A frustrating article by Penelope Green in the New York Times, reprinted in the Los Angeles Daily News with the slightly altered title, "Embrace the Clutter," has caused me distress. It's not because she informed me that January is "Get Organized Month," the result of a successful public relations effort on the part of the National Association of Professional Organizers. They have my wholehearted support; I'm impressed that they're organized enough to get a month of acclaim devoted to their profession.
No, it's because she is reporting on an "anti-anti-clutter movement" which says that messy is fine, messy is creative, messy is life lived with gusto. In fact, David H. Freedman and Eric Abrahamson have written a book about that very point of view called A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. Rabbi Irwin Kula is the author of another tome entitled, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, that Ms. Green includes in her article, for reasons that elude me, as I will explain later.
I have not read the Freedman/Abrahamson argument in favor of clutter nor the rabbi's learned musings on the general messiness of life and I am loathe to criticize anything I have not read. One risks jumping to incorrect conclusions based on the interpretation of others. However, risky though it may be, I will share some thoughts I derived from reading Ms. Green's article. Needless to say, I'm a bit vexed.
Frustration Number One: I am unclear why Rabbi Kula's book has been tossed into the same category as the Freedman/Abrahamson book. Not having read it, and having perused only the editorial and reader reviews on Amazon.com, I'm working admittedly from second-hand information. However, I have the very strong impression that the rabbi has written a spiritually uplifting book to help us through the messiness of everyday living, not the messiness in our homes. It appears that he is encouraging us to accept change as inevitable, to get comfortable with the reality that we and our lives can never be perfect. This is a very tenable position. In fact, I've often discussed that fact that the quest for perfection undermines many of us who face difficulties handling clutter.
Unfortunately, Ms. Green quotes Rabbi Kula from her interview as follows: "Order can be profane and life diminishing . . . if you've never had a messy kitchen, you've probably never had a home-cooked meal." From a Stuff Sufferer's point of view, however, we know that if you start out with a truly messy kitchen, you can't make a decent home-cooked meal! And chaos in the form of clutter can be pretty darn profane and life diminishing, too, if it prevents you from functioning and mentally paralyzes you the minute you open your front door. For most of us who suffer from this standard "profane" messiness resulting from too many unnecessary possessions scattered around in disarray, well, we'd be thrilled to have a little control over our surroundings so that we could get on with more important things in our lives.
But, the rabbi's quote aside, it seems clear that his book is not about advocating leaving the Hanukkah menorah on display until July or expecting the members of his congregation to step casually over random piles of miscellaneous stuff should they come to call at his home. Perhaps his book was included in Ms. Green's article solely because of its title. If anyone who has read it can enlighten me further, I welcome your comments.
Frustration Number Two: On the other hand, we have the alleged . . . Hidden Benefits of Disorder. Again, based on information provided by Ms. Green's article; the editorial reviews on Amazon.com; and the book's helpfully specific subtitle: How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place, this book makes an effort to deliver the "clutter is good" message. It is listed as a business book that wants businesses and organizations to be more open, less rigid, and less organized, and it has some documentation to back up this position.
Of course, there is a big difference between being rigid and being organized, and an equally large difference between being open to possibilities and being so unstructured that opportunities escape amidst chaos. Also, although this is a book dedicated to advising businesses and organizations, those entities are composed of individuals. I expect the book's approach will hold great appeal for some people who have become so unorganized that they've lost control of their lives and encourage them to decide that, hey, this mess is okay after all because I'm just a creative, spontaneous kind of person. Again, I welcome comments from readers who can shed further light.
But back to Ms. Green's article. I was particularly bemused by the concept that messiness is desirable because it allows for adaptability to whatever situation presents itself. Authors Freedman and Abrahamson use as an example Arnold Schwarzenegger's refusal to have a daily schedule; I hope they also mention Arnold's huge staff of subordinates and advisers who try to cope with that situation and steer him in ways that will make him effective in spite of his constantly open calendar. I wonder if they mention if this causes those people any stress.
I'd also enjoy hearing the authors explain their odd thinking on another point, as reported by Ms. Green: "The most valuable dividend of living with mess may be time." Have they never had to search for their car keys buried somewhere on a clutter-laden countertop? Have they never panicked over "misplacing" that crucial stack of paperwork that means the difference between keeping and losing a client? Have they never forgotten to turn on the dishwasher, with another full load of dishes already waiting in the sink? Have they never pulled a wrinkled suit out of their crammed closets and wished it had been ironed?
Oh, wait a minute. These authors are men! Alas, no matter how far "gender awareness" and the sharing of family responsibilities may have progressed over the last several decades, it is still the woman's job to take care of running the household in the vast majority of homes across the land. So, let's consider this quote from Ms. Green's article: "(author David) Freedman, who has three children and a hard-working spouse, Laurie Tobey-Freedman, a pre-school special-needs coordinator, is studying Mandarin in his precious spare time." Hmmm. Mr. Freedman, I have to wonder how that hard-working spouse of yours feels about your conclusion that messiness leads to more free time. Of course, it's possible she's of the same mind as you; perhaps two clutter-tolerant people found love based, at least in some small part, on their shared belief in the value of being untidy. But, just out of curiosity, who does the laundry at your house? Who gets the lunches together for the kids to take to school? Who does the chauffeuring of those kids? If I asked you to lay your hands on last month's bank statement, could you do it? And, by the way, I'd also like to know if Ms. Tobey-Freedman is studying Cantonese in her precious spare hours?
Ms. Green also quotes from a rather astonishing interview conducted with Jerrold Pollak, a neuropsychologist at a mental health center in New Hampshire, "whose work involves helping people tolerate the inherent disorder in their lives." He states that he lives in "a world of total clutter . . . My wife has threatened divorce over all the piles . . . If we had kids, the health department would have to be alerted. But what can I do?" Oh, the irony! Get some therapy, Dr. Pollack. Fast. There's a dramatic difference between teaching people useful coping skills to handle the inevitable twists of fate they must endure in their lives and ending up with a ruined marriage because you can't get it together to buy a filing cabinet.
Let's be clear: clutter is not simply the remnants of daily life. Of course our rooms will rarely look ready for a magazine photograph; we live in our homes. But a joyful mess is one that is created in the process of living, not the process of accumulating, or stacking, or storing, or stumbling over. There's no reason to defend messiness when it's just clutter that's out of control. It gets in our way, literally and psychologically, creating a huge obstacle that prevents us from living fully. It's very simply the result of too much stuff. No one should have any illusions that perfection is achievable, or even desirable. But no one should have to settle for an environment that is overcrowded, unsatisfying and dysfunctional when getting rid of clutter would solve the problem.
So, please, if there are any sadly misguided advocates of messiness who might be reading this, don't try to convince those of us who suffer from a cluttered environment that it's okay to live that way. We're just struggling to get or keep a little order in our lives and are not "humorless and inflexible prigs (with) way too much time on (our) hands" (thank you for the pithy description, Ms. Green). We're people who are trying very hard to reclaim our time, our flexibility, and our sanity. And, believe me, we absolutely must have a sense of humor to get through this process.
But, right now, having learned that there is any effort at all to advocate messiness, I must confess that I am not laughing.
(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob