I’ve been thinking a lot about clutter. In my mind, I am a minimalist. I love those wide open clean spaces, creating a blank canvas that facilitates thinking and creativity. I’m drawn to those books that offer clutter solutions, guaranteeing success in easy steps to get rid of the junk and keep life carefree and unjumbled. I regularly browse them in the bookstore, taking note of the tips and advice, but seldom put any of it into practice once I get back home. I guess I have to admit that I am a bit of a packrat.
There are different categories of stuff I have a hard time parting with. Books compel me. I seek them out like old friends. I crave having them around. They teeter in tall stacks beside my bed, crowd into the corners of my bulging bookcases, peek out of baskets beckoning to me. The ones I’ve read remind me of my own thinking and learning, taking me back to different times in my personal and professional lives. They are those mentors and coaches that helped through tough times, kept me on track or pushed me to the next level in thinking or doing or feeling. The ones I haven’t read yet are the gateways (I hope) to new ideas and new ways of thinking about being in the world. Novels, professional books, nonfiction, fantasy…they all intermingle on my shelves and in my mind, which do I get rid of?
Cards and notes and bits of paper filled with love also linger in my life. They are tucked into books, crouch near important papers, and hide in drawers and files. Like rays of sunshine, they warm my heart and lift my spirits. Then there are those keepsake items. The musical stuffed dragon we bought for our youngest son when he was born, the tattered blanket that was never far from his chubby fist. Then there’s the letterman jacket showing off the achievements of our water polo playing son, the baby blanket my grandmother crocheted, and the book about education wars my son wrote as an example of satire in seventh grade.
There are also the items that still have use left in them. The extension cord that has been curled up in the drawer for the last five years because the lamp being used now has a long enough cord. The drawer of pens that all still work, even though no one uses them. And then there are clothes. Those jeans that are worn thin but you still love, even though they stopped being comfortable five pounds ago, the sweater in your favorite shade of blue that must have cost a fortune but makes you itch every time you wear it. The baby clothes that remind you of the time when your now grown boys were a babies, won’t one of them want that tiny Padres jacket for his own child one day?
How do I get from my real life clutter to the wide open spaces I see in my mind? I think about all the books and blogs and videos out there that espouse the perfect solution. Unclutter in 30 minutes a day, change your life as you tidy your house…you know the claims. And perhaps the bigger question is, do I really want those sleek, shiny spaces that I dream of or does the physical clutter contribute to the complexity of my own thinking?
As I walk through the Price Center on my way to our meeting room, one of the quotes on the floor catches my eye: “Perfect Order is the forerunner of perfect horror.” Carlos Fuentes. I stop and snap a photo. Wait…has this quote always been here? Have I walked over it time and time again? Was it placed here purposely for me to find today…just when I most needed to stop and think about it? As I work to frame the photo with my phone, I’m frustrated by the reflection on the shiny waxed floor, my inability to get the perfect shot. I continue to ponder the meaning, wondering about the appeal of perfect order–that perceived beauty of the sleek and shiny. The myth that rules and a lack of ambiguity somehow leads to clearer thinking and robust, equitable solutions to the world’s thorniest and most persistent problems.
Maybe I should take a note from nature, noticing the ways that beauty and complexity are intertwined. Simplicity is not a straight path with clean uncomplicated solutions and easy answers. Remembering that even my clutter is part of a complex system–memories wrapped up with functionality, sentimentality intermingling with purpose and usefulness–can help me as I continue to chip away at the piles here and the stacks there. I do want to make space in my life for new–new pathways, new memories, new books, and new ideas–and also leave space for the new to intersect with all that came before.
I have to face it, minimalism is not a likely lifestyle for me. It’s not likely that I will achieve that perfect order that will result in perfect horror. I love ambiguity and have spent much of my life pushing against rules that serve as gatekeepers rather than safety nets. A new lens might help me re-view and re-vision my clutter, seeing new opportunities in what was once simply a mess. Perhaps now is the time in my life to start looking carefully at why some of those things remain, long after they’ve ceased to have use for me. I’m sure I can find a good home for that extension cord and the drawer full of pens. I will prune, donate, reimagine, and gift the excesses. And I will be patient with myself, knowing that if I can’t part with something today, the time must not be right, and instead I will work to appreciate those teetering stacks and overflowing baskets knowing they are providing me support and comfort for the time being.
But I also won’t be complacent. Change means looking for a new order and that means I will need to ditch some of things and thinking that no longer serve me. Maybe this is what all my heron and egret sightings have been telling me: lighten the load, stretch out, and let your imagination take flight. How can I not be inspired by those amazing yellow feet!
There’s a bubble man that regularly shows up at the beach where I walk. He concocts a bubble mixture, pours it into a bowl that is fitted onto a one-legged stand that he plunges into the sand, and then starts working his magic.
Two bamboo poles are his wands, and they are attached by long stretches of rope that serve as the point of bubble creation. He dips, lifts, opens and swirls using the natural sea breezes to create enormous bubbles that drift along the shore.
