The healing art of housekeeping

It always baffles me when people say they admire the self-discipline it takes to force oneself to sit down and write a book. I wake up virtually every morning before my alarm and can't wait to get into my office chair. There's nothing I'd rather be doing than sitting here writing a book. For me, the Herculean act of self-discipline is going downstairs to cook dinner. Domestics seriously slide around here when I'm on a work binge, but between projects, I force myself to pay attention. A lesson I learned a few years ago: physical clutter stifles creative energy.

My office would still be a mess if my husband hadn’t detailed my car. Gary and I had just had a major marital meltdown, so he was trying to get on my good side, a dynamic I tend to ride like a pony. Detailing the car is man-language for “Don’t give up on me, baby.” Gary escorted me to the driveway and opened the door of this golden chariot, which just a few hours earlier had been a garbage scow of discarded sneakers, MIA school books, and drive-through midden. Now every surface was fingerprint-free. Not a speck of dust slumbered on the dashboard. Not a single French fry strayed under the backseat.

“You deserve better,” Gary said. One of those little thunderbolts of truth hit me.

After several years in the deliciously undisciplined environment of a home office, my work life had become a perpetual Casual Friday. Jammy pants and an old T-shirt were my standard uniform. My trusty English Springer, Redbone, never seemed to mind the stacks of papers, books, magazines, and manuscripts, and on the rare occasion anyone else ventured into my lair, I would hastily clear a pile of debris from the corner easy chair, assuring them (and myself) there was a “method to the madness.” That same lame excuse and sloppy standard gradually spread like a virus through the rest of my house.

Order is a fundamental element of feng shui. You can’t be comfortable in a room that presents you with a list of chores the moment you enter. Applying that concept to life in general, and my home office in particular, I realized I could no longer blame the chaos on my “creative personality.” The more chaotic my work environment became, the less creative (and less productive) I was. The more I scrambled at work, the less mental and physical energy I had for domestics, relationships, and other areas of life that can only stand a certain amount of neglect, from filing the taxes to walking the dog. How could I have wandered so far into the swamps of Slobovia? It’s like the old frog-in-a-pot thing. If you toss him in when the water is scalding hot, he’ll immediately jump out, but if you put him in cold water and gradually turn up the heat…frog soup.

“I’m coming over,” said my friend Janine. “I’m sick of listening to you complain about it.”

“Oh, that—that would be great, but um, this week really isn’t good,” I stammered. “And next week I have that deal with the thing and, um, all that.”

“You just need a little help getting started,” she said firmly.

Clinging to my inertia like Linus to his security blanket, I manufactured every conceivable excuse, but she showed up the following Wednesday. Janine should be a UN weapons inspector.

“What’s this?” she asked, indicating two laundry baskets of stuff I’d cleared from my desk six months earlier in order to make room for six more months of stuff, which I would eventually shuffle into two more laundry baskets, pretending I was going to sort through it all someday. This was valuable stuff! Six-year-old rebate forms, a complete list of Pulitzer-winning novels, schematics for a Klingon Bird of Prey (or “B’rel” in their native tongue), and a bunch of other stuff, which was important enough to occupy a patch on my desk at some point and therefore could not be discarded without due process. Janine took one look and discerned my sorting through those baskets was about as likely as OJ finding the real killer. Sensing her evil intent, I mumbled, “I’m not ready to attack that area yet.”

“I am,” she calmly replied, pitching the top layer into the circular file. “Throwing away other people’s junk is easy.” I started to protest, but she held up her hand. “If you ever really did need anything in here, would you be able to find it?”

“Of course! Because, you know, there’s a—a method to the...”

She shriveled me with one of her don’t mess with me I’m a PhD looks and asked, “Which do you value more, the junk or the space?”

“Space?” I said uncertainly, then quickly realized I was certain. “Space.”

