Let go of your legal pad
“The best things in life are not things.” – C. & J. Woods
On Sunday, August 28, 2005, as I cleaned Cheerios off the kitchen floor for the 59th time, and just after the contents of a 12.5 fluid ounce glass bottle of maple syrup were ceremoniously unleashed onto that same floor by a 36” tall human tornado named Tess, I happened to look out the window into my backyard as I held the small of my back and stood up again. And as I straightened to a full stand and saw the orange and yellow lilies and happy zinnias and Tessie’s bright shoes and a swing set and a little red plastic chair on the deck outside—all in just the right light, that bold rounded yellow kind of light like the good people of Cadiz so often enjoy, it hit me in a rush of physical sensation: I have everything I need. I don’t need anything else, ever.
No more personal tracking devices like omniscient Blackberrys, no heart-shaped Teflon waffle makers with heat resistant knobs and automatic cut-off valves, no bamboo steamers or apple corers or electric bread warmers, no atomic projection clocks that coax me awake in dulcet tones, no telescoping Italian barstools, no stacking washers and dryers that look like pieces of art, no power suits with pizza slice pointy shoes, no personal portable monogrammed list carriers, no new car (though, to be honest, if someone with money is reading and would enjoy the pleasure of giving me a car since mine died a sad and smoky death, that nice little VW beetle convertible is a sweet choice in green, orange, or that light teal), no little yellow raincoat for the dog, no napkin rings in the shape of small garden sprites, no more making lists of things I need—I’m done, I’m happy, I’m eschewing materialism once and for all.
Okay, I’m sure there will be momentary lapses, and that cute mini iPod looks interesting and Tracy Chapman has a new CD out and I’d like to support that nice man downtown named Paul who makes honest-to-god handmade sandals, but you get the point. Don’t you?
there is a greater urgency to that Kitchen Revelation now, having watched whole
families lose each scrap of paper, every family photograph, their Sunday shoes,
all those cherished handmade gifts and years of Mother’s Day cards with yarn
tassels—every single thing they had. But this feeling came before Katrina hit
When I saw those little girl shoes in the green grass, one sock nearby and the other one gone to Sock Heaven, the spark of color in those zinnias, and the blue, blue sky, what I felt was a sense of satisfaction, even in a tough toddler-scream-a-thon syrup-on-the-floor kind of day. It was enough. I’ve simply never felt so full, satiated, complete, engaged.
For several summers, I traveled from my home in Washington, D.C., to make art at the Penland School of Crafts, a national center for craft education in the mountains of Western North Carolina. (Now that I’ve moved here, I don’t go anymore—what’s that all about?) It is a magical place where artists meet and work and do yoga and eat amazing food and get inspired and make art and compare notes; the studios are open 24 hours a day except for a moratorium from midnight until 6:00am for the iron workers, that clangy clankety-clank making it tough to sleep otherwise. People blow glass and make hand printed books there. They create clay bowls and daguerreotypes and whole tables and chairs of the most sumptuous wood you’ve ever seen.
For me, the grounding force of those art weeks was always a simple white “dorm” room with nothing in it except a twin bed, a small bedside table with a lamp, a tiny white desk with a wooden chair, and a wall hook. Everything was white and there was nothing else in the room. It was like a white heaven, a sudden burst of clarity; I’m now firmly convinced that those visions of light people tell about in their near death experiences are simply rooms without clutter, not the Promised Land.
My whole mind was freed up in that small white room, quiet except for June bugs buzzing their happy bug buzz outside. There was nothing to distract me from myself; “oh, look! I’ve haven’t seen that high school yearbook in years!” “Wow! My thesis from graduate school—let me take a quick look!” “I’d better wash the dishes before House comes on!” No, here there was just me and my sketchbook, my lines of drawing or writing.
I always took with me a small, old quilt that I had used as a child, with faded fabric roads and intersections that had served my Tonka trucks and Matchbox cars well. I would sit bolt upright at that tiny desk and write until the blessed horizontal called me home. Then, under that childhood quilt, I would think and think the kinds of thoughts that are unabsorbed by things, just free floating in a quietly simple room, white and barren and gorgeous beyond words.
I don’t feel like that when I walk into my house. For starters, there are 17,000 pounds of books in here. Moving company estimators love us; the actual movers do not. There is toddler and teenager debris, an amusing range from tricycles to Doc Marten combat boots, from a stuffed Kiwi from New Zealand (stolen from her teenaged sister’s room) to a school satchel with a message from PETA alerting the world that chickens are not nuggets. There is just so much stuff: when I was a teenager living in a village of mud huts in Sri Lanka I thought this would never happen, this overabundance of objects. What is the cost of all this, beyond the financial one?
In the work I’m doing—work in which we invite groups to move around and play—the biggest barrier to people participating fully is not their mental inhibitions, as you might think. Rather, it is all their stuff: they would move, but do they take their briefcase with them, and their small plate on which a sticky bun is poised, and what about their legal pad and the pen that Aunt Harriet gave them? Should they move that, too? And their newspaper? And that copy of Blink that they carry around so they’ll look hip? Should they cart it all around with them, from seat to seat, will they be coming back to their home base, will someone steal it? These are questions we could ask about life in general, aren’t they?
It is Stuff that keeps us from participating fully, our mobility and sense of fun and playfulness and ability to be directly engaged muted by our concern for objects, our holding onto. Like that day I took Tess to the big, big park carrying a digital camera so I could capture her swinging. The camera was the first level of disengagement, as if swinging were secondary to capturing the action on film, further complicated by the camera being carried in a bag that I had to watch all the time, further disengaging me from the reason I had brought the camera in the first place, Tess enjoying the park with me, not with my pocketbook or camera.
Ah, infinite regress of disengagement, just as Walker Percy discussed a tourist seeing The Grand Canyon for the first time in “The Loss of the Creature”: “Instead of looking at it, he photographs it. There is no confrontation at all. At the end of forty years of preformulation and with the Grand Canyon yawning at his feet, what does he do? He waives his right of seeing and knowing…”
Back from the lip of the canyon to the training room where people rebel at even moving from one table to the next one 6 feet away; imagine how difficult engagement outside the classroom is for us if we’re preoccupied with our things, that sticky bun, that camera. We cherish our objects and we are hampered by them as well, unable to move freely around in the world and engage directly for fear of leaving or losing our coffee cup and 8.5”x 11” faux leather legal pad holder with our initials stamped in the lower right corner in faux gold. No, we say, we’ll just sit right here with our things. Objects distance us from ourselves, from others, from life.
When I look back at powerful times in my life, there is that one point of connection: simplicity, freedom from objects, direct engagement. That small village in Sri Lanka. That sweet white space at Penland. A simple dorm room in Forest Grove, Oregon, where I teach each summer. A beautifully bare beach cottage in Manzanita. An old popup Nimrod camper. I must get back to my white room.
~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~
Paint one room white. Take everything out of it and sit quietly in a small wooden chair. Simplify. Your brain waves won’t have as much distraction to bump against. Bring no new objects into your home for one month. And go ahead, free yourself up from moving all that stuff around. Let go of your legal pad.