this too
Friday, December 09, 2005
  Order and disorder

Some of my friends are so ordered - everything they touch so tidy and perfect, from their even handwriting to the serried ranks of books on their shelves and spices in their kitchen cupboards; bare polished desks, bare vacuumed carpets, uncluttered tables and sofas, well-weeded gardens and, one supposes, well-weeded minds. What a pleasure to dwell in this order with so much space for peace, for choice, for undistracted action or inaction. Of course that isn’t always the whole story. Some of them will tell you at the drop of the hat about the terrible looming chaos they constantly fear and fight - their ordered possessions and surroundings a bastion against the world’s frightening disorder and the even more frightening disorder of their own hearts.

Then there are the wild, often artistic ones who live with piles of dust and papers and dirty dishes and no order at all – so many better things to do than tidying up; who do everything at the last minute, or after the last minute, but often with creativity and originality. Most of them, though, get bogged down from time to time in the disorder they allow to breed.

I try not to judge, but to glory in diversity. We need both kinds of people, and every gradation in between. The important thing is finding the environment, the habits, where each of us is comfortable and can flourish. Important too to compromise a bit for the sake of the group’s, as well as the individual’s, comfort and flourishing.

Oh yes, I have this thoughtful, gentle, liberal view of the issue. Not at all what I grew up with. Cleanliness and tidiness were next to godliness – not a matter of enlightened self-interest, but a moral rule. Endless battles of will, where I screamed and stamped, aged 3, in the face of inflexible demands to tidy up and put away and “do it again, properly”… and screamed and stamped aged 10, aged 15, aged 18… And at aged 19 a disordered, crumb-ridden student room with crumpled clothes crammed in the wardrobe and unwashed dishes in the sink. Subjected to unswerving demands and discipline, I’d learned nothing about choice or balance or a reasonable degree of deferred gratification.

The worst of it is: things haven’t improved a great deal. The thoughtful, gentle, liberal view, the middle way, is just a theory. The practice is an adult lifetime of desperate neurosis around this issue. A helter-skelter ride through peaks of frantic, shamefaced, clearing up and troughs of messy home, messy work, messy mind and all the energy drained by that – and no idea, still, of how much order is my real comfort level.

This is one area where age has brought no wisdom, no progress. Even since I started to frequent Buddhist retreat centres, loving their sparse perfectionism and the quiet inner space that fosters. It’s been home from these to the clutter and disorder of my flat, my office and my very large handbag. For this, I think, has become a major repository of all my hang-ups. As I steadily pursue what’s probably an average amount of putting aside inner pain and turmoil and striving to assume an outer persona of energy, decisiveness, calm and efficiency… well, this is where it all goes. Put the hurt, the chaotic emotions, over there on the teetering, collapsing pile of books or clothes or dishes. Keep the despair and inadequacy out of work and hobbies and relationships by diverting their expression to this one area where I have no control at all.

So bringing the peace of meditation out into the quality of daily life will definitely require bringing greater order to my physical environment. And it’s going to be really, really, irrationally, disproportionately hard. It’ll mean approaching this mess (and that mess, and that one, and all the messes in my rooms and drawers and cupboards and computer files) and looking each of them in the face, and feeling as powerless as an angry 3-year-old, and breathing through the feeling, and getting stuck in. Yeech.

I wonder what the buddha's thinking as he teeters atop that pile.
Oh Jean. I SO identify with this. I guess I'd like to be one of those people who with no apparent effort hangs their coat up when they come in the door, sorts through the mail and dispatches it immediately, doesn't allow books to pile up by the bed, doesn't allow all kinds of unrelated bits and pieces to accumulate on the table closest to the door.

But I'm not.

I ran round the house last night like a mad thing because I had a client coming over to pick up a calligraphy piece I'd done for her. (She was ecstatic about the piece, which really made the frenzied tidy-up seem worth it.) But within FIVE minutes -- I kid you not -- it was almost as untidy again. I just don't know how it happens.
Coming from a home with some of the same issues, I manage to survive by letting things go so far and when I finish a project I clean everything up.

Then I start leaving things around until I finish my next project.

Of course, I try to limit the mess to one room, now my den, where I "work." I have fits if someone comes in and tries to clean up because I know where everything is in what others see as a "mess."

Maybe that is the middle way for some of us.
I love seeing Buddha surfing your stacks!

I posted a similar pic back when I was cranking on the dissertation:

If you can't find Buddha in a pile of paperwork, where *can* you find Buddha? :-)
Oh, Jean! How I laughed! I'm looking at dust balls on the floor right in front of my mattress on the floor with a computer on a board that I work on. I might pick it up by hand as I go by & put it in the organic recycling box; I almost certainly won't get the sparkling electric broom out since that'll mean another half an hour vacuuming everything. Why is it that we can't just do a bit, why does doing a bit always bring on the guilty necessity to do everything?

