Monday, June 14, 2010

Clutter, An Appreciation (See Footnote 1) (9.21.08)

We're planning to redo our upstairs bathroom so I've been leafing through the pages (Footnote 2) of fancy fantasy bath books and every single one of the photos, from the luxury marble palaces to the modest Zen retreats done up in teak, have something in common. No twisted tubes of old Princess toothpaste, no discarded copies of Entertainment Weekly and National Geographic. No legion of bath toys. Each room as beautiful and anonymous as a hotel bath.

I want to blame the chaotic energy of my kids for my cluttered house. I really do. But I really can't. I've been a packrat since forever. But motherhood has made me look at my clutter as something other than simply a bad habit.

There are lots of enthusiastic web sites out there dedicated to busting clutter. I should know - their links are cluttering up my bookmarks bar. I love their cheerleader attitude - Pick up twenty-seven useless things and fling them out! Sing as you work! Pretend you are moving and pack up the stuff not worth taking! The best strategies treat clean-up as a game, rather than a chore - much like the way we get our own kids to pick up after themselves. "Race ya!" (3)

The bright tone of professional mess busters is necessary - clutter can become oppressive and overwhelming. (4) But I've come to accept myself as a saver. I have to. There's a junk-drawer worth of psychological twisty ties in my past that explains why I can get more emotional about an ancient stuffed animal than my wedding shoes. (5)

I have a tendency to attach sentimental value to the strangest things. I kept a rolodex card through moves to three different states with the phone number of a woman I met once and never called. But my mother's credenza? When my uncle handed this dark and clunky 1950's era piece of furniture off to me, I had no qualms about putting it out in the alley. (6)

My graphic designer cousin (7) once told me (8) that my tolerance for clutter might have something to do with the way I see the world.

Where my husband sees a pile on my desk, I can see a project. You spot stray stuffed animals in our hall; I see characters in an elaborate story my children are in the process of creating. Some find a silver lining in "messy desk=creative mind"; I say savers are those who see the world as open-ended rather than a closed system. "Hey! I'm still working on that! I've got plans! Big plans!" (9)

But I'm also thinking my ability to walk around the occasional mess also arises from the way I feel the world - as a mom. Part of a mother's job description, after all, is tenderness and when children grow passionate attachments for stinky shredded scraps of blankies, for microscopic Polly Pocket shoes, for every big-eyed beribboned plastic kitty that enters the house, our empathy and understanding is required.

I do have equal parts pride and disgust that I actually can tell you the origin of hundreds of stray pieces of scrap plastic, wood and fluff that populate our toy boxes and baskets. I recognize this doll's dress, that stuffed cat's leash, the block that belongs to the set I gave away months ago.

A very funny woman at New Jersey Moms Blog chalks up inevitable toy accumulation to female biology and its powerful gathering instinct.

So what to do with all my children's artwork? Both my girls are bringing home crayon drawings and seasonal crafts from school and I hate to toss them. I've framed some, recycled some as birthday invitations, sent many to the grandmas, labeled lots with narration, considered starting a new blog and packed away pounds in paper portfolio cases.

The alternative? I've seen one minimalist system that was a little too scary: A good friend told me she would praise her daughter's drawing, then rip it up in front of her. "Wasn't that fun to make, honey? And now we recycle the paper. It's all about the process, not the product." This woman's home? Straight out of a shabby chic design magazine.

The picture above is my daughter Mia's latest masterpiece, "Rainbow Pegasus Jumping Over Pink Unicorn." Recycle bin? Never.

1. The brilliant writer David Foster Wallace died last week at his home in Los Angeles. One of his trademark writing devices was an extended use of footnotes, used, for one example, to hilarious effect in his famous essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again." Here is a slowly-loading PDF file of a version of that piece. I'm no D.F. Wallace, far from it, but today I'm borrowing his tangent numbering system for my word clutter.

2. The assistant of the contractor who is redoing our upstairs bath dropped off the style books this week - several pounds of thick tomes that I would ordinarily call coffee table books, but who would want a picture of a bidet on her coffee table?

In my typically difficult fashion, I told the assistant on the phone, "Well, we want to go totally green with the new bath, so I'm really thinking we would first find the most local, recycled products, and the aesthetics would follow." "Um...okay," the poor woman said, confused. "Um, so do you want me to drop these by anyway?"

3. Today Flylady even inspired me to call up FreeCycle to find a home for two rusty tricycles my kids have outgrown and nineteen glass vases that were gathering dust in the basement. The vase taker even left something in return - a bouquet of dried money plant! How sweet was that?

4. If these were real footnotes and not just a Container Store temporary solution for my asides, I would place here statistical evidence of the social and personal dangers of the clutter-obscured life. Like, say, (I'm making this up, mind you) 47% of all sad people own an excessive amount of Hummel figurines. Or, (this one's my favorite from The Onion), 100% of Americans lead secret lives.

5. But I'll save all that for the therapist.

6. This was when we lived in the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago and you could always count on someone coming by to pick up your stuff. "It's okay?" asked the young woman and her husband who stopped to look at the piece while Randy and I were hauling it out. "It's okay!" I replied. They examined the credenza carefully, then carried it away, to my great satisfaction. Sometimes stuff would disappear by the time you returned to the alley with your second armful. I called it the Chicago Super Secret Pick-Up Service.

7. whose Saugatuck home is immaculate

8. kindly

9. Jonathan Franzen, whose work has been called heavily influenced by David Foster Wallace, ended his novel The Corrections with these words about Enid Lambert, a chronic pack-rat: "...she felt that nothing could kill her hope now, nothing. She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life."

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