Not long ago I was given an interesting book as a present: The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I say interesting because when people give you a present it usually is a fairly good indication of how they see you, what they think fits your personality and what, according to them, you need and will make you happy. In this case, Marie Kondo’s book is essentially a self-help book written to persuade people of the magical effect tidying up will have on their lives. Although I enjoyed the book, I could have written three quarters of the book myself as I have always been a bit of a tidy-freak when it comes to my immediate environment. And everyone who knows me well would agree.
We laugh about my OCD traits, how I know whenever something had been moved a fraction from its usual place but that’s all fine as aesthetic surroundings had always been important to me. Luckily though, one trait does not define an individual’s complete personality. We are, after all, never only just made up of one thing and from the ‘chaos’ and creativity of humans’ minds, many times a reflection of life in all its glorious tumult and excitement, people bring forth formidable truths in varieties of beautiful forms.
As Terence McKenna said, “The creative act is a letting down of the net of human imagination into the ocean of chaos on which we are suspended, and the attempt to bring out of it ideas.”
I guess all of us are continuously trying to ‘tidy up’ and straighten things out in different ways. It’s inevitable. As with many things in life, one often has to finish off something in order to start another; to clean your net so you can find the idea you’re looking for. I guess at times we need to temporarily suspend ourselves on a platform of our own making before easing ourselves back into the storm. Maybe, after having created one’s own diving board, you can catapult yourself from there headlong into life’s tempests.
The more I thought of and read about the act of tidying up, the more I started seeing examples of it all around me in the lives of others: a friend asked me to come around and help her to unpack the books and DVDs that were still in boxes after having moved into her flat quite a while ago; a cousin moved to Spain and cleared out everything that did not bring her joy; another friend reduced his earthly possessions to its bare minimum before he could really throw himself into a new business venture; another friend felt the need to clear out her office and sort out her paperwork in order to set her sights on a possible new career as she found herself standing at a crossroads in her life; a cousin of mine used to make us all laugh before a night out with his words, ‘Let’s keep it tidy, all of you.’
It seems like no matter how much we like indulging in the messy fun of the proverbial ‘night before’, to move forward it does seem like some sense of neatness or clarity or understanding has to be arrived at, before one can move on to ‘the morning-after-the-night-before’ stage. And many times people start by detoxing their space, which made me think about the difference between lifelong tidy-uppers and once-in-a-blue-moon tidy-uppers. Were they really that different? Might their intentions be the same? Are they purging their environment as a coping mechanism? An unconscious desire to have some kind of control, no matter how mundane, as life offers no other guarantee than that the journey will be full of surprises?
Be that as it may, even researchers have found that a cluttered environment, as opposed to an uncluttered, organized, and serene environment, restricts your ability to focus and limits the brain’s ability to process information.
As a preschooler, I still remember enjoying the freedom of daily roaming a big house, huge garden and my friend’s backyard – in the middle of it a tall tree housing a magical tree house – that bordered onto mine. The parameters of my kingdom felt limitless. I was the master of my world, the captain of my own ship, I set my daily routine and allocated a specific place to every toy in my room – beautifully they’d line the shelf at just the right angle to catch the light. But suddenly, and involuntarily, there came a day that I was marched off to Kindergarten where I had to slot into someone else’s idea of routine, all of us hemmed in by the wider aim of crowd control.
No longer could I tame the monsters of mess and institution with my armour of aesthetic ideas and free will. There we all were: caught. I felt wedged between the little devils – my destructive peers – and the deep, unfathomable, blue sea – a teacher that dictated every few minutes of my day and who apparently thought she knew best. If it wasn’t the imminent destruction I faced in the continuous disarray of the home corner where the dolls were strewn around the floor (Who can play when they can’t move without stepping on a rubber limb? I wanted to know but there was no time to ask), it was the formidable voice of the teacher who brought an end to unfinished pictures and games only just started with her next command that had to be obeyed. Nothing seemed to reach full circle in there and, although I would laugh at the antics of my friends and would manage to sometimes reach the swings before anyone could jump in the seat first, I never stopped longing for the freedom of marching to the beat of my own drum. The lack of harmonious feng shui energy was nowhere more noticeable than in Kindergarten and my 5-year old chakras were fluttering in frustration and annoyance.
