Clutter and contemplation

October 10, 2008 | Uncategorized

Given the work I do, I have lots of newspaper clips and books hanging around my house. In a box under my bed, in a basket next to my dresser, in not-so-neat piles around my desk downstairs, I have unorganized “archives” of stories and columns I’ve written over the past 25 years, sometimes more than one copy of the same story. It occurred to me this morning — don’t ask me why — that some day, when I’m gone, my kids are going to open these boxes or look at these piles and heave them into a dumpster without bothering to glance at what’s there, and who can blame them. I’ve got the most mundane stuff piled in with the best stuff I’ve ever done. If even I can’t bother to sort out the flotsam and jetsam, then why would anyone else take the time?

So that got me thinking about the incessant clutter in my house. Don’t get me wrong, if you walked into my house now, you wouldn’t think it looked messy. But in the nooks and crannies, trust me, it’s cluttered and messy. I know it’s an issue for lots of families. Kids bring home reams of paper every week — tests and homework, announcements and art work, permission slips and newsletters. No matter how diligent I am about keeping up with this endless paper trail, too much of it ends up piled on a counter or stuck to the refrigerator with a big magnet because I don’t know what else to do with it.

And so the clutter grows…and it’s not just paper. Closets are packed to overflowing with clothes, half of which no one ever wears. Boxes and bins of toys are so overwhelming that the kids don’t even bother to play with the stuff because it’s just too hard to get to. Kitchen cabinets and the basement and attic…There’s too much stuff everywhere. And when there’s no empty space in our kitchen or bedroom or basement and every square inch of our life is cluttered up with unnecessary extras, it makes it that much hard to clear out an empty space in our heads for contemplation. Clutter on the outside leads to clutter on the inside, which is why Zen design is so streamlined and stripped down or why monks and nuns in monasteries live in almost empty “cells.” You can’t settle down into silence if everything around you is teeming with the “noise” of clutter and chaos.

I once had a yoga teacher who taught classes in her home. It was the most sparsely decorated place I’d ever seen. We removed our shoes before entering, and there, in her living room, was nothing but a small settee and a little table that folded up against the wall. Her bedroom was a futon on the floor behind a Japanese paper screen. There is no doubt that the clear and calm space made our yoga practice that much easier. When I try to do yoga at my house, I typically have to spend 30 minutes picking up toys and putting away laundry and moving furniture to make a space to practice. The result: My efforts to practice are almost always doomed. Same with my prayer space, which is a little corner of my “office,” which is a corner of our finished basement, which is the playroom. So…on those rare occasions when I actually decide to go to my prayer corner to pray, I have to hope that the basement doesn’t look like a toy tornado just passed through, and I have to hope that I had time to put away all my books and papers when I finished my last project, and I have to hope that the Foosball table isn’t pushed too far into my office because there is nothing prayerful or prayer-inspiring about a physical space that is completely out of control.

So what to do? Well, we have a three-day weekend coming up and, hard as it is to believe, the only thing we have on the schedule is a soccer game and church, which means I get to work on a big writing project that’s nearing deadline and I have time to tackle some house projects as well. I’m starting to think that the clutter problem needs to take priority because without us even realizing it, the clutter is making life more difficult for everyone. If I have a hard time thinking or settling down when surrounded by endless piles of junk, I’m sure the kids are feeling the same way when they try to settle down to do homework or read. There’s just too much stuff in our lives. So we’ll see how it goes. Will I be willing to part with 25-year-old stories from my first newspaper job? Will I be willing to box up a bunch of unused toys and donate them to a good cause? Will I get rid of those jeans I’m saving because I’m sure I’ll fit into them again some day?

I recently read about someone who is trying to pare down his life to only 100 belongings. That seems so outrageously impossible to me that I can’t even think about it, but maybe I could work in the opposite direction and get rid of 100 unnecessary belongings. I’m convinced that the only way to reach a point where I can find a quiet, empty space in my head is to first create a quiet, empty space in my house.



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