From the medicine cabinet to the meditation cushion, Anne Cushman organizes her home and gains insight into her mind.
In 1968, a couple of months into first grade at St. Mary’s Elementary School in Ayer, Massachusetts, I notice that my desk is looking kind of funky.
From where I sit, I can peer into the desk of the little girl in the next row: mainly empty, with a neat stack of construction paper, a pair of blunt scissors, a box of crayons, and a few pencils lined up in a groove.
Mine, on the other hand, is overflowing with crumpled, crisscrossed papers—spelling tests, math worksheets, stick-figure drawings, a turkey made from a toilet-paper roll, a laboriously copied excerpt from A. A. Milne, with every p backward: “Christopher Robin went hoppity, hoppity, hoppity, hoppity hop...” When I reach inside to scrabble around for a crayon, my hand lands in a puddle of Elmer’s glue.
I’m not sure how this has happened, and I don’t have a clue what to do about it, but I know it’s not right. Whenever Sister Mary Monica—an immense, stern woman in a black veil and floor-length habit—moves to the back of the room, I hunch over my desk, sliding from side to side in my chair so she can’t see inside. This strategy is futile: Sister stands over me, glowering, while I empty my desk contents into my schoolbag. I am too embarrassed to show my work at home; each of the pages contains a mistake, a misspelled word, a misshapen letter. So instead I cart my heap of clutter back and forth to school with me, papers erupting out the top of my bag.
Thirty-six years later, I am sitting on the floor in my home office, paying bills. My desk is so littered with papers—unpaid bills, unanswered letters, outdated check registers, notes written on napkins and ripped envelopes, a phone number scrawled in eyeliner on an empty paper-towel roll—that I never work there. Instead, I spread out paperwork on the carpet and write on my laptop on the sofa, surrounded by books, folders, and pillows.
And it’s not just my desk—clutter is everywhere I look. In the front seat of my car: three empty juice boxes, a pen with no cap, two ink-stained sweaters, my son, Skye’s, jacket and lunchbox, a toy drum, a yoga mat, the receipts from a photo lab, stubs from my last two paychecks. In my pantry: elbow macaroni spilling out of its package, unlabeled jars of unidentifiable herbs, six bottles of salsa, a box of ginseng tea that was presented to my father by a Korean general in Seoul in 1977. In my closet: shirts slipping off hangers, sweaters spilling out of drawers, a drawerful of socks with no mates, a tangle of nursing bras (in case I have another baby), a wetsuit (in case I ever boogie-board again), a red strapless party dress I wore twice, to great acclaim, a decade ago.
This is not how I want my life to be. I want my home to feel like an ashram or Zen center: tranquil, orderly, radiating mindfulness, with a place for everything and everything in its place, from the incense sticks to the hard-boiled eggs.
I know all the spiritual theories: Housecleaning can be a meditation in its own right, like the ritualized temple-cleaning that begins a day at a Zen monastery. As we bring order to our physical lives, we bring order to our inner being as well. “When the flower arranger arranges the flowers, he also arranges his mind and the mind of the person who looks at the flowers,” goes one Zen saying.
But I’m as clueless about how to create that kind of order as I was in first grade. I know how to organize an essay, a book, a yoga class. I can sit and watch my breath for hours at a stretch. Through twenty years of diligent practice I’ve slowly begun to shift intractable patterns in my mind, my body, my relationships with other people. But my physical world still looks much as it did three decades ago: papers spilling out of my desk, and me hunching in front of it so the nuns won’t see.
I share this trait with many of my writer friends: a scatterbrained inability to make sense of the physical world, which leads us to retreat into the realm of the imagination. I used to be able to live with this disability, even laugh it off as an eccentricity intimately linked to my creativity. But now, as a working single mom, I can’t afford to spend twenty minutes looking for my car keys or a pair of matching socks.
So I begin ordering books on organization from Amazon.com. The first one, Organizing from the Inside Out, tells me that the basic model for organization is the kindergarten classroom: a home for every object, all organized according to activity, and everything labeled. The second one, Simply Organized!, warns me sternly that if I have two of anything—anything!—I should get rid of one of them immediately. Hmmm, I think, nonplussed. I set both books down, intending to choose between them. A few days later, it takes me twenty minutes to find them.
The problem is, my mind doesn’t seem to work their way. “Group similar items together,” blithely suggests Julie Morgenstern, the author of Organizing From the Inside Out. But it’s not immediately apparent to me, staring into my desk drawer, how to sort three foam earplugs; a heap of paperclips; a nail clipper; a slide-viewing glass; business cards from an acupuncturist, a preschool, and a pet supply store; a broken pencil; an herbal throat lozenge; a pair of swim goggles; and two leaves from the Bodhi tree. Am I really going to spend all morning going around my house creating a proper home for each of these items, one at a time? I stare at the drawer, helplessly; throw away the pet-supply business card; look in vain for a pencil sharpener; stick an earplug in each ear; and turn to the computer to work on the article on yoga and Buddhism that is due next week.
Books in hand, I make valiant efforts to organize my closet, file my papers, clean out my fridge. But every attempt to create order uncovers new levels of disorder and demands systems I’m supposed to go out and buy with time and money that I don’t have: filing cabinets, drawer dividers, laundry-marking pens, a trash bucket that hooks over the seat of my car. And the systems I do manage to construct disintegrate at the slightest provocation. Reaching into the refrigerator for orange juice on the way out the door to yoga class, I knock over a carton of blueberries, which springs open, scattering berries all over the floor; the kitten dashes after them, batting them even further; I drop my yoga mat to grab the kitten, step on the blueberries, and grind them into my socks. Do I race out the door in blueberry-stained socks to get to yoga class on time? Or do I forgo yoga and take off my socks, put them in the laundry, get down on my knees, and pick blueberries out from under the refrigerator, one at a time?