I’ve been thinking recently about space. Not the vastness of the cosmos, but the considerably less vast section thereof that I call home. My living space.
Up there is a photo of my desk. As you can (kind of) see, it’s a large, handsome, antique desk, and it is, not to put too fine a point on it, a tip. I just snapped it as I found it this morning (no, I didn’t even pose the copy of Getting Things Donethat teeters on the far side). This isn’t the worst it’s been, either – not by a long shot. And the photo doesn’t even show the piles of stuff on the floor underneath.
This desk has been a tip ever since we moved into our house. Before that, my desk in our flat was a tip. And before that, my desk in my university rooms was a tip. Also my desk in my bedroom at home. In fact, it’s more or less tips all the way down.
The fabulous and talented Fi Bowman (buy her stuff: it’s gorgeous) wrote recently about the pain of decluttering. That post came at just the right time for me: I’d been trying to rekindle my motivation to deal with our clutter, and had been having some very uncharitable thoughts about my inability to get started. Fi’s reminder that there’s a strong emotional component to the process was very helpful.
I’ve made some progress since then, but we still live in a decidedly messy house. And when I think about it, it turns out that my desk and my bedroom are usually worst of all.
You see? My space: I don’t prioritise it.
Big emotional tangle, there, obviously. So I sat down with my notebook to ask myself what was going on (in manner of Havi Brooks, who talks to walls and monsters and suchlike). The results were so interesting – and so relevant to the whole String Revolution project – that I’m sharing them here.
This is a conversation between “me” and “my mess monster” (who is, of course, an aspect of myself).
OK, hold onto your hats: here we go.
Meet my mess monster
Me: Today, I had a big to-do list. I got most of it done, but I didn’t get near tidy desk for 10 minutes or tidy bedroom for 10 minutes. I wonder why I seem to have such resistance to these tasks?
My Mess Monster (big, furry, snaggle-toothed, but basically benign): Ha! Why, you’re asking? Well, let’s see… *counts off points on its claws*
- You don’t deserve a tidy space.
- You don’t want to turn into The Sort Of Person Who Has A Tidy Space.
- You can’t do it, because if you did, you’d see how easy and straightforward it is, in which case why haven’t you been doing it all your life, you useless trollop?
- Where would you be without your squalor? You’d be so much less interesting, for a start. Squalor defines you.
- If you get into this, it’ll swallow your life, and you’ll never have any fun again.
- Who wants a clean desk anyway? Clean desks are scary. If you have a clean/tidy desk, you’ll have to get down to your creative work. And then where would we be? (Up the Amazon on a rubber duck, is where. And you know it.)
Me: Whoa, that’s quite a lot of stuff, there! No wonder it’s hard for me to make progress with this. That said, I’d like some more detail, please.
What she deserves
Me: I don’t deserve a tidy space? Why not?
My Mess Monster: Because you can function perfectly well without it! It’s a sheer indulgence. Why should you spend time on it when it’s so temporary, anyway?
Me: I do love the feel of an orderly space, though. And even if it’s an indulgence, why shouldn’t I get to have it? I’m allowed other indulgences, after all.
My Mess Monster: Are you? Name three.
Me: Chocolate. Um.
My Mess Monster: See? And chocolate is medicinal. Four squares, in the late morning, for a little energy boost. It’s a substitute for the sleep you aren’t getting.
Me: Oh. Well. Don’t look so smug about it. I claim the right to some harmless indulgences, dammit! Let’s see what we can do about arranging some, shall we?
My Mess Monster: Hmmm. OK. As long as they’re genuinely harmless.
Me: Such as tidy space?
My Mess Monster: Don’t push it.
The Sort Of Person Who Has A Tidy Space
Me: Right, moving on, you say I don’t want to turn into The Sort Of Person Who Has A Tidy Space.
My Mess Monster: No.
Me: (Do we have to capitalise every word, by the way?)
My Mess Monster: (Yes. It’s important.)
Me: (Fair enough.) So, listen, what sort of person is that? What are they like?
My Mess Monster: Insipid. Boring. One-dimensional. Simple. Bourgeois. Conventional. Hidebound. Kyriarchal. Creatively arid.
Me: Goodness, you know what? I completely disagree. I think the clutter and chaos are incredibly boring, one-dimensional, and creatively crushing. Orderly space seems to me a much more congenial environment.
But obviously, having said that, you’re partly right: I really don’t want to embody those qualities you mention. I just don’t think they’re a necessary result of tidiness – or that they can be avoided by living in squalor.
So. We need to monitor this. If we watch for signs of insipidity, conventionality, etc., as tidiness increases, we can brainstorm ways to combat them without needing to return to chaos. How does that sound?
My Mess Monster: *grumbles incoherently* OK, we’ll give it a try.
This monster does air-quotes and has a placard
Me: OK, so, next you say that if I find out how easy and straightforward tidying is, it’ll adversely affect my self of steam?
["Self of steam" comes from a list of alleged "schoolchild errors", by the way - I love it.]
My Mess Monster: Struggle! There has to be struggle! You have to get into a huge towering red-faced sweaty muddle, out of which you emerge, triumphant! At 1:37 a.m.! None of this [*air-quotes, mocking voice*] 10-minutes-at-a-time nonsense. Nonono.
Me: Um, why?
My Mess Monster: Because!
My Mess Monster: Because if you just do a little bit at a time, and it all gets better gradually, you miss out on the huge super-rush of excitement after the clean sweep.
Me: Yes, I like that excitement too. But I’ve noticed that it isn’t helpful to leave everything until only a monumental effort can tackle it. Can you tell me, what’s actually wrong with gradual improvement?
My Mess Monster: It’s like STEALTH CHANGE. It’s sneaky. It’s underhand. You want a big, forthright effort every six months or so.
Me: No, not really. What I want, in fact, is tidy space, and to be able to find my stuff when I need it. And in fairness, current methods are not delivering this. I think it’s worth trying something else. Believe me, I know it’s not easy. If it were, I’d have cracked it by now.
My Mess Monster: Wait. It’s not that “it’s easy to keep your space tidy”. It’s that the work itself is easy. All you have to do is put things away after use, file papers that you need to keep, recycle the rest, a place for everything and everything in its place, yawn yawn blah blah excuse me while I go away and GNAW MY OWN ARM OFF. It’s stultifying! It’s excruciatingly uninteresting! I can’t stand it! Day in, day out, always the same fucking routines – good god, can’t you see that mess is so much better? *produces placard reading “MESS IS BEST”, brandishes it*
Me: Wow. I had no idea we felt so strongly.
My Mess Monster: Yeah, well. There you go.
Me: OK, it looks like we might need to work on that one a bit. But I want to press on, so we’ll come back to it another time.
Squalor, squalor, squalor (love that word)
Me: Now, where would I be without my squalor? You say it defines me, that I’d be less interesting without it?
My Mess Monster: Obviously.
Me: It’s not obvious to me. Can you explain?
My Mess Monster: You’ve always been messy. It’s part of who you are.
Me: I disagree. I think we’re talking about a set of habits and patterns, not the whole of me. I don’t feel defined by it.
My Mess Monster: But if you suddenly changed and became tidy, people would notice.
Me: Yes, and people exclaim when they see my new short hair, too. That doesn’t mean I’m somehow “defined” as a long-haired person. I’ve made a change, and they’ve noticed. That’s all.
My Mess Monster: Hmmm.
Me: And I don’t think it has anything to do with how interesting I am, either. Oh, wait – this links back to the list of qualities we want to avoid, doesn’t it? And we’re going to monitor that situation, yes?
My Mess Monster: Mff.
Me: I’ll take that as a yes.
How to have more fun
Me: So. Next, you say that if I get into this, it’ll swallow my life and I’ll never have any fun again. You mean, as opposed to the unfeasible quantities of fun I’m having these days? This is another candidate for monitoring, I think. But I have a sneaking suspicion that fun will actually increase with tidiness, rather than vanish. Relaxation certainly will.
My Mess Monster (sullenly): Doesn’t sound likely to me.
Me: Well, we’ll keep a close eye on the situation. I undertake not to become a neurotic tidying maniac.
My Mess Monster: Good.
Clean desks are scary
Me: This last one, I know about. It’s scary to have a clean desk. It’s like having an empty inbox or finishing all the posts in your feed reader – you feel exposed. Naked. No insulation. Very draughty. (Hey – it’s drafty – as in, it might cause me to draft things, ahahaha. Never mind.) Is that roughly it?
My Mess Monster: Yes, exactly! At last, you get it!
Me: Yes, I get it. And I still want to change it. I want to look at ways of addressing the chaos without triggering all that discomfort. Can we do that?
My Mess Monster: I suppoooooose so. *yawns*
Me: Good. But not tonight, because I need to sleep now. Thank you for your extremely helpful responses.
My Mess Monster: Any time.
And that’s where we left it.
Lots for me to think about, here, as well as plenty more untangling to do. Perhaps some of it has sparked ideas in your mind, too.
What do you think? How do you experience the relationship between space and identity, space and creativity? I’m kind of fascinated by this now, and I’d love to hear what you have to say.