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!