I kinda love the sound of your place as it is...

And you, shaping your brilliant and heart-felt words like jewels in the midst of your workshop.

Jean, I'm afraid I'm another one. This post articulates brilliantly the struggle I also go through. I laughed, I even teared up a tiny bit. I actually have improved over the years, but it's still an issue. I've often thought I would do better with a secretary, a librarian and a housekeeper. No such luck. And perhaps it's just as well because I suspect, like it or not, there's learning here for me, too. Yeeech, indeed.

I'm hosting dinner tonight. No, the house is not tidied up nor the shopping done, there'll be last minute franticness — but then I extended the invitation last-minute also and I take joy in allowing myself that sort of pleasure. And therein may lie the answer — acceptance and discipline, both... step by step.
Jean... you've taking a small hammer and struck a huge resounding gong here!

Look at us... all these people who are right there with you. It's uncanny. Have you been inside my head?
Small consolation from one who loved small things:
"One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries."
— A.A. Milne
I'm not sure it's necessarily a comfort to learn how many of the people I read resemble me in this regard. Sheesh.

Great essay and photo. Thanks for the chuckle.
I work in surgery. I am meticulous at work, my room a model of tidiness and when I am scrubbed, I lay out a sterile field of perfect clarity and order. My fellows appreciate this, and predict that my home is also 'just so.'

It just ain't. Piles and clothes and eating wherever I am sitting... I think of my Aunt Evelyn who always put everything away, ran her sweeper daily, always washed dishes right after a meal. But- that was her job. Full time homemaker, not an additional 40+ hours a week spent organizing other people.

A friend often visits, and once said "It always feels so warm and welcoming here, the clutter makes me feel that you take me as I am." So.
I'm a moderate slob, but my own mess never bothers me, and I certainly never thought of it as (particularly) the manifestation of a confused mind. Interesting which things we settle on to be issues for ourselves. I mean, our imperfections are no doubt infinite, but we only pick a few of them to be our official Evidence Of Confused Mind And Corrupt Will. My own frontrunners are procrastination at work and eating badly, but it could just as easily and sensibly be -- oh, listening to popular music rather than "demanding" music. Or caring too much what people think of my blog posts. Or driving to work rather than taking the train. Or... I mean, give me an hour and I could come up with a list pages long. But only a few of the issues are "live." I suspect that if I resolved any of my frontrunners -- not that that's likely -- one of the background ones would move smoothly into its place.

I guess I'm wondering if the external thing is even worth really troubling about -- if the real thing to resolve isn't just the nagging conviction that we ought be something we're not.
Talk to her, Jean, while you tackle it. Talk to the angry 3 year old and reassure and comfort her with kindness and compassion. Be there for her with fogiveness and love. Tell her how beautiful and intelligent, truthful and sore she is. Let her know you are always her friend, even as you choose to tidy up as the adult you are now ... you will never abandon her.
This post certainly struck a chord with many. I am one of those who mostly does housework in speedy bursts, just before guests are due.

I've just been reading a new biography of much-loved Australian artist, Margaret Olley, famous for her messy, cluttered home that provides most of the settings for her still-life studies. Always an excellent cook and hostess, she has entertained scores of celebrities over the years. They had to accept the house as it was. Her philospophy: you clean up AFTER guests, not before them!

I wish I were famous enough to get away with that.
I have to agree with loren. I am a newly DH is orderly and has his way of being neat. What I feel is fine, is a disaster to him. He'll often clean the house when I am gone and I'll come back and not know where anything at all is. So, i am in the middle of creating my own where I can freely lay out my projects, my paintings, scetches, books, mags...whatever in anyway I please. it will be "MY SPACE".
Smiling to see how many of you are also messy!

I really don't think it's important whether you are tidy - only to be happy with how you are, and to reach a livable compromise with people who share a space. Compulsive tidiness and/or tidiness at the consistent expense of pleasure or spontaneity is very far from something I aspire to.

The issue for me is that my extreme messiness makes me feel practically, spiritually and aesthetically miserable and oppressed and that I have completely disproportionate difficulty in tackling it - even a bit.

Absolutely agree with Dale that if it wasn't this it would be something else that became the repository for feelings of inadequacy, and that everyone has something.

But still, with the most realism and self-compassion I can muster, I do want to try and tackle this.
I like so much this post about order and disorder. I bookmark this issue to read it later and think about. It's resounds profoundly in my mind. Thank you so much! This post is very well written!
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