But life continued and in all the years of living under my parents’ roof, my father would always make the same comment every time he opened any door behind which any of my possessions were stored: ‘You would have been perfect in the army.’
Who knows: the neat edges of starched sheets and clean lines of uniforms ironed into sleek submission would most probably have appealed to me but the regime of marching to another’s drill commands did not sound like so much fun. Not that the army had any lasting effect on my father: I gave up trying to persuade him to keep his wardrobe tidy. They are a laidback bunch, my family members. For years my parents had all their photographs stored in plastic bags until, one holiday in my 35th year, I decided to order them all into photo albums.
But, as we all do, I adapted: resigned myself to the fact that others’ disorganisation is inevitable, quickly learned to love the pandemonium of life. And realized that in order to combat the effects of life’s physical disorder, one has to reduce one’s kingdom and consequently embrace life outside its boundaries. Living in shared housing with roommates meant that half a meter around my bed was my deck; the rest was ever-changing, rough, at times exhilarating, seas where rules were debated by many and the presence of ugly ornaments and mess and dirt inevitably ensued.
Adapting to others’ worlds, blending with the contours of shared environments and enjoying it is a skill but, for most, being able to retreat to one’s own space where reason awaits, is crucial. This is where planning your next move from is made possible. I guess you empower yourself to step out of the frame of your own canvas into the clutter of life. Because life is a combination of ugliness and beauty, cruelty and compassion. It’s an uncontrollable mess of adventure we embrace all the time with a knowing that somewhere, behind a closed door, there is a moment of peace, of (in my case) symmetrically arranged perfume bottles and bookshelves filled with upright spines: a physical space that defines who we are; a place where there is some kind of order to things.
Fate does seem to have quite an interesting sense of humour: years later I find myself teaching 4-year olds. The day is filled with déjà vus from childhood. I train my students to do short bursts of intense, thirty second intervals of military-style straightening up of the classroom. Consequently, I have short glimpses in my mind’s eye of neatly arranged toys on shelves from long ago that nobody else was allowed to dust except me. These small doses of aesthetic therapy soothe my soul in between the ever-cascading onslaught of waves of commotion that sweep daily through the classroom.
Once, in the long stretch of my teaching career, my class wins the Tidiness Cup. I don’t know if I should give a beaming smile or a disgruntled, embarrassed nod of the head to show my acceptance of the tiny cup, big enough for a hardboiled egg to fit in.
It still amazes me now when I see how much small children love coming to school. Light-footed with joy they’ll skip through the doors in the morning. But every now and then a little aggrieved, knowing face would peer around the door, hesitant to enter. And this always manages to trigger the same memory:
I would lower the thin needle down carefully into its grooved pathway so it starts to dance, light like a ballerina, in a perfect spiral, over the surface of the record’s face – perfectly round and black like an eclipsed liquorice moon. In this way the vinyl and its needle would, like a deft and magical duet, conjure up the music and the sounds from the depths of its inner workings. For hours I would dance circles around the coffee table until my friend would call me to come and play in the tree house.
Funnily enough, not much has changed. I still love to do just that. And when duty calls I feel the old annoyance. Not just yet, I want to say. Let me be for a little while longer. After all, who wants to dance to another’s tune when you have created your own perfect backdrop to the world? Unlike Marie Kondo who has created a business out of helping others to tidy and move on, I have never made it my business to create others’ view points.
In the end, tidy or not, each of us has to find our own jetty from which to sail.
Marie Kondo. 2014. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Ten Speed Press Berkeley.