There’s a dried coffee spill on the kitchen floor. Dirty laundry is piled in the bathroom and the hall. My bike is parked directly behind me because I haven’t taken the time to put it elsewhere. I’m not exactly sure there is an elsewhere. At the desk where I write, I had to shove aside a stack of mail to make a place for my coffee mug. In the past, I never would have ignored the mess. I couldn’t overlook the ragged envelopes or the coffee spill. I would’ve tidied up and then lit a magnolia-scented candle to further improve the atmosphere. After all that, I would’ve had five minutes to write instead of an hour.
According to the internet, I should be cleaning right now. Minimalism and home organization are in, excess is out. Again. I read about it on blogs and see the evidence on social media—capsule wardrobes, pared-down possessions, the “right” way to organize your home. I understand its appeal. I came of age in a time of excess, when people filled the suburbs with McMansions, and Costco introduced shopping carts as large as French cars. Then I saw the economic fallout of that way of life. We all did.
Yet I find myself wary of the new minimalism and our preoccupation with tidiness. One reason is aesthetic. “Simplify” too much and your home has all the personality of a Travelodge. The photos I see on Instagram are beautiful but I start to wonder if everyone else’s homes are made of white posterboard and glowing with perpetual sunlight. Have we learned a lesson from materialism or have we traded one unattainable ideal for another?
The second reason for my skepticism is because the new minimalism comes with an old promise: Do this and you’ll feel better. Or worse: You won’t feel better until you do this. I’m not saying it’s untrue, but it is a slippery slope. This is a promise that once inhibited my creative pursuits. For years, I told myself that I couldn’t create unless I had a “clean canvas” (i.e. a tidy, well-organized environment). Before sitting down at my computer or my easel, I’d have to bring order to my surroundings. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time scrubbing countertops and not a lot of time writing or painting. I operated under the mistaken belief that a perfect environment is necessary for meaningful art. Furthermore, I thought that if I took the time to clean and develop the right system, I’d never have to do it again. Isn’t that what all the books and articles say? But if I’ve learned anything from domesticity, it’s this: Everything will get messy again. It’s a natural consequence of eating food and wearing clothes and spitting toothpaste into the sink.
Over time I’ve come to believe that the mess isn’t the problem. It’s my inability to coexist with it and create within it. Bit by bit, I’ve been learning. I haven’t stopped doing housework, but my priorities have changed. On the days I write, writing comes first. If I decide to paint, painting comes first. It’s not always easy because the “you’ll feel better” claim about cleaning is true. It’s an activity that offers instant gratification. It gives you something to check off. It offers evidence of productivity. What did I do in my free time? I brought order to that chaotic closet. See? The time I spend creating art (along with other activities such as reading for fun) doesn’t offer the same evidence or the immediate sense of accomplishment. I’m learning to be ok with that.
If you’d like to hear from someone else who’s making peace with clutter, I recommend this article by Dominique Browning in The New York Times. Ultimately, Browning identifies more strongly with her material possessions than I do but she raises some interesting ideas about our relationship with “stuff.” For instance, she suggests: “It is time to celebrate the gentle art of clutter. We live, and we pick up things along the way: the detritus of adventure; the vessels of mealtimes; the books and music of a life of the mind; the pleasures of our daily romps through the senses.” (Dibs on the name The Detritus of Adventure for my future sailboat.) At the very least, her ideas made it easier for me to overlook my crowded, dusty bookshelves on the way to the computer this morning. I’ll get to them eventually, but not first.