mary’zine #3 for the whole brutal story).
So there I was. I couldn’t run out of the classroom even once, even knowing that the nausea would vanish as soon as I was free, out in the hall. I knew that if it happened once, I was done for. And I couldn’t stay and vomit in the classroom; that would be a thousand times worse. Either way, I couldn’t afford to let this feeling get away from me. If I was identified as “having a problem,” the least of it would be the teasing or the shunning by the other kids. All I could think about was Newberry—the nuthouse, the insane asylum. I was absolutely sure, in every fiber of my being, that no adult in my world—not Mr. Ersland, not the principal, not the large, braying guidance counselor, and certainly not my mother—could begin to understand the mental bind I was in. Surely, only a bona fide crazy person would worry about such a thing, would make herself sick for no reason. They would try to “talk sense” into me, those sane adults, and I would never be able to explain myself. They would have no choice but to send me away to Newberry, where someone who could create such a self-torturing mental loop surely belonged.
Of course, I can see now that there was something going on that I had no way to grasp at the time. There was so much inside me that I couldn’t let out—not just in the homeroom but in my whole life, maybe since birth and certainly since my little brother Mike got sick and died—all those unspoken fears, all that anger I couldn’t afford to express toward my narcissistic, preoccupied mother; my disabled, ranting father; my sexually stalking cousin; my cruel male classmates who openly jeered at my pimpled, permanented, four-eyed, tongue-tied self; my teacher with his sarcastic taunts about how little we knew of life’s problems—as I sat there gripping the sides of my desk, staring at the large metal wastebasket to have one still point in my world, willing myself to keep it all inside, the contents of my stomach and the contents of my psyche, was there a difference?
This torture went on for the whole school year, every single day. But each day, the nausea mercifully only lasted for the first period. As soon as I went on to my second period class, I was free of the fear, for some reason, as if surviving the most difficult hour let me off the hook for the rest of the day. And how appropriate, in a way, that my first visit to a psychiatrist would be in search of relief of another stomach symptom—one that may also be caused by everything I hold inside. But now I’m old enough and enough in charge of my life that I can call up the lady shrink myself and seek her diagnosis and her prescription drugs, without the fear that she will cart me off to the Bay Area equivalent of Newberry. Since my horrible, silent, suffering adolescence, I’ve learned to talk about what’s going on inside me, and I’ve learned that there are people out there who will listen and understand. So, no—I am not nostalgic for my lost youth, why do you ask?
When Dr. P finally summons me inside, I give her the nutshell (so to speak) version of my life, and the first story I tell, and the only one I cry about, is the story of my bleak year of nausea in the eighth grade. She takes all my life tragedies in stride, including the molestation—she’s just looking for patterns of anxiety and depression, and I’m sure she’s heard much worse. But it’s weird how you find yourself competing for Worst Childhood or Most Depressing Life when you’re talking to a therapist while, at the same time, you feel so lucky and blessed in your life and, strangely, both are true. It’s almost as if all the bad things happened a long time ago, except, of course, for the sad fact that currently you feel like your upper abdomen is a separate thing, like a deer strapped to the hood of a car, and you want to be dead a good percentage of the time—not to kill yourself, nothing so cruel to your loved ones as that, you’re not desperate—but just to be done with it already, as if your life lately is like that horrible point three-quarters of the way through a rough therapy session (I’m talking about J now) where you can’t believe you looked forward to seeing this person, whom you usually adore but who is now torturing you, which she prefers to call challenging you, with some undeniable truth that you can’t acknowledge and with an impossible request that you can’t see any way of fulfilling, like maybe emitting sounds from deep in your silent chest and she’s looking at you with respect and sympathy as she awaits your decision, are you going to step forward and take the risk to be seen (and heard), or fall back like you’ve been doing all your life, and you glance at the clock and it’s not time to go yet and you think, like Tony Soprano’s mother, I wish the Lord would take me now.
Because I’m so “complicated” (moi?), Dr. P and I have to schedule another appointment for the following week to discuss which serotonin reuptake inhibitor best suits my special needs. She is frankly amazed that I’ve never taken any Prozac-type drugs before, and I tell her all about self-medicating with caffeine, which I would still be perfectly happy to do if only my body hadn’t started rejecting it. Self-medication (or self-sufficiency in general, I suppose) is all well and good up to a point, but then the Being that we are deep down starts making its presence known, sometimes in such a prodding, uncomfortable way that we have to go out in the world, seeking the help (or maybe just the contact) we need, until we get the message and see that we do need other people, that it’s not enough to live on the Island of Self with a tax-deductible home office and relationships by e-mail and a cat whose silence is easily bought with a little tuna-flavored laxative. Strangely, it’s just as scary to think of reaching out now as it was in junior high, because now I have no excuse, I know lots of wonderful people—not just J but the whole alphabet. Time to write the new story of my life from that alphabet instead of going round and round about the past.