Like the Pied Piper, the bubble man attracts children. They flock to him, chasing the bubbles, hands reaching, eager to pop these ephemeral jewels. He teases them with a cluster of low, small bubbles, sending them out in a flurry, then lifts his wand high above their heads, coaxing another bubble to grow. A snake evolves into a dragon, expanding and twisting as it nuzzles the sunset. The kids look up, arms stretched, running beneath the giant as it floats out of reach.
When the conditions are right, bubbles become corridors to another world. Immersed in briny ocean water, the brave enter the bubble, seeing the world from inside its colorful coating. For those who are patient and move with elegance and ease, the bubble stays, moving with them in a watery dance of soap and salt and air.
There’s something freeing about the temporary nature of bubbles. You can almost catch them, but never quite possess them. In some ways it’s like learning. For a moment, you can stop time and hold it in your hand and then, pop! It has become part of the air again, you breathe it in and it is a part of you.
Don’t stop, blow a new bubble today. Try some small ones to get started, share them with others. Now reach. Higher. Open your arms wide, catch the breeze. Pop! It’s gone before the bubble formed. Try again and again until the light catches and the colors unfold into a rainbow of possibility.
I think I’ve found my spirit animal, my patronus (to borrow from Harry Potter). This is not the same as saying here is my favorite animal or here is the animal I identify with, this is the animal that keeps finding me and when it does, it brings me energy and calm, power and focus.
Long walks along the beach have become a norm for me. At first I started walking for a reason to take pretty photos. But the more I walk, the more I need to walk and the more I want to walk. I walk to burn off calories, to engage my muscles, and to breathe. I walk to think, to reflect, and to problem solve. I walk to notice, to engage with the world, and to write. I most often walk on my way home from work, but I also walk on weekends, on vacations, and sometimes right before the sun sets.
Seagulls are a staple of my walks on the beach. These birds are the ever-present, iconic bird of the beach. They gather on the shore, they swoop and soar overhead, they keep a sharp eye on things…especially those snacks people think they have tucked carefully away for after their ocean dip. Pelicans are a regular sighting as well. These bombardiers fly in perfect formation, shifting leaders as they speed along the coastline. If you watch carefully, you may spot one over the head of the surfers waiting for the perfect wave as it waits and then suddenly drops, snapping up a fish in its huge pouch-like bill. And there are the sandpiper category of birds (curlews, avocets, plovers) that love the low tide feeding opportunities. They are much shyer than the seagulls and much more fun to watch as they run up and back with the waves. And I take lots of photos of all these birds, trying to creep up close without causing them to fly off.
But back to that patronus, the spirit animal. Some people have always known their spirit animal. For my husband, the bear is his kindred spirit. He takes comfort and energy from seeing bears and identifies with their fierceness, their lumbering ways, the way they protect their young, and their general good looks. I have never considered that I might even have a spirit animal until lately. I think I started to make some connections about the possibility of animal totems when I read a post by a virtual friend, Molly Hogan over at Nix the Comfort Zone where she talked about the significance of some Baltimore oriole sightings outside her window. When I read about Molly’s oriole, I immediately thought about the snowy egret sightings I had experienced–and the joy each sighting brought. I’d been writing about egrets and photographing egrets without considering any connections I might have to them.
I often come across these beautiful birds at low tide and spend lots of time watching their bright yellow feet stomp the murky water to bring fish and other food possibilities out of hiding. I learned to creep close without disturbing the birds, clicking my camera lens trying to get a perfect shot. And lately, the birds seem to be finding me. Just recently egrets have appeared at unexpected spots along my beach walk, and we’ve hung out together on the edge of the surf. Each sighting brings a sense of calm and intense pleasure, a camaraderie and comfort that comes from being with those you care about and who care about you.
And then, as I started writing this earlier this week I came across an art print a CLMOOC friend had sent me a while back while I was looking for a container of sea glass I have on display in my house…a print of a heron. I stopped and snapped a photo of it, remembering that when I had looked up animal totems on the internet that heron and egret were defined together.
Later in the afternoon I headed out for my usual beach walk. I was feeling good already, the sun was shining (something that can be a bit iffy in these parts in June), I found a parking place not too far away, and I was ready to stretch my legs and breathe deeply. As usual my camera was strapped around my neck, ready for whatever shot presented itself. As I reached the mile mark along my walk I considered turning back, but decided since the day was so beautiful and the tide was cooperative I would continue on a bit further. I am so glad I did…just at about the point I had planned to turn around I noticed the familiar shape in the surf. But wait, it wasn’t white. As I walked closer and watched carefully I could see that it was a great blue heron hanging out in the surf! I have never seen a heron on any of my beach walks, but there it was!
The coincidence seems too great to be a random sighting. I am certain these birds are bringing me messages of calm and support. They are certainly bringing me strength and inspiration and an incredible jolt of joy. So I am claiming the egret and heron as my spirit animals, patronus if you will, there to call on in times of need.
So now I am wondering, do we each have a spirit animal, an animal totem representing our strengths and bringing us power and focus? Is there more to the heron/egret than I have yet discovered? I’d love to hear about your experience with your patronus!