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Clutter and the Matter of Life and Death

Marc R. Poirier

When I began to get sick with a recurrence of lymphoma, I prepared for a difficult four of five months of intensive treatment and recovery. Much of this fell into place.  My aunt and sister each agreed to stay with me for a month or more, with friends watching over me at other times. Disability insurance fortunately meant finances would not be an issue.  I had worked with Zen and other Buddhist traditions for years, and they helped me to find some objectivity and equanimity about my situation.  I was working out, so my body was more or less prepared for an ordeal.

But one thing took me totally by surprise. I found myself experiencing unfamiliar and desperate urges to clean my house.  I would feel compelled to go through closets and bureaus, sorting and throwing out clothes, arranging and polishing the shoes. I reorganized the kitchen and pantry and threw stuff away.  I got rid of all those extra little plastic containers. I cleaned the refrigerator not once but several times. I cleaned out the back of the car and took it to the car wash. I even woke up in the middle of the night once and cleaned all the doorknobs.

This was so unbelievable.  I have lived all my life in a world of clutter. I grew up in a cluttered household  clean enough, but with way too much stuff lying around and rarely put away.  My father, a professor like me, left books and papers everywhere. When I began my first full time job, I knew I was in the right place, because the two partners who had started the firm both had incredibly messy offices.  A framed needlepoint hung on one partners office wall; it read Clutter is the mark of genius.

For me, clutter was comfortable, familiar, safe and easy.  My home, office and car simply stayed full, even if I didn`t always know just where things were. And as for putting it all in order, more than an hour or two of cleaning up was so boring and, if truth be told, underneath that stressful.  Cleaning up forced me to make decisions I didnīt want to make, to permanently dispose of things, acknowledge mistakes, say goodbye to roads not taken.  In contrast, clutter affirmed my life, messy as it was, just as it was. Clutter meant I did not have to change.  I was OK as I was.

So why, at a time of truly limited energy and health crisis, would I find cleanliness and order so important?  And not in any rational, thought-through way the impulse to clean bubbled up directly from deep within my psyche and overrode my normal habits.

The part I could most easily understand was that decluttering and cleaning made room for others.  I expected to have relatives and friends staying in my house and taking care of me, and they deserved to have a clean bedroom and a usable kitchen.  In fact, I needed them to feel comfortable in my home even if I had to change my ways to do it.

Cleaning up also seemed to be a bigger version of the old admonition always to wear clean underwear, in case you get hit by a car and have to go to the hospital.  You donīt want the doctor to see you wearing dirty underwear. Here, I didnīt want to get sick and die and leave others to deal with all my clutter. My father and brother had both died suddenly, leaving houses, garages and cars full of stuff.  It was so inconsiderate.  I didnīt want to do that to my family and friends.

Creating and maintaining spatial order also seemed to have a deeper significance.  My medical treatment involved a total of about seven weeks in the hospital.  I always set up a small Buddhist shrine in one corner of my hospital room. I was incredibly protective of that small and orderly sacred space. Nurses would see it as flat space and set down medical supplies or equipment. I would immediately ask them to remove it. The altars space was inviolable.  And I also found myself focused enough to do a series of chants and meditations regularly in the morning and throughout the day. Illness somehow empowered me to impose a temporal order, as well as a spatial order, on my life.

It was strange to me how much I found all this order comforting and nourishing.  Undeniably, it had a spiritually uplifting quality. By paring down and organizing the objects in my life, I was discovering something about simple and utilitarian living and ownership, without grandiose purpose or hanging on.  I found myself expressing through decluttering some kind of faith in the well-being of the circumstances of my life, despite my ill health.  It was, perhaps, the same impulse that lies behind Zen and Shaker aesthetics

At some point, I recalled something I had encountered years before, in the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa on drala. Drala is a Tibetan word. It means something like order.  As related in Shambhala: The Sacred Space of the Warrior, drala includes external, internal and secret aspects. External drala as I understood it means the order of ones things and living situation. I hated this idea.  Simply hated it.  I refused to believe that putting my clothes away and making my bed had anything to do with spiritual health or truth. Having to keep things in order was distracting, time-consuming, arbitrary, uncreative and rigid. Perhaps worst it was mean. It seemed the misconceived imposition of some cruel old grandmother figure, who insisted on hovering and judging, making unnecessary upsets and ukases about a messy floor or a spot on a shirt.  

Now, in my illness, maintaining external order took on a different character altogether.  It became affirming, not mean and distracting.  Freed by my illness from any pretense of being a big shot in my work or my hobbies or anywhere else, I was able to take the time to take care of myself. Miraculously, I knew what to do. I and the objects in my life were mostly in accord about what stayed and what went, and what belonged where.  Cleaning up became an ongoing affirmation of my own sense of belonging, and of the essential goodness of my life moment by moment, even without purpose or goal.  I did not see it particularly as a talismanic magic that would keep me from dying, but as an affirmation that this day and this particular space were fundamentally OK.  Through maintaining external order, I could appreciate my life.

I wish I could say that I was thoroughly transformed by my experience while I was sick.  But I was not.  Old habits die hard.  As I got well again, I returned to work.  I began to move in the direction of reproducing my old schedule of friends and activities.  And with all this activity, the familiar clutter has started to return. Papers are creeping back into the corners of my living room and office.  My refrigerator is not cleaned as frequently. (Really, who has the time?)  I am noticing that my habitual clutter has other aspects  overwork, overcommitment and overweight. I rush around, feeling there is not enough time.  Feeling there is not enough satisfaction, I overeat.  We are all creatures of habit, and as I get well my old bad habits are returning.

But I know something about clutter and order that I did not know before, and that is a vital difference.  I can no longer be so self-righteous or complacent about disorder.  If the habits have not changed all by themselves, my awareness of their sources and consequences may have, at least a little bit. Before, insisting on order seemed rigid, dictatorial and a waste of time.  Clutter seemed to preserve the possibility of freedom and creativity (as my bosss needlepoint said) and to conserve energy for much more important things (than managing ones life!).  Now, clutter presents a threat. It feels clogging and suffocating, the opposite of supportive. The possibility of a decluttered and orderly space and life is not only nourishing, but it alone supports the energy and freedom to move on and grow anew.

I am working to be as conscious as I can of how I put order and disorder into my life. I am trying to notice what I do, and seeking to create and appreciate all the little bits of spaciousness and order in my surroundings throughout my day. And actually, the fact that we are creatures of habit  nothing at all but habits, in fact  is good news as well as bad.  For our habits, though they may be very deep, are not altogether inevitable.  With attention to details and over much time, major shifts can be accomplished.

But this is work!  Ongoing work, demanding as much attention as I can give it.  Where does this little piece belong, this paper, this bite of food, this minute, this emotion, this thought?  How can I offer them up, not as some ungodly mess, but as an orderly and aesthetic expression of the well-being of my life? It is not clear whether my cancer will recur yet again.  But whatever the future may hold for my health, this is the direction of my practice.

As appeared in: Next to Godliness: Finding the Sacred in Housekeeping. Edited be Alice Beck. SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2007