Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Junk Drawer


I think Junk Drawers must be universal, at least to US households. Some thoughts on these potpourris of excess:


I took the plunge this morning. I pulled the overstuffed junk drawer from its sliders and lugged it over to the dining room table. It overflowed with takeout menus, thread, tape, paperclips, wires, and Happy Meal leftovers (toys, not McNuggets. I do have some standards.)

The experience was part treasure hunt, part exercise in exasperation—a microcosm of my own cluttered life and my attempts to clean it up, materially and otherwise.

I found things that proved useful (a forgotten headset for the phone, still-good coupons for today’s mega supermarket trip), things that would have been useful had I found them earlier (many expired coupons!), things destined for the dump (broken flashlights, pieces of toys), and things that defied explanation (plastic thingamajigs that must go with other thingamajigs, but hadn’t been missed for a second).

The Fly Lady recommends a psychologically clever first step in her campaign to help people take back their messy households: start by cleaning the sink. Of course, it does no good if only the sink is clean, but there is something about taking that first step, doing that one manageable thing that feels good and invites more productive activity. I felt that way about the junk drawer: I managed this 2 × 3 foot space, maybe there is hope for 4 × 6, even 6 × 9 if I really apply myself.

How good it feels to realize how much you can lose, or dispose of, and never really miss it. It means that moment of hesitation before disposing of almost any given item is unneeded. The moment of hesitation before acquiring something new, however, should be doubled, maybe tripled. I’ve known people who will only buy something if they can identify something else to give up, thus keeping the seesaw of clutter in perfect midair equilibrium (until that big kid Christmas climbs on).

Despite the exasperation clutter brings, I know that it is the flip side of abundance. How lucky, in some ways, to be able to sigh and sputter about having too much, albeit what seems like too much of the wrong things. Sarah Ban Breathnach, the author of Simple Abundance, captures this concept well in her writings. Her current site has a great quote by Melody Beattie (abbreviated here): Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.

In my finest tuned moments, everything reminds me of how much I have. This means that both deprivation (our drying up well) and abundance (a crowded closet or pantry, even a junk drawer) have me thinking about the world at large. I want to give water to those who have none, because I have a small taste of that deprivation in my need to choose shower over laundry, dishwashing over car washing until our new well is dug. I want to share what I have, all too well aware of those who can count their possessions on one or two hands.

The opposite of this weekend’s junk drawer was my hike with Gavin into our local woods yesterday. Every item--leaf, mushroom, centipede, frog, salamander, stone--seemed to have real and benevolent value, not a moment of our journey wasted. Everything recycled in the most thoughtful of manners: leaves and worms into rich soil, acorns into oaks, wet, rotting logs into mushrooms.

And when I think about it, I realize that writing is my own way of recycling—putting it all in order, making more sense, making connections, feeling gratitude, and moving on to new settings and sensations. Here’s to manageable junk drawers and the best kind of recycling.


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