Last week I felt like quite the proud little success story. I turned in my final paper for the class I was taking, I turned in final grades for the class I was teaching, and I made good, steady progress on digging through the end-of-semester piles of work at my day job. I made it all the way to the second chapter my latest attempt at pleasure reading (by a running writer! relaxation and motivation all at once!), and I discovered a new band that’s making me crazy in a way I haven’t felt since I can’t even remember when (CHVRCHES! they’re amazing!). I even left the husband and baby home alone so I could go to to my first art opening since getting really, really pregnant two years ago.
The end of fall semester was around the corner and vacation well within reach.
And then this happened:
On Sunday I came down with an unexpected (as though we ever are waiting for it to happen) case of food poisoning and didn’t come to until Tuesday night. In the meantime I missed two days at work – including one very important meeting – and all of my weekend projects were left half done – including our beautiful living Christmas tree, which sat sad and naked and leaking water all over our living room floor, and a newly purchased and partially assembled six-foot-tall kitchen cabinet which was left sprawling on its back, surrounded by displaced things and furniture. Even my daughter, discombobulated by all the disarray, ran unsupervised through the house leaving a trail of owls and books and babydolls in her wake. In short, disaster all around.
In case you haven’t already figured this out about me, I’m a neat freak. I like for things to be in proper order – all objects in their well chosen places, all crumbs cleared from counters, all mail opened and organized, all dishes stacked and stored in perfectly straight rows. Neat freak, anal retentive, and obsessive compulsive are all terms I’ve had various roommates throw at me, but I just call it my inability to cope with chaos. If I see chaos around me, I feel chaos inside of me (how this squares with all of my chaos making years in the drug-and-club scene is fortunately a post for another day, my friends).
Life as a neat freak can be a challenge, of course, considering I live with a toddler and a not-in-the-least-bit-neat-freak husband. Keeping up with the clutter has turned me into some sort of Sisyphus in a French maid outfit, constantly wiping up the last crumbs of one messy mouth just as the next one sits down to eat. Of course it would be easier to just let things fall where they may – let the laundry stack up higher than the dishes, let the baby wade through dust bunnies on her way to bed – but I just can’t be calm in a messy house. Which also means, by extension, I just can’t write in a messy house.
In my old life I had a writing routine that I followed religiously every evening and every weekend. I would put away all of my things from the day or from the week, clean up the dishes, fold the laundry, sweep the floors (and on Saturdays, also vacuum, dust and mop), then I would settle in at my perfectly arranged desk, in my perfectly clean and orderly house, and I would write with a mind clear of clutter, knowing that when I took a break to make a pot of tea (or scotch and water on the rocks, now that we’re really being honest) my favorite cup would be clean and waiting.
I no longer have the luxury of writing routines or cleaning routines or any routine not associated with childcare. I write when I can and I sleep when I can and I clean when I can. I do my best to keep the house clean enough so I might feel comfortable writing, and do my best to write through the discomfort when my version of clean just isn’t an option. I’ve gotten pretty good at finding this balance, but the disaster that has been my life over the past few days has made that balance next to impossible.
So I thought about just not posting this week. I started coming up with excuses like, “it’s getting close to the holidays, nobody’s going to read it anyway,” or “it’s not like anybody’s paying me to do this,” all the while plotting out the perfect post in my head while I was supposed to be concentrating on rearranging my bookshelves. And as the week wore on and the house inched its way back into order, I started to realize that my order on the outside wasn’t translating to order on the inside the way it used to.
In the same way that organizing my bookshelves by genre, era, and affection for individual authors can help me make sense of my surroundings in the face of financial stress, ill health, or any other general feeling of unease, coming back to my writing practice detangles all of those leftover strands of thoughts that I couldn’t wring out in the washing machine or sweep up into my dustpan. One without the other simply won’t work.
So this week I compromised. I did just enough to keep the chaos at bay, just enough to let me close my door and close my eyes and start to make sense of what’s on the inside. And despite the chaos I can still hear whining at me from the rest of the house, I managed to find my own little oasis of calm.
Just this one little moment.
And then back to the dishes I go.