A few people reported that they found my last blog post depressing. “Is it just the end of hope??” one asked, but that wasn’t what I meant, not exactly, and I’m sorry if you, too, found depressing the idea that normalcy is a fallacy. I hoped that by calling out our lives for what they are?unpredictable?that maybe we could make peace with it. I know that when I hold too tightly onto the idea of something being a certain way, when I hold too tightly onto joy, I feel that much more bummed out when it goes awry. A little lightness can help. Witness: when that flood happened, and Ben and I were both minorly freaking out, I noticed that when we had a quick conversation about it, accepted the fact that our house was going to be in chaos for a few days (ha! Try weeks), and hatched a clear plan for what to do next, we both felt a lot calmer.
But the comments I got on my last post made me see how a mantra of “life is unpredictable” could quickly become something like “life is unpredictable…so you should live each day like it’s your last.” And, you’re right?I do find that depressing. That carpe diem thing always makes me feel panicky. Am I living my best life? It makes me wonder. Could I be doing a better job? Answers: a) probably not, and b) yes, of course I could be doing something better. And then what happens? I take up skydiving because I think I should, because I might get hit by a bus tomorrow? What bugs me about the carpe diem mentality is it seems steeped in, among other things, white privilege. And class privilege. Uh, how are you supposed to live every day like it’s your last when you’re poor? Or, in my case, when you have two annoying but adorable kids, plus a very adorable gecko with very specific temperature needs that are stressful to meet?!
But hear me out. Because I’ve had a revelation.
I’m not going to take up skydiving, but I DO think that if life is so unpredictable…I should try a little harder to chase joy. In January, while I was on school break but things were in minor chaos at my house, I found myself feeling like I was wasting every day, not eeking enough enjoyment out of things and not having enough, well, fun. Part of this is the reality that mothers are never really “on vacation,” because even though I wasn’t working I had to rally the kids and make lunches and whatnot and whatnot and whatnot. But when I teased Ben that if he had an entire month off he’d be going on ski trips and day drinking and riding his bike and meeting me for lunch?and he eagerly agreed, and this is one of the things I love about my husband?I realized that I kind of have a hard time relaxing, being on vacation, even just accepting the abundance of my life and the many wonderful things about it.
I have a hard time accepting joy.
I know how that sounds, sort of Marie Kondo-esque, kind of woo-woo, very first-world problem-y, but it’s true: I am constantly rationing pleasure. If I wake up on a rainy Saturday and decide, you know what, I’m going to spend all three hours of Sammy’s nap time watching Project Runway re-runs, because I’m an adult, dammit, and I can make that kind of decision, partway through, I feel intensely guilty and go do some laundry. If I plan to do something frivolous of a Wednesday?say, meet a friend for some day shopping?I temper it by admonishing myself that I’ll have to get up early to write. If I’m sick and decide to read trashy novels for days on end, I get so depressed at not being up and productive I can’t even enjoy them.
And it carries into my work life and makes me worse at what I do. For example, right now I’m really, really trying to make a big mess of things with the poetry collection I’m writing, but every other day a stern voice urges me to stop playing, to stop creating, to start tightening the language and putting it together. Get serious, Suz, the voice urges. Work harder. Even though I know, in some other rational part of my brain, that I haven’t finished the writing/ideation phase yet, that it might be another six months or even a year before I’ve really worked out the kinks, and that NOT approaching it with too much seriousness is exactly what I should be doing.
Why do I do this? As penance? Because I’m so driven by guilt that I just can’t allow myself any reprieve? Because I don’t believe that I deserve the creative process, deserve joy? I’m not sure, but I know that day after day, I’m consumed by guilt. I’m constantly putting myself on cleanses or rationing my wine, curtailing my spending, feeling tight.
There’s a lot of joy in my life. A lot of space. A lot of stuff to be grateful for. And I am.
So. I’m trying to change this. I’m trying to allow myself some space. Some joy in the lovely process of writing poem after poem in the early morning dark, and not pausing to ask whether they’re any good. To take breaks. To drink a fancy cocktail after a tough day without guilt. Because like is short, and I might get hit by a bus tomorrow.
I’ll let you know how I do. And I’d love to know: do YOU ration joy, in your work, in your life? Comment it up, friends.
