I am in a frenzy of organizing these days. I have occupied my current office for eleven years now and file cabinets from seven years in my previous office came with me. The inventory of books, music scores, and folders full of paper is massive. I run into my work space for an hour or two at a time and stare at the mess, debating how deep to go at this point. Gradually it is getting better, but not without some chagrin and even shame at how much I accumulate.
My life at home is similar. A number of closets and cupboards are being tackled this summer and here too I feel dismay over all this stuff. I long for a life of less, and yet I search out and eagerly receive more. Small disciplines help, such as removing an item for each new item, but there is an obscenity in this as well. How many trips does one make to Better World Books or Goodwill before realizing the cycle should simply stop, at least for a while?
Recently I visited a friend’s childhood home where she and her siblings spent vast hours digging through their mother’s years of hoarding. Their mother, no longer living, filled several rooms of the house to such an extent that there were only narrow passages to walk through with great care to not let the tall stacks tumble. The house wasn’t always like this; my friend remembers happy childhood years in a comfortably cluttered but orderly home. At some point her mother stopped being able to manage all the stuff.
There are now numerous books and reality shows about the psychological conditions that lead to hoarding, and plenty of resources and consultants available to help those of us with less severe tendencies. I believe good habits and systems do make a difference and with each organizing binge I am sure this time will be different. Even as I doubt what I just wrote, I think I’m actually getting better at this as I get older. Systematically, when I have an adequate space for each item in my life, I learn to not let the trouble start in the first place. Habitually, I’m learning to touch an item, whether a dirty dish or piece of paper, just once as it goes to its ultimate destination. I’m learning to bustle through a mess with more speed and purpose so I have more time to enjoy life without the mental chaos I feel when there is too much clutter. I not only yearn for the beauty of a clear surface, I remind myself that I deserve to enjoy this beauty and the clarity of mind that comes with it. We all deserve this to the extent that it works for us. I do not doubt that some are more at peace and more creative among clutter even as I’m convinced I do my best work when the house or office is pristine.
And yet, as these systems and habits become more refined as I mature, the fragility of the situation hovers in my consciousness, knowing how easily my organized stuff can spiral into an unruly jumble when systems and habits fail. Moreover, the underlying impulse to make another folder, buy another piece of clothing, or stock more food than the freezer can hold is still there. This impulse is what I hope to keep recognizing and shaping towards something more positive.
At times I wonder if my musical obsession with Bach’s WTC Book One is a coping mechanism. This is highly organized and deeply spiritual music that in my experience clarifies the mind and feeds the soul. Perhaps playing Bach right now is a way to defy the hundreds of repertoire choices sitting on my shelves, a way to empty out the chaos and breathe in the focus of a clear surface.