We sat in the near-dark of the living room Saturday night talking about what we need to do, wish to do, and dread doing regarding the maintenance of our house. Although there’s nothing particularly awful or imminent, it all feels hard, expensive, and overwhelming.
“Sometimes, I daydream of cleaning it all out, of simplifying, of making it all clear so life’s not so complicated,” I said to my husband, grasping at words to convey how I felt about house repairs, confusing health insurance policies, piles of papers to file, and so on.
“Having only one bowl and one spoon?” he said.
“Yes! Exactly!” That’s exactly what I meant. A totally unrealistic and probably unsatisfying daydream of boiling our exterior lives down to the minimum essentials and thereby achieving a constant calm inner life. But one glance at our shoe rack by the front door, and already I wondered, “Just one pair of shoes? Or one for each occasion, like: running shoes, dressy shoes, everyday shoes …”
Sunday morning, my husband read last week’s Modern Love essay aloud to me. At the end of it, Ada Calhoun writes:
…I found myself daydreaming about the one-bedroom apartment [she would have instead of the complicated family home she actually has] looking out onto Powderhorn Park. After waking up alone, I would brew some coffee, switch on one of my many ceiling fans, grab a robe from my largest cedar closet and head for my breakfast nook.
This is what I daydream too, a life free of clutter and complexity. Bright morning light, coffee, simple one-bedroom studios, no clutter, no confusion or doubt, just me–existing.
I used to think this was not only possible, but that a lot of people lived this way, and I only needed to try harder. I blame it on the catalogs.
When we first moved into our house, catalogs arrived in our mail every other day, mostly from Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn, and they enchanted me with their depictions of bright, light, tidy spaces.
I studied these magazines, tearing out pages for our “house notebook” of everything from bathroom towel racks to a dining room wall decorated with giant white plates. (Trust me when I tell you that this is truly an ill-fitted idea to our little, low-ceiling home and tiny dining room.)
Soon, these magazines left me frustrated, dissatisfied, and grouchy. And then I had my epiphany:
“THERE ARE NO CORDS IN THE CRATE & BARREL CATALOG!” I shouted to my husband.
One day, there it was–or actually–there it was NOT. I suddenly noticed what was missing in those catalog images. Not only were early mornings never depicted as dark and dog hair was always missing from the couch, the lamps and computers, stereos and TVs had no cords!
Desktop computers perched cheekily on rustic farm tables as if they’d turn on and accomplish work without cords from keyboard to monitor, from monitor to tower, from tower to wall. Lamps hovered nearby, angled to suggest the light they would emanate if they had a cord and it were plugged into a socket (which also don’t exist in catalog pictures). The space looked uncluttered only because each device lacked its three-to-seven cords necessary for functioning.
This broke the spell, and I finally saw the images for what they were, skillfully shot photographs of completely fabricated scenes. I couldn’t see it initially because the creators of these catalogs understood me and the clean-line, dust-free ease with with I wanted to exist in the world.
While I do still believe I can calm my inner mood by ordering my exterior surroundings (a tidy desk fills me with optimism and capability), I think instead I should work on de-cluttering my head and heart.
I mean, if you could create one of those imaginary spaces and put me in it, I might revel for a day, but then, there’d be some dirty laundry, a plant to water, a counter to wipe, and where are all the books? (Most definitely not wrapped in light-to-dark slate-colored butcher paper and shelved by size.)
Besides, ultimately, I’d still be me, alone with myself and my head still cluttered and doubtful.
Maybe that’s it–if I can achieve a calm, serene mind and heart, it won’t matter what kind of space I’m in. I’ll carry light, open, cord-free, clutter-free space within me.
NOTE: This is crazy timing. I first drafted this post on Sunday, July 26, but by Wednesday night, I’d read the hilarious essay at The Toast, “How To Get Rid Of Clutter And Live Abundantly” by Mallory Ortberg. Her sarcastic poke at the ever-growing “genre” of “mindful living” is hilarious and a great antidote. Here’s my favorite part:
Have you ever owned anything? This is why you cannot forgive any of your former lovers. Things like ‘having chairs’ is preventing you from living your best life, …