About a year ago, I blogged about reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and how it, well, changed my life. When my mom came to visit a few months later, she told me she could really see my “work with that Japanese woman,” and I wracked my brain for whom she might have been talking about (then had a hearty laugh?it sounded like Marie Kondo had been in my house with me, tidying up, an image I loved). I purged books and clothes and?a lot of papers, and while I still feel there’s way too much clutter in my house, I’m also pleased with my new sock-folding system and the way my closet looks and how pared down and tidy my bookshelves have become.
But there’s one room in this house that remains a veritable shit hole at almost all times: L’s bedroom. Until about a month ago, he was holding onto the broken, decapitated green dragon pi?ata he’d had for his sixth birthday (he’s seven in two short weeks). He has an entire cubby basket dedicated to paper airplanes that were folded at least three months ago. There is an unopened puzzle that I keep suggesting we regift. Artwork?drawings, clay figurines, broken colored pencils, and markers in every shape and size and color?spills off the “art table” and onto the floor. And the bin full of “stuffies” is overflowing. I think he has every kind of mammal in there, as well as a beloved alligator and some sea creatures. Once or twice a month, we wrangle and wrestle and bribe until the room gets clean enough to be vacuumed, and I find myself surreptitiously recycling drawings of lightsabers and Luke Skywalker and mythical animals, wondering whether I’m sending off the work of a future genius or just a cheerful, Star Wars?obsessed kid.
L’s art area after I reworked it last year. Almost Pinterest-worthy, no? This lasted about a week.
The whole thing?drives me insane. Sometimes, I ogle Pinterest like it’s porn. I see these tidy, fun, colorful kids’ bedrooms with bunk beds and neat filing systems and clothes all hanging in rows in the closet. Why, I think to myself, can the clothes never make their way into the dirty clothes bin in MY kid’s room? Why must?there be floods of tears when we consider recycling the pi?ata after eight long months (he’d named it, and everything)? And I should add that this is not a kid who gets new toys every week (though the grandparents do keep him in new stuff on, I’d say, a quarterly basis). The same blocks and Legos and animal figurines have been in the rotation since he was three; the marble game is still a hit; the markers get used until the end of their colorful little lives.
He just. Can’t. Part. With. Any. Of. It.
L’s art area today. MUCH more representative of what it usually looks like.
I try not to holler and yell and fight with L, but I would say that most of our arguments center around his inability to get rid of stuff. I worry because for me, my head can only be as clear as my space, and when I enter his room I start to sneeze (this may be psychosomatic) and it makes me tense. I love to see him happily drawing away, but I also worry that the capless markers will stain the rug. Most of all, I just want to simplify, and that doesn’t seem to be within my son’s psychic reach. Simplicity? No. He prefers chaos.
“It’s good to get rid of things,” I tell him. “Really.”
This conversation reminds me of one I’ve had with my parents, who live in a whole house that’s something like L’s room (not as messy, of course, but about as packed with stuff). My dad can’t get rid of anything. He must own 5,000 books, and they spill out of the bookshelves and into boxes and onto the floor. In the attic, my parents house the discarded things of their three children (I fully confess to contributing to this), along with hundreds of letters and items of clothing and artifacts (and an insane amount of luggage. Like, probably thirty suitcases and duffel bags, if I had to guess). I know it drives my mom insane, because she tells me. I know she desperately wants to pare down and simplify, because she tells me. And so when L gets into his mode?”Recycle all but five paper airplanes,” I say, and he replies, “I’ll recycle five, total”?I feel a bit like my mom, craving a simpler life and a simpler space, but not sure how to get it.
I guess this is what it’s like to be a wife?or a?parent: you have to accept difference in your family and the very basic reality that not everyone feels the same as you do. But I can’t help but wonder whether, for L, his penchant for holding onto stuff is a bit like the way he holds a grudge, or the way when someone has done him wrong it takes him at least twenty minutes to work through it. When L is upset, he just needs to be heard?sometimes for what feels like hours.
And maybe, I suppose, when I push and push for him to get rid of stuff, I’m just not really hearing him say this: this is my room, and this is how I want it to look. I am my own person. A messy, complicated, and hoarding kind of person, but nonetheless, myself.
