Room for Chaos

My daughter once told me that my motto could be: “Throw it out or melt cheese on it.”  I had to laugh at that– she had me nailed. But later, I wondered: that’s a pretty pedestrian motto. What does that say about me?

I do love cheese, and I’m willing to take something tired or bland and enliven it with a little warmth and love.

I don’t waste a thing.

I make do with what I have.

Long before Marie Kondo, the author of The Life-Channging Magic of Tidying Up suggested it, I made a habit of keeping only those objects that I love, whether for their beauty or their practicality, which is, in my mind, a type of beauty.

I prefer giving to receiving. I’ve always gravitated toward simplicity in my physical surroundings. My willingness to chuck virtually anything has come in handy in my writing: no word, phrase, scene or chapter is too precious to cut.

But like the Sprats of nursery rhyme lore, I am a neat-nik married to a man who saves everything. I once found a grocery list from a previous decade in the pile on top of his dresser. He just shrugged that time, without giving me his usual, “But honey, I might need it someday.”

It used to drive me nuts– all that “potentially useful” stuff. But my husband is a MacGyver-type guy. He can fix anything with a zip-tie, the lint in his pocket, and maybe that one item he finds after rummaging around for a half hour. The one time I did convince him to toss something that I considered unworthy, we needed it later–or a part of it.

So I learned to temper my desire for order and minimalism, and he learned to contain his largest piles in certain areas: the basement, the garage, a closet, his office. A compromise with an eye toward harmonious living.

But I have learned to go beyond tolerating his “messes” to having some–admittedly only some!–appreciation for them. Once, my young son decided he was going to build a fishing rod, including a reel, from scratch. Sticks collected from the wild corners of our pasture, bits of stray wire, even that old license plate from the car we sold were all put to use.

There is creative potential in clutter. In chaos.

I like my desk to be clean when I sit down to write (see header photo on this blog). I empty the dish rack in my kitchen before I start to cook. But after my vegetables get a head start in my garden, I let the weeds come. Not because I am lazy, but because their flowers invite beneficial insects. (I am lazy: I let the bugs do my work.)

There is a time and a place for everything, even chaos.

Kondo suggests that we pick up every object in our houses and ask ourselves if we love that object. I suggest that we also look at every area of chaos and ask, “What does this invite?” If the answer is “ants,” you might want to consider moving it or getting rid of it. But if it invites imagination, creativity or even the possibility of it, you just might want to find a place for it, in your home and in your heart.












Trajectory and the Crab Man

After my daughter Nina had been in Cameroon for about a month, her college class took a trip to the northern-most part of the country, where they visited an old man who was a fortune teller.  This is the way it worked: he would put certain tiles into a basket that was filled with water and sand, place some crabs inside and put the lid on.  While the crabs were busy in the basket, the visitor would be  invited to ask three questions, after which the Crab Man would open the lid to the basket, remove the crabs and read whatever message they had left in the form of rearranged tiles.  My daughter was enchanted by him and was delighted with the answers that he gave her.

A few weeks before the semester ended and Nina came home, she and I were remarking on how unpredictable life could be, how we would never have guessed, back when she was a little girl growing up in rural Montana and using pancake scraps to train her chickens to do pirouettes, that she would end up in Cameroon, teaching dance, surviving cholera, attending dowry celebrations and frying plantains.  Things haven’t always turned out as she wished, and her path has not always been easy, but she said to me over the crackling phone, “You know, Mom, I have decided to think of my life in terms of trajectory instead of plans. It just makes more sense.”

Out of the mouths of babes, indeed.  We would all be wise to consider her comment, and parents more so than anyone else.   Plans tend to focus on the outcome or destination, such as attending a particular college or being a ballet dancer.  Success or failure often depends on reaching that very specific goal.   Trajectory has much more to do with the start than the finish.  There may be a direction or aim in mind, but with trajectory, our attention is concentrated on constructing a solid platform from which to launch our dreams—  or our children.   Trajectory feels riskier than plans: once we release our children, they are out of our hands and we have that heart-pounding opportunity to watch as the wind and the tide exert their influence.  But I suspect that this is what we parents should be all about.  We lay the groundwork; we sweat the small stuff; we build a foundation of love and trust, of respect and responsibility; we build it as solidly as we can so that the jump, when it comes, is clean and clear and steady, and most of all, is theirs.

The Crab Man spoke to my daughter of many things that day when she visited him, and coincidentally or not, his predictions mirrored her aspirations.  The crabs or the tiles indicated to him that she would complete a “work” and then embark on another that would take her around the globe, and that she would also return to Cameroon (something she already has in the works).  Did the crabs have special powers?  I am not all that familiar with crabs, so I can’t say.  But what about the Crab Man?  Was he prescient?  A con artist?  Or did he just see how comfortable my daughter was in his village?

He spoke his own local dialect and had another villager translating his words into French.   Nina was fluent enough to be able to then translate the translator’s words for the other students.  Did the Crab Man take note of this, of how carefully she tried to convey the words both ways?  Did he notice how she spoke with respect and listened with concentration?  Did he see the shadows and the intelligence in her eyes when she was playing with the little children and the baby goats that ran around the hut?  I am betting that he did, that he was a master of reading not just crabs and tiles, but trajectory.  I suspect that the Crab Man wasn’t predicting so much as he was just stating the obvious, at least what would be obvious to those who know to look at what IS in order to catch a glimpse of what will be.

What would change, do you suppose, if you were to shift your focus from plans to trajectory?

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Postscript: I wrote this blog post last summer, but I decided to submit it to several magazines.  Most publications won’t consider work that has already been made public, so I had to wait until it was rejected (over and over, ouch) before I could post it here.  But the delay has not been without benefit.

The story continues: I just got word from my daughter that she has been accepted for a summer internship with—  you guessed it— the State Department in Cameroon.  I am thinking about making a trip to see the Crab Man myself.