By midmorning, the deconstruction was well under way, and Janine had abandoned me, as if she had her own life or something. I despaired momentarily, but there’s a certain cauterizing logic to both spiritual and literal housecleaning; it has to get worse before it can get better. I bolstered myself with that thought all afternoon. Three days later, I was bolstering myself with the thought of fire bombing the house and fleeing to New Zealand with the insurance money. The mess migrated into the hall, blocking the stairway and bedroom doors. Ghosts spilled out of the storage closet; mummified remains of failed endeavors and foiled connections. Gary carried out bag after bag of trash, but internally, the process had become more about what I was keeping than what I was throwing away.

I dragged open a file drawer of rejection letters, and instead of seeing all the people I would someday flip off during my Academy Awards acceptance speech, I discovered a series of stepping stones that took me exactly where I needed to go. As I fed them through the shredder, the bitterness they once represented turned to confetti. Under my desk were three boxes of cards and letters; six years of fan mail and hate mail, newspaper clippings, post cards from hither and yon. The challenge here was separating those few scrapbook-worthy items from the wave of paper that constantly bombards the mailbox. As I drew each item from the box, I asked myself, Do I really need this? If so, where does it belong? If not, am I keeping it out of some sense of obligation to the sender or because it actually means something to me? I held onto a bundle of love letters from my first boyfriend. I tossed a stack of ancient (we’re talkin’ 5 ¼ inch) floppy disks whose contents shall forever remain a mystery.

The personal stuff I kept was all about remembering who I was. Basically, anything with archival value—artifacts that would someday tell the story of my life and make my grandchildren say, “Hmm. Maybe Grammy Joni wasn’t such a loony old bat after all!”—could stay. But that get well card from Aunt Myrtle could be thought of as a kiss, I decided. Precious and appreciated in the moment it was received, but never intended to last forever. The business stuff I kept was all about remembering who I want to be. Unfinished projects were sorted into two piles: “Work I Care About” or “Not Worth My Precious Time.” It was that simple, I realized. As a clear vision of my mission emerged, all that stuff other people thought I could or should be doing began to look more and more like garbage. The physical act of purging the file cabinets forced me to examine the order of my priorities, and ultimately, only the top-drawer stuff survived.

At midnight on the sixth day, I sank into my easy chair, breathing in the peaceful possibilities of my reclaimed space. The seventh day, I rested. And the following morning, I sat down to work, remembering one of my favorite Zen proverbs: “Barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.”

Over the next few months, my life underwent a subtle but profound change. The positive direction in my office spilled over into the rest of my house, my relationships, and the way I spent my time. Today, I’m better organized and more productive than I’ve ever been. And without the constant struggle to make excuses and tread water, I feel more relaxed than when I was shlubbing around in my jammy pants. By redefining my space, I redefined my purpose, and driven by that purpose, I find—even in the most tedious daily tasks—an undercurrent of joy.


In theory, I agree with you. Yet, tragically, I cling to my chaos. :)
Joni Rodgers said…
Don't make me come over there, young lady.
Whaddya gonna do, come over here and *organize* me?

Ooooh... throw me in the briar patch, will ya. LOL!
TJ Bennett said…
You can come to my house and clean anytime, Joni. :-) I so agree with you, and yet trying to carve that time out of my hubby had to sit on me for weeks to get me to finally set a date to clean out the bedroom office so I could move into a bigger space. Now he's after me about the garage, dammit. What makes it worse is he's totally right. I hate that.

Donna M said…
My hubby is a neat freak engineer. When I married him there wasn't a thing hanging on a wall anywhere in his white-walled house. Not so any more. But if I've brought a little abandon to his ideas about decorating, he's brought a little order to my ideas of private space. The best kind of sharing.
Donna M
Ally Anderson said…
This is priceless. I'm scared to admit that I'm sitting here in my sweatpants. It's cold out, what can I say. Perhaps I've gotten too into my "it's comfortable" zone. I'm also terrified to admit that I have a laundry basket under my desk - of "stuff" waiting to be organized. I think the thing that amazes me most is how organized I am for like half the year. Everything will have a space. I'll be clutter free, so organized......... and then it just creeps back in and I get buried under work and don't take the time to organize again.

I'm sharing your post with my writers group. But I'm going to take it one step further and blog about my progress of cleaning me office. If I'm brave, I'll take pictures. B/c sharing makes me the most accountable. LOL Otherwise the characters will take over or clients will call...

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