I’m back after a long summer of traveling, teaching,?hanging out with my kid, and reading. I read all year long, but I feel that same excitement as many of you when summer rolls around, like I’ll tackle some big reading project or spend hours lost in a book while I sip iced tea at the beach. This summer, neither of those scenarios happened. I ended up reading in a very catch-as-catch-can manner (no Awesome Proust Reading Group after all). I picked up whatever I found at my parents’ house, basically. This included a re-read of Harper Lee’s?To Kill a Mockingbird (as arresting as I’d remembered, and funnier, made more the so by the fact that I was reading my little brother’s copy from seventh grade, and his notes were in the margins. A doctor now, and never a real whiz at literature, he referred to Scout as “he” until page 54); Julie Powell’s memoir Julie and Julia, which I’d never expected to be as hysterical and likable as it was; Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman?(also a nice surprise, and very different from the show. Much less sex. Sorry, everyone); Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (a crime novel that was at once totally sappy and nonetheless very enjoyable); and, drumroll please, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of?Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.?
If you’re a sentient human adult in the Western hemisphere, you probably know that everyone is talking about this book. Marie Kondo seems to have arrived from another planet, one where socks have a life of their own, our possessions contain their own energies, and everything we buy must?give us a thrill of joy. Kondo advocates going through all of your possessions, deciding which ones “spark joy,” and dumping the rest. In our stuff-laden culture, it’s quite a radical idea?and it earned her the #1?spot on The New York Times Best Sellers List.
This book hit me at a good time. I had definitely been angst-ridden about my closet and all the items I simply wasn’t wearing; I’d been looking around my living room feeling annoyed by the boxes of CDs, the papers, all the books, and my many knick-knacks, imagining a Scandinavian-style living space with nothing at all extra. That said, it’s a tall order to drastically pare down your life. Kondo suggests?doing this in this order: clothes; books; papers; komono (miscellany); and last, memorabilia and sentimental items. So I decided that at the very least I’d do my clothes. In the order she suggested, roughly, I dumped every category out on the bed, picked up each item, and waited for a spark of joy.
Easier said than done. Was it joy I felt when I fingered the label on my Target-bought athletic socks, or simply relief that I’d finally purchased some, so?I didn’t have to steal from my husband every time I went to exercise? Would I be wracked with guilt if I gave away the hand-knit scarf a friend had sent that I just couldn’t wear? I don’t know, but I do know that once I tabled questions like those and just went with my gut, deciding what to lose?was a lot easier than I’d expected. I’d soon filled three large trash bags. In went the gauzy brown dress I’d worn to my brother’s first wedding, which, while pretty, also made me a little depressed every time I looked at it; in went the lingerie I’d been given for my own wedding and never wore; in went the killer black pumps that I always wanted to rock but couldn’t, because they hurt my feet so much it was absolutely impossible to walk in them. (The following week, at a yard sale we happened to be having, I sold the pumps to a very tall German woman who looked terrific in them, and the brown dress to someone who was going to give it to her daughter and told me I had “outstanding taste in clothes.” Ha! She should see me in my yoga pants most days.) I threw out an entire box of ratty cotton T-shirts I was holding onto for only-God-knows-why?probably because I thought at some stage that they would be useful. Forget useful, says Marie Kondo. Forget it altogether.
After?discarding my clothes, I followed her system of folding. Besides getting rid of all the stuff that doesn’t bring you joy, she suggests you fold your remaining clothes so you can really see them?upright, in neat little packages, so you’re not digging to the bottom of a stack to find the right T-shirt or pair of underwear. And it works! While I may still be guilty of dumping my clothes on the floor at the end of the day, ahem, when I do put them away, I don’t throw them in the drawer and slam it like I used to. I take the time to very neatly fold. And now, when I look in my closet, I seem to feel just a little less angst around what to wear for work. Twice now I’ve very quickly chosen an outfit and felt good about it instantly (instead of changing thirty times and littering the house with discarded clothing).
My scarves-and-accessories drawer
I’m not sure if and when I’ll do the books category, though it does give me a little thrill to think of setting free some of the hundreds of books of poetry that I’ve accumulated over the years (and do not read). I will definitely do the papers category and the komono category in an attempt to free up my living room. I hope that Marie Kondo is right when she says, emphatically, that if you tidy correctly, you’ll learn exactly how much stuff you need, how much is right for you?and along with a clearer space, you’ll also have a clearer head and a clearer life.
The whole time I was reading, I kept asking myself: is this?something of a metaphor for life? Could you “tidy” your life of activities, relationships, projects, and places that no longer bring you joy? I bet you could.