Growing up, I was the kid with the messy desk. The one that looked like it was spewing paper everywhere. My backpack was a snarl of random accoutrements. My room wasn’t any better.
It drove my neatnik mom crazy. Because it always looked wrong to her. Like chaos personified. It was the wrong way to be. The wrong way to have your life arranged.
And it seemed to piss her off that I functioned pretty well that way. Rather than having a hard time finding things, I could reach into the chaos and retrieve whatever I wanted. It was completely disorganized, but to me, it had a shape, a form, one that I understood even if no one else did.
As I grew older, I sank even deeper into those ingrained habits. Because my mother started to search my room, looking for signs that I was growing into being a bad kid. She felt like she was doing her duty as a parent, but I longed for privacy.
And while complete privacy was impossible — I did manage to cobble together something like it, obscuring a lot of who I was through clutter.
When You Finally Hear What You Needed to Hear
I’ve been talking to my mother a lot more on the phone, ever since my father died. I do this because she’s lonely and needs support and also because I know it’s what my father would want me to do (which helps give me closure, knowing that I’m doing something for him). My mother and I have spent most of my life quasi-estranged. This is because we had some difficult times. Our personalities naturally clash. And if we weren’t related, we never would have hung out.
Something that has gone a long way, however, in being able to stomach these conversations is my mother’s sudden willingness to admit she screwed up as a parent (something that she’s only been doing for the past few years). That there’s a lot that she would do differently if she had to do it again.
“You were such a good kid,” she said last night, “and I took you for granted. Whatever you did, it was never good enough for us. So I think you got to a point where you gave up and just decided you’d stop trying. That you’d do whatever.”
I couldn’t believe she was saying this. I honestly never thought I’d live long enough for her to come around to this. For her to have that kind of insight and ability to self-criticize non-defensively. To have the smallest glimpse into how hard those years were for me. When she called me devil spawn, a waste of potential. When all I seemed to do was disappoint her.
“We put a lot of pressure on all of you children,” she said, referring to me and my three siblings. “But we were harder on you because you were so gifted. We expected even more from you.”
I’m in Love With Clutter, But We Need to Break Up
It’s been a strange and dark spring — what with the pandemic and my father’s passing. I’ve been living in my head more than ever, really, since it’s difficult to go outside as much as I would like. I manage small excursions safely, but for the most part, I escape and travel by reading books and writing my own stories.
As I grieve and push myself to finish slipstream mysteries (after telling those closest to me that I’d never write fiction again because it was too closely linked with past trauma), I’ve been confronted with issues I didn’t even realize I had. A big one is that I’m constantly fighting against self-sabotage.
And it’s occurred to me that while my love of clutter once upon a time served as a protective mechanism — to keep some semblance of privacy as a young person — that it’s not actually protecting me anymore. These days it’s a form of self-sabotage. It slows me down, makes the work I do even harder.
I work in spite of my organizational environment, not because of it. When people close to me see how I work, they wonder how I even work at all.
That said, it’s getting better. I’m starting to identify ways that I can work a little smarter, instead of working harder. I’m trying to stick to organizational systems, find structure to make it easier to get things done.
It isn’t easy though, to make that switch — because I’m in love with clutter. But it’s been occurring to me more and more that we need to break up.