Sunday, June 12, 2011

Matter out of Place

In her brilliant (in my opinion) book, Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas discusses "dirt". In different contexts, dirt means different things. In the garden, it's "soil" and it's good! On the white carpet, it's "dirt" and it's bad! Bodily fluids within the body, good! Bodily fluids coming out of the body, bad! Same stuff, different contexts. "Dirt," Douglas argues, "is simply matter out of place," and different cultures and religions calculate the "matter" and the "place" differently.

So do individuals (again in my opinion). I tend to see folks in one of two ways with regard to dirt: "clutter" people and "grime" people. I used to ask students who wanted to live in a residence I once managed how they would clean a kitchen. Some wanted bleach and scrub brushes; others were satisfied with a counter-brush and broom. The former were "grime" people; the latter "clutter". Having both on the same floor was, in my opinion, a good idea.

I don't want to place these folks in any hierarchical ranking. I freely confess that I'm a "clutter person"; my wife (thankfully) is a "grime person". When we set out to clean the kitchen, we know our specialties. There's no right or wrong (well, there isn't when we're in good moods, and not hurried!); there's simply a difference of perspective.

I've been thinking about this this week as I've been cleaning my office. Due to some construction elsewhere in the building, my furniture has been moved around quite a bit, and I've taken advantage of the upheaval to re-arrange my office. But what that means is that things I'd kept out-of-sight are now visible. And that means the whole office (finally) has to be straightened up. And, even though I'm a "clutter", the increase of debris and detritus over the last several years has NOT been dealt with adequately. Now's the time.

The end result will be wonderful, I'm sure! The process of de-cluttering is therapeutic . . . but, I'm finding, also very taxing. I'm realizing that, while I'm a "clutter person", I'm also a bit of a pack-rat; I'll save things "just in case". Talk about two contradictory personality traits! But the clutter has to go! And I find myself asking the question, "Why do/did I save THIS?" or "Do I need multiple copies of this brochure?"

Karen Kingston, in her book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui** (yes, I'll go to almost any end to deal with clutter!), suggests that there are several reasons for why people keep clutter. Most of them have some sort of spiritual counterpart; I'll leave you to figure out which apply to you (IF you're a clutter collector like me):

  • Keeping things "just in case" - indicates a lack of trust in the future (37)
  • Identity - the things help us feel secure in who we are, while also leading to the trap of being locked in the past (39)
  • Status - bolsters a low self-esteem (40)
  • Security - despite advertising, one will never have enough stuff to feel secure (41)
  • Territorialism - the ego striving to acquire and control things (42)
  • Inherited clutteritis - learned patterns from our parents (43)
  • A belief that more is better - how many kitchen knives DO we need? (44)
  • "Scroogeness" - have I gotten my money's worth? (45)
  • Using clutter to suppress emotions - filling empty space with stuff to avoid emptiness (45)
I'm willing to own up to the first, as well as those that have to do with falling to the advertisers' siren songs. I'm hopeful that some of the others don't apply to me!

But I am asking myself a lot of questions about the stuff that surrounds me. And I'm thinking about the recent Pixar movie "Up" in which one of the main characters doesn't really get what he wants until he is finally free of the stuff he thought was necessary. I'm trying to let go.

Feel free to stop by and ask how I'm doing! And feel free to say "no" if I offer you something to take away! It'd probably be (useless) matter from my place to yours.



*Subtitled: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (first published in 1966, and revised, re-issued several times).

**New York: Broadway Books, 1999

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