After the eighth grade was finally over and I was rid of the sarcastic Mr. Ersland, I spent the summer at Henes Park, alternately working at the concession stand with my father and going swimming. Every now and then, I’d think about the ninth grade coming up and wonder if I was going to go through the whole hideous ordeal again. Sure enough, when the first day of school came, the phobia started right up again. As it happened, my first period class was home ec. There were three rotating sections of home ec—sewing, cooking, and art (!)—and I was starting the year in sewing, which I hated with a passion. Those bobbins, those patterns, those self belts! I had a complete and utter lack of interest or competence in the female world they were trying to prepare me for. On the first day of school, I sat there at my assigned Singer treadle sewing machine and steeled myself for another year—a lifetime—of trying to stay hidden, and contained.
Just then, the principal came in. There were too many girls in sewing class and not enough in art. Who would be willing to transfer? I practically threw myself at the guy. “I’ll go!”
When I walked into the art room, with the easels, the paints, the indefinable feeling of freedom, the implied permission that drawing and painting gave me—I breathed my first free breath in over a year. I was saved.
feng shui this
At Barbara’s surprise 50th birthday party, where a grand time was had by all, we had a lively conversation about clutter. Barbara had bought a book called Clean Up Your Clutter with Feng Shui, and she and her daughter had successfully “decluttered” her house. So everyone started chiming in about how bad it is to have any unnecessary items anywhere in your environment, “blocking energy,” and so forth, and I took the devil’s advocate position against the obsession with orderliness. Like—relax, be free, don’t worry about it. Because in that moment, probably a direct result of the fact that I have Clutter up the Wazoo, it seemed just as enslaving to be afraid to have anything on hand that you don’t absolutely love as it was to be weighed down by unnecessary possessions. Constantly judging what you love, what you don’t love—it seemed to me that patrolling your environment for every unloved scrap of paper was a waste of time, when you could just as well let that scrap of paper sit quietly on your dining room table under the phone book, the fall 1999 dining guide, your sunglasses, and a handful of change, where you just might need it someday.
So I took the position that Clutter can be a source of Creation. Block energy? Why not see it as creating energy, sparking creativity? Who mandated that everything you own has to be only the very most special thing? There’s something so puritanical about that, so anti-life. Why not embrace Abundance and Discovery? If you want to make birthday cards or collages or sculptures, you need working materials. (Granted, this does not really apply to most scraps of paper.) I had the idea to write a book called Love Your Clutter, Love Your Life. It seemed like a valid point of view, and besides, any book that supports people’s hope that they really don’t have to improve their lives is sure to be a best-seller.
I read a very disturbing article a while back (unfortunately, I never save the articles I wish I had) in which a young environmentalist was so despairing about the place of humans on the planet that he said that the space he himself took up would be better off empty. In other words, he felt that just by breathing and using up whatever resources he needed to stay alive, he was harming the planet. He seemed to be speaking for the minimalists who want to “tread lightly” to the point of not existing at all. I think there’s something very, very wrong with this. I say you have as much right to be here as any animal, any plant, any insect. Removing yourself from the picture isn’t going to do the planet any favors.
But as often happens when I take a strong position on something, my argument in favor of clutter was just the last gasp in defense of the status quo, and underneath, something was already beginning to change. In fact, I had already bought three plastic storage boxes to start dismantling my sand tray collection. Anybody have a compelling use for scads of plastic eyeballs, spiders, knives, dinosaurs, soldiers, animals, cars, flowers, and skeletons?
So even as I was arguing the devil’s position, the anti-clutter seed was being planted. When I got home, I started looking around my office, and I reluctantly admitted that something had to be done. I had a totally unusable work table that was piled with wire and metal sculpture materials, tools, stacks of ‘zine copies and correspondence, plastic folders bulging with stickers, and four wire and metal sculptures that had been gathering dust since the first Bush administration. Worse, the area under the table was also crammed full with rolls of wire, metal rods and tie plates, old manuscripts, and a storage box full of God knows what from an earlier attempt to get organized.
The next day I set to work. I had to start somewhere, so I made the difficult decision to dismantle one of the sculptures, which featured a blindfolded girl doll trapped in a Lego tower. (Using the previously disputed feng shui criteria, I had to admit that I did not love this thing.) So I painstakingly took it apart, thus creating even more piles of wire and metal. I had the brilliant idea of hanging the other three sculptures from the ceiling. Two are flimsy but evocative forms of wire “houses” that represented my insecure state of mind when I made them, and one is a flimsy but evocative form of a “church” that, likewise.
I’ve noticed that deciding to get rid of stuff is similar to going on a diet, in the sense that, out of an advance fear of deprivation, I find myself going out and buying more stuff or eating extra food to make up for what I’m going to cut out of my life. Truly, the left brain doesn’t know what the right brain is doing half the time. So, telling myself I needed more containers to help me organize my stuff, I went to Stacks & Stacks and bought some wire baskets for the work table and another bookcase—which I clearly needed, because I only have two other bookcases in my office, along with two long banquet tables, a computer desk, two filing cabinets, several cardboard storage boxes full of old files and memorabilia, a card table, a typing table, another long table for my stereo equipment (two radios, four speakers, a tape player, a CD player, a receiver, and a turntable), and piles of envelopes, file folders, hanging folders, and computer manuals on the floor. My dream books are on the shelf under the computer desk, and all my Krishnamurti books are lined up on the floor under that, pretending they’re on the bottom shelf of a bookcase. There’s also Xerox paper and a box of scrap paper under there. Oh, and there’s an almost-life-size wire skeleton that I constructed with a floor lamp as the spine that stands next to my computer. Also, I have three chairs in the room and a painting board, a huge bulletin board, and lots of pictures and some metal crosses on the walls. And some wire that goes along one whole wall above the big window that’s strung with colorful plastic crosses. And a string of chili pepper lights over my other window. And a “tramp art” matchstick cross Diane gave me on the windowsill. And icon calendars and postcards and photographs, and dried flowers, a family of ceramic cows, a silkscreen poster of Annie Oakley (the real one) shooting at me, and packing materials for absolutely any occasion, including several Fed Ex and Airborne boxes. You want me to tell you I love everything in that room? Maybe not, but I love the effect. When I sit at my command center (the computer), I feel supported and energized by all the color and texture that surrounds me, the sheer energy of my sculptures and paintings, the many wonderful gifts I’ve received, my fabric of things that reflect who I am.
Of course, the bookcase I bought had to be assembled, and miraculously, I managed to glue and nail it together and haul it into place almost the same day I bought it, though the cardboard box it came in, which I flattened out for Pookie to sprawl on, took up half my bedroom floor for several days before I finally cut it up for recycling, and I think the screwdriver, Elmer’s glue, box cutter, and extra nails and screw coverings are still in there somewhere. One of the plastic storage boxes is now full of wire and metal, and it’s half blocking the door to my office because I haven’t gotten around to finding a good place for it. And yet I have made progress.
Turns out I didn’t have that much stuff to put in the new bookcase besides my 41 bound journals, so I happily took a metal interior breadbox off Peggy and Cally’s hands, and it’s on one of the shelves now, with a red and white plaster Jesus standing inside with his hand raised in blessing amid a pile of gold beads. Man, I can decorate.
See? Even as I’m trying to describe the turning over of my new leaf, I’m betraying my delight in stuff. When I “declutter,” I’m working against my Buddha-nature, trying to be someone I’m not and never will be. Give me a sheet of paper with writing on it, and I’ll organize it down to the last comma and full stop. But in the physical world I’m useless. Things dominate me. Stuff happens and then collects around me. There’s probably already a book called Feng Shui for Dummies, but if not, maybe I could write that one. It would have to offer a modified form of organization for people who don’t naturally think that way. For instance, the standard advice to “handle a piece of paper only once”?—can’t do it. Anything that comes in the mail or gets cut out of the newspaper goes on my dining room table, the central collection spot.
You know the Buddhist definition of eternity? As I remember it, a little bird flies to a mountain once every thousand years and takes away one grain of sand. When the mountain is gone, that’s the beginning of eternity. That’s pretty much my method of housekeeping. Every six months or so (I don’t have a thousand years to spare), I’ll be walking by the dining room table and I’ll impulsively pick up a newspaper clipping about, say, identity theft—the proverbial grain of sand—and I’ll carry it upstairs and put it on top of one of my bulging file cabinets, to be filed later. The next time I “fly to the mountain,” another clipping or stray pen or phone number on a slip of paper will make its way upstairs. Thus do I contribute to the birth of eternity in my own small way. I just thought of something. Where does the little bird put the grains of sand it takes away? It must have to make another mountain out of them, at which point some other little bird will have to start taking away those grains of sand. I’m beginning to get the picture. Eternity takes forever to even get to.
In some strange way, I think I feel calmer in the middle of chaos. Halfway through this clean-up project, half of my CDs are piled under my desk, waiting to be taken to the record store for trade-in, and half of my clothes are piled on the bedroom floor, covered with the trash bag they will eventually go in, waiting to be taken to the Salvation Army, and my work table is half cleaned up but still strewn with miscellaneous items I haven’t found a place for—a candy dish full of glow-in-the-dark crucifixes, a friend’s manuscript that I can’t bring myself to toss, several tubes of glue, some rusted metal decorations left over from the birdhouse I made Terry—but I feel quite cheerful about it, as if I’ve projected my inner clutter onto these inanimate objects, which can handle it a lot better than I can.
At first, I was thinking I collect things around me as a way to symbolically stave off death, because disorder can be confused with liveliness. But then I remembered that when my mother was dying and I didn’t know how I would survive the void that seemed to be opening up at my feet, I became compulsive about cleaning out closets and doing crossword puzzles. I knew I was doing what I could to create order out of emotional chaos, even though it was a false order and real chaos. Maybe it works both ways—maybe the continual struggle between creating the chaos and creating the order is just our pitiful attempt to control the uncontrollable. But let’s have a little compassion for ourselves. We deserve to live, to take up space, and to fill our space any way we want to. Love your clutter, clean up your clutter—your choice—but in any case, people—love your life.
p.s. Pookie would say hi, but he’s been grounded for spending too much time on the Internet. Kitty porn.