As a penniless grad student, my husband used to wander the aisles of office supply stores longingly, running his fingers over clean lines of file cabinets, manila folders, and label makers. He’s been known to neatly drape a towel over clean dishes drying on the counter to mask their unsightly state. And ask anyone in our neighborhood about his yard—you’ll either hear sighs of appreciation, or laughter about his, um, obsession with the state of the grass on our little city plot. He’s a big fan of order.
I, on the other hand, leave important papers in various piles throughout the house. My desk is chronically strewn with scraps of to-do lists, coffee cups, knickknacks, and an assortment of candles. When I’m in the midst of deadlines, the stacks bleed into each other in one giant, chaotic heap. It makes my husband crazy.
But I kind of love it. I can’t recycle the newspaper before I’ve found time to read the book review section. If my son’s permission slip isn’t staring at me on my desk, I’ll never fill it out by the deadline. Plus, I’m pretty sure one of those laws of thermodynamics predicts an inexorable decline into disorder. Who am I to argue with science?
A certain degree of disarray feels inviting. I used to love visiting a friend and her family in their rustic cabin in the woods—the children slept side by side on mattresses on the floor in the open attic. Lacking dressers, they piled clothes in the corner, covered their kitchen cupboards with curtains, and piled extra furniture on the porch. It was so bohemian and cozy and charmingly foreign that I had to tear myself away after every visit. I loved their lived-in life and space.
My family moved across town when I was nine. The new house was big and drafty, and our classmates helpfully passed along the rumor that it was haunted by the ghost of the previous owner who had died there. My sisters and I vowed that when we were old enough, we’d go and buy our old house back.
The good part though was that as the oldest, I got my own room. There were five of us kids at the time, so that was a really big deal.
I got to pick out new wallpaper—wide red stripes with red flowers curling around them like vines. We kids initially began scraping decades of wallpaper from the bedroom walls with the enthusiasm of Tom Sawyer’s friends, tricked into helping whitewash his fence. Though my siblings’ eagerness tapered off, I remained committed to the task. My grandmother had died just a few years before, and I got the big four-poster bed from her farmhouse, as well as her giant cherry dresser and bookcase. I’d definitely won the bedroom lottery.
My favorite thing about the room was a tiny window seat in what used to be a closet, where I could curl up and read or look out at the world. Although I didn’t know the word “introvert” yet, I knew I craved moments of respite from the noise and energy and people around me.
One of our weekly chores was to throw away ten things—it didn’t matter what, as long as we were paring down. A late-born child of farmers who’d eked their way through the Depression, my mother embraced simplicity with a vengeance. She shunned non-essential shopping and recycled Ziploc bags long before environmentalism was a thing. Her counters are still ultra spare—even the coffee maker and toaster are cleared away when not in use. When I ran out of obvious detritus, ever the dutiful oldest, I sometimes tore blank pages out of my spiral notebooks to throw away. We were taught to discard mementos and treasures—nostalgia is a glutton for space.
So I learned to hold lightly to stuff, not to settle too heavily into any space. Once out of my parents’ house, I walked on tiptoe through the various apartments where I lived. Invisibility made a good roommate, or so I thought.
It took a long time to see that my diligence to eschew things meant I found no space for myself.
My response has been to swing away from structure and order—boldly taking over the corners of the world that are mine. Doing so feels brave and anchoring and alive. When I’m surrounded by things, I know I am here, I am corporeal.
Maybe I love to create mess because it’s so decadent. Preparing a meal, I make all kinds of chaos in the kitchen—letting loose, relinquishing control. It’s okay, I tell myself. Taking up room is a good thing. Yes, it’s a bit of disaster, but I’m free, unshackled from the careful constraints of order.
So I eat the birthday cake with my fingers and convince myself that it’s okay to drop crumbs on the floor. Cleanliness may provide order, but I find identity in the midst of the chaos. I bust the mold, make a mess, and embrace stuff, no longer so careful, so orderly, so emotionally sterile. In disarray, I can find space for myself, which also means there’s actually